Abel Ferrara (born July 19, 1951) is an American filmmaker from The Bronx, known for making films in a variety of genres and styles, combining both low-brow and high-brow culture, and directing works with intense visceral performances and extreme situations, burdened with strong moral and intellectual concerns.
His career has been quite erratic. Ferrara started out working in American exploitation cinema; his earliest films were either porn or borderline porn. His breakthrough film The Driller Killer saw Ferrara entering the post-Taxi Driver world of vigilantism. His early Breakthrough Hit was Ms. 45, an action thriller exploitation film that marked his first collaboration with Zoe Lund. For most of The '80s, Ferrara worked on a variety of projects, never quite making it into the mainstream. The '90s however would prove to be his decade, he made 9 films in 10 years alongside shorts and music videos, which is remarkably productive for an independent film-maker who has never had a bonafide box-office breakout hit, and in this decade Ferrara made crime dramas, science fiction (his remake of Body Snatchers and New Rose Hotel, an adaptation of a William Gibson story), horror (The Addiction which is shot in black-and-white) and also a film-about-filmmaking like Snake Eyes (also known as Dangerous Game and stars Madonna in a dramatic role). The 21st Century had him becoming quasi-arthouse, with his films Welcome to New York and Pasolini having him taking on real-figures — Dominique Strauss-Kahn (renamed as Monsieur Devereux) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (one of Ferrara's biggest influences).
His most famous films are King of New York (with Christopher Walken) and Bad Lieutenant (with Harvey Keitel). These films are shocking for their transgressive mix of violence, sexuality, and Catholic values with an outlaw empathy for crooked criminals as well as the downtrodden and rejected. Ferrara's films glorified The Big Rotten Apple era, unsparing about the violence and brutality of the city streets at night in its worst areas but also celebrating the tough, breezy, melting pot that brought immigrants together and made the city and themselves great. Many of his films are almost ethnographic, such as China Girl (a B-Movie-style take on West Side Story featuring an Italian-American boy and a Chinese-American girl as Star-Crossed Lovers), as well as a focus on ethnic succession, such as Little Italy, becoming an adjunct to New York's Chinatown, while his later films like R'Xmas and Go Go Tales focus on gentrification and how the Giuliani era has muscled out the poor and struggling out of the city (in the case of Go Go Tales this is given additional heft by the fact that the film was in fact made in Italy with New York made on sets).
One of the key figures of the American independent film industry who has remained esoteric, obscure and marginal. His most recent films haven't even found distributors for a US release, and most of his films are nowadays funded in Europe where he is considered one of America's greats. Within America, Ferrara used to be called "the poor man's Martin Scorsese" which Ferrara even embraced a few times. Scorsese is one of Ferrara's influences, and Scorsese has also praised him as one of America's great talents.
He also made a video for Mylene Farmer's song California. It is as sleazy as one would predict.
Ferrara films with their own TV Tropes pages
- The Driller Killer (1979)
- Ms. 45 (1981)
- Fear City (1984)
- Cat Chaser (1989)
- King of New York (1990)
- Bad Lieutenant (1992)
- Body Snatchers (1993)
- The Addiction (1995)
Tropes associated with Ferrara's filmography
- Anti-Villain: He often focuses on people who do awful things for sympathetic reasons or who are tortured by their flaws.
- Being Evil Sucks: Bad guys in his films don't have it much easier than the heroes and gain little, if any, pleasure from their bad deeds.
- Big Applesauce: Ferrara is one of the major New York filmmakers (alongside Scorsese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee). His movies generally focused on the lower and seedier side of the city, and emphasize the urban decay and corruption.
- The Big Rotten Apple: He's fond of portraying New York City as a decaying hellhole that no sane person would ever want to reside in.
- Black-and-Gray Morality: Many times it is about the fight between evil and slightly lesser evil. His most famous film Bad Lieutenant is about a corrupt cop learning redemption by pardoning and helping the rapists of a nun escape justice in accordance with the wishes of the nun herself, who forgave her rapists for their crimes.
- Crapsack World: The world of his films is most definitely not one you'd want to inhabit permanently.
- Deliberately Monochrome: His vampire movie The Addiction is shot in black-and-white.
- Downer Ending: Unsurprisingly, he's fond of this.
- Even Evil Has Standards: His films often focus on people who do awful things but try to maintain some kind of moral code.
- Exploitation Film: Ferrara is keen on all things morbid and sleazy.
- The Hero Dies: Frequently and they pretty much never die heroically or with much dignity.
- Raised Catholic: And trying to reconcile it with carnal temptations. He has recently converted to Buddhism.
- Reality Has No Soundtrack: He uses this trope quite often.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: His films are pretty firmly on the cynical end as far as portraying the world goes though his portrayal of human nature is somewhat more optimistic as he is fond of portraying people whose good intentions are at odds with the world they inhabit. Bad Lieutenant, despite soul-crushingly bleak, does portray its title character as being a fundamentally lost person who isn't beyond redemption.
- Vigilante Man: Several of his films explore the concept of vigilantism and question how far is too far when it comes to delivering justice outside the legal system.