Zeros and Ones

Ethan Hawke as JJ the soldier

Zeros and Ones starts with a to-camera introduction by Ethan Hawke expressing how honoured he feels to be working with director/writer Abel Ferrara. After namechecking Willem Dafoe, who’s been Ferrara’s go-to for the past few years, and asserting that an actor’s greatest gift (a well known actor, he means) is being able to champion talent, he reaches forward and clicks the switch on the camera to the off position. The movie proper starts.

This gush is all written by Ferrara, of course, as is the concluding epilogue Hawke also delivers, just the first instance of Ferrara messing with the mind of his audience, which isn’t about to get an easy ride.

Zeros and Ones is a film set during a pandemic, or something like it. It all takes place in an alternate-reality Rome where American soldiers are patrolling the streets. People are wearing masks. In the train station a lone operative is spraying surfaces and wiping things down. The city is empty. There may be a curfew.

Imagine a noirish thriller missing the beginning, where everything is set in motion, and the end, where all the ends are neatly tied up. That leaves the middle, the bit where the detective/hero goes from one situation to another, asking questions in an attempt to put the world back in its box.

Ethan Hawke plays that guy. Actually he plays two guys. One is the hard-to-read lone soldier wandering the mean streets by night. Is he part of an invading force? Or is he on a humanitarian mission? We never find out. Maybe both.

The other is the soldier/detective’s flaky brother, who’s being held against his will in a bad part of town, where he’s being asked to pay for… it’s not entirely clear what, but American imperialism maybe? The rambling speech he gives after he’s been injected with LSD references big concepts and the US Constitution, among other things. It’s all very Willem Dafoe, if not Colonel Kurtz.

Ethan Hawke as the soldier's brother
Also as the flaky brother… Ethan Hawke

“Maybe both” seems to be this film’s big idea. It looks like Ferrara is tilting at binary thinking – the basis of which is the zero and the one. Another for instance. At one point the soldier turns up at the house of a woman who might be his girlfriend. They both put on masks for the encounter, those flimsy blue ones. Having done that, they kiss, mask to mask. Makes no sense in an either/or world. This strange film is full of such moments.

The soldier moves on again, visiting some Chinese women who sell him cocaine, then disinfect the dollar bills he gives them. He meets an old woman in a church who tells him his brother “has risen – he sits with his father now.” Later, there are Russian oligarchs being dastardly and an encounter with a beautiful woman (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s wife) in a hotel room. Still later various bits of tourist Rome – the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel – are blown sky high.

It’s a dark film not interested particularly in telling a story. Ferrara and DP Sean Price Williams aren’t interested in the narrative camera either. There are a lot of beautiful glides through the nighttime streets of Rome (it’s always nighttime), but then suddenly the image breaks up, grain and artefacts intrude, the colour shifts into monochrome. It all glistens, bristles with atmosphere.

The effect is of Escape from New York, The Big Sleep and The Third Man all whisked together, minus the bit that explains everything, all bolted together on a no-budget shoot in a deserted capital city with a skeleton cast and crew and then heavily manipulated in post production. Sex, drugs, Catholicism and transgressive behaviour all feature and in some respects it’s a return to the Ferrara of old, of the Bad Lieutenant era. Rock’n’roll, too, thanks to a soundtrack by Joe Delia that broods, burbles and occasionally erupts, echoes of John Carpenter. Along with Hawke, it is the thing that ties this bizarre film together.

Zeros and Ones – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Tommaso and his wife Nikki

Tommaso is a film by Abel Ferrara that’s essentially a film about Abel Ferrara, with Willem Dafoe in the lead role as an avatar of the writer/director, a creative dude trying to live out his golden years in Italy but finding old demons constantly resurfacing. It’s an uncomfortable and not entirely gripping drama, though Dafoe’s amazing performance does almost get it over the line.

We first meet the talented, accomplished and open Tommaso at a language school learning Italian, making the effort because he has a much younger wife at home (Ferrara’s own wife, Cristina Chiriac) and an infant daughter (Ferrara’s own daughter, Anna). He’s a film-maker, still working, and because of a successful streak he is now able to do things his way. He can enjoy life. Or he would if he wasn’t plagued by doubts, fears and a paralysing paranoia. And what does the much older husband of a hot wife fear?

Exactly. While out in the park with his daughter, Tommaso thinks he spots Nikki (Chiriac) in a clinch with exactly the sort of hot young dude you’d expect her to be hanging around with, rather than someone 30-plus years older than her. Tommaso has given up the drugs and the booze and is in good shape, but no amount of daily yoga in his apartment can bridge that gap.

To be fair to Ferrara, if this is an auto-biographical movie – and it looks like one – he’s unsparingly hard on himself, and he has absolutely no need to do that. He directed such crowd pleasers as Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York after all. After spotting the woman who might be his wife nuzzling up to AN Other, Tommaso is thrown into something between a funk and a fugue, adding to his general state of roiling self-doubt, which manifests itself as an extreme neediness and a relentless urge to hit on every woman he meets.

Working with just one rangey, dynamic camera, as he did so remarkably in Welcome to New York (which I’d recommend over this any day of the week) Ferrara shifts the film from realism to fantasy to nightmare. At night Tommaso dreams of being taken out and given a grilling in handcuffs, at one point later on he reaches under his shirt and pulls out his heart to show to some other guys sitting around a camp fire – look, the artist’s burden. Even later still, possibly as a semi-jokey reference to Dafoe’s time with Scorsese playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Ferrara crucifies his main character, Dafoe suddenly bending down to look right into the camera in a “geddit?” sort of way.

Tommaso sits apart from other people
A man apart: Tommaso

Byronesque romanticism and arthouse humour in a film that’s a nightmare sundae, with all the various sprinkles and cream, chocolate and fruit replaced by phantoms and obsessions, delusions and misapprehensions, and whether you buy the whole self-centredness of the result – I did not – there’s something unique about it, and something absolutely brilliant about Dafoe, who swings between absolute naturalism and extreme mannerism, sometimes in the same scene. I’ve seen this described in one review as “winging it”. I’ll buy “winging it” too. Nothing can be quite pinned down in this movie.

Ferrara and Dafoe made that Pasolini film together in 2014 – Ferrara has lived in Italy since the 9/11 attacks – but here the dreaminess and otherworldliness of Antonioni also seems to be in the mix, alongside Ferrara’s usual hallucinatory, nightmarish confessions.

The suggestion that only half of what we are seeing might be real is bolstered by the simple echoey piano score (by Joe Delia, a regular Ferrara collaborator) and the regular displays of nudity also remove the film from the daily run of realistic drama. Tommaso is not your usual biopic about an artist, in other words. Ultimately, for all the misgivings, that’s a good thing.

Tommaso – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Clint and an Inuit man out in the snow

Abel Ferrara’s 2019 film Siberia wasn’t shot in Siberia, unlike the 2018 film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves, which was. Ferrara now lives in Rome and so, needing snowy wastes to tell a story about a remote bar-owner’s journey into his own psyche, he starts and ends his film in the Italian Tyrol, where the white drifts of winter snow pass muster.

The film is based on Carl Jung’s Red Book, which was a full-blown surrender to his own unconscious mind in the wake of his split with fellow psychoanlyst Sigmund Freud. Though he worked by day, gave lectures and saw patients, by night Jung just let it all go, letting dreams and his imagination build themselves into powerful hallucinations. And then he wrote it all down, first in his Black Books, which were later distilled into his Red Book.

Willem Dafoe is the Jung avatar, now impishly renamed Clint by Ferrara and co-writer (and former therapist) Christ Zois, who start off the film in Clint’s remote bar/grocery/trading post, where a passing Inuit trapper is the likely only customer. Until one day an old baboushka and a pretty young woman (Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiriac) arrive and are greeted with the customary hot cup of instant coffee… and a vodka.

The young woman parts her coat to reveal she is naked beneath, is heavily pregnant with breasts swollen with milk. What do you do when someone does that in your bar? You fall to your knees, of course, as Clint does, rubbing his stubbly face over her tight stomach, his hands wandering up towards her nipples, while the baboushka burbles and quaffs another vodka.

WTF, obviously. This is just a taste of things to come. Before long Clint has harnessed the dog team, jumped on the sled and is haring off over white, white expanses, fabulously filmed by a drone in the sort of shot that inspires awe, at the landscape and the technology (again).

Whether the baboushka and pregnant woman are real or not is the sort of question quickly abandoned. Within minutes, in a dark cave where he has paused for the night, Clint has been assailed by images of men being executed by Nazis, a naked midget in a wheelchair and visions of his father (also played by Dafoe), before really taking off for other realms.

Clint dreams of sex with a woman
It’s not all nightmarish…

Suddenly he’s in a Berber desert encampment (still with the dogs in tow, amusingly). He’s in an operating theatre. He’s talking to a “practitioner of the black arts” (Simon McBurney) who tells him he is still relying far too much on reason. Another barrier is breached and suddenly Clint is meeting his estranged wife and son (played by Ferrara’s daughter, Anna), he’s having sex with one woman, then another, then another, and then he’s miming along and dancing (badly) to Del Shannon’s hit Runaway, which, obviously, is exactly what his mind has gone and done.

Lovers of plot, forget it, this is your one-damn-thing-after-another film par excellence. As well as Jung, totem of a billion boomer acid trips, it’s a homage to the trashy, nudity-filled Euro arthouse offerings of the late 1960s when, not to read too much into this psychologically, Ferrara came of age.

It’s probably best enjoyed under the influence of psychedelic drugs, though there’s a light touch to it as well, and an eye for mid-century modern furnishings. As for Clint being out in subzero conditions on a dog sled without any gloves, that could just be an oversight by someone in the wardrobe department or continuity or another example of Ferrara’s cock-eyed humour at work.

Connoisseurs of the many joint ventures of Dafoe and Ferrara going all the way back to 1998’s New Rose Hotel would do best to bracket this with Tommasso, a nightmarish relationship-breakdown drama possibly modelled on Ferrara’s own life as an American director in Italy, and Pasolini, in which Dafoe played the murdered Italian director. The artist as “the antenna of the race” is the common theme, to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase.

It is all sumptuously realised. Experimental it may well be in terms of its storytelling (there is none), but it’s a beautifully made film full of lush visuals and vistas on which to feast the eye, hallucinating or otherwise. Referring to his Red Book towards the end of his life, Jung observed that ”to the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” Or, as I put it at the end of my notes having watched (and enjoyed) Siberia – “Aye Aye Aye. No fucking idea.”

Think Like a Shrink, writer Christ Zois’s handbook on fixing your psyche – Buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021