Friday, January 27, 2017

Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

REPUTATION IS A USEFUL THING IN A PORTRAIT SHOOT. When a subject arrives for a sitting with a measure of fame and an established persona, a photographer can choose to either work with that or try to push against it, not quite subverting their subject's reputation as much as underscoring it with a theatrical contradiction.

Abel Ferrara's reputation definitely proceeded him when I took his photo during the 1995 film festival, where he was doing interviews to promote The Addiction, his latest film, alongside Lili Taylor, the films' star. Ferrara had started his career with low budget grindhouse films like Driller Killer, Fear City and Ms. 45. He was a New York City director, setting most of his films there in whta looked like a endless loop of the sleazy, '70s "Ford To City: Drop Dead" era, but there was always some simmering philosophical edge to his characters that finally took over with King of New York and, especially, Bad Lieutenant.

Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Ferrara didn't take off his shades for the whole shoot. He was dressed in the head-to-toe black uniform of the New York artist, punk rock brigade. None of that was surprising. If I'd had more time or an inkling that he had any inclination to shed the sunglasses at least I might have pushed for him to take them off, but my focus was on Taylor, so I decided to just document Ferrara and his persona with a full length portrait.

I have friends who have infinite patience for gritty, nasty films like Ms. 45, but I've never acquired the taste, so my interest in Ferrara began with Bad Lieutenant (which I saw after hearing a lot of good things about King of New York.) Bad Lieutenant was an angry, even ugly film, but it might be one of the most Catholic films I've ever seen, and my interest in its director isn't surprising since I have a lot of time for conflicted Catholics. (Ferrara later converted to Buddhism, but admits that he's a lapsed Buddhist as much as he's a lapsed Catholic.)

Lili Taylor & Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Ferrara is a poster boy for American independent cinema, going so far as to move from New York to Rome to be closer to funding for his films. He has also shed the black uniform for open neck shirts and summerweight suits, so much more appropriate to late middle-aged men living in Mediterranean countries.

I'll probably always be interested in whatever Ferrara does, though for my own mental health I tend to think hard before sitting down with his latest film. Along with directors like Paul Schrader, he's a survivor of a brief era when movies didn't plead for us to like them, and puts interesting actors in front of his camera. Needless to say, I'm itching for him to make another film with Christopher Walken, though some perverse part of me hopes that it will finally be the musical that I think Walken needs to make while he's still limber. That Fatboy Slim video simply wasn't enough.

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