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The Beautiful and The Damned: Close-Up on Abel Ferrara’s "King of New York"

Abel Ferrara's iconic genre film marks a turning point for the director from shoestring B-pictures to the films that made him famous.
James Slaymaker
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990) is playing June 16 - July 16, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
“In striving to sin, to blaspheme, Ferrara’s heroes assert with Lucifer their moral autonomy, their sovereignty, their heroic identity, their glory, pitifully”
—Tag Gallagher
We’re introduced to Frank White (Christopher Walken) with one of director Abel Ferrara’s iconic roving pans, creeping left–right from the darkness of the prison wall to the harsh white of Frank’s cell. Frank is placed small in the frame, positioned slightly off-centre towards the bottom corner, his back to the camera as he prays silently. The prison bars dominate the composition, abstracted into silhouettes by Ferrara’s chiaroscuro lighting. A police baton enters the frame and knocks twice on the cell door, jarring Frank out of his concentration. The door is then released as Frank stands up and silently walks towards the foreground, briefly becoming shrouded in darkness. The camera tracks in slightly to complement his movement, and the entire background is now filled with the interior of Frank’s cell. Frank comes to rest in a close-up, his face half-covered in shadow, looking directly at the camera.
Ferrara cuts to a one-point perspective shot looking down an empty hallway, with the only element in sharp focus being a metal grid that fills the foreground. After a beat, the prison warden enters the space, followed by two guards, their shadows stretching far in front of them, and the gate is opened on a hinge.
A reverse shot reveals the scope of the prison, as the guards are dwarfed by the huge amount of negative space off-balancing the composition. The barred windows throw shards of natural light onto the ground as in a painting by Vermeer. This use of expressionistic techniques to subtly mythologize his protagonist brings to mind the master German filmmaker F.W. Murnau (one of Ferrara’s claimed heroes) a debt made clear when a character is later seen watching Nosferatu in an empty theatre. As Tag Gallagher notes, this sequence implicitly references and reworks the opening scenes of Murnau’s film, with the prison standing as the tomb from which Nosferatu awakes, and Frank similarly finds himself as a nocturnal creature thrust into a strange new world from which he is fundamentally alienated.
King of New York
Like a prototypical Ferrara hero, Frank White is suspended between law and criminal underworld, masochism and sadism, vice and virtue. King of New York itself marks a significant turning point in its director’s oeuvre, marking the transition between the shoestring-budget B-pictures that kicked off his career and the beginning of the series of semi-reputable projects that brought him into the spotlight during the 1990s. On one level, the film marks another exploration of the nuances of social performance-one of Ferrara’s most dominant recurring obsessions and one that would find its most thorough expression in 1993’s Dangerous Game. Repeatedly, Ferrara sets up our expectations of character relationships early in a scene, only to pull the rug out from under us. When Frank’s former associates, lead by Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne) corner him in his Plaza Hotel suite, they appear genuinely hostile and threatening (and the audience at this point are unaware of their relationship to Frank), until Frank breaks the tension by laughing and breaking into a dance, revealing the prior interaction to be nothing more than a game between friends. When Bishop’s team of rogue cops are first introduced they are wearing plain clothes, and appear as a group of thugs attacking Frank. It’s only in the subsequent scene that they’re revealed to be legal officials, as they dance at a wedding with their families. Early on, Frank watches a play in which oppressed black prisoners take revenge against their white captors; the shift from the reality of the film is signalled by hyper-realistic lighting which bathes the screen in blue. Towards the end of the film, however, this scenario will play out in reality, as a racially charged shootout erupts between dealers and law enforces-to make the connection explicit, Ferrara again lights the action with strong blue gels.
As in a film by Howard Hawks, The King of New York highlights that the social performance of a coded hyper-masculine identity is essential amongst homosocial professional groups. At times, this sense of tight-knit camaraderie borders on the homoerotic, as when Dennis tells Frank “I heard you got AIDS getting dicks up your ass in prison,” to which Frank jokes “I thought about you every time I jerked off” - Arty Clay shortly after mocks Frank by saying he heard Frank was “fucking sambos in the joint.” Despite the explicit verbal homophobia on display, there is an underlying sense of genuine sexual tension between Frank and his men, reaching its logical endpoint when Thomas kisses a dying Thomas while mouthing “I love you”.
Frank’s sexuality is itself left ambiguous. Throughout most of the narrative, he appears asexual, though he is constantly seen with two beautiful female bodyguards, Raye and Melanie, with whom a sexual relationship is hinted at but never consummated explicitly. In one telling scene, Melanie feigns sexual interest in another man as a means of encouraging him to buy a large amount of Frank’s dope; as Frank passes the room in which the deal is taking place, his expression is a deeply ambiguous one that combines envy, disappointment and self-loathing: there are shades of the toxic masculine masochism of New Rose Hotel (1998), which sees its protagonist push his lover into the arms of another man for monetary gain, only to become consumed by jealousy when she goes through with the plan. A scene in which Raye sensually blows smoke into Melanie’s mouth itself opens up the notion that the two women are also intimate with each other, echoing the polygamous couplings of The Driller Killer (1979) and Welcome to New York (2014), as well as the incestuous working circle of Dangerous Game.
Betraying the influence of his close friend and mentor, Michael Mann, King of New York is, in part, a reflection of the gentrification of the city. As soon as Frank leaves the prison, he becomes immersed in a hyper-modernistic, cubist New York that is becoming divided by an increasingly expanding gap between the bourgeois classes who make their money through abstracted work and the have-nots making ends meet through physical labour and petty crime. The symbolism of Frank’s elegant, soundproofed limo as a means for the character to pass through various social settings unseen and insulated from the physicality of the outside world calls to mind similar motifs that will appear in David Cronenberg’s Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis. White sits in the car, framed in a frontal close-up, the interior abstracted by the darkness into a blackened non-place, expressionistically lit by flashes of green by light by the passing street lamps, as the film’s first use of soundtrack music kicks in. Neon lights are abstracted behind him into hazy blotches of light by the low depth-of-field, and Ferrara cuts between portrait-like one-shots. Ferrara’s camera assumes Frank’s perspective as he passes prostitutes, dealers, street urchins. Each view is briefly illuminated by the limo’s spectral headlights, as if awakened by the shards of light, before receding back into the darkness. Ferrara cuts to a poetic image of a subway train reflected in a dark puddle, like an image out of Godard’s First Name: Carmen, lingering for a beat before the camera gently pans upwards to reveal the limo passing nearby.
Similar visual tricks (combining the micro and the macro, the private and the public) will reoccur throughout the film, such as in the iconic image of White looking down at the city from his hotel room, the nocturnal city lights obscuring his face, the makeshift super-imposition simultaneously indulging Frank’s grandiose ambitions while emphasizing that his illusion of control can’t be sustained.
The scene in which Jimmy Jump is arrested at the Chicken Shack is one of the film’s most justifiably celebrated. As with so many sequences in Ferrara’s movies, the scene is light on plot despite running for an unexpectedly long time; it instead is heavy on improvisation and riffs on the power dynamics and notions of moral relativity so central to the film’s overall design. Ferrara frames the scene in two deep-focus, complimentary wide shots, each one tracking slightly to the side, resembling something Hou Hsiao-hsien might film. As he places his extravagant lunch order, Jump’s relentless energy juxtaposed against the shruggy aloofness and stasis of the cashier, a physical expression of their mutual disdain. The cashier yells at a group of kids at the corner of the restaurant to get away from the arcade games unless they can afford to play, prompting a disgruntled Jump to scold him for his rudeness and give the children some coins himself. On one level, undermining the cashier’s authority; on another, Jump is exhibiting the same desire for a fairer redistribution of wealth espoused by his boss, just on a smaller, more immediate level.  Afterwards, Jump adds insult to injury by refusing to pay for his order, instead grabbing his bags, spurting out a curt “fuck you very much,” and heading for the exit. Like Dennis Hopper’s Mickey in The Blackout (1997), Jump is a figure of pure force; he is all balletic motion and ferocious energy. Even when he is ultimately gunned down by Bishop’s men, he lies on the floor convulsing and laughing hysterically as the life drains out of him.
The cops and the criminals of King of New York are not opposites but mirror images, both are marked by hyper-masculine groups that are driven to bend the rules to achieve their own ideas of justice. Frank’s gang commit drug deals as a means to raise the funds needed to rebuild the poor side of town, while the cops abuse their institutional power as a way to capture a criminal they believe has cheated the legal system: "We make $36,500 a year to risk our lives every night of the week, and Frank gets rich from killing people." As in the cinema of John Ford, the notion of the legal system as a clear-cut way to establish law and order in western society breaks down, the cops hide behind their positions as a way to indulge their most sadistic impulses without consequences, and a wealthy entrepreneur like Frank can escape consequences by bribing at the top of the pecking order. The film’s complex and distrustful view of the legal process-expanded upon in Ferrara’s later Welcome to New York-is exemplified when Frank ‘s lawyer Jennifer, tells him “I thought people like you didn’t believe in the legal process,” to which Frank responds “I thought people like me were the legal process.”
If these men are morally objectionable, their firm belief-however misguided-that they are truly doing the right thing places them above the amoral Mafiosos who gained prominence in the city during Frank’s incarceration. Larry Wong and his men are exploitative figures who seek to profit from the commodification of the vulnerable-they force women into prostitution and children in to dealing. Rather than being a corruption of the values of post-industrial America, they represent these values distilled down to their purest, most vicious form. They bear more than a passing similarity to the opportunistic, financial traders of Welcome to New York. Within this ultra-consumerist environment, the variety of morally conscious men exemplified by both Frank White and team seem to be under threat of extinction. References are repeatedly made to Frank’s ghostly immaterial property as he drifts through the story’s varied environments like a spectre, always with the same bemused detachment. When asked how it feels to be out of prison, Frank responds that it’s like being “back from the dead.” Later in the scene, Frank emphasizes his distanced perspective when he says “I must’ve been away too long, because my feelings are dead.” Frank is often seen reflected in glass and reflective surfaces, or else framed behind glass so his visage is overpowered by reflections of the cityscape. Although the shot that introduces Bishop sees him looking up Frank’s history on a computer, Frank prefers to free himself from the restrictions of past or future and live entirely in the moment.
The tragic ending, thus, feels inevitable. Frank shoots Bishop dead on an empty subway train, but not before Bishop fires one last retaliation shot into Frank’s stomach. While Bishop dies instantly, Frank continues to walk the through Times Square as he slowly bleeds out. For the first time, Frank is fully dwarfed by the surrounding architecture; having literally become the walking dead, he is obscured in the image by reflections of advertisements and neon signs, metal crates and out-of-focus ambient crowds. Halfway through, Ferrara cuts to a lengthy, abstract insert shot of a Coca-Cola sign blazing red. Although seemingly unmotivated, it instead underlines that Frank is the victim of a corporatized, consumerist city in which the only options for survival are to exploit or be exploited without protest. Frank dies in the back of a cab (again, a space that fuses the private and the public), as he gazes at the monolithic modernist architecture of the skyscrapers around him, material symbols of the de-materialized money that fuels a post-industrial western economy.


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