What's new again: Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game | Bleader

What's new again: Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game

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James Russo and Madonna in Dangerous Game
  • James Russo and Madonna in Dangerous Game
One of the more refreshing things about Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (which concludes its under-promoted run at the Evanston CineArts tomorrow) is how it conveys a love of film history without being mired in film references. Naranjo’s style, based on vibrant color and intricate long takes, never lets you forget that you’re watching a movie—even though his subject matter (the ongoing drug wars around the US-Mexican border) remains frighteningly real. Like Miss Bala herself, cinema occupies a border zone between dream and nightmare, and Naranjo exploits this tension brilliantly. The same can be said of the great New York director Abel Ferrara, whom Naranjo has cited as an influence.

Miss Bala pays homage to Ferrara by casting the character actor James Russo, of the director’s China Girl (1987) and Dangerous Game (1993), in an important cameo as a corrupt DEA man. Russo is only in Bala for a few minutes, but his presence is so volatile and scary that it leaves a lasting impression. Viewers familiar with Ferrara’s work will recognize its timbre at once: for this director, one of the most despairing in movies, human beings are forever tempted by dark forces, whether it’s Catholic guilt (Bad Lieutenant, Mary), greed (King of New York, ‘R Xmas), or hard drugs (The Addiction, The Blackout). As Nicole Brenez argues in her excellent book-length study, this view of humanity informs Ferrara’s depictions of political corruption, which can be overwhelmingly bleak. Indeed, many viewers find his pessimism repulsive (which would explain why none of his films have received a proper US release since the mid-90s), but few would call it disingenuous.

Abel Ferrara
  • Abel Ferrara
In the autobiographical Dangerous Game, Ferrara turns his pessimistic gaze on himself—and, by extension, moviemaking. It tells the story of a Ferrara-like director (Harvey Keitel) who pushes his lead actors (played by Russo and Madonna, in her best screen performance) into very bad behavior in order to make a more emotionally authentic film. It contains what may be the quintessential Ferrara monologue, in which Keitel berates the Russo character for his lack of discipline: “You aren’t focused! You gotta stop doing coke! Or do more! I don’t want none of this in-between shit!” The film culminates with another, even madder monologue delivered by Russo in the film-within-a-film, an attempt to justify his drug addiction that achieves the naked despair Keitel/Ferrara has been pushing for all along.

The French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (whose Boarding Gate pays homage to Ferrara's New Rose Hotel) once called Dangerous Game one of the most daring moments in the history of movies. Few films make moviemaking look so ugly, even though Ferrara maintains unshakeable faith in the beauty of movies themselves. In terms of lighting, Ferrara is one of the most precise and painterly of modern filmmakers, and his sense of the beautiful remains evident even in his films’s darkest moments. This carries over to his direction of actors, whose hysterics often convey a search for real catharsis. In the unjust and overlong absence of Ferrara films on Chicago screens, Russo’s commanding cameo in Miss Bala will have to suffice.

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