Genius. Hack. Maverick. Outlaw. Auteur. These are all descriptors that have been used when referring to director Abel Ferrara. Ferrara first burst upon the screen with 1979’s Driller Killer. While the film itself has become somewhat of a cult classic, it’s real fame came from being one of the original films to create the video nasty controversy in England. While the film itself doesn’t contain anything worth banning, it was the graphic video cover that first helped the film gain notoriety. Ferrara followed his first film with Ms. 45, a gritty, urban rape-revenge thriller, in 1981. He has gone on to direct several popular and highly acclaimed independent films such as Fear City (1984), King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), The Addiction (1995) and The Funeral (1996).
Author Nick Johnstone, a journalist for the UK’s The Guardian as well as author of 13 books of nonfiction on various music and film topics, has given us a meticulously researched and highly detailed look at all of Ferrara’s work up to 1997’s The Blackout. The book includes a filmography of all Ferrara’s work for cinema and television, both as director and actor. As with many directors, Ferrara tends to use the same technicians for every film, such as his steady cinematographer Ken Kelsch and his writer of choice, Nicholas St. John. He also has a stable of actors that he continually returns to as well. Author Johnstone also provides us with a "cast of characters" before delving into his film analysis so readers will know the relative importance of different names as they occur within the text itself.
As mentioned previously, Johnstone has been meticulous with his research for this book and leaves no stone unturned in his quest for film analysis. He starts with a first-chapter introduction to Ferrara, detailing the struggles he has had as a filmmaker, various casting problems, and his ongoing confrontations with the censors over the content of his films. This is a very enlightening chapter and superbly details and chronicles the director. Once this 36-page introductory chapter is over, the rest of the 200 pages are spent in critically analyzing each of Ferrara’s films.
In his film analysis, Johnstone proves to be a bit of an acolyte to Ferrara. While there are some criticisms of Ferrara’s films, by and large, Johnstone spends his time heaping accolades upon each film. This can sometimes become a problem as it can call into question the accuracy of the analysis when it becomes apparent that the writer thinks so highly of the filmmaker. The more I read, the more skeptical I became because, with very few exceptions, Johnstone writes as if Ferrara can do no wrong.
Each chapter is divided into rough "periods" of time that coincide to general "themes" in Ferrara’s work; thus, the second chapter addresses what Johnstone calls Ferrara’s "Urban Victim Trilogy" (Driller Killer, Ms. 45, and Fear City) while other chapters address "The TV Years" and "Big Budget, Low Art", referring to a period of time when Ferrara worked within the studio system, which corresponds to a period of stagnation in Ferrara’s creativity. Johnstone even analyzes the two music videos Ferrara directed, first for Mylene Farmer and then followed by The Phoids.
Each piece of film is dissected and examined minutely. Johnstone discusses the underlying meanings and various themes present in each film and draws comparisons between film techniques Ferrara uses and techniques present in films created by Ferrara’s acknowledged influences. While much of this analysis is excellent, it is so detailed that Johnstone has made the mistake of describing each film scene-by-scene. This is a problem for two reasons. First, many readers may not have seen a particular film, so in describing the entire movie, Johnstone lets the proverbial cat out of the bag on numerous occasions, spoiling each and every film Ferrara has created. Second, this can make for some tedious reading as Johnstone attempts to describe every single scene in the film and follow it with some very hard and crunchy analysis. For example, in a scene described by Johnstone from 1996’s The Blackout:
"Matty passes out and a series of nightmares flashes through his mind:
Mickey tells a distressed Matty (who has been asking him where Annie 1 is)
that Annie 1(really Annie 2) is right with him the in the studio. Matty, confused by
Mickey, asks Annie 2 if she had an abortion. "
I realize that this section of the description is taken out of context; however, I assure you that it was just as confusing within the text of the book as it is when isolated from the text of the book. Johnstone also spends a great deal of time comparing various scenes to Godard, Pasolini, Scorcese, and Polanski, to name a few. This is done on such a regular basis as to come across almost defensive, as if throwing these other great director’s names into the mix will somehow legitimize Ferrara (not that he needs any legitimizing).
I also found that Johnstone’s eagerness to interpret every single scene in a film sometimes caused him to conjecture to the point of stretching his credibility. He attempts to draw conclusions amongst several films that simply cannot be drawn without more evidence. It’s as if he wants the reader to appreciate Ferrara so badly, he is willing to extend his conclusions to the point of unreality. Simply put, in some cases, Johnstone can over-analyze a film to death.
While the text can sometimes be tough to wade through, Johnstone does clearly know his subject matter and has obviously done massive preparation for this book. Overall, I found the book enjoyable, and–as any good book on film criticism should do–I found myself wanting to track down Ferrara’s films I haven’t seen and to reevaluate the ones I have seen. I have never been a huge fan of Driller Killer, but I own the Cult Epics version just on the basis of the film’s status. I have watched it several times over the years and have never been very impressed, but this book has me wanting to watch it again with the added value of Johnstone’s context. On the other hand, films such as Bad Lieutenant were obviously fantastic filmmaking from the first viewing, and Johnstone’s analysis helped me to catch nuances I hadn’t caught even after multiple viewings.
Surprisingly, as in-depth as the book is, it is a very quick read and I knocked it out in less than a week, along with a couple of others. Despite the flaws, I quite enjoyed the book. It gave me plenty of food for thought, even if I didn’t agree with all of Johnstone’s conclusions and has given me a chance to reevaluate some of Ferrara’s work. In the end, isn’t that what makes a book on film analysis successful?