Monday, January 23, 2017

The Blackout (1997)

In March 2015, Abel Ferrara issued a cease and desist letter to IFC Films, the American distributor for his Dominique Strauss-Kahn inspired Welcome to New York (2014) and Wild Bunch, the films global distributor on account of both IFC and Wild Bunch releasing the film to theatres and VOD outlets in an edited form, enraging Ferrara. An unfortunate situation yet hardly anything new for Ferrara who is no stranger to distribution issues. When the indie boom of the 90’s began to cool off, Ferrara began finding it increasingly difficult to secure legitimate distribution deals without being ripped off and the majority of his output since The Funeral (1996) has found itself is one form of distribution hell or another with films like Mary (2005) and Go-Go Tales (2007) playing the festival circuit only to disappear after the fact, or in the case of a film like ’R Xmas (2001), only be booked in three theatres in the US with no advertising by a distributor that one has one print. Ferrara also experienced mistreatment by the Hollywood studio system when Warner Bros. sidelined Body Snatchers (1993) by sneaking the film into a minuscule amount of theaters. The Blackout is yet another one of Ferrara’s films to be swept aside by distributors and with this film its especially tragic seeing as its one of Ferrara’s most fascinating and stylishly grim journeys into the human psyche.

After proposing to his pregnant girlfriend Annie in Miami, hotshot movie star and addict Mattie (Matthew Modine) is shocked to lean that Annie had an abortion to prevent her child from growing up with an alcoholic and drug addicted father. Distraught, Mattie goes out partying with his eccentric director friend Mickey (Dennis Hopper) which leads to a blackout. Fast forward 18 months later and Mattie is clean and sober, now living in New York and in a stable relationship with a new girlfriend. Mattie’s past however continues to haunt him. Desperately seeking closure for how things ended with Annie, Mattie returns to Miami to finally clear his conscience although it isn’t long before he slips back into his old ways and in the process discovers the dark truth about what happened the night of his blackout.

There have been many films that have tried to recreate drug induced experiences and more often that not the results have a tendency to be rather corny. With The Blackout however, Ferrara succeeds in crafting a legitimately disorienting experience which literally does feel like stepping into the cloudy headspace of an individual on a two day bender, believably portrayed by Modine. Ferrara not only achieves this visually with hallucinatory Lynchian editing and at times changing stock going from film to video which recalls Ferrara’s earlier Dangerous Game (1993), but also in the way Ferrara has the story play out. The film is intentionally incoherent, staggering from one random scenario to another seemingly without purpose much like an actual drunken evening, the consequences of which allow Ferrara to really delve deep into the ideas of overwhelming regret and guilt later on the film (another area where Modine really shines) which again places the film side by side with Dangerous Game. Ferrara also toys around with the concept of the doppelganger and chasing the ghosts of the past ala Hitchcock and Vertigo (1958) by introducing a second Annie in the middle of the film and certain scenes between her and Mattie further blur the memories of both Mattie and the audience and steer the film into almost Robbe-Grillet territory. There is also a debauched feeling of unreality to many of the scenes featuring Dennis Hopper with Mickey’s actions not making much logical sense yet still making enough sense within the overall context of the film.

The Blackout played at the Cannes Film Festival where according to critic Dave Kehr, the film “caused a stampede” and the film played other festivals throughout 1998. Afterwards the film began to suffer the distribution woes that Ferrara has become all too familiar with, and it wasn’t until 2001 when the film finally saw a home video release. Speaking to the AV Club in 2002, Ferrara spoke candidly about the films distribution issues stating  “The story with The Blackout is unbelievable… We made a deal with Destination Films that set up a distribution system. They bought two or three films, including The Blackout, raised $100 million, and never distributed anything. Five years later, they're trying to go bankrupt, saying all that's left is $35,000 out of $100 million, even though they never distributed one film… I'm just one of a ton of people this company screwed over. Can you imagine these pricks? They're basically trying to steal $100 million. It's a fucking robbery.” Even now The Blackout still seems to be a relatively obscure title to more casual viewers even after getting its belated DVD release. While its become one of Ferrara’s most divisive films to those who’ve seen it, its yet another example of Ferrara’s knack of dealing with heavy subject matter in a manner that is both slick and gritty. A brilliant, challenging film that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Dangerous Game (1993)

AKA Snake Eyes

1993 was a strange year for Abel Ferrara with the maverick New Yorker helming two very worthwhile films that were unceremoniously thrown under the bus upon their respective releases. Coming off of the grimy and fiercely independent Bad Lieutenant (1992), Ferrara did something interesting and unexpected by taking on the most ambitious project of his career, Body Snatchers (1993), the third adaptation of Jack Finney’s book. Body Snatchers was a huge undertaking with the largest budget Ferrara ever had and according to Ferrara, the shoot was a nightmare plagued by studio interference and the technical challenges inherent in such large scale productions. Nevertheless, Ferrara soldiered on and delivered a fantastic sci-fi/horror film. Unfortunately the film would get buried by its own studio. After years of hype in various genre magazines and millions of dollars spent, the film essentially went direct to video after only being released in a handful of theaters. With Dangerous Game, his second film that year, Ferrara went in the complete opposite direction. Despite starring one of the biggest pop stars in the world in Madonna, Dangerous Game is one of Ferrara’s most uncommercial films, a deeply personal look into the world of filmmaking that seemed to bewilder a good number of critics upon its initial release. The Ferrara faithful however know better and over the years have rightfully championed Dangerous Game for what it truly is, a misunderstood masterpiece.

New York based director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel) arrives in Hollywood to begin production on his latest film entitled “Mother of Mirrors” which centers around the dissolution of a marriage between a hard partying husband and a remorseful wife who recently found religion and changed her ways. Almost immediately, the films leads Sarah Jennings (Madonna) and Frank Burns (James Russo) begin an affair and it isn’t long until Sarah finds her way into Eddie’s bed as well. The shoot quickly turns sour however with Jennings and Burns unable to get along and Eddie constantly pushing both to their emotional limits for the best performances. The more tensions on the set increase along with Eddie’s own personal transgressions gradually eating away at his conscience, the more the plot of “Mother of Mirrors” begins to mirror reality and vice-versa.

Snake Eyes”, the films alternate title couldn’t have been more apt as Dangerous Game is a venomous film featuring Ferrara’s typically downbeat outlook as well as some of screenwriter Nicholas St. John’s most vicious dialogue. In some ways the film is comparable to another film within a film, Andrzej Zulawski’s La femme publique (1984) as its been suggested that Francis Huster’s character of director Lucas Kessling was meant to be a stand in for Zulawski the same way that Keitel’s Eddie Israel could represent Ferrara himself. Again, “personal” is the adjective that could be used to define the film and at times almost uncomfortably so. There are times when the film feels confessional, particularly when Eddie confesses his infidelities to his wife, played by Nancy Ferrara, Abel’s wife at the time. Ferrara’s approach to the film within a film devise is interesting both from a narrative standpoint as well as stylistically in that its almost always obvious when a scene from “Mother of Mirrors” is being shot, however given the attitudes of the characters towards each other, what’s taking place in the film could easily be going on behind the scenes as well. The same could be said for Keitel’s pressuring of the actors which could also echo Ferrara’s own techniques which, if indeed is the case, they work as the performances are astounding. While Madonna is rightfully praised for her performance, the unsung hero of the film is James Russo who gives an unbelievably raw and fierce performance, downright visceral at times.

Dangerous Game was the first film produced by Madonna’s own Maverick Pictures and ironically it was the leading lady that led the charge against the film. In a 2002 interview with the AV Club, Ferrara remarked “It was just another one of our films that never came out. But on that one, the audience didn't really like the film. Madonna killed it. The first impression people get on a movie is the one that never gets out of their mind. So after Madonna got so trashed for doing Body of Evidence (1993), she thought she was going to beat the critics to the punch and badmouth the film. And she actually got good reviews. She never got a good review from the Voice or The New York Times in her life, but she got good reviews for this movie, which she came out and trashed. I'll never forgive her for it.” Ferrara went on to say “…I never had an actor badmouth a movie. It's just something that isn't done. But she's not a film-business person” and “ It's being paranoid and scared, and that's the reason she can't act, because she hasn't got confidence.” Whatever she or some critic may or may not think of the film at this point doesn’t matter, what does is the fact that Dangerous Game is one of Ferrara’s most confrontational, introspective, cathartic and ultimately brilliant films.