Hard Knock Life: On the Films of Abel Ferrara by Michael A. Gonzales

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Nobody loves New York films more than a native. From the time I was a kid growing-up in Harlem during an era when the city wasn’t pretty, I’ve always had a thing for moviemakers who were able to capture the grit of my town on celluloid.

Of course, there are exceptions, like my favorite Woody Allen flicks Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as the Neil Simon scripted The Goodbye Girl, but for the most part the movies I got the most pleasure from were the ones that showed the Big Apple’s rotting core, worms and all.

Over the years, I have repeatedly watched The French Connection, Super Fly, The Warriors, The Education of Sonny Carson, Taxi Driver, Serpico, Death Wish, Gordon’s War and Dog Day Afternoon, all films that perfectly fit into my aesthetic of what constitutes a great NYC film: raw, gritty and somewhat unpredictable, much like the city itself.

In the early 1990s, the two New York films that had the most affect on me were Abel Ferrara’s double dose of big city sleaze The King of New York (1990) and The Bad Lieutenant (1992). Ferrara was himself a native New Yorker born in the Bronx in 1950. Like my favorite Bronx Boy creative folks writer Jerome Charyn, director Stanley Kubrick and rapper KRS-One, he is a no bullshit kind of guy.

Ferrara started making flicks in the early 1980s, B-movie fare with cool names like Driller Killer, Fear City and Ms. 45, but it wasn’t until 1990 that I was introduced to his bleak worldview and neo-noir sensibilities.

King_of_new_york_ver1Staring at the poster for The King of New York outside a Times Square theater, where a few feet away hookers walked the block and three-card monte cats ripped-off tourists. I wandered into the movie house not really knowing what to expect. Sitting amongst a typical neighborhood crowd who screamed at the screen and smoked weed openly, as the movie began it didn’t take long for me to block out the distractions and become absorbed by Ferrara’s dangerous visions of thug life in our hometown.

Released at a time when “the drug game,” primarily crack and powered cocaine, ruled the streets of the city, Ferrara’s film introduced the viewer to recently released kingpin Frank White (Christopher Walken) and his gang of black henchman led by Jimmy Jump (Larry Fishburne). Determined to take over the drug trade, as well as giving back to the hood by building a state-of-art hospital in Brooklyn, Frank unleashes a blood-bath gang war on everyone from the Italian mob to the Chinese gangs.

Never one to do any acting halfway, Walken is at his best as Frank White. Whether talking shit or gazing out of the window in his Plaza Hotel suite, the audience cheered for that troubled man who has so much on his mind. Yet, as good as Walken was, he was no comparison to Fishburne’s role as the bugged-out, blow-sniffing, gun shooting Jump, who had more swagger than a million Jay-Z’s.

Looking like his daddy might’ve been a Black Panther back in the day, Jump is crazier than most cokehead gangsters are, but he still he reminded me of a few cool, but deadly dudes I knew in Harlem. Fishburne doesn’t walk in the film, he moves swiftly as a dancer, quietly as a jungle cat. Screenwriter Nicholas St. John also gave Jump some of the dopest lines in the movie. “Trust isn’t one of my stronger qualities,” he says, moments before killing a drug dealer.

One can imagine Fishburne today, all flabby and stone-faced, turning on the telly and seeing himself more than two decades later and wondering, “What happened to that brilliant motherfucker?”  Additionally, the film also featured wonderful co-starring performances from Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Paul Calderon, Steve Buscemi and Roger Guenveur Smith.

Since many of those actors had worked together in other New Yorkcentric films, the ensemble acting was seamless as the robbers, cops and various baddies battled for supremacy while ducking bullets. Yet, while King overflows with violence, there are many dimensions to the film, as though Godard, fairytales and gangsta rap, also inspired Ferrara equally.

The Schoolly D. songs used in The King of New York, especially “Saturday Night,” only added to the hip allure of the film, an aural black cherry on top of a cake made out of dynamite. A few years later, when other MCs were still quoting Oliver Stone’s overrated Scarface script as though it were the holy grail of gangster movies, an overweight rapper named the Notorious B.I.G. showed his love for The King of New York by dubbing himself “the black Frank White.”

While obviously influenced by Martin Scorsese, who’s Good Fellas came out the same year, Ferrara’s perspective in The King of New York of our beloved sin city was more twisted. Shot by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, the film has a strange texture that works perfectly. Between he and Ferrara, the nighttime streets, rides on the subway and various shoot-outs, including the brutal climax where damn near everybody dies, feels like something Frank White might be actually dreaming while he’s dying in jail.

Like most of Ferrara’s films, The King of New York was shot on a tight budget, but the director still managed to master mix a calm art-house sensibility with a manic pulp vision that was dark, dangerous and intoxicating. However, if King scrapped the surface of the scum that drove cabbie Travis Bickle crazy, then The Bad Lieutenant dived in deep and just continued swimming to the bottom for infinity.

Harvey Keitel played the title character, a cop so damaged that even his fellow officers were disgusted by his behavior. The cops give him sideways glances when he accidentally drops a kilo of coke he stole from a crime scene, a part of the movie that always makes me cringe, or talks badly about the Catholic Church putting-up a $50,000 reward for the capture of the “boys” who a raped nun. Still, that is small stuff compared to the rest of the inspired decadence of the ninety-six minute movie.

The Lieutenant, who wasn’t even given a name, was perhaps one of the most damaged characters in ‘90s cinema, filled with enough dread and pathos to fuel six David Fincher films. As he smokes crack in tenement hallways, masturbates in front of two teenaged girls and shoots-up with a hooker, we almost feel sorry for this pale faced mess of a man. Embracing those dark and scary places, Ferrara shot The Bad Lieutenant, which he co-wrote with Zoë Lund, as though it were a modern day horror movie.

bad_lieutenant_movie_image_harvey_keitel_02Yet, if the King of New York was a dream, then The Bad Lieutenant was a nightmare. The movie’s unintentional (I think) comic relief comes when he is at home surround by crying babies, an oblivious wife and a old, white haired mother-in-law who says nothing, but stares at Keitel fearfully. She seems to be the only person in the house who actually looks at him, but she has enough fear for everybody.

While the thin plot concerns the raped nun who refuses to identify her attackers, Ferrara’s masterpiece was in actuality a brilliant study of a man who no longer believes in anything: a Catholic who doesn’t believe in God, a cop who doesn’t believe in the law, a man who doesn’t believe in death because he’s already living in hell.

Keitel, unlike his friend Robert DeNiro, never stopped challenging himself when it came to taking difficult roles, and in The Bad Lieutenant, he played the ruined character with the rawness of a pus-oozing sore. Unlike other scary cat directors, my man Ferrara (the tainted saint of cinema, the outlaw auteur, the Hubert Selby Jr. of movies) captured it all.

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Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales has published short fiction in Brown Sugar (Random House), Bronx Biannual (Akashic Books), Crimefactory and Needle: A Magazine of Noir. He lives in Brooklyn.