As far back as 1981’s Ms. 45, in which he played a rapist, Abel Ferrara has directly implicated himself in his films. Films within films blur the lines of diegetic reality, and the filmmaker’s more recent movies have incorporated video monitors and Skype sessions to suggest that cinema as a concept is limited only by whatever technical means we have at hand to capture images.
Ferrara’s recurring fixation on both the possibilities and corrosive elements of filmmaking reached its apotheosis, though, in 1993’s Dangerous Game. Starting in media res at a dinner table, director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel) enjoys a placid evening with his family that he disrupts by sneaking out at night to go back to work on his latest film. The way Eddie slips out of his own home looks illicit, as if he were heading off to meet a paramour. In a sense, though, that’s exactly what Ferrara is suggesting, for he depicts the act of filmmaking as an all-consuming impulse, one that demands the sacrifice of normalcy for total commitment.
Ferrara shoots domesticity with static, mounted takes, but the footage collected from the production set is jittery and anxious, be it the footage of the film itself or the video collected behind the scenes. This bristling energy matches the constant friction between cast and crew, in which no one, not even the director, has final say and every creative decision becomes a war of attrition in which battling individual wills contribute to a group effort.
The on-set tension precipitates a total breakdown between the various layers of diegetic and metatextual reality, a breakdown usually centered on Sarah Jennings (Madonna), the lead actress of Eddie’s movie, Mother of Mirrors. Madonna plays a repository for all the abuse actresses receive at the hands of overly serious male co-stars and directors. The male lead of Eddie’s film, Frank (James Russo), frequently takes his role as a nasty husband too far, verbally sparring with her between takes and even hitting her for real in their scripted fights. Eddie, too, baits Sarah, and on one occasion seems to break the fourth wall and attack Madonna herself by taunting her as a “commercial piece of shit.”
Madonna, for her part, responds to the nebulously intended hostility with fury of her own. Madonna’s acting performances during her peak tended to tamp down her ferocious persona into something more manageable and censor-friendly. But this is Madonna at her purest and most impregnable, capable of handling the physical and mental torment lobbed at her and turning it back on her assailants tenfold. Frank sleeps with Sarah and all but openly brags about it on the phone with Eddie, but it’s she who has the last laugh by assuring her co-star she only slept with him to better get into character, not only emasculating him, but positioning herself as the more committed actor. On set, Sarah regularly snaps at the tedium of the crew’s long setups and Eddie’s bizarre theories-cum-rants-cum-inspirational speeches, and it’s impossible to tell whether Sarah is lashing out at Eddie’s oppressive, egotistical methods, or Madonna is punching at Ferrara’s own.
The collapsing levels of awareness should make the film a pretentious travesty, but what saves it from presumptuousness and superiority is the readiness with which it admits its ignorance. Ferrara often gets lumped together with John Cassavetes for his extensive use of improvisation and his predilection toward actorly madness over intimate drama, but Cassavetes at least used improv to get to a fixed point, reminding viewers that it was the journey, not the destination, that revealed most. Ferrara doesn’t even have the destination in mind; his actors stumble in total darkness, using their explosive outbursts like echolocation, the searching quality in their halting improv an indication of how both they and their characters gradually define their context and being.
Ferrara would make a great movie about Plato’s cave, or a great movie about that movie. Maybe Dangerous Game is that movie, with filmmaking as the ultimate cave. The cast and crew of Eddie’s movie are neither geniuses nor martyrs; they may, in fact, be total hacks who destroy any chance of normalcy and happiness in the pursuit of a meaningless project. Ferrara sees notions of the “acting bug” or auterist ambition as value-neutral motivations. As such, this may be the only honest movie about making movies, one that’s the product of raging, uncompromising egos that somehow work in tandem. To what benefit is a question that only time can answer.
Shot with various film and video cameras of modest quality, Dangerous Game has no consistent image to judge for fidelity, and Olive’s transfer is all the better for preserving the endemic artifacts and wild fluctuations of detail and clarity. (That the disc used for this review sported a brief artifact of its own during an early scene with Eddie’s family was unusually serendipitous—an unintended moment of reflexivity that fit perfectly with the film’s metatextual breaks.) Sound is soft and muffled, and it’s a shame that subtitles weren’t included, but, again, this is true to the low-budget confines of the director’s work and the intentional roughness of his shooting method.
The disc only comes with a theatrical trailer.
Abel Ferrara takes his gonzo style to its most abstract dimensions and produces one of his most essential, and least heralded, films.