Monday, 12 April 2010

Redemption in 'Bad Lieutenant' (1992)

Starring: Harvey Keitel
Music: Joe Delia/Schooly D/Johnny Ace/Abel Ferrara
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenplay: Zoe Lund, Paul Calderon, Victor Argo, Abel Ferrara
Director of Photgraphy: Ken Kelsch

Ferrara’s film is commendably anti-plot, with the narrative trajectory of the central character’s descent to a nadir and subsequent redemption not as glaringly obvious as it could have been – at least, not until the final third, and perhaps not even then. The style is generally observational rather than participant in the alternately frenzied and hollowed ‘sequence’ of things – one might place this in contrast to the flashiness of Scorsese, although it’s also possible to see ‘Bad Lieutenant’ as a kind of continuation of the final third of ‘Goodfellas’: Henry Hill’s drug-induced paranoia a few months down the line, where even the semblance of an ordinary family life has been abandoned as the addict (in this case a cop rather than a criminal, and with even less of a sense of loyalty to a hierarchical structure than a Mafia man) stumbles from dealer to dealer, crime scene to crime scene, taking and taking (money, drugs, alcohol) while at the same time hollowing himself out, glutted yet empty, incapable of fulfilling a need or desire. There is some hand-held/steadicam work (for instance, when Keitel stumbles, paranoid, down some dark stairs), but things are mostly restricted to lengthy, unsparing medium-shot takes (see particularly the “show me how you suck a guy’s cock” scene). There’s little obviously ‘significant’ dialogue as such, or characterisation of any of the other people in the film; they appear as ciphers or vague, almost ghostly figures who the lieutenant happens to cross paths with. That’s appropriate, given his drug-induced isolation and alienation from anything outside his orbit; and one might also note that he himself is hardly ‘characterised’, if by that we mean given an in-depth back-story or a series of recognisable traits/quirks. This doesn’t make him a symbolic blank canvas though: Ferrara’s film isn’t quite the allegory or morality play that some might like it to be – indeed, one might argue that where it fails is precisely in its attempt to turn a piece of observational, semi-exploitative grime and grit (‘Driller Killer’ territory) into something with religious pretensions.

While quite a different film on the surface, Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’ might be a useful point of comparison here. Kietel’s lieutenant stumbles through the city in a crisis of his own making; James Mason’s wounded IRA man is more the victim of circumstances, as he stumbles through the city and is taken up by various characters who want to use him for their own purposes. Everyone wants something out of the central figure: most memorably, Lukey, the crazed artist, desperate to capture a man’s dying features in order to paint his masterpiece, a depiction of Christ – and it’s with this sense of art as essentially greedy, taking rather than giving, that the film comes close to self-commentary, commentary on the narrativizing of life that films (and allegories) propose. At the same time, there’s a sense that the film uses Mason for symbolic purposes of its own. By contrast, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is so insular, so claustrophobic, that there’s no space for such a series of angles on its central object of study; at times he seems to be watched like a caged animal, the subject of an experiment, at others the film seems to have been taken over by him, so that there is no chance of going beyond the blinkers of his own vision. Even the use of music is generally restricted to something which, if not strictly diegetic, feels as if it might be coming from a radio or tape deck somewhere on the scene, with the reprise of ‘Pledging My Love’ in the final scene being the notable exception, as well as a consciously ‘in’ reference (it was used in the Keitel-starring ‘Mean Streets’, another tale of crime, corruption and Catholicism with perhaps a slightly less hysteric bent). One might further speculate on the fact that it was released after singer Johnny Ace’s death from drunkenly playing around with a loaded pistol: there’s something here about the disjunct between pledges of eternal fidelity and self-destructive, violent realities. Perhaps the latter arise from the craziness of the former – amour fou pushed so far that it can only express itself as occasional bursts of wild and senseless rage and despair alternating with moments of near-emptiness. Though it’s not the theme I’m interested in exploring here at length, the notion of addiction is undoubtedly a key one in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ as well as in Ferrara’s other films (most obviously, ‘The Addiction’). Zoe Lund, as Kietel’s dealer: “Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others...We gotta eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left but appetite.”

What narrative the film has is mostly concentrated in the nightmare, self-destructive betting scenario (which is actually given more prominence than the rape of the nun, until that particular ‘storyline’ is amped up to ‘religious’ proportions towards the end). As I’ve already mentioned, Catholic guilt and gangsterism/corruption are clear thematic links with Martin Scorsese; Ferrara’s film is at once more melodramatic and (perhaps) more cynical in its attitude towards the Church. It’s hard to know what to make of the scene towards the end of the picture where Keitel finds himself on a church floor, bawling at a vision of the crucified Jesus. Things are pushed so far over the edge here that we seem to have descended into a black comedy – especially when you pair this scene up with other moments such as Keitel shooting out his car radio when sports results go against him, or, mid-way through an ‘orgy’ with a couple of prostitutes, assuming a Christ position and nakedly dancing to ‘Pledging My Love,’ off his face and whimpering. It’s this kind of excess that makes the film seem both more exploitative than it perhaps is (there’s little actual violence or even sex shown, compared to, say, most Hollywood action pictures that get made today), and that seems to run away with itself to a point that Ferrara might not have wished: for, unlike Wener Herzog with his bizarre Nicholas Cage ‘follow-up’, I suspect Ferrara is nigh-on-deadly serious here (after all, doesn’t the tragic usually verge on the ridiculous?).

In any case, having cried a bit and called Christ a “rat fuck” before begging him for forgiveness, Keitel has had his ‘crisis’/moment of self-realization and can now stumble out to deal with the rapists, through whom he seems to think he can redeem himself: at first, by killing them, and then, as it turns out, by forgiving them and letting them go. But is this act of forgiveness really redemption? Is the Bad Lieutenant’s dilemma that he can forgive others but not himself? Are we really meant to go along with the nun’s forgiveness for her attackers, which seems to prompt Keitel’s actions after his initial incomprehension? What we have here is, it seems to me is a mixture of points of view, a simultaneous criticism and identification with religion about which Ferrara is as confused as anyone: ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is not quite the “powerful tale of redemptive Catholicism” envisioned by Mark Kermode (fresh from watching Catholic horror flick ‘The Exorcist’ for the umpteenth time, no doubt), though at times it does seem to be moving towards a total acceptance of the Catholic dogma of guilt, forgiveness and bloody redemption (the Lieutenant sees a religious vision; performs a decisive action; and dies in the final reel for the journey to be completed). As tempting as it would be to view the film this way, the presence of something more questioning and less centred on ‘closure’ nags away through little hints, little pieces of dialogue.

In the confession scene, it seems the nun has been in some way conditioned by her religious upbringing/vocation to accept her rape as an act of love: she tells the priest how she turned the rapists’ “stale semen” into “fruitful sperm,” a religious justification of victimhood in which men can have it both ways: women must be whores, penetrated at will, but also virgins who remain ‘pure’ because they ‘forgive’ any wrongs done to them. This seems like a refreshing attitude to female victimhood, which one might compare to the equally-controversial ‘Hostel’, where women become objects, stimulants like alcohol or drugs (and where the ultimate stimulant, the ultimate thrill is torture and violence – both as punishment for over-indulgence (the American frat-packers who’ve messed around with the girls too much) and as extension of that indulgence (the older businessman preying on the younger female tourists with a chainsaw in ‘Hostel II’)). So, if ‘Hostel’ is – as well being an uncomfortable exploitation movie – a criticism of the capitalist tendency to treat everything as my property, at the whim of my pleasure – both wholly owned by me, and wholly disposable because of this – ‘Bad Lieutenant’ becomes a criticism of the victim mentality brainwashed into people (especially women) by religion. (Something of that male, acquisitive, violent (and ultimately self-destructive) drive is exhibited, not just by the characters in ‘Hostel’, but by Kietel’s corrupt cop, violating the tableau of family life by sitting dazed, stoned and drunk on the sofa while the women gather at the dining table, snorting coke off the family photos, and taking bets at his daughter’s first communion, and abusing his position of authority as a force of law by pulling over two girls for traffic violation and then verbally raping them while jerking off outside the car door.)

For the nun, it seems, sexualised violence has become the ultimate moment of knowledge and union with God (in some way linked with an ecstatic tradition stemming back to St Theresa); the subjugation of woman (Virgin/Mary/nun) at the hands of man (God/the Church hierarchy/the rapists) has become enshrined in religious dogma, an enmeshing of sadism and masochism (Christ is both son and father of the woman, both suffering, bloodied servant, and the painful produce of the womb; the woman is both loving, protective mother, and helpless receptacle for male desire (if she doesn’t want to bear the Son of God, tough luck – he’s already inside her)). This problematizes the subsequent ease with which she tells Keitel she’s forgiven her attackers – who, OK, turn out to be a pair of stoned Latinos who don’t speak English and seem almost innocents, pretty much incapable of physical violence – and is the kind of attitude we might find justifying the cover-up of the widespread abuse of young boys by paedophilic priests that’s been making such waves of late. Something of the attitude towards sexuality and religion on display here harks back to the ‘blasphemous’ set-pieces of Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’, though the nun can hardly hope to compare with the central figure of persecuted human goodness embodied by Oliver Reed. In ‘Bad Lieutenant’, Ferrara chooses to show the rape, in the film’s most visceral and unexpected scene, which is thrown in with no prior explanation and no apparent connection to the ‘plot,’ loose as it is, so that one at first supposes it to be a sick fantasy occurring inside Keitel’s drug-addled brain. The way the rape is intercut with sudden zooms and cuts to a statue of the crucifixion and a live figure writhing and bleeding on the cross like something out of ‘Passion of the Christ’, seems at once a violation of sacramental ceremony (the crucifix used as a penetrative weapon) and in some way entwined with it (like Alex’s vision of a Beethoven-accompanied orgy of destruction at the end of a ‘Clockwork Orange’). It’s not at all clear, then, that this act, taking place in a ‘holy place, is the supreme act of desecration that it is in ‘The Devils’; in some ways, it even feels appropriate that it’s happening where it is. Such an ‘argument’ is conveyed not so much through dialogue or logic but through the disturbing force of Ferrara’s scene placement and editing.

And it’s this makes the ‘redemption’ climax ring hollow, intentionally or not. Perhaps there’s some sense that the Lieutenant sees something of himself in the rapists (I’m thinking of the scene where he lasciviously peers through the hospital door at the naked figure of the violated nun), and that, because he can’t forgive himself, and can’t be sure that the mute figure of Christ has forgiven him (despite his pleas), he has to forgive others. This then becomes a kind of self-absolution as well as a way of reaching out beyond the purely selfish acquisitive cycle into which he has been drawn, or has propelled himself. When Keitel sees the rapists off at the bus station and ‘Pledging my love’ comes on over the soundtrack, this isn’t just an ironic of music: rather, he has now demonstrated an actual act of love (as opposed to the parody of love that is his liaison with the hookers), has demonstrated that even the most corrupt is capable of doing other than wallow in his own corruption. Of course, it’s at this moment, when his faith in life might be said to have been renewed, that he starts bawling again, and is then killed in a drive-by shooting filmed at a coldly detached distance; death is, after all, the usual end-point of the ‘redemptive’ logic of gangster films and (arguably) of Catholicism: you’ll be perfect once you get to heaven, you just have to die first. Perhaps Ferrara wants to believe in some kind of redemptive trajectory, but at the same time he undermines this, whether intentionally or unintentionally, both through the earlier (implied) criticisms of the Church, and through the treatment of the actual ‘redemption’ itself. Is this the mark of a true artist – like Blake’s Milton, trying to “justify the ways of God to men” only to find himself “of the devil’s party without knowing it”? I’m not sure that it is, as I don’t think that he is either setting out to make, or making, what Premier magazine call “one of the few truly religious films of the 20th century.” To some extent the film is simply a journey into a mind warped by drugs, on which grounds it’s effective, if occasionally a little aimless; it’s also a showcase for its lead actor, though without the playing-for-Oscars kind of showboating that you might see in, for example, Clint Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’. And finally, it’s an attempt to see and to show just how low someone can go, while staying (or perhaps failing to stay) on the right of the invisible line stretched between nauseated horror and farcical contempt. In the end, though, there’s a sense that Ferrara neither fully invests in, nor totally undercuts the ‘redemptive’ pay-off, with the result that the film’s denouement comes to seem not quite believed in – indeed, almost tacked on.

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