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Abel Ferrara

about the writer

Fergus Daly is a critic and filmmaker based in Ireland, and co-author of Leos Carax (Manchester University Press).

notes

[1] Deleuze, quoted by John Rajchman, "Out of the Fold" in Folding in Architecture, special issue of Architectural Design (2004), p. 78

[2] Ibid, p. 79

Powers of Anamorphosis
by Fergus Daly

Nicole Brenez, Abel Ferrara (Contemporary Film Directors series), translated from the French by Adrian Martin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

"Things and thoughts grow through the midst (milieu) and it is there that one has to be, it is always there that things are folded (que ca se plie)." [1]

The appearance 20-odd years ago of Gilles Deleuze's two volumes of cinema-philosophy gave us great hope for the future of film criticism. These were cinema's own unarticulated concepts, you could use them in your own way, as Deleuze promoted, without seeming to be importing a foreign set of ideas into your work. The Deleuze method enabled critics to avoid applying to the cinema concepts borrowed from another discipline. Instead, Deleuze had taken the ideas expressed in cinema but not conceptualized by it, and philosophized with them, thereby inventing concepts that could only be formed philosophically but were nevertheless specific to the cinema. To give a simple example, if you philosophise about the close-up you philosophise about a cinematic concept. But if you psychoanalyze it, it becomes a partial object and therefore is reduced to being a psychoanalytic concept.

Twenty years later, the kind of immanent critique Deleuze practiced still hasn't become widespread, even if it flourishes in certain quarters. Nicole Brenez' book Abel Ferrara is exemplary in this respect. I doubt that Brenez would ever consider herself Deleuzian, in fact Hegel, one of the thinkers she cites most often, was considered by Deleuze to be his enemy, believing as he did in the power of negation as a force of movement. But Brenez's method can be called Deleuzian insofar as her prodigious invention corresponds to what Deleuze wanted when he wrote that he would like to construct a book in the way Bob Dylan put a song together or in the Dylanesque way he composed his monograph on Bacon.

Today's important films are so complex it seems only the greatest critics are responding to them at the high pitch they deserve. The level at which such criticism is operating can never be overstated. To succeed in creating an immanent critique is to simultaneously explicate and complicate the work - as Deleuze says, every fold is an unfolding and a refolding. The first time I read Brenez's book I could hardly breathe by the end of it, even though I had to read it at a very slow pace. Such a delirious creation of concepts in one book! At times I thought my head would explode trying to keep a grasp on its incredibly subtle differentiations. It was as if my brain could feel the thought-lines being carved out in it as her examination of the New Yorker's films continued relentlessly, without any predetermined outcome in mind except to navigate a previously uncharted conceptual space. It's phenomenal how she succeeds at this without once betraying the concreteness of the Ferraran material by importing a concept from outside - all the ideas are there in the work and in the interviews: infinity, negation, the intolerable, delirium. Don't look here for the kind of unity usually found in turgid academic monographs (the titles of which usually begin with The Cinema of.!) that peddle us a group of already-known ideas spelt out in an introduction informing us in advance what we'll find in each chapter and guaranteeing the book its solemn unity ("I will show that."), thereby rendering redundant the remainder of the book. If there is a unity to Abel Ferrara, it comes via a compositional methodology in which concepts are metamorphosed through the course of the book similar to the way Ferrara puts a film (and a whole body of work) together: "just as an anamorphic image can only be viewed correctly under certain conditions, such as through a lens or in a mirror that 'unsqueezes' it."

The book is structured less in terms of chapters or thematically than as a series of philosophical questions that issue directly from the films, either as a group or individually. Taken together these questions allow Brenez to maintain a street-level perspective where she can dwell conceptually in the milieu/middle of the Ferraran universe, as she determines the various levels of systematicity to be found in his oeuvre. Not once does she adopt the position of the external eye, overseeing and categorizing; each point made, each explication, seems to contain within its argument the possibility of new concepts and further complications which in turn serve to facilitate the reader's own folds of thought. Invention at this level makes a book almost impossible to summarize in a review.

Taking as its starting point the idea that Ferrara's cinema takes up the Rossellinian problem of evil in contemporary society, Brenez examines some of the most pressing questions that follow: "What makes us live, what is it that flows in our veins and allows us to stand tall?" "What do we believe in, and what are we addicted to? To heroin? To love or courage? To creation? To ourselves?" "What is a body?" "What is a mental image or psychic event?" "What is normal perception?" "What are the limits of the human?" Questions such as these are persistently dramatized by Ferrara employing "modes of somatisation ie the translation of psychic/political/economic phenomena into corporeal terms" and Brenez teases out all the all the implications of life as expressed in Ferrara's vision of today's image-economy wherein he seeks "to transform dread into a critical instrument for the analysis of history."

Ferrara's protagonists are so beyond any conventional sensory-motor scheme it would be better to call them Figures, Figures of delirium or of destruction - explosive energies inhabiting films that are allegorical in the manner of Cassavetes, Pasolini and Fassbinder: "allegories presuppose a strong conceptual construction. The conceptual elaboration of an allegory, sometimes complex and unfamiliar, opposes itself to the principle of recognition, the already seen and already known." To be adequate to the innovations of an oeuvre such as Ferrara's, a critic nowadays must truly encounter the work, become so entangled in it ("haunted by it" Brenez might say) that what's written will be as much an unfolding in the writing of the critic's life-force as an explication of the films which will always lead to a new folding or complication.

It would be pointless for the critic to look in Ferrara's films for recognizable traits - instead Brenez endeavours to encounter hidden possibilities and affects: "to put encounters before recognitions is to see that there is something of which the body is yet capable, just as there are always states of the soul or mind that go beyond what one may be conscious of."[2] Ferrara's characters are not logical beings with aims and goals but psychic processes with multiple facets who refuse finitude, who need to pass through delirium to arrive at truth.

In this context, some of Brenez' finest writing is on The Blackout and the ways in which it treats the issue of the "lacking image." Here, better than anywhere, Brenez explores a fundamental Ferraran problem, one that perhaps most often serves as a matrix relative to all the others: the problem of creation. What does it mean to create? How can destruction be a form of creation? The poet-critic Brenez and the poet-filmmaker Ferrara become Bataillians together: "poetry denies and destroys immediate reality because it sees in it the screen which conceals the true face of the world from us."

Brenez is brilliant in the way she forms relations of translation and contamination between the seemingly incongruous terms and series she posits, for example the manner in which the "new figures of hypermorality" metamorphoses into the concept of "life as political passion" and in her way of provoking inspired encounters between the most sublime concepts: "composition by anamorphosis" and "the forms of the incomplete," "the exigencies of infinity" and "the genesis of emotion." There are incredible passages too on the manner in which an ecstatic epistemology of acknowledgement in Ferrara, his way of "letting infinity's forms emerge," can serve as a counter to contemporary forms of power/knowledge. Fundamentally for Brenez, it is the twin forces of anger and love that drive Ferrara's films. They are "symbolic bombs. that dynamite the shadows in an effort to hollow out a space for love."

In short, anyone looking for an answer to the question "how are we to understand the present?" might well find they are more moved by this book than by any other in a very long time.

Fergus Daly
© FIPRESCI 2008

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issue #4 (10.2008)


Contents
bullet.   Cruising
bullet.   East Germany
bullet.   Manny Farber
bullet.   Peter Watkins
bullet.   The Dark Knight
bullet.   Warhol

bullet.   Abel Ferrara

bullet.   Film Performance

bullet.   Andrew Klevan reply