24 September 2007 | Chris Knipp
More fun to talk about?
Here is a movie that Ferrara calls his "first intentional comedy." Its protagonist, Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe), runs a joint where girls with other ambitions strip and dance around on a stage and lap-dance for a sparse crowd of men. He has a couple manager-bouncers, including Bob Hoskins. The shrill, dirty-mouthed landlady (Sylvia Miles) comes and sits at the bar blaspheming and demanding four months back rent and threatening to bring the marshals. The girls are constantly demanding to be paid. One of them is Asia Argento. Another one comes and declares that she's pregnant and Ray tries to talk her into continuing to perform. There's an Irish bookkeeper who has a file showing where all Ray's lotto tickets are stashed. He and Ray watch the drawing for an $18 million prize and they've got the winneronly they can't locate it. Then Ray's brother Johnny (Matthew Modine), a highly successful hairdresser, who bankrolls the joint, appears and announces he's going to pull the plug. Some young doctors come in who saved one of the guys with the Heimlich Maneuver, and they enjoy the girlstill one of them discovers his wife on the stage dirty dancing, and there's quite a fracas.
That's about it, really. This sounds like a stage play. It nearly all takes place indoors either in the club or Ray's office. However, it's not a play because it was shot at Cinecitta in Rome, where they built the set. a club with its own lighting that, as Abel Ferrara tells it, never had to close. And the shooting, which in part is a homage to Cassavetes' Killing of a Chinese Bookie, was done with a couple of DV cameraswith their capacity to go on and on and on shooting a sceneas well as some surveillance cameras to add in the occasional Super 8 effectand with a very clear-cut screenplay but a great deal of leeway for improvisation. The cameramen were not at all neglectful of the nearly naked girls, whose work is constantly in evidence whenever the cameras are rolling in the club. All of which is unlike any play you're likely to see. The movement, the level of improvisation, the complexity of the set, are movie stuff. And the cast too is a movie cast, even if these actors all have good stage experience, notably Dafoe, who was present every day of the shoot and managed that as his character manages the club.
These are chaotic and grim and desperate circumstances, but they're handled with a sense of the absurd throughout: hence the "intentional comedy." Modine comes in with a pod of swept-forward, bleached hair and carrying a little dog. There's also a cabaret sequence when some of the girls perform their "art": one plays classical on an electric piano, a guy does a totally garbled recitation of Antony's funeral oration from Julius Caesar; another does a peculiar "magic" show; and so on. And Sylvia Miles' over-the-top shrillness sets a tone of ridiculous excess. Some of Dafoe's improvisations have an amusing sense of grasping desperation about themespecially when he confronts the suddenly pregnant dancer and even when he defends his club as if it were as important as life itself. Melodrama is replaced by intentional bathos.
Still, as was plain at the New York Film Festival press screening when Ferrara, Dafoe, Miles, and several others talked to FSLC director Richard Pena and answered questions from the audience, this is a movie that's probably more fun to talk about than to watch. Not in a New York Film Festival since King of New York, which started a great row at the time, Ferrara is a character whose biography is best read in his films and his explanations together. For Go Go Tales, his parents are John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, but there's something uniquely disreputable and hilarious about his version of their styles.