The best way to immediately illustrate the brilliance of the commentary Abel Ferrara recorded for his 1979 film The Driller Killer is to contrast a block of it with the lofty criticism that tends to follow his work. I can't think of a better example than an excerpt from Brad Stevens' The Moral Vision, which is as close to an authorized survey of Ferrara's work as you can find (Ferrara writes the book's brief intro). In Stevens' intimidating but particularly apologetic chapter on The Driller Killer, he describes the effect of the film's early dream sequence:
...Since in the man [in the dream], who would lappear to be addressing [character] Carol, seems to be talking about the problems of homelessness, the juxtaposition of these shots with glimpses of the old man reinforces Ferrara's intermingling of Marx and Freud. Indeed, the dream's second half - which comprises a comparatively straightforward anticipation of [protagonist] Reno's murders - both emerges from and attempts to resolve the confusions created by this initial sequence of images.
But ultimately, we cannot answer any [aforementioned, but not excerpted] questions, and if Ferrara wants us to take one idea from his work, it is this: that the theoretical straightjackets we use to structure our understandings of art and life are at best constricting, at worst actively harmful...
Are your eyes glazed over yet? Have they already crossed? Allow Ferrara's take on the scene to help you re-focus.
There he goes...there, back to the old friendly bison. Buffalo Bill and the Indians. What happened? Wait. Uh oh. Oh Jesus. Ah. It's a dream sequence, folks! (Laughs) There he is. Oh, there's Dad! This is silly (laughs). The old 16. Those flashin' ends. Oh, I think I saw that in a Buñel movie. Look out! Oh my god. (Gasps) Oh my god! Don't do it, Abe, please! And...time to get up! Wake up, time to die!
This is silly, indeed. How refreshing it is to hear a director willing to mock his work. What's more: if you listened to the clip, you can hear why the commentary to The Driller Killer is virtually as notorious as the film itself (which is to say, not very to most who aren't film heads or horror dorks) -- Ferrara is on something (my guess: recreational Robitussin) and off his ass. Ferrara's inebriation isn't the unfortunate root of his down-to-earth reading of his own film -- we're pretty fucking lucky to be privy to Ferrara's state. In fact, it's more the other way around -- as long as Ferrara is slurring and giggling and stitching Frankenstein sentences out of multiple incomplete thoughts, he can take whatever point of view he wants. It just so happens that he chooses to laugh at himself and everyone's better for it. His commentary for The Driller Killer falls in line with one of fourfour's major rules of thumb: being fucked up + pressing the record button = comedy gold.
It should be noted that this post is apropos of nothing but my recent and seemingly insatiable Ferrara obsession (kicked off with a viewing of Ms. 45 that, in turn, was kicked off by this). I've known about The Driller Killer commentary for some time and I actually wanted to post something on it for girish's Ferrara blog-a-thon in March, but I couldn't get it together in time. Tending to some bitchy, reality-TV girls probably seemed more important at that moment. Plus, y'know, if you haven't noticed, I'm slow, in every connotation of the word. Especially the retarded one.
Anyway, yeah. Ferrara's fucked up and deserves all the encouragement he can get. Drugs, apparently, make him visionary, because even though the commentary in question was recorded in 1999 (for the laserdisc release of The Driller Killer, though it has since been issued on DVD), way before commentary was a fact of the matter of home entertainment, he was already subverting and mocking its clichés. He watches with the faux wonder of a child, repeating, "Oopsie daisy!" throughout (seriously: it happens so often it becomes a catchphrase). He mocks his blood-obvious use of red throughout the picture. He satirically points out Bruce Willis:
(It's safe to say, that that's not really Bruce Willis.)
It's really endearing when he points out influences in a way that incriminates himself as a thief instead of exonerating himself as a connoisseur, as standard practice dictates. The Buñel reference above is a good example of this; here are more:
(Note how he cracks himself up.)
(You have to admit that the resemblance to Faye Dunaway is striking.)
That's him above, by the way -- Ferrara didn't just direct The Driller Killer, he starred in the titular role, as well. When he makes fun of the character, Reno, it's two prongs of self-mockery, one that aims behind the camera, one one that aims in front of it.
(I think at this point in the recording of the commentary, he's gotten the munchies and is serious, in which case: ew. That pizza looks so fucking New York nasty.)
Maybe even more than directing them, making fun of actors is Ferrara's specialty.
"And now, the battle for the camera," he says at the top of a scene featuring many cast members, most of whom were part of Ferrara's circle. It was sort of a low-rent Factory, though, in which a mere 15 seconds of fame would do.
(Note: the guy in the foreground doesn't do anything but stand there. Second note: Ferrara's assessment is correct.)
(I think he's serious again here. He doesn't know the difference between punk and new wave. How punk fucking rock is that?)
And how 'bout that costume design? Huh? Huh?
If you've gotten this far and haven't seen the movie, you're probably wondering where the drilling and killing is. Well, so is Ferrara! The main problem with The Driller Killer is that it sort of falsely advertises itself -- it's much more about an artist's internal struggle than his acting out on it. Yeah, he employs a drill to kill people, but those scenes amount to about 10 minutes of the 96-minute film. That length is a secondary problem -- with almost all of the dialogue improvised, it begins to feel monotonous and pointless, as though to say something in Ferrara's world is to stretch it out so that all the inherently easily-attained meaning becomes empty. In the 20 years that passed between the making of the film and the recording of the commentary, Ferrara has clearly sharpened his skill for off-the-cuff rambling. When the killing does role around, and the film does live up to its reputation (it was banned in the U.K. for being a video nasty), modern-day Ferrara does it one better.
"This is when I first learned how to action edit, so you see the same fuckin' event 300 times. But that's all right. This is worth the price of admission and worth the wait, 'cause you know you haven't seen that shit lately. Here we go..."
He's right, ya know. I haven't seen that shit lately. Even better, he points out the penetrating nature of his protagonist's drill with surprising, marked subtlety:
But there's a heart in all of this that's mostly evident when Ferrara comments on star Baybi Day. It's funny when he gawks at her lesbian love scene with Carolyn Marz.
It's not so funny when he hits one of several moments of clarity regarding her...
Kinda pathetic, genuinely sad and totally unnecessary. I guess if there's a moral here, it's something like: it's all fun and games until you start crying into your Robitussin. But this isn't to take away from the fact that Ferrara is honestly the best recapper in the history of, uh, recapping. Seriously. I worship at his medicine cabinet. Exploitation filmmaking, as a genre, has nothing on his self-exposure.