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Letter to Abel Ferrara on His 59th Birthday

Dear Abel,

Happy birthday. I guess the respectable thing—the relevant thing—would have been to wait to until a milestone year, to wait until your 60th to write this letter. But you'll have nothing of respectability or relevance, so neither should I. What kind of a fan would I be if I only remembered your birthday once every decade?

Are you ever gonna get Jekyll and Hyde made? It seems like a good project for you, because you're one of the last directors to believe in evil (but then again, you're the director of lasts: The Addiction, the last true "post-war" film; Cat Chaser, the last film noir). Out of all of the versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I like yours the most, and I find the ending the most terrifying, because what wins out is not the unthinking alien force, but the human capacity for evil. The humanity's persistence is more horrifying than its defeat.

I guess the big question here is why I'm writing a letter that I have no intention of sending and every intention of letting strangers read. Am I, as they say, "writing for myself?" I always though the worst advice you could ever give someone was "write what you know," because people merely write what they think they know. They write what they're familiar with, which isn't the same as what they understand. I think you'd agree with me on this: it's better to always write about the unknown, to always be lost, to always have the potential to be proven wrong or embarass yourself. After all, how can you trust a man who puts nothing at stake?

I saw a movie a couple of weeks ago and I didn't like it very much, and I don't think you would either. It was called Cyrus, and it had a lot of good actors in it, which was a plus, but it left me cold. I've come to realize that it was because, like in so much "independent" American cinema, there was nothing at stake, neither for the characters nor for the authors. The movie had a pretty good plot: this schlubby guy and this wonderful, beautiful woman fall in love, but her grown son gets in the way. But the love of the schlubby guy and the beautiful woman was never on screen. We were expected to assume it, and whenever they went on a date or spent some time alone together, we got a montage sequence set to acoustic guitar music. There were some pretty shots, and some sound-bites from their conversations peppered in and it looked like a commercial for AT&T or Valtrex. The directors, who are brothers, didn't gamble; they barely showed the couple kissing. They evaded the issue, maybe because they realized that if they were to give their audience an actual love scene, there would be some people in the audience who wouldn't believe it. And you—you have no problem showing audiences all sorts of things you believe in but they might not.

The audience can think the movies in Dangerous Game or The Blackout or Mary are shit, they might not get the marriage in 'R Xmas, they might think the philosophy in The Addiction is corny, or that the Chelsea Hotel in Chelsea on the Rocks is not a special place. Those director brothers probably believe the love between their characters is a genuine thing, but I don't think they believe in their belief, because if they did, they'd put it up on the screen the way you cast your wife in Dangerous Game because you believed in her and the idea that she was lovely, regardless of whether an audience would believe that she was really Harvey Keitel's wife. They don't think it's true enough to give it the possibility of failure, the way Fuller offers us his unvarnished beliefs or Godard offers us his declamations or Wang Bing shows us his sooty men. The way the later Chaplin (whose last few films Go Go Tales reminds me of) offers up himself, his public persona, his wiry body and his opinions on everything from war to widescreen to rock music. When a director puts his or her beliefs up on the screen like that, it's not an attempt at oppressing the audience, but the chance to be proven wrong, to disappoint. I wanna say that this is what painters and poets do, but goddammit, you're not a painter or a poet, you're a filmmaker and that's all you'd ever want to be, because it's in your blood. To put it bluntly: filmmaking is not a habit.

I admit that I think the movie they're making in Mary is terrible, and that none of the stripteases in Go Go Tales are sexy. I am ambivalent about some of the ideas in King of New York, and pretty much all of Ms. 45. But these things don't matter, because what I believe in is the ability of movies to express these ideas and for you to be honest about how dearly you hold them. There is no evasion in an Abel Ferrara movie. Maybe you're a masochist, like Nick Ray, that you put yourself out there for people to laugh at. And, as if to make it harder, you're one of the last filmmakers to believe in truth and to believe in evil. There is, I think, a fear of subjects outside of the two most superficials ones: mortality, and the aging of the author (which shouldn't be confused with the condition of old age). Superficial, because they are inevitable and cannot be changed. It'd be a better world if every goddamn director who felt the need to make a movie about their ambivalence about entering middle age or adulthood instead made a movie about this culture's treatment of the elderly, or the life of debt it forces its twentysomethings to assume if they want to get anywhere. Even then, making good films (or making films "in the right direction," whether socially / politically or formally, the way Noah Baumbach or Nicholas Winding Refn do) does not make one a great director.

I recently watched Carlos, the Olivier Assayas miniseries. I think you'd like it. I don't know if you know, but Assayas once said that Dangerous Game was one of the most daring moments in the history of cinema, and I'm inclined to agree with him, because it's a film that presents the audience filmmaking itself and then gives them the opportunity to deny it, to walk out and say that the whole thing just isn't worth it. It shows movies in all of their ugliness, and it takes a lot of faith in filmmaking to show them that way: as the exploitation of reality and of human emotions. People call you an art filmmaker (whatever that means) who started in exploitation movies, but I know you don't see a difference between the two, because the moment a director calls "Action!," someone gets exploited. It's a guilty business. I've read that the movie was supposed to be called Snake Eyes, but believe me, Dangerous Game's a much better title: it gets at the heart of the matter, and it's good to think of filmmaking as poker or a roulette wheel or chess, all played for very high stakes.

This letter isn't for you, it's for me, because there's nothing I can tell you that you haven't taught me already with images, sounds, cuts and actors, which are better than words. I am a student writing to his teacher. But—and this sounds like a paradox—I think you should never do something for yourself for yourself. Better to do something for yourself for others. Abel, I know that you set out to make a film because you have a love or a doubt or a notion or a story or a character but you finish it for an audience, even if that audience never gets around to seeing your movie. Even then, the audience often hates it. You made New Rose Hotel for them, but most of them probably hate it. I had this idea that I'd write a letter to you that I would never send because I love your films and because I wanted to put that love into words, but I wouldn't have sat down to write it out if I didn't want someone else to read these words, and if I didn't believe in my belief in you and immodestly hope that some stranger would in turn believe me.

Maybe this is a letter about itself. The more I write it, the less it seems to be about Abel Ferrara; I think it's more accurate to say that it's about belief, which you have in spades (along with guilt, which requires belief anyway), and which seems to be missing from so many films nowadays. Not enough people believe in what and how they're putting things up on the screen, and if they do, they're often afraid to admit it. In a time when any image or word can be re-contextualized, re-calibrated, re-sized, committing to any one thing becomes terrifying. A filmmaker with strong opinions on form might be terrified of subjects, and one with faith in an idea might be afraid to put it into too strong an image. In short: for all of its achievements, 21st century cinema is permeated by a fear of itself.

Werner Herzog recently remade one your films, and I know you're sore about it, though you probably take some comfort in the fact that his movie made even less money than yours did. But you should also take some comfort in the fact that though Herzog constantly puts his body in danger, there's no danger to his cinema. I think he can be very funny, but he's a fraud. He goes into the jungle and the Arctic and comes back with the same story every time. It goes without saying that he doesn't believe in movies (duh). Am I completely certain all of this is true? No, but for now I believe that it is and I'd rather plunge in foolishly than stand at the edge of the water my whole life, wondering whether it's warm or cold. You've given me a lot, and all I can give back is a piece of advice: don't slouch so much.

Sincerely, the best, good luck, your fan, always, with love, truly,

IV

Stunning, Ignatiy, thank you. I’m going to watch a Ferrara film right now. I’ll ignore the Herzog comment for now :)
Ferrara does everyone good! But, as an aside, there are a lot of Herzog films I like, and I find Herzog’s public persona / showmanship very entertaining — though not very helpful or conducive to him actually making good films.
Lovely. And it all started, at least not X-rated or short film-wise, with The Driller Killer. Have yet to find out for myself, but I’ve heard tale that it contains one of the most riveting and insane (insanely riveting?) director commentary tracks.
Can we get this sent to him somehow? His website is abelferraratv.com
This is such a wonderful letter, by the way.
Veronika, I’ve never listened to Ferrara’s commentary on that one, but all of his commentaries are great — and, yes, riveting and insane (I can’t remember which one it’s for, but there’s one that starts with him saying “I’m only doing this commentary ‘cause they’re paying me $3,000…”). His X-rated first feature, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, is pretty good, by the way, and I’d recommend seeking it out sometime. jackford, I know some people who know Ferrara, but I don’t know how I’d feel about actually sending this to him. Maybe.
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“But you should also take some comfort in the fact that though Herzog constantly puts his body in danger, there’s no danger to his cinema. I think he can be very funny, but he’s a fraud. He goes into the jungle and the Arctic and comes back with the same story every time. It goes without saying that he doesn’t believe in movies” man, I’m so glad you said this.
I am never quite sure if I don’t prefer the frauds to the believers. (The brillant and self-contradictory ones among the frauds, I should add. Lars von Trier comes to mind.) And I don’t really know if Abel Ferrara is either. There are forms of insanity that just plain explode these dichotomies. I think that I love the Ferrara films I love because they are explosions of that kind.
I discovered Ferrara through a budget DVD of The Blackout my mother-in-law bought for me last Christmas (and it’s good to know she has a terrible taste in films). I watched it that same evening when I got home and once again a world opened. And from that moment on I am on a Ferrara-hunt. Since they’re not that well destributed you always end up with 4:3 versions with horrible looking covers, but I take it for granted. Okay, the sides of the screen are cut of, but the brilliance still shines through. Your letter puts so many things in perspective, for me, that I can’t thank you enough.
Ekkehard, I like the frauds, sure, but there are many different categories of them. The good kind of frauds, I think, are the ones who become frauds out of a certain belief (and I think Von Trier, closet aesthete that he is, is one of them). But I feel right now there are a lot of good frauds, but not enough good believers (and there are “bad believers,” too: I think Michael Bay believes in everything he does.) bramruiter, Thanks. Someday, perhaps, there will be good DVD releases of The Addiction, The Funeral and Cat Chaser. Some day. (Though the open-matte version of Cat Chaser is still pretty great).
ArtHaus in Germany have released brilliant copies of The Addiction and The Funeral. You may want to check Amazon Germany under The Addiction and Das Begrabnis. I am a huge fan of Abel’s films Herzog? Pretty darned inspiring I think.
Thanks for the tips on those R2 Ferraras, P.P. I think I get the Herzog appeal (thanks in no small part to Ramin Bahrani’s explanation of his influence on him in our interview), however, I feel that at this point, he’s done more harm than good.
Ignatiy, Just to confirm, both German R2s have removable subs and can be watched in their original english language versions. The same can’t be said for the french edition of Mary. Audio is in english but subs aren’t removable. The picture is pretty great though. Fantastic film too. I’ve come expect that from Ferrara. German copy might be worth checking out. I enjoyed your piece a lot. I recently illustrated a passage from Brenez’s book on Ferrara, which you may want to look at if you get a sec. www.audiovisualsalvage.blogspot.com Keep up the good work.
I don’t see how Herzog makes the same movie every time at all. Maybe if you find it impossible to look past surface style. As far as Ferrara, what do I need to see to show me what I’m missing? Of the three I’ve caught, “King of New York” seemed like a stereotypical attempt at the urban market without the balls to cast a black actor in the role of Robin Hood, “Bad Lieutenant” as an interesting but way overdone (and in many spots) Christian , and “Ms. 45” as a useless remake (whose this guy to get pissed at Herzog for his totally un-derivitive remake in light of that flick?) of an already terrible porno.
Jake, First, Ferrara: as I mention in the “letter,” I find Ms. 45 really problematic, and I don’t agree with some of the ideas behind King of New York, though I think overall it’s a damn good film (not sure what you mean about “not having the balls” to cast a black actor in the Walken role; incidentally, I’ve never thought of his character as a positive one, i.e. a Robin Hood type, but rather a kind of tragic villain whose terrible deeds happen to have some positive effects). And though Bad Lieutenant is the Ferrara film most people know, and in some ways the ultimate distillation of a lot of his ideas, I also find it to be the least nuanced statement of said ideas. Personally, I’d recommend the following as starting points: Dangerous Game, New Rose Hotel and, if you can get your hands on them, The Addiction and Go Go Tales. The surface style in Herzog is actually completely inconsistent. What I think the films share is that most of them are indifferently made and all of them circle back to the same basic ideas about the separation of man and nature. That’s fine; many great directors build entire bodies of work out of variations on the same ideas (see: Ferrara), and I for one think that Herzog has made some damn good films working this way. I think everyone can agree that it is possible to dislike directors and like individual films. But, to tell you the truth, I find a lot of Herzog’s films dull and self-important, and his fixation on making people value the way his films are made over the films themselves and on being perceived as a hero / The Only Sane Man on Earth kinda grating.
Nice. But you forgot Mary (my favorite Abel.) I saw him shoot Fear City for a couple of days. Much fun.
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“Am I completely certain all of this is true? No, but for now I believe that it is and I’d rather plunge in foolishly than stand at the edge of the water my whole life, wondering whether it’s warm or cold.” Inspiring!

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