Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bob Hoskins 1942-2014

There remains a big pile of Hoskins performances I still need to watch (including his work in British television, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, and Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, the latter seemingly permanently trapped in distribution limbo in this country), but I can recommend his work in the following movies (he's pretty good in Nixon, too, but I have an intense dislike of Oliver Stone, so I can't recommend it):

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Pink Floyd The Wall (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Brazil (1985)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Paris, je t'aime (2006)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm way behind #19: Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)

I stopped mentioning my admiration of Abel Ferrara's films in the company of friends and acquaintances years ago. Too often, the simple mention of his name elicited groans, while my favorite Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant, was dismissed with a single phrase ("Ugh! Harvey Keitel's penis!"), and I took it personally. (I always take it personally. My shit list is longer than twelve Bibles.) I can understand some of the resistance. Ferrara is not afraid to be uneven, messy, embarrassing, indulgent, pretentious, filthy, naive, silly, and, on rare occasions, boring. Even my favorite Ferrara films have awkward scenes, cringe-inducing moments. But just as often, Ferrara's films are full of memorable images, wildness, freedom, beauty, committed performance, intensity, transcendent strangeness, faith, humor, energy, thoughtfulness, and a fragile stillness. Ferrara's strengths and weaknesses share internal organs and blood. You can't separate them from each other, and the embarrassment you'll sometimes feel is just the fee required to take the ride. These are honest films, made by a guy who doesn't lie about himself. He may exaggerate, he may digress, he may go down some dead ends sometimes, but he doesn't lie, and he doesn't condescend. He's right there with his characters and locations, not above them, not below them, not laughing at them, not talking down to them, not using them to make arguments about how we should or shouldn't live our lives. He gets his hands dirty.
Ms. 45 is Ferrara's second feature film (he directed several shorts and a porn film before making features), released in 1981 and out of print for years on video. Drafthouse Films restored and rereleased the film, first in theaters, then on Blu-ray and DVD. I'm glad more people have the chance to see it, because I think it's one of Ferrara's strongest, most consistent, most fascinating films and maybe his most successful marriage of exploitation and art, with a pretty amazing central performance from the late Zoe Tamerlis, or Zoe Lund, as she was also often billed.
Like another volatile New York cocktail of art and exploitation, Taxi Driver, Ms. 45 is a marriage of sensibilities between four strong personalities: a director, a screenwriter, an actor, and a composer. In Taxi Driver's case, it's Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Bernard Herrmann (who died the day he finished the score). In Ms. 45, Ferrara's compadres are Nicholas St. John, screenwriter on almost every Ferrara film between the years 1971 and 1996 (the year he left movies behind to purposefully disappear into anonymity -- Internet rumors find him as either a Catholic monk or an eighth grade teacher in the New York City public school system), Zoe Tamerlis/Lund in the leading role (her first), and Joe Delia, supplying the tense, punky, saxophone-heavy score.
A feminist response to the cycle of rape-revenge and vigilante films then in vogue, Ms. 45 maintains a consistency of purpose, tone, mood, and atmosphere while doing such varied things as parodying and critiquing the Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave-style series of films, attacking the way men treat women as commodities, sexual objects, and fragile figurines, creating a visually expressive study of a sympathetic but disturbing character, capturing an impression of the alluring seductiveness, exotic strangeness, and sleazy, menacing hellscape of early '80s Manhattan, and satisfying its entertainment requirements as a grindhouse thriller. Ferrara's second film, it looks and feels more personal and accomplished than the more conventional handful of features and TV projects he completed in the nine years immediately following it, until 1990's King of New York saw him back at peak dreamy strangeness.
(SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be talking about some important scenes in the movie, so if you don't want any story details spoiled, you may want to step off the train here.)
Tamerlis/Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress in a wannabe high-fashion firm in Manhattan. People make mistaken assumptions about her, condescend to her, and feel the need to protect her because she can't speak for herself and because she's shy, but she's a far more complicated, interesting person than her peers and boss notice. The movie does a great job in the first ten minutes of connecting the audience to Thana, creating a convincing, complex work atmosphere, and fixing the routine of her average day, its various locations (work, grocery store, apartment) and their spatial relationships. On her way home from work one day, Thana is grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley by a masked rapist (played by Ferrara). The rape scene is far from exploitative. While other rape-revenge films dwell on the act, relishing it and getting off on the sexual violence while pretending to be horrified, Ms. 45 keeps the scene short and focuses almost entirely on Thana's face, never letting the camera take the rapist's or leering observer's point of view. Instead, the audience shares her fear, pain, and trauma.
After her attacker flees, Thana slowly regains her composure and walks home. She surprises a thief who has broken into her apartment while she was at work. The thief, unaware of what just happened to her, takes advantage of the situation and attempts to rape Thana. Facing her second sexual assault in a matter of minutes, Thana gains control of the situation, murdering her assailant when he lets his guard down. Thana cuts up her attacker's body in the bathtub, placing the parts in garbage bags she stores in her refrigerator, and keeping his .45. Though suffering from nightmares and hallucinations about her first attacker, Thana takes the gun and hits the streets, murdering lechers, catcallers, sexist creeps, and potential rapists. These scenes have a darkly comic edge, with Ferrara and St. John populating New York with only terrible men, no good ones, and Tamerlis/Lund gender-reversing the Charles Bronson role in meting out justice to as many of them as she can. Tamerlis/Lund's expressive face, gestures, and movements fill the screen, her charismatic, dialogue-free performance creating a fuller, more complex character than most movies where the leads never shut up.
As the film progresses, Thana's actions become more troubling, creating a rift between viewer and character and a critique of our desires as an audience for violent revenge. Thana begins targeting all men indiscriminately, no longer giving them the chance to prove themselves misogynists, and she slowly changes from avenger to predator. In a spectacularly cinematic finale that skillfully marries performance, image, sound, and formal technique, Thana opens fire on every man at a Halloween costume party while dressed as a nun. The surviving men jump for cover, run, and hide, and it's a woman who ends Thana's descent into murderous revenge.
Ferrara's film is carefully composed and grandly expressive, raw and strange, an articulation of anger against the dehumanizing effects of violence, misogyny, and revenge that nevertheless understands the visceral thrills inherent in screen violence and the anticipation of violence, a film that is equal parts funny, horrifying, exciting, and painful. It still looks brand new.

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