Abel Ferrara

Nicole Brenez,
Abel Ferrara (translated from the French by Adrian Martin).
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 252 07411 0
AUD$37.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by UniReps)

Like many of the colleagues whose work informs Brenez’s – such as Raymond Bellour, Alain Bergala and Charles Tesson – theoretical reflections arise from the work and pleasure of viewing, analysis, comparison, writing: the decisive moments when the cinema leads theory, and gives rise through its inventions, innovations and surprises to new thoughts. (Adrian Martin,
‘Ultimatum: an introduction to the work of Nicole Brenez’, Screening The Past, Uploaded 22 December 1997)

In the range of figures allowed by the culture industry, Ferrara occupies the place of the ‘maverick’ – half-Dionysius by virtue of his cultlike devotion to alcohol, half-Orpheus by virtue of the lyre that never leaves his side. (Brenez, 4)

This book is a significant event for two reasons. The first is because it is a monograph about the important, but all-too-frequently marginalized, filmmaker Abel Ferrara. The second is because it is the first time that a book-length study by the influential French film scholar and film writer Nicole Brenez has been translated into English. Brenez teaches Cinema Studies at the Université Paris 1 and is curator of programs of experimental and avant-garde cinema at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. She is the author of several books including Cinemas d’avant-garde (Paris: Cahiers du cinema, 2007), Jeune, dure et pure! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 2001); Shadows (Broché, 1999); De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: l’invention figurative au cinéma (Brussels: De Boeck Université, 1998), amongst others. She has written widely on filmmakers as diverse as John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Buster Keaton, Jean-Luc Godard and Philippe Garrel. She is also one of a cabal of passionate cinephiles, with Adrian Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath and Raymond Bellour, whose exchange of fascinating letters is the kernel of the book Movie Mutations (BFI, 2003).

Brenez’s book on Abel Ferrara is part of James Naremore’s Contemporary Film Directors series and, on one level, the book functions as a scholarly introduction to this contemporary film director. It contains a lengthy critical study of his films, a detailed filmography, a useful bibliography, as well as the transcript of a question and answer session with Ferrara that followed a screening of ‘R Xmas (USA/France 2001) at the Cinémathèque Française. But, on so many other levels, this is much, much more than just the study of a director’s work.

Brenez tells us that the book originated with a series of seminars that she taught at Université Paris 1 from 1996 on. She says that “Each two monthly encounter is dedicated to a different dimension of the Ferraran corpus – for example, ‘The Dreamer Killer’ in 1998-99, ‘Evil without Flowers: Ferarra and the History of Theories of Evil from the Ancient Greeks to Hannah Arendt’ in 1999 – 2000, or ‘Right, Liberty and Criminal Life’ in 2003-2004.” (4-5) These wide- ranging ideas are very much present in the pages of this book. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that the book begins with these ideas and then explores where they might lead. At no point does Brenez attempt to prove or demonstrate that Ferrara is an auteur: she is much more interested in the way Ferrara’s films think, and the different ways that the films, in turn, challenge us to think.

Early in the book Brenez outlines a number of propositions that underlie Ferrara’s oeuvre. These include the proposition that “Modern cinema exists to come to grips with contemporary evil” (5), and also that “The treatment of historic evil requires the invention of filmic forms that express what is inadmissible in terms of behaviour, morality, narrative, image, sound, and especially in terms of architectonic and compositional invention” (6). Starting with these propositions, Brenez investigates what is the nature of the evil that Ferrara’s films deal with, how his films are different from genre films dealing with the same subject matter, and the radical inventiveness with which he represents his disturbed, destructive, imploding characters and the traumatic events that are part of the landscape of their lives.

The figure of Ferrara that emerges is complex, serious and shifting. Brenez begins by describing him in the way the ‘culture industry’ (4) describes him, as a ‘maverick’, a ‘master of provocation’. She quotes from Ferrara himself, as he proclaims “You should be willing to die for a film” (4). This is familiar Ferrara, one that we all might recognise: maverick, provocateur, outsider. Brenez even positions him in a lineage of filmmakers who “maintained a fragile continuity between the industry and the avant-garde” (4), such as “Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray” (4). But then she goes on to propose that Ferrara also has a lot in common with filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and she sets out a number of points of commonality. These include the fact that these filmmakers all worked with a key group of collaborators, that they were all interested in the “description of human behaviour via gestural, actoral and emotional invention” (11) and that they all “explicitly conceive of their work as a vast enterprise of political critique” (11). And so, already, the way we might be used to thinking about Ferrara starts to be complicated, and these complications keep coming.

The theorists that Brenez brings into her analysis are both logical and surprising choices. There are Hegel, Bataille and Benjamin, to begin with. “Why drag Hegel in?” she asks, and her answer is that “he is, on the same level as Ecclesiastes, Dante, Thomas Hobbes, and William Blake, a great inventor of negative forms” (35). Brenez is also very interested in the human figure and her figurative model is, as Adrian Martin points out “at least in the first instance – a formal and aesthetic one” (“Ultimatum”). While some of Brenez’s writing on the figural are available in online journals such as Rouge and Screening The Past, this book now provides readers the opportunity to explore some of these ideas further.

There are many examples of Brenez’s work of close image analysis that I could cite, but I was particularly compelled by her work on Body Snatchers (USA 1993). In particular there is her description of the image that also happens to be on the front cover of the book. The image is a mysterious, semi-abstract one of Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) and the shadows of three soldiers. Brenez describes it in the following visually evocative way that also links it to key historical traumas:

…a reference to Hiroshima in the striking, spatially mismatched shot of three soldiers’ shadows in the dust behind the kneeling Steve. These shadows inscribed in the toxic dirt – recalling the outlines of bodies imprinted onto Hiroshima’s walls – anchor the figurative treatment of the snatchers as sketches, obscure silhouettes and undecidable effigies within a specific historical abomination. (7)

But this is only the beginning of her work with this image and this film. She then goes on to describe the way this image, and the scene that it is from, is at the heart of “the method of Ferarra’s style.” It is a method which she says:

…proceeds by a figurative and kinetic synthesis. The film ceaselessly establishes links between phenomena by way of circuits of propagation, contamination, and invasion. Body Snatchers begins this process by describing the destruction of intimacy by collective evil in order to deepen our understanding of the way in which intimacy is itself invaded by the germs of hatred and cruelty. (8)

This is certainly not a book that you can skim by reading the introduction. The complex layering Brenez identifies in Ferrara’s work is also present in the book’s own dense layering of ideas. Brenez identifies principles of metamorphosis, doubling, duplication and folding in the compositions and the construction of Ferrara’s films. She finds these in the many ways that characters, situations, events, objects and so on are repeated, replayed, reused and reflected in the same film, and across Ferrara’s films. Brenez’s own writing operates on a similar principle. One set of ideas about Ferrara alternatively metamorphoses, and then runs parallel to, another set of ideas, in a dense book that rewards many re-readings. At one moment you might be reading about the serial killer figure in Ferrara’s films, and next a detailed discussion of Zoë Lund and Edouard de Laurot, and their literal and lateral connections with Ferrara’s work. With each re-reading of this book the links between these rich layers of ideas that Brenez finds in, and around, Ferrara’s films becomes increasingly apparent.

This is a provocative book. It is also a work of great originality. Brenez’s energetic intellect and passion for her subject are evident on every page. The translation by Adrian Martin is undertaken with great sensitivity to her voice and sensibility. In fact, at the launch of this book at Monash University, Martin said that, through the process of undertaking this translation, he started to see Ferrara in a way that he hadn’t before. I would have to agree. Brenez’s book invites you to think about the cinema of Abel Ferrara in ways that you haven’t thought about it before. It makes you want to go back to the films, to see them as Brenez has seen them. In fact, this was the very first thing that I did when I finished reading this book. I started watching the films of Abel Ferrara again.

Anna Dzenis,
La Trobe University, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 9 December 2007

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →