Abel Ferrara's documentary Mulberry St. (2009) is nominally about B-, C-, and D-list Italian- American celebrities at the annual San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. Danny Aiello, for example, is in there discussing his role as a Bed-Stuy pizza maker in Do the Right Thing ("minstrelsy"). But like most of Ferrara's films, the real subject of Mulberry St. is the director himself, and there's far more talk about "the business" than about Tony Danza (whom we glimpse in vintage boxing footage). "Did you see Spielberg just got sued and lost?" Ferrara says in one of his several raspy-voiced bitch sessions. "So if Spielberg ain't going to win, what the fuck is going to happen to me?"
The answer to that question, in the last decade, has been obscurity. And that's the occasion for "Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century," a series at Anthology Film Archives that includes all five of the movies the Bronx-born director has made since he decamped for Europe after September 11, only two of which have ever been released here. Ferrara began his career in the Koch era as a porn and exploitation filmmaker, but by the latter days of the Dinkins administration he had emerged as a kind of lo-fi Martin Scorsese, transforming his cheaply made stories of Catholic sin and redemption—and lots of T&A—into arthouse successes (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant). Then a pair of underappreciated studio failures followed (Body Snatchers, Dangerous Game) and suddenly Ferrara was an underground flavor all over again. He has found it necessary to seek inspiration—never mind funding—abroad, and the results are the two brilliant features and three exasperating, self-mythologizing documentaries at Anthology.
The documentaries—Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli Napoli Napoli(2009), and the aforementioned Mulberry St.—are logorrheic affairs, sometimes compelling in their constant chatter, sometimes tiring. Indeed, it's exhausting just to think of the peripatetic conditions under which this trilogy was made, with Ferrara and way-too-young-for-him girlfriend Shanyn Leigh living on location (the Hotel Chelsea, Naples, Little Italy) in each circumstance. "I feel like a puppet, or a monkey in a zoo," says Leigh, who, along with fellow Ferrara cronies Frankie Cee and Matthew Modine, is a recurring figure in the series.
The fictional movies, the ones where Ferrara has to take his ego and disappear with it behind the camera, are, by contrast, lean and immediate. Mary, which was completed in 2005 and which was intended as a postmodern laugh at the expense of The Passion of the Christ, was released here only in 2008. In it, Modine plays the writer-director-star of the smuggest Jesus picture ever, and Marion Cotillard plays Gretchen Mol. More depraved and even funnier is Go Go Tales, which premiered at Cannes in 2007, then bounced around the festival circuit for two years without finding a distributor. (Anthology's series marks the film's stateside theatrical premiere.) Shot in exile in Italy but set in what looks like Giuliani's Manhattan—the city of Ferrara's commercial peak—Go Go Tales is the story of a strip club on the verge of bankruptcy. When club owner Willem Defoe finds himself too broke to pay the rent or his dancers, he keeps on squeezing every dollar he can from his hairdresser brother (Modine) to keep his XXX dream alive—not to mention his gambling addiction. If there's a more apt metaphor for America in the 21st century than that, I haven't seen it yet at the movies.