Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Glimpsing Christ on the mean streets of Abel Ferrara's New York: Bad Lieutenant returns

There are films—we sometimes call them character studies—we’re best advised to watch and re-watch without concern for continuity or sweep, suspense or forward-motion. We marvel at, or are at least compelled by, the individual moments that hover somewhere in the haze of the whole, suspended like some fleeting exhibit. I hadn’t seen Abel Ferrara’s cult film
Bad Lieutenant (1992) in at least a decade, and I returned to it with one wave of fascinated, slightly nauseated familiarity after another. It concerns a haggard, brazenly corrupt middle aged cop (Harvey Keitel) and his tentative, confused emergence from what seems a very long tour—going back as far, perhaps, as Taxi Driver (76)—through the special internal inferno that awaits god’s lonely men when dwelling in the crowded, sordid Petri dish that is, or was, New York City. To my surprise the film resonated more with me now that when I was younger and inclined to feel impressed by anything affecting a post-Scorsese, gritty, skuzzy, rock and roll verisimilitude. Bad Lieutenant is audacious, somewhat pretentious, perhaps excessive. It’s also harrowing, genuinely crazy in its construction, slyer than it at first seems, and facilitates one of the great raw, only partially comprehensible, out-on-a-limb star performances.

Some of those moments: Keitel’s unnamed Lieutenant stumbling, stoned out of his mind, listening to Johnny Ace croon ‘Pledging My Love’ in some strange woman’s apartment, eyes shut, his bulldog torso naked, his arms extended in some Christ-like pose or perhaps an attempt to fly, emitting this weird whimpering sound like my dog used to make when he wanted something and knew he wouldn’t get it if he barked; Keitel hunched over the driver’s side window of a car, two big haired sisters from Jersey in the front seat, a misty rain rendering the three of them seemingly isolated in the night, while he gets one of them to expose her ass and the other to perform a pantomime fellatio; Keitel, already buzzing with the possibility of his own redemption, getting high with two already severely incapacitated crackhead rapists on a crack house couch. Save the last of these, you might have to work to remember where such scenes fall in the course of the narrative. But you’re unlikely to forget the scenes themselves. They stain your brain, like those traces of certain drugs that we’re told never really go away.

There are so many beautifully selected details in Bad Lieutenant: the Jesus blanket and plastic cover on the sofa of the polite Puerto Rican dealer’s apartment; the door that always gets stuck in the tiny, wallpapered apartment of Keitel’s pretty, intermittently articulate junky pal Zoë (played the film’s co-writer, the late Zoë Lund); the gum that Keitel asks the Jersey girl to spit into his hand. Yet the choice of ‘Pledging My Love’ is especially inspired. Johnny Ace killed himself back in ’54 playing Russian roulette, and such recklessness is perfectly aligned to what’s presented as the status quo for the Keitel character. Within the first 15 minutes we’ve seen him drinking, snorting, screwing, stealing, harassing and gambling himself into oblivion. Another actor might have tried to make the character ingratiating or, even worse, confused his self-destruction with diabolical glee. But Keitel makes everything he does seem more pathetic than fiendishly cruel. He somehow lets us know that this creature possesses a soul. He pours his heart into it, without judgment, and his abandon can result in bizarre black humour, which works too—take the moment where he gets so upset listening to a baseball game while driving his car that he shoots his radio. Ferrara says he originally conceived the film as a comedy anyway—lots of movies have protagonists with one vice, why not make one where the he has every vice?

I emphasize the fragmentary nature of Bad Lieutenant, but it does actually have a sort of rudimentary story, which was based on a real 1981 incident. A young, pretty nun is viciously raped by two young thugs, and the investigation is thwarted by the nun’s refusal to give police any information about her assailants. Yet Ferrara—who always was half exploitation filmmaker, half would-be Pasolini—is barely interested in the investigation’s dramatic potential. What matters to him is the nun’s Christ-like feat of forgiveness, which Keitel has such a hard time believing yet is clearly inspired by—if such utter scum can be forgiven, there may still be hope for him. This leads to some wincingly cheesy Jesus apparitions, but what’s more memorable are the actions it prompts in Keitel, ramping up to a brilliantly stark, poetic finale.

Abel Ferrara

Lion’s Gate’s new special edition of Bad Lieutenant features a rambling but frequently informative commentary track by Ferrara and cinematographer Ken Kelsch. It also features a superb half-hour documentary about the making of the film, which is something in itself: the guerilla tactics of the shooting sound truly insane; Christopher Walken, who’d just starred in Ferrara’s King of New York (90), was originally slated to play the lead, but dropped out because he didn’t think he could deliver; fellow actor Victor Argo had to convince Keitel to do the role, and Keitel was apparently going through some severe personal turmoil that fed his performance. Yet for all the chaos in both its content and genesis Bad Lieutenant survives as something sharp, focused and brutal, direct and rigorous. It deserves to be seen again, and not just by the faithful.

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