Abel Ferrara's low instincts are held in high regard

March 07, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

When he's good, he's very very boring, but when he's bad he's quite interesting.

That could sum up the moral trajectory of the nameless character of walking damnation played by Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant," which is at the Charles. Or it could describe the career trajectory of Ferrara himself, who has risen -- from the muck of vivid exploitative filmmaking to something close to art-house success, without compromising one morsel of low instinct.

His "Bad Lieutenant" is the case in point: One of the rare American films that wears its NC-17 rating proudly follows Keitel on a perambulation through the extreme depths of corruption on the streets and drug cribs of Manhattan. If it can be smoked, he smokes it; if it can be injected, he injects it; if it can be stroked, he strokes it. If it can be imagined, the Bad Lieutenant does it, but if it can be described, I'm not the man to describe it.

Like, what gives with this guy?

Reached by phone in California, where he's making a new film with Harvey Keitel (and Madonna), Ferrara is a typical New York guy, shrewd and occasionally profane, a dese, dem, dose kind of guy. What he's not is particularly forthcoming.

"I had the character in my mind for a long time," he said. "I know guys like that. Everybody knows guys like that. We've all got a little of that inside us."

That's about it for conception, and pry though you will, Ferrara just grunts and coughs in response to other questions about deeper meanings. Ask him what came next,

though, and he'll tell you, sort of.

"Then you sit down with the writer [Zoe Lund, who also appears in the film as a heroin addict]. Zoe's terrific. It's, you know, a process. We talk nonstop. We write, we talk, somehow we come up with something."

Lund is a long-time Ferrara collaborator. She starred in his second film, "Ms. 45," a lurid feminist revenge fantasy in which she played a rape victim who takes up a Colt automatic pistol as a way of asserting herself against her transgressors. The movie has achieved cult status, as has the one that preceded it, called "Driller Killer," about a hit man who chooses a Black & Decker for his handiwork.

In fact, through his career, Ferrara has shown a breathtaking proficiency with violence, a reputation

that has kept him gainfully employed even when the money wasn't there for features. He was chosen to make the first episodes of "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story," lurid, pyrotechnic TV series that dominated television culture in the early '80s.

Other films have been less successful: "Fear City," a lurid New York story with Tom Berenger and Jack Scalia, didn't do much with either box office or critics in 1984; a film version of the Elmore Leonard novel "Cat Chaser," with Kelly McGillis and Peter Weller, didn't even merit a theatrical release.

But Ferrara returned to favor with his incandescent "King of New York," featuring Christopher Walken as a supremely strange white drug lord of Harlem who takes on all comers. The film, bloody as a Jacobean tragedy, was put together with such poetic style that it became a film festival staple.

"Bad Lieutenant," with attendant notoriety and fame, followed.

One thing it proves: Ferrara isn't afraid of a fight.

Faced with re-editing the movie to get an R-rating or sending it into the world with a rare NC-17 rating, Ferrara chose the latter.

"There comes a time when you say, hey, I'm not letting nobody tell me what to put in my movie. Nobody tells me what to put in a movie."

The gesture seems to have paid off. "Bad Lieutenant," with its horror intact and its rating worn like a badge of courage, has made over a million dollars at the box office, and draws well in art house venues.

Surely one of the great strengths of the film is Keitel's anything-goes performance. He just gives and gives.

"He's got to find it in himself, but he's not going to find it if nobody's behind him," Ferrara says. "My job is to bring the crew to a point where they can support him. I have to create a feeling where he's got the freedom and the support to do what he has to do."

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