Go Go Tales opens with a stunning couplet of images that emblematize Abel Ferrara’s latest foray into the sublimity of sleaze. An overhead close-up studies leisure-suited Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe), his distant, lascivious gaze dissolving into a pan across the lap of a nubile ballerina.
Only towards the end of the film do we discover that the girl is a dancer at Ray’s strip joint, and that she’s dressed in a tutu as part of an improbable cabaret act in which the employees showcase their true artistic talents. This fresh-faced girl, makeup smudged and pokies peeping from her leotard as she sits patiently waiting for her big break, is the image that sings out the dream of this movie: of sacred sex and profane beauty, of “having it all” in all its intangible glory.
This moment is one of only a handful between Ray and his many scantily-clad employees over the course of one long night at Ray Ruby’s Paradise Lounge. For the most part he’s running around avoiding having to pay them, while also trying to subdue both his landlady (a delectably bitchy Sylvia Miles) and his brother/biggest investor Johnie (a fey Matthew Modine, sporting a blonde dye job and a Pomeranian). Bereft of any funds (save for the funny money he passes around as the strip club version of arcade tokens), Ray and his trusty accountant (Roy Dotrice) have bid their redemption on thousands of dollars worth of lottery tickets, hoping to cash in on the $18 million jackpot announced that evening. And wouldn’t you know, they’ve won—except they’ve forgot where they stashed the ticket.
The impending shutdown of the club injects nominal suspense into the proceedings, but Ferrara’s chief focus, parallel to Ray’s, is to provide a haven, however transient, for his beloved performers to play fun and free. Clearly fashioned after John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Ferrara’s film (and the nightclub at its center) is a nocturnal Eden where camp expression runs wild, dialogue often melding into an Altmanesque cacophany. Everyone seems to be having fun with their characters, from rapper Pras Michel as a club chef presenting his “organic” pigs-in-a-blanket, to Bob Hoskins (as bulldogishly belligerent as ever) as the head bouncer vainly shepherding busloads of misguided Asian businessmen through the doors. Top prize is a toss-up between Miles’ deranged incantation to potential new tenants Bed, Bath and Beyond (a monologue put to great use over the closing credits) and Asia Argento, whose apparently sole purpose in her limited screen time is to French kiss a rottweiler while wearing tit tassels and f-me pumps.
Expectedly, some of the improvised scenarios fall flat (a man recognizing one of the strippers as his wife feels like a worn-out premise), but this is definitely one of those films made of moments greater than the whole. I don’t buy the grander claims made for Go Go Tales as an incisive view into the struggle of art versus capitalism, commerce and addiction (there just aren’t enough ruminative moments for those themes to come through), but as an object lesson in cinema at play, it’s got as much life as the constantly roving and redefining frames of Fabio Cianchetti’s camerawork, or the dense, multifaceted nightclub soundtrack. This is a film that’s about being alive and cavorting like crazy through both good times and bad. As erotically as they are shot, the many bare bottoms and breasts that flash across the screen are less titillating than reassuring, offering the fleeting promise of a space where light and flesh can dance in endless abandon.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker based in New York City. He has written for Cinema-Scope, The Chicago Reader, Senses of Cinema and Slant. His website is www.alsolikelife.com.