American Independent Gothic: Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)

Posted by John Berra on January 09, 2011 in Dr John Berra, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , ,

The next stop on this tour of American Independent Gothic is New York City. An urban metropolis that has been notable for its Gothic features since the Gothic Revival of 1830-1860, New York is the ideal location for American independent filmmakers who wish to position the moral lapses of their protagonists against an appropriate architectural backdrop of medieval churches, courthouses and libraries. Abel Ferrara is such a filmmaker, an uncompromising maverick whose sheer contempt for the system of mass production has made him an increasingly marginalised figure, even within the independent sector. Throughout his career, Ferrara has shown a preference for Catholic iconography, explicit sex and violence, and grim urban locations, all of which are usually shot after hours; these key lineaments are often wrapped up in an exploitation package as a means of initially luring investors and eventually appealing to cult audiences. The exploitation angle is certainly true of his earlier efforts, which include the notorious power-tool shocker The Driller Killer (1979) and the rape/revenge thriller Angel of Vengeance (1981), while even the comparatively commercial underworld drama Fear City (1984) revels in the sleaze of the strip club circuit as a retired boxer tries to trap the serial killer who has been murdering ladies of the night. In his 1995 study Gothic, Botting considers the evolution of the Gothic environment: ‘Gothic landscapes are desolate, alienating and full of menace. In the eighteenth century they were wild and mountainous locations. Later the modern city combined the natural and architectural components of Gothic grandeur and wildness, it’s dark, labyrinthine streets suggesting the violence and menace of Gothic castle and forest.’ This is a fair description of manner in which Ferrara utilises New York in much of his work, with the Gothicized setting serving to emphasise that his characters exist at the very edge of stability.
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Ferrara’s freewheeling police corruption drama Bad Lieutenant is the centrepiece in a Gothic trilogy that is bookended by King of New York (1990) and The Addiction (1995), each of which can be read as an exploration of duality. Frank White (Christopher Walken) in King of New York is a recently paroled crime boss who wants to help the community by funding a drug rehabilitation programme but still pushes the product on the streets, while Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor) in The Addiction is a philosophy student who tries to align academic progress with her newfound bloodlust after being bitten by a vampire. The duality of Bad Lieutenant is signalled by the opening credits, which impose black credits on a white background, and the title which immediately implies that the central character will be anything but a morally upstanding law enforcer. In his 2007 essay ‘The Big City Rogue Cop as Monster: Images of NYPD and LAPD’, Greek insists that, ‘Gothic worlds are inhabited by monsters. Often, the monsters in gothic films shape shift from human to monster, as werewolves do at the appearance of a full moon. In police corruption films, the monster cop might be trying to be a loving and supportive parent but becomes a harbinger of dread once he puts on a uniform and is given a gun.’ In Bad Lieutenant, the power of the badge – and its potential to corrupt – serve to transform an officer of the law into an urban monster, one that tries to stave off his hunger during the day by placing bets through his bookie and putting down booze in backstreet bars, then terrorises those he is meant to protect once the sun has gone down. With its emphasis on addiction and late-night hunger pangs, Bad Lieutenant certainly has vampiric elements, but there is nothing romantic about this particular monster, whose general charm deficiency makes him more of a grotesque.
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The titular ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is portrayed by Harvey Keitel, with the character remaining nameless throughout the film, then referred to in the end credits as simply ‘Lt’. He is a thoroughly corrupt New York police detective who is already at the tail-end of a downward spiral when first seen berating his children on the school run, dishing out such fatherly advice as, ‘When it’s your turn to use the bathroom, you tell your Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom.’ Lt is a slave to the three dangerous addictions of drugs, gambling and sexual depravity; most of his ‘working day’ is spent satisfying these urges, with the occasional concession to actual police work when such professional activity promises to put some spare change in his wallet. Rather than sticking to one preferred narcotic stimulant, Lt is taking everything that is available, from cocaine to crack to heroin, a veritable chemical cocktail that he washes down with bottles of vodka. His gambling problem is equally out of control as a debt of $30,000 has ballooned to $60,000 due to his unwavering belief in the abilities of the Los Angeles Dodgers and their star player Darryl Strawberry, leading Lt’s bookie to not only call in his marker, but to make threats against his family. However, this bad lieutenant is so far removed from family life that he does not take warnings that his suburban house will be blown up particularly seriously and plunges further into the financial abyss. In terms of his sexual needs, Lt seeks solace in the company of prostitutes, and when they are not available – or affordable – harasses two young women who are driving without a license. When a nun (Frankie Thorn) is raped in Spanish Harlem, Lt begins to confront his inner demons and sees catching the men responsible as a means of achieving spiritual redemption; however, his instincts to severely punish the rapists are defied by the nun, who believes in forgiveness. After a chance tip-off leads Lt to the perpetrators, he must make a choice about whether to enforce the law or God’s will.
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As both parent and police officer, Lt is a distant, even ghost-like presence. At home, he awakens from yet another bender to a family that seems oblivious to his existence; Lt has slept off the excess of the previous night on the couch and remains in the living room, coming around while watching the baseball coverage on television as his family gather around the breakfast table. Aunt Wendy even witnesses Lt snorting cocaine after returning home from his ‘shift’ but is too fearful of her nephew’s monstrosity to comment on his drug use. While on the job, Lt haunts crime scenes rather than actively engaging in the investigation. He visits the hospital where the violated nun is being examined, peering in through a crack in the door, but not entering the room to ask any questions. Later, he eavesdrops on the nun’s responses as other detectives try to develop some leads, then ‘disappears’ when one of his colleagues steps out to see who is in the corridor. As with many monsters, he is outwardly dismissive of religion, insisting that, ‘the church is a racket’, and disrespectful to the point that he deals with his bookie during a service at his local church. However, this attitude merely masks a lifelong fear of the final judgment as Lt eventually visits the nun at her church after rationalising that the case may represent a path to redemption. Knowing that the nun recognised the men who raped her, he asks ‘Don’t you want them to pay for what they did to you? Don’t you want this crime revenged?’, but the nun has already forgiven them. Lt acknowledges that he has become a monster, then mistakes a black woman who has entered the church for a vision of Christ and pleads, ‘Help me! I need you to help me! Forgive me! Forgive me! Forgive me, please! Forgive me, father!’ It is questionable as to whether Ferrara succeeds in humanising this urban monster – or even if he wants to – which at least partially explains the divisive response that Bad Lieutenant continues to receive eighteen years after its initial release.
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Wallowing in Catholic guilt causes Lt to wander around a New York that is drenched in Gothic dread; Lt is constantly descending into dark subterranean spaces with bars, basement apartments and underground parking proving ideal places for self-medication. In the introduction to their 2007 collection Monsters In and Among Us: Toward a Gothic Criminology, Picart and Greek note that, ‘Such dens, lurking in the inner bowels of the city, breed the insidious foreign/Oriental influences that induce addiction, decadence, and moral attenuation.’ Lt seems to know such establishments like the back of his hand and, after the initial shock of seeing this officer of the law indulge in drug use at every available opportunity, a sense of repetition sets in as it becomes apparent that he is merely going through his nightly routine. As Botting comments, ‘The grandeur of Gothic terrors is steadily and comically undercut by the absorption of Gothic horrors into the banal and everyday world’, and Ferrara presents a monster that is simply going through the motions: drinking, smoking and shooting everything he can get his hands on while gambling away money he does not have and engaging in sexual escapades that often culminate in self-degradation. While he cannot break his own cycle of self-destruction, Lt is respectful of the nun’s wishes and tries to save the two rapists, buying them an economy class ride out of Hell that leaves from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, only for Lt to take a bullet soon afterwards. Ferrara’s hand-held camera lingers on the scene of his death as pedestrians pretend not to have seen anything and drivers speed past on route to their own indiscretions, thereby suggesting that the rise and fall of such monsters is all part of the grander scheme of things in the social order of New York City.

OK, everyone get back on the American Independent Gothic tour bus because we’re heading to…Los Angeles!

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