June 08, 2020 • Nick Pinkerton on Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso (2019)
THERE IS A CERTAIN SPECIES of fecund artist from whom work seems to flow in abundance, like a natural byproduct of their existence. In literature there are the Simenons and Honoré de Balzacs; in pop music, the Chief Keefs and Mark E. Smiths. Various popular cinemas through the years have supported such prolificity—think ’30s Hollywood or ’80s Hong Kong—though as the mechanisms of production became more onerous in America, it became the provenance of independents and experimental filmmakers, from Stan Brakhage to Kevin Jerome Everson. In the latter-day commercial cinema, a business of house-of-cards financing schemes and endless practical exigencies, the super-producers are the rarest of the rare, with perhaps the best-known of the last half-century being R.W. Fassbinder, who of his frenzied output said, “I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
Abel Ferrara, who completed his first feature—a porno called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy—in 1976, hasn’t quite equaled Fassbinder in architectural output in the subsequent years, but it may be noted that the two men are united in their combining workaholism with other extralegal addictions. Fassbinder burned out from the mixture back in 1982, while Ferrara, following a long stretch in which his voracious appetite for illicit substances was a matter of public knowledge, survived long enough to get sober, around 2010; the title of his 2017 documentary Alive in France bears more than a little trace of astonishment. Through the years of debauchery, Ferrara never stopped working, but his last decade—almost all of it spent living in Rome—has been marked by an explosion of creative activity accompanied by an unexpected bump in visibility for a quintessential outsider artist. Alongside a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in May of 2019, his 2014 Pasolini became, belatedly, his first film of this century to receive US distribution in a director-approved cut. (There was a public quarrel with IFC over their handling of 2014’s Welcome to New York.) Now Kino Lorber, who handled the Pasolini release, will roll out Tommaso via their Kino Marquee Virtual Cinemas. Ferrara, meanwhile, has moved on, producing two more features that I’m aware of, and very possibly more.
Tommaso stars Willem Dafoe, who has worked with Ferrara in the past (he was Ferrara’s Pasolini, and appears in 1998’s New Rose Hotel, 2007’s Go Go Tales, and 2011’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth) and since (their Siberia was in the main competition at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival). Dafoe plays, in the title role, an American filmmaker living in Rome, like Ferrara. Like Ferrara, Tommaso is a recovering addict, a regular attendee of N.A. meetings. Like Ferrara, whom I have had occasion to observe in mid-shoot in recent years, he quaffs from an omnipresent bottle of mineral water, a substitute for more potent libations. Like Ferrara, he has a Moldavian wife some years his junior, and with his wife a very young daughter, parts played respectively by Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiriac, met on the set of Pasolini; and his daughter, Anna Ferrara. The apartment they occupy is that of the Ferrara family, making this very much a “home movie” in the Cassavetes sense.Abel Ferrara, Tommaso, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes. Tomasso (Willem Dafoe).
The film à clef form is nothing new to Ferrara—after starring himself as an angry, anguished artist in 1979’s The Driller Killer, he has populated his films with several characters who could be read as on-screen alter egos, the most transparent of these the New York City–based filmmaker Eddie Israel, played by Harvey Keitel in 1993’s Dangerous Game, which features Ferrara’s then-spouse, Nancy, in the role of Israel’s wife.
Dangerous Game is a film of tremendous emotional violence, a study of the interpenetration of art and life that drags the viewer into the discomfort zone. Much of it takes place during the shoot of Israel’s film, which bears the suggestively mise en abyme title Mother of Mirrors, on the set of which Israel clashes with his female lead, a pop star making a bid for respectability as a serious actress. The pop star is Madonna, in essence playing herself, and the friction between her and Israel on-set seems to reflect palpable acrimony between director and actress. Ferrara’s brand of personal filmmaking is in the most profound sense nonprofessional—or dedicated to creating the feeling of nonprofessionalism: a sense that there are no boundaries and safety nets of HR accountability in place.
As a prismatic portrait of a filmmaker, Tommaso might be considered a spiritual sequel to both Dangerous Game and Pasolini, though its central character is a far less gloomy figure than Pasolini, less pugnacious than Israel. While Ferrara’s films are often remembered for their violent outbursts, he’s also a wonderful director of quiet interludes, and these make up a large part of Tommaso, which describes in intent detail the contours of a sixtysomething expatriate filmmaker’s everyday existence as seen through the smooth Steadicam strokes of a widescreen frame. We see Tommaso taking Italian lessons, going to market, helping his wife with dinner, taking his daughter to the park, changing the lightbulb on a reading lamp. We see him attending N.A. meetings, where he listens to people’s stories of addiction and tells his own: a catastrophic tale from a Miami location shoot that almost certainly refers to The Blackout (1997). We also see him giving acting lessons to a classroom of young Italians and practicing yoga stances that evidently require a great deal of strength and training, moments which seem closer to Dafoe than to Ferrara—both men live in Rome and are only a few years apart in age, and the film has the feeling of being an almost symbiotic collaboration.
While an uncharitable viewer might fault all of this as so much filler—the random debris of daily life piled up until it achieves feature length—it in fact amounts to a reminder of the cinematic potential of every lived moment. Lecturing his class on how to perform action “not to show, but to do,” Tommaso stresses the importance of “doing the action in a pure way, that’s when we get closer to experiencing—to me—the beauty of life.” Here he’s not so far off from Cesare Zavattini, the theoretician of Italian Neorealism: “It has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.” As an excavation of the remarkable aspects of the quotidian, there are passages of Tommaso that belong in a neo-Neorealist pantheon alongside Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris (2018)—and as in that film, Ferrara lingers over an exchange at a gelato shop.Abel Ferrara, Tommaso, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes. Tomasso and Deedee (Willem Dafoe and Anna Ferrara).
Tommaso, however, isn’t exactly a reformed reprobate’s paean to the simple life, à la Lou Reed’s “Average Guy.” Its protagonist may be domesticated, but that’s very different from being settled. The calm surface of his existence is disturbed by a terrible, clawing neediness—“We don’t have relationships, we take hostages,” an N.A. member says of addicts—manifested most acutely by nagging sexual hunger. A hot-and-heavy moment between Tommaso and his wife early on is interrupted by their child, and he’ll be heard to grouse afterward that the baby sank their sex life. When he volunteers to walk a female N.A. member home, he hovers on the precipice of daring intimacy, the entire sequence a little miracle of tonal precision. In a later scene with a female student, he oversteps the precipice—or at least appears to. Throughout the film, Ferrara moves freely between two levels, that of the “real” and that of his protagonist’s fantasy life; he feels no need to distinguish the two. There is the odd, Kafkaesque dream of being dragged into an interrogation room, but most of Tommaso’s imaginings are erotic in nature, and like many a lover tempted to stray, he projects his temptation onto his partner, so between fantasies of romping with the barista at his corner café in the nude, he is pursued by visions of his wife two-timing him with a variety of young himbos.
Tommaso was the product of a loose and largely improvised shoot; one of its richest and oddest scenes, involving Tommaso confronting a homeless man whose drunken bellowing is disturbing the baby, was, according to Ferrara, the result of a random encounter. What structure it has evolves through playing variations on a theme, namely pedagogy. From its opening in the Italian classroom, the film returns repeatedly to depictions of the transmission and exchange of knowledge. Knowledge can take on a corporeal form: What we see of Tommaso’s acting classes emphasizes movement, and he repays his Italian instructor by teaching her breathing exercises. It can also take on what we might call a spiritual form, as when an N.A. friend relates to Tommaso his personal philosophy on “becoming human,” a status not naturally achieved but learned. All of this winds through a movie which has at its center a small family unit, and which is concerned with the responsibilities of parenting (the parent being the first and most important teacher), the way that past failures in that responsibility mark that family unit, and the way our need for parents and teachers and lovers can impossibly confuse these roles.
As in Pasolini, Ferrara gives us insight into his protagonist’s inner life through glimpses of his work-in-progress—in this case through voice-over readings and storyboard sketches and YouTube reference clips from the then-in-preproduction Ferrara-Dafoe Siberia. All of this, up to and including a penultimate crucifixion scene that literalizes the adage “Each man has his cross to bear,” invites accusations of navel-gazing narcissism, though how any film so vibrating with cinematic ingenuity could be received as anything other than an act of generosity is beyond me. (A paradox: “self-absorbed” work may be a source of tremendous pleasure and relief to others.)
Ferrara lives to film and films to live, a process that risks creating a dog-chasing-its-tail closed circuit but is redeemed by the filmmaker’s openness to the world and to happenstance, an openness that allows for moments like Dafoe’s scene on the street with the rowdy drunk. To allow for possibilities is to allow, too, for the possibility of failure, and Ferrara’s filmography isn’t always a smooth ride—but, miraculously, it keeps going. In Fassbinder’s house metaphor, there’s a suggestion that judgment might be suspended on individual works, that they could be understood as part of a larger architectonic design. It’s an indulgence we grant the abundant artist—we’ll take a Despair to get a In a Year of 13 Moons (both 1978)—but one that Tommaso has no need of. To the House of Ferrara, it makes a very handsome addition.