Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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