Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Madadayo, Used DVDs! - #2: Abel Ferrara's 'R XMAS

The series goes on to its next entry!  It's that time of the year, specifically it's Christmas Eve!  And what's more festive than... a venerable grungy New York filmmaker like Mr. Abel "Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45 motherfucking' Ferrara?  Not sure....

'R Xmas opens almost deceivingly, but for a reason - it shows a bunch of kids in 19th century garb on a street, the music is very cheery and quaint, like we've opened up a picture book to look into an innocent time in history (or a perceived, even painted one).  And it's true, the lie and fakery of it - it's really a school play for the holidays, with all of the parents just off to the side of the stage and in the audience, smiling, shooting on their cameras, singing along with the kids on stage to 'Oh Holy Night'.  This is one of 'those' moments that people want to cherish with their kids.

It's escapism.  At least, really, for the main protagonists (I looked on IMDb and though I thought they were given names, they're credited only as 'The Husband' and 'The Wife', which sounds about right, and played by supporting actors from The Sopranos - Lillo Brancato, Jr, and Drea de Matteo).  They love their daughter, without question.  They are happy for her for the holidays, spend time with her, sing lullabys for her to bed.  And buy gifts - some, like a special doll (no relation to Chucky but it might as well be), which people actually fight over in stores (this one brief scene, where two women fight over a doll almost to a violent extent, is the first moment where the "Ferrara" touch can be felt - rough, raw, and from an outsider looking on as The Husband is waiting to see if a doll is available in the back for a bribe).

 This is the illusion, the fantasy of a swell life in Washington Heights in NY.  But in reality, the Husband is a drug dealer, and the Wife an accomplice if not partner in crime.  He has another apartment where he cuts his coke, gets it out into the world (this is 1993 by the way), and the Wife reminds him every so often that he needs to watch being ripped off.

Tis the season for drug dealing, fa-la-la-la-la?  Ferrara shows most of this in small scenes that dissolve from one to the next.  Some of these almost seem mundane - perhaps by design, the usual thing of a dude in a hoodie crossing a street, shaking another dude's hand, giving a certain 'baggie', and then going back across the street, scored to music by rapper Schooly D.  Then as a couple of guys do a bet involving shooting a basketball in a hoop, a bad dude with a gun shoots the ball away and drives off.  A warning?  Just another day in these parts really.

The "plot" as much as it is doesn't even really kick in until the half-way point.  Perhaps this was also by design, but I was starting to feel dulled in the introduction section.  Everything is shown without any frills, and that's a positive, a strength of Ferrara's, no bullshit, direct movements with the camera.  This isn't a pretty world - this is just straight-up drug dealing, drug cutting, and deception from the likes of the child sleeping in her bed.  It's all observing this stuff going on... which is, upon some further reflection, clever in placing it in the context of Christmas.  Not *too* much is really different at this time of year for the adults, except the occasional 'Hey, cabbie, Merry Christmas' nod.  Oh, and some family members or fellow dealers go home back to the Dominican Republic for the holidays.

This part doesn't sit so well once the story comes, which is that, at some point while going about his affairs and meeting up with a "rat", the Husband gets kidnapped by some supposed thugs, Ice-T ("The Kidnapper") tells the Wife that she has to get ALL the cash to them from ALL the deals if she wants to see him again, and so she has to go about finding what she can.  Does he have more money she doesn't know about?  It's the acting here from de Matteo that really ratchets up this whole second half of the film, where her calmness, and occasional snap-like attitude (she speaks Spanish too), gets into a higher gear.  I always believed in the drama because of how simply, almost like a documentary at times, that Ferrara shows this.  Only in some of the car shots, where he starts on the hood and swoops around sometimes to characters faces, does he get 'flashy' or close to it.  And those dissolves...

Actually, the dissolves are a good stylistic choice.  We know time is passing, but it's more about things always moving from one thing to the next, one body moving to another building, getting this or that.  Until the second half scenes are short, but then they get longer, more intense.  When the Wife has to figure out what to do and can't really hide it anymore from her mother and mother-in-law (I think it was the mother-in-law), most of this long scene (they over-hear her being talked-to quite firmly by the Kidnapper), this scene goes on for a longer than one might think it needs to.  And most of the scene is in Spanish as well - Ferrara doesn't subtitle it, a decision that I'm not sure was correct in my head, but emotionally everything comes out so strongly that it works on that gut level, like you could turn off the sound altogether and it clicks).

There are a lot of decisions to be pondered over for the characters, and the time frame it's set in in NY comes into play, and Ice-T is always a mean mother-fucker on camera when it's called for (and here, well, just imagine if his cop character on Law & Order used his genuine bravado for more sinister, corrupt ends).  A good deal of 'R Xmas plods along, in a way, because so much of it feels improvised (I'm not sure if it was, but knowing a free-flowing, let's-see-where-the-hell-it-goes director like Ferrara I wouldn't be surprised), and the main part of the story gets resolved in a way that is a little too quick.  A crucial piece of information is left out at a moment about the Kidnappers, and while it works in a greater social context that Ferrara is portraying, from a story point of view it doesn't quite make sense.

I won't ever in a million years expect this on a list of "Christmas Classics".  In a bizarro-world perhaps it would play 24 hours a day on a TV channel.  Whole lotta de Matteo smoking in that surreal land of Ferrara films getting TV play at all outside IFC.  But the point is, this is on its own terms a gritty answer to the Spirit of Christmas via this director, who has made for the most part a career out of depicting characters on the edge, out for themselves, greedy, barbarous and sometimes quite cruel, but somewhere deep down inside, to varying extents, all of the protagonists try to find good in themselves, or just a reason to keep on going.

The Husband and Wife are in the drug business, and get pushed around by some nasty people, and probably (really) not without some reason.  It's a hard-knock life.  But the questions that Ferrara poses to us about how they live their lives, what they could do, vs what they should, especially given their ethnic and economic and just educational circumstances, that's interesting.  And put with these equally (under his direction) raw performances, the film is good.  Could it have been better?  It's as good as it could get, I think, and much better than expected from the cover of the film, which portends to give some lame direct-to-video schlock.

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