Disc two of the DRILLER KILLER limited edition features the shorts COULD THIS BE LOVE, THE HOLD UP, and NICKY’S FILM. These early pictures are extremely raw in terms of filmmaking technique, and are essentially templates, examples of the director honing his craft, developing and discarding his ideas for a future body of work.
COULD THIS BE LOVE (1973), introduces us to Jackie and Renee, two wealthy artists who appear a little jaded by their lifestyle. Jackie is working on a sketch and is having difficulty concentrating, and Renee takes her up on the suggestion to go out for a meal. Renee wants to go “low rent” for a change, and the two yuppie women appear out of place at a squalid Manhattan bar.
After ordering drinks, a local prostitute arrives. A whimsical Jackie decides that she wants to draw her, and approaches her in the ladies’ room and offers to pay her to pose. The three women go back home, work on the painting, and indulge in a little lesbian sex before falling asleep.
Shortly afterward, Jackie and Renee’s husbands, Michael and Stephen, arrive. The four have been involved in the design of a shoe referred to as the ‘Gentry Model’, and are having a get together with Mr Gatto, a purchasing supervisor of the department store Depsey’s, who has decided to use the model for the store’s shoe department. The group, accompanied by prostitute Cathy, are there to celebrate the success. Gatto develops a crush on Cathy, whose true profession he isn’t aware of…
COULD THIS BE LOVE, as with the earlier THE HOLD UP (see below), is a politically charged piece of filmmaking. It details the theme of class conflict within a highly Brechtian framework. As with the playwright Brecht, and his cinematic equivalent Fassbinder, human behaviour is determined by different social contexts. These fictions typically detail a subject who reacts differently in varying situations (as opposed to having singular self-determination), thus exposing the structures that control their lives.
Jackie, the artist, cannot function artistically in her pampered environment. Although reluctant to go to Manhattan, she acquires inspiration within the blue collar milieu, and her art is able to flourish by painting Cathy. At the end of the party, Renee and Stephen begin to mock Cathy, belittling her behind her back and referring to her as a pig. Jackie - adapting to her surroundings like a chameleon - joins in with the condescension.
Her company and her surroundings shape her behaviour, and this inconsistency of behaviour prevents the audience from identifying passively with her. Instead of merely ’accepting’ her behaviour and experiencing the film with and through her, viewers are given the opportunity to see things from a distance and engage with the fiction on a more active, intellectual level.
The mutual attraction between the old executive Gatto and the young whore Cathy is an unlikely one, but this oddball pairing is strikingly similar to ideas developed in Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, made the same year. This latter film concerns the romance between an old cleaning lady and a much younger Arab immigrant, focusing on issues such as ageism and racism - clung to by those around them, as well as protagonists themselves - which continually prise them apart.
Gatto and Cathy will never get together: it is a given that Cathy will return to her lifestyle and that Gatto will not be able to find her. As with Fassbinder, true happiness seems to be a difficult thing to achieve, because granted a specific situation, society will not allow its barriers to be broken down. As with Brecht and Fassbinder, so Ferrara’s film seems to be a call for self-determination and freedom of thought, so that we ourselves do not fall for these traps.
THE HOLD UP (1971) is another interesting piece along the same lines. Although suffering a wealth of continuity errors, poor editing and framing, it is not without interest. As with LOVE, a political approach is favoured.
Johnny has breakfast with his wife and child, before setting off to work. He meets his friends outside the factory and works all day. At 4 pm, the men clock out, and are informed - with the exception of Johnny - that they are being laid off. Johnny meets his angry friends at the local bar, and decides to join them in a gas station robbery. They are all caught, but the influential owner of the factory is also the father of Johnny’s girlfriend. Johnny keeps his job and his freedom, while his pals are jailed for a maximum of two years...
Johnny is clearly the equivalent of Jackie in LOVE. After his friends are sacked, he has dinner with the factory owner. He seems to agree that ruthlessness is acceptable, that taking care of yourself is more important than taking care of your friends. Johnny later meets his friends in a bar, who have decided to rob the gas station. Johnny - who still has his job, and isn’t desperate for the money – is roped in at the slightest provocation.
Like Jackie, Johnny is controlled by outside forces. The message this time, however, after Johnny is acquitted of the robbery, is that class divisions are responsible for social injustice. The ’old man’ can apparently "get anyone off", but doesn’t. The equally guilty Johnny simply resumes his job, while his ‘friends’ will rot away for a couple of years.
Despite some interesting characterisations, LOVE and THE HOLD UP do have their faults. These faults are traced back to their Brechtian model itself. The fictions clearly have a point to get across, a point that is not overly difficult to decipher. Once we have engaged with the text and received the message, we can choose to either accept or reject it. That’s all.
After flexing our interpretative muscle we are typically left with a cod-socialist viewpoint like ‘workers are oppressed’ or ‘life isn’t fair for the working man.’ This may very well be true, but meaning is emphatically – and disappointingly – closed off.
Ferrara would go on to develop his angry blue collar approach with DRILLER KILLER, which thankfully applied a more ‘open’ style; exploring the effects of poverty and artistic frustration on an unhinged mind, and refusing to ask us to adopt any type of moral or judgemental attitude.
By far the most interesting of the shorts is the earlier NICKY’S FILM starring Nicodemo Oliverio (aka Nicholas St. John, writer of DRILLER KILLER, BAD LIEUTENANT, and THE ADDICTION). It is an interesting work of surrealism that refuses to encourage any ‘easy’ conclusions, and avoids confronting its audience with banal message-making.
This six-minute silent film opens with a young woman lying in bed. The camera is out-of-focus, and the framing tight. Behind her, Oliverio’s character can be seen glancing out of the window at two officious-looking men, who he believes may not be spying on him. He becomes extremely paranoid through the day, repeatedly thinking about, and picturing, the men. He later goes outside, and talks with a man - played by Ferrara - sitting at an outside desk in the snow.
Our protagonist goes back home, and is visited by two men, who may or may not be the people he saw earlier. He waits until they leave. As his paranoia mounts, he slips a knife into his pocket and makes his way outside. He suddenly collapses in a heap, falling heavily. We again see the young woman from the film’s opening shot sleeping, and the protagonist is nowhere to be seen...
Whereas the previous films take place in the real world, NICKY’S FILM unfolds in the mind’s eye. It is difficult to construe exactly whose mind it is, however, or what is actually happening. One interpretation would be that Oliverio’s character is suffering a persecution complex. Another is that he’s experiencing a multi-layered nightmare.
There are glaring ambiguities throughout: the woman whom our protagonist wakes up with is different to the woman - seemingly his wife - who prepares his dinner. He interacts with a bizarre dreamscape. Jean Rollin has argued that the relation between elements defines surrealism, and this is reflected by the incongruity of having a bureaucrat working at his desk in the snow.
Another view might suggest that the protagonist is a product of the dream world of the ’sleeping woman’, seen only in the framing scenes at the start and finish of the piece. Both of these sequences are depicted in tight shots that appear out of focus. She is sleeping, so she could be dreaming.
Although we see the protagonist standing behind her at the film’s beginning, the screen could represent her mind’s eye: she could be imagining him standing there, with the camera detailing her view. This may account for his strange death. While his paranoia could be responsible for the sudden ’dream death’, she could merely be imagining the scenario, letting loose her sadistic side.
Nothing, however, is ever made certain. The film is both complex and ambiguous, and refuses to grant any cut-and-dried conclusions. Unlike the other two shorts, NICKY’S FILM is a deceptively intricate work of art that will have you thinking for days to come.
Directed by Abel Ferrara
DRILLER KILLER DISC 2:
A Cult Epics DVD release
Region 1 NTSC / mono
DRILLER KILLER DISC 2: THE EARLY SHORT FILMS OF ABEL FERRARA