I’ve been an Abel Ferrara junkie ever since a friend showed me Ms. 45 at NYU, so the idea of contributing to the Ferrara Blog-a-Thon felt like a duty to one of our greatest unsung directors, but as I told Girish and Aaron Hillis before a press screening of Quinceañera at this year’s New Directors/New Films series, “I don’t do cliques.” Ferrara might approve—fans of his films are familiar with his thou-shalt-not-conform ethos—but then I got an annoying email from Quinceañera co-director Wash Westmoreland that worked to change my mind. Westmoreland objected to my review of his film on the grounds that I was insulting him and his directing partner when I wrote that they were inserting themselves into their movie by way of the story’s lascivious white gay couple. I told Westmoreland: “Lili Taylor is Abel Ferrara’s proxy in The Addiction, doesn’t mean I think Ferrara has tits or likes to suck blood.”
Having used one of Ferrara’s films as mace, something had clicked: the Ferrara film as a weapon of choice. Together, the man’s films suggest a set of steak knives—sharp and serrated, they leave behind wounds that are not easily healed or forgotten. I’ve tried them all with the exception of Mary and Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy, and while it isn’t my favorite one to handle (the heady and dissonant Snake Eyes, the elegiac The Funeral, and the bonkers Ms. 45 are tops), The Addiction provides the cleanest cut. It is somewhat of an anomaly for the Bronx-born director, sheathed as it is in a black-and-white, expressionistic cloak, but it’s thrown at you with the same moral, guttersnipe effrontery as Bad Lieutenant and Fear City. Ferrara has always been cool like dat and The Addiction is a very diggable piece of horror sautéed in a beatnik sauce of Lower East Side philosophizing at once spunky and chill.
The story of Ferrara’s histoire-du-cinéma: a vampire (first name Casanova, played by Annabella Sciorra) bites Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), a student from the University of New York (a stand-in for the very real, monopolizing NYU, around which the film was shot). Its form: slide-show compositions that together affect slice-and-dice movement. The gist (or, rather, thesis—given the film’s grad-school setting and presentation): the nature of the organism, the seduction of history, war, and myth (of vampires and man), and sex (necking at least)—gay and straight, and lots of it—bleeding together into one. Again, its form: images that suggest a self-devouring world cracking back-and-forth in tectonic-plate fashion—or an organ on the brink of rejecting itself.
The year was 1995 and Rudy Giuliani, as part of the “Disneyfication” of New York City, was beginning to clean up Ferrara’s city streets with an iron grip but none of the compassion of Chistopher Walken’s Robin Hood-like character from King of New York. Here, Walken stars as a withered version of his drug lord Frank White, a vampire king with all the knowledge in the world but not much power. His infection is political and personal awareness and Kathleen takes to it with fear, then resistance, and finally rapture. (Taylor’s “turning” scenes are triumphs of physical performance—in a just world she would have won an Oscar for this film.) She is a foot soldier, helping to build an army with other HBO Stars of Tomorrow (among them Edie Falco) to preserve the integrity of a Big Apple that had more personality when it was a little more rotten.
This stealth, beguiling creature of a film—so alternately jejune, funny, and scary (all part of a clear-eyed evolution)—is teeming on the inside with rapidly-growing ideas about cultural and personal malaise. Through the film, which is filled with stunning images of a city in ominous transition and Taylor foregrounded against holocausts of yesterday, Ferrara extends a great line from one of Smashing Pumpkins’ most popular songs, released that very same year. In it, Billy Corgan sings: “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” The title of the song, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” like Ferrara’s movie, combines poetry and violence. A political song, a political movie—perhaps the most fabulously serpentine political work of Ferrara’s career, a quivering nexus of AIDS allegory, identity crisis, historical unease, and socio-economic panic. It’s a small world after all, but Ferrara’s is becoming the smallest of all. Keep it alive, by any means possible.