I hereby apologize for being a bit late to a 5 pm interview yesterday with Pasolini director-writer Abel Ferrara and star Willem Dafoe. (I mostly blame the C train.) I was there for three reasons. I’ve admired both of these guys for exactly 33 years (Ferrara since 1981’s Ms. 45, Dafoe since Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Loveless). I was sufficiently impressed by Pasolini to warrant further inquiry. And I’ve been a lifelong worshipper of Pier Paolo Pasolini himself, or since I caught The Gospel According to St. Matthew on the tube with my parents way back when.
Abel Ferrara, Willem Dafoe — Friday, 10.3, 5:35 pm.
Our chat happened inside a small windowless room inside the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on West 65th Street. Ferrara and Dafoe are amiable, easy-going guys who’ve spent their life scaling mountains and who know just about everyone and everything. Fascinating, occasionally flinty…nothing but the truth. They both live in Rome and, of course, previously collaborated on Ferrara’s Go-Go Tales (’07).
I told them I was feeling a vague spiritual connection as Pasolini’s St. Matthew (which they said was originally titled The Gospel According to Matthew) and Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Dafoe legendarily starred, are unquestionably the finest, most affecting films ever made about the mystical Yeshua.
For years I’ve been processing Ferrara as a first-rate filmmaker and a fascinating envelope-pusher but also, truth be told, as a bit of a drinker. I saw him stumbling around on Park City’s Main Street in the late ’90s, and he’s almost never without a can of beer in Rafi Pitts‘ Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, a documentary I caught at the 2003 Locarno Film Festival. But he looks really healthy now, I told him. Gleaming white hair, glowing facial color. It turns out he quit drinking about two and a half years ago. Me too, I said — I quit in March 2012. We talked about AA and meetings (which I can’t roll with) and our past indulgences, or mine rather, which were never that colorful.
Ferrara called me “dawg” two or three times, which I loved. I told him I tried using the term (a hip-hop variation on man or dude that popped through in the late ’90s) but that a former friend — David Poland, to be precise — ridiculed me for it. I dropped it in shame. To his credit Ferrara is the only white guy I’ve ever spoken to who uses “dawg” whenever he feels like it. That’s the difference between a real artist and a half-and-halfer like myself — Poland made me back down but Ferrara ignored such admonitions, even in fact if he heard them in the first place.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, sometime in the late ’60s.
Ferrara fell for Pasolini in the ’70s, he said, particularly after having seen his final film, the vile but startling Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (’75). I told him I saw Salo at the 1977 New York Film Festival, right at the beginning of my New York-based journalism adventure. Every seat inside Avery Fisher Hall was taken. I recalled that during a scene in which the four disgustingly perverse Italian fascists are parading around in drag, a guy in the audience shouted out “Diana Vreeland!” and that many in the audience laughed.
“How many people walked out of that screening?”, Ferrara asked. “I don’t remember that anyone did,” I answered. “It was quite the hot ticket. Everyone wanted to be there.”
“Seeing Salo was a great moment for me, a young filmmaker” Ferrara said. “Pasolini was not just a great film director but a philosopher, a poet, a journalist who wrote editorials, a communist but a Catholic who opposed birth control, a radical, a free-thinker on every level…a giant.”
Somehow the conversation strayed into striking women, and that reminded me of a Ferrara quip in Not Guilty when he spots a statue-esque looker — “Tall…and that’s not all.” Ferrara made it clear he has no respect for Pitts or much liking for Not Guilty itself. But I had a good time with it, and was heartened to discover this morning that it’s now viewable on YouTube.
We talked about Pasolini’s background, and how he arrived in Rome dirt-poor, and about the unpretentious working-class neighborhood in which he lived. The film doesn’t yet have a distribution deal but one will happen, I’m sure. I speculated that Pasolini will almost certainly inspire the under-40s who see it to rent some of the late filmmaker’s work (the afore-mentioned Gospel and Salo plus Teorema, Mamma Roma, Decameron, Canterbury Tales, Accatone).