Monday, March 27, 2006

memory & desire

(I must confess that this stream-of-consciousness 'essay', part of the Abel Ferrara blog-a-thon, was composed in a matter of just under a couple of hours, and unfortunately it shows...)

Abel Ferrara entered his most interesting and experimental phase with one of his genuine masterpieces, Snake Eyes (aka Dangerous Game), and this phase continues until 'R Xmas (the newest Ferrara film I've seen, a near-masterpiece), with even the only curious disappointment in this period (The Funeral) bearing his incredibly coherent thematic obsessions. These obsessions are wide and varied, but they can be generally classified as rough, messy studies of confinement and liberty, of the sacred and the profane, and of performance and being (/fantasy and reality). There is also usually an absence, or at most a hazy/compromised presence, of identity, love/emotion, faith/God, sexuality, family, memory, control. This absence attains a near-tangible state in two of the filmmaker's most anti-narrative and much-maligned films, The Blackout (1997), and New Rose Hotel (1998). It is possible to view the two films as one, each an extension of the other, in their respective depictions of obsession, memory, and meta-reality.

The Blackout stars Matthew Modine as popular Hollywood actor, Matty, who goes to Miami to meet up and party with his girlfriend, Annie (Beatrice Dalle), who is currently acting in a hardcore remake of Christian-Jaque's 1955 film, Nana (itself a remake of Jean Renoir's adaptation of the Emile Zola novel), under the direction of Mickey (played by Dennis Hopper with much improvisation, in a performance evoking his appearance in The Last Movie). Annie soon walks out of Matty's life, and he has a blackout on booze and coke, during which he may or may not have strangled a fan of his he hooked up with, hallucinating that she's Annie. New Rose Hotel is, of course, the adaptation of the William Gibson short story, and stars William Dafoe as the film's 'nameless' protagonist (called 'X' in the film), who works under the direction of international corporate headhunter, Fox (played by Christopher Walken with a cane, with much improvisation) to enlist the beautiful and mysterious, Sandii (Asia Argento) in order to seduce brilliant scientist, Hiroshi (played by 'Final Fantasy' artist, Yoshitaka Amano) from one corporate giant to another. Sandii does the job, and then betrays X who has fallen in love with her.

The similarities between the two films basically emerge from the central ghost-narrative of obsessive desire. The shadows of Vertigo and Le Mépris haunt The Blackout, which in turn continues with Snake Eyes' complex imagistic preoccupations (to be crystallised by New Rose Hotel the following year). Major plot occurrences are withheld from the audience (and indeed from the protagonists themselves, who are witnesses to the action in a similar way as we are), and whenever important events are seen, it is through fragmented dialogue, or a recording, commonly video. We don't see Matty strangle 'Annie 2' until he sees a video recording of himself filmed in the act by Mickey (and even then he initially denies the apparent reality of the images). Earlier in the film, when the argument between Annie and Matty erupts (in a hotel room, which returns as a significant, constant setting in New Rose Hotel), we cannot believe her outrageous accusation made by Annie, until a recording of his very words is played, again to his denial. New Rose Hotel is an even more extreme extension of this 'virtual reality': the first sequence of the film, which shows the kidnapping of Hiroshi in fragmented shots, is composed of video images, being witnessed by X. Hiroshi, of course, is himself only seen through the surveillance video recordings. He is almost as much an object of mystery (and beauty) as Sandii, especially for Fox. With New Rose Hotel, his greatest film yet, Ferrara reaches the point when he is questioning the meaning of the images that he has composed and is composing, and acknowledging his position as a creator of images, of 'lies' and illusions.

The image of two or more women in sexual contact has been another one of Ferrara's recurring shots. This is just one of the shifted gender roles that have been present in his films from The Driller Killer (perhaps even earlier - I haven't seen anything prior to The Driller Killer) until 'R Xmas, where a hard-edged female character has to 'save' her soft-spoken husband from his kidnappers. The Blackout has Matty, a character whose internal breakdown may be the very result of a weak, submissive male complex that crystallises into defeated masculinity when Annie walks out on him after his rejection of her abortion. When he asks Mickey, "Are you fucking Annie?", Hopper's responds by "No, I'm fucking you". Later, Matty will seek comfort in the arms of Susan (Claudia Schiffer), but his fate in the film's final scene only supports the dead-endedness of the solipsistic male (/psyche) that Ferrara returns to in New Rose Hotel. Fox is obviously extremely cautious of Sandii ("Don't fall in love with her" he says to X) and disapproves of her openly during the restaurant scene somewhere in the mid-section of the film. His obsession with Hiroshi also seems to border on the homoerotic (and, again, he doesn't approve of his "icy" wife). A key scene is Fox's filming of X during their visit to the Japanese brothel (echoing a similar scene in The Blackout when Hopper takes Matty to the two prostitutes and films), which can be read as an amalgamation of the sexual subcontext in Ferrara's cinema: bisexuality, sadomasochism, prostitution, pornography.

And then there are the dissolves! The use of dissolves in The Blackout and New Rose Hotel is somewhat different from those in earlier films, and in the latter, 'R Xmas. Here they exist not only to build-up towards a whirling state of mind or a dichotomous existence, but also to draw attention to the images themselves by making explicit their transitions, their flux into another, while the dissolves in a film like 'R Xmas exhibit the internal moralistic dilemmas of Drea de Matteo's Wife and Lillo Brancato Jr.'s Husband. The constant state of transition is also contributed to by the shifting locations: Miami - New York - Miami in The Blackout (recalling a similar movement from Snake Eyes' LA - New York - LA, wherein New York stands for 'family' and 'comfort'), and an abstracted presence of several cities in New Rose Hotel: Vienna, Marrakech, Berlin, Tokyo - between which the three main characters are constantly in flight.

The often-present and very cinematic bifurcation of identity in the films of Ferrara - gangster/cop, human/body snatcher, human/vampire, Madonna/Sarah Jennings (i.e. actor/character), bourgeoisie wife/whore (in his music video for Mylene Farmer's California) - reaches a fascinating apotheosis in the character of Sandii, in that slight variations of any of the above could apply to her. Sandii has no last name, no history, no attachments , and becomes increasingly abstract as the film progresses. That curious shot (which enters and exits the frame in dissolves) of Argento's tattoo of an angel across her torso and all the improvisation raises the question of where Sandii ends and Asia Argento begins, a previously-developed motif of the blurring of performance and being (in Snake Eyes) that Ferrara has now summarised in a single shot. Argento was living with Ferrara during the making of the film, and Ferrara himself seems hypnotised by her when he talks of her during interviews. This is really a film about Asia Argento, about the seemingly impenetrable feminine mystique that she represents, and the desperate attempt to disambiguate via the male gaze.

10 Comments:

Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Great work, Mubarak.

"The similarities between the two films basically emerge from the central ghost-narrative of obsessive desire. The shadows of Vertigo and Le Mépris haunt The Blackout, which in turn continues with Snake Eyes' complex imagistic preoccupations (to be crystallised by New Rose Hotel the following year)."

That's a really perceptive statement, I think, because it zeroes in on the intensity of purpose that characterizes Ferrara's work, and to which all things (including the generic and narrative trappings of his genre-movie projects) are subordinated. But it's not as though he's 'slumming' in genre work to heroically transcend it--instead he's marked by the force of his obsessions and the obsessions in the films; 'ghost-narrative' is a good phrase, it suggests something traumatic ...

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Because I haven't yet seen The Blackout (it's next up on my to-see pile at home), I skimmed parts of your post to avoid spoilers. But, like Zach, I also think "ghost narrative" is a really useful idea here. Have either of you seen Mary yet? Because I think it applies there, too. It's a nice way of thinking about Juliette Binoche's character, who, essentially, becomes possessed by the ghost of Mary Magdelene.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Love the analysis of Ferrara's use of dissolves. There's such a complexity to his filmmaking, and watching several of his films back to back is almost a requirement to pick up on these details.

5:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

What a terrific post, Mubarak.
I'm totally awed that you knocked this off in a couple of hours!

I like so many of the points you make.
Like the one about bifurcation of idenitity, which I hadn't thought about. We can also see it in Annie 1 and Annie 2 (and the wig that Mickey uses to make Annie 2 resemble 1). Come to think of it, doesn't Camille/Bardot in Contempt use a similar black wig? Maybe I'm misremembering that.

The bifurcation of identity can also apply to filmmakers in Ferrara's ouevre:
--Mel Gibson/Ferrara in Mary.
--Porn director/Nick Ray (plus Ferrara) in The Blackout. I vaguely remember reading that Nick Ray made porn too.
--Adrian Lyne/Ferrara in Dangerous Game. Ferrara has talked about Eddie being a "stylized director like Lyne, not a cult director like me."

11:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

***BLACKOUT SPOILER***

I also like the scene at the end when Matty is watching the video of himself strangling Annie 2, and Mickey shows up. In terms of narrative, we have no idea where/how we got to this scene, where's it's set, or how Matty found the video. Suddenly, with no narrative preparation, we're watching Matty watching himself commit the murder. Ferrara bypasses all the plausibility bullshit. How audacious.

11:59 PM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

Thanks for your kind comments, everyone.

Darren, I just realised I left some Blackout spoilers in there without any warning, for which I apologise. But I doubt I've really 'spoiled' the film, since Ferrara's concerns here are beyond traditional 'plot' devices. As I mentioned on Girish's post, it's a film I struggled with on my first viewing (and still do - I'm not entirely sure what to make of that very last shot). Hope you like it whenever you do see it. And as for Mary, my only chance of a theatrical viewing would be in July when the Auckland International Film Festival kicks in. If the film's in the programme, that is.

Girish, great catch with the (creepy) wig parallel in Contempt! It's been a while since I've seen it, but I do remember such a scene in the Godard film. Lynch also did something similar with Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway.

Oh, and it usually takes me a loong time to come up with even a small paragraph of writing, but I guess having watched (and re-watched) a pile of his films over the last few weeks really helped get my last-minute piece up.

1:09 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Great analytical abstraction of a style, I can't believe it took you only a couple of hours... Hat's off. Really interesting read.
I wonder why I missed Ferrara's seemingly recurring obsessions and formal tricks in Mary. There was nothing really unusual (sexual perversion, transgression, fantasy, ambiguous identity, male gaze) in his characterization of the protagonists. Well I was probably just being blind and hope your review will open my eyes on a deeper film.
Although now you mention it, there are some superimpression/dissolves when switching from Jerusalem to NYC at times. But I can't remember specifics.

The wig transfiguration is also present in Mulholland Dr. (although blond there), In Lost Highway, it's not a wig, but two copycat persons with haircolor distinction.

1:45 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

Harry, a belated thankyou for your comments! Hope you come around to Ferrara's cinema as you see more of his films.

2:36 PM  
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