Monday, March 27


The Worst Police Officer New York's Ever Had

I'm something of a late bloomer when it comes to my cinephilia. My family never had cable television, we didn't have a VCR until well into the 1980s, and throughout high school I only went to a few movies a year, usually of the sci-fi blockbuster variety. I was much more interested in computer games and music during my teen years, and I was practically oblivious to Frisco's diverse and thriving film culture. Ironically, this city boy had seen precious few non-Hollywood films until attending a small liberal arts college that offered free film and video screenings to students as partial compensation for living in a small Midwestern town with few cultural offerings attractive to its would-be-sophisticated student body. Suddenly I had easy access to screenings of films totally of my radar screen: Drugstore Cowboy, L'Enfant Sauvage, My Twentieth Century, Alice in the Cities, etc. I enjoyed going to see films I knew nothing about beforehand, but to be honest few of them floored me. I was still much more interested in music, including the healthy campus band scene.

Every weekend could be counted on to provide at least dorm party or house party featuring one or more of the many rock (or punk, metal, noise, funk, or jazz) bands made up of students. It seemed as if there were almost as many bands as there were students, but my favorite was the Shepherd Kings. What they lacked in traditional charisma or virtuoso musicianship, they more than made up for in creativity and eagerness to do absolutely anything to make their shows entertaining. Every show was an event that culminated in a whirlwind of purgative screaming, insane robots, amplified feedback, mass chaos and destruction and some kind of material, whether animal or vegetable or mineral, interacting with (okay, usually "thrown at") the audience. But along the way the Kings played a selection of well-crafted songs with titles like "Radiation" and "Jacques Cousteau". I always looked forward to a driving death march called "Lieutenant Bad", clearly inspired by the Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. Here's a link to an mp3 of a live recording of the song, which in 1997 was released on CD by Gourmandizer, a now-defunct indie label:

"Lieutenant Bad"

I suspect I get more out of listening to that than people who've never seen a Shepherd Kings live show might. I've probably heard the song a hundred times and I still can't make out a good portion of the lyrics being shouted in tag-team fashion by Jason Elbogen and Mike Kraus. I've pieced together that each line ticks off another debased transgression of "a corrupta police officera" (I want to say that bassist Jack Simpson was in my Latin class, but I could be misremembering, as I never knew any of the band members very well personally), including "breeding disease", "dealing angel dust", and being "dirtier than the streets". It's true that Johnny Breitzer's drumming is anything but metronomic, and it may help to be able to visualize what his playing style actually looked like. I'm sorry I'm unable to provide that image.

I'm not sorry, however, that today's Ferrarathon finally prodded me to see my first Abel Ferrara film, a decade after the Shepherd Kings played their last note, and after seeing the likes of Ed Gonzalez and Zach Campbell praise the director almost from the beginning of my entry into full-fledged cinephilia in the late 1990's. In writing about Bad Lieutenant it's tempting to model my form on that of the song, and list the countless transgressions of the Harvey Keitel character (referred to in the film only as "LT") in the approximate order they appear in the film. First: when he drops his kids of at school, he snorts some coke as soon as they've gotten out of the car. Then: we see him run into a fire trap apartment building, perhaps to chase down a perp? No, it's to score drugs from one of his regular dealers. Next: he stops a convenience store hold-up, but only to order the shopkeeper out the door and submit the robbers to a shakedown. Etc. Is there a single shot of LT in the film in which he isn't pictured doing something immoral, illegal, or at least grossly irresponsible?

It was an intensely disturbing film for me to watch. This is really a genre I try to avoid: an absolutely humorless character study, in which the character is inexorably descending into a drug-filled pit of Stygian torment. I usually just find them depressing, and compounded with my squeamishness around images of graphic self-destruction through substances (a reaction that kicked into high gear quite often during this film), it's really no wonder I'd put off seeing this for so long. The lead character's unchecked misogyny was extremely uncomfortable, too. If it wasn't for Ferrara's extremely stylish (though never over-stylized) direction, I wouldn't have been able to bear the film and its subject matter at all. Shot after shot won me over with its conjuring of a heightened reality. And some scenes conveyed a drugged-out unreality; at one point LT tenderly kisses his dealer's mamá after receiving a cash bribe big enough to make his gambling debts seem potentially far less disastrous. It feels for a moment like it might be a turning point for LT; the woman speaks only Spanish to him but exudes a maternal grace that seems like it could spark his salvation. But no, the very next scene is an expressionist nightmare; strung out on something clearly taken just after leaving the dealer's apartment, he staggers down the stairwell like Cesare let out of Caligari's cabinet.

The other aspect of the film that made it all worthwhile was, strangely, the ending. Yes, MAJOR SPOILERS are on their way. I've never been a Catholic or an especially religious person, but I found something very moving and beautiful about LT's nihilistic "redemption". The key scenes are the ones between LT and his fellow cops; at a grisly crime scene they're more interested in talking about their National League pennant bets than in doing their jobs or really dealing with the death and lawlessness surrounding them. Later, LT shows that he's spiraled much further out of reality than his fellow officers have, when he accuses the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball of being "a racket" in practically the same breath. First the Church is corrupt and a nun's rapists unworthy of the high bounty placed on their heads, then baseball is so fixed that the Mets must keep winning in order to force a game seven and raise more advertising revenue. It makes perfect sense that such a corrupt cop would see everything as a racket. So why does he keep putting his money on the Dodgers? Two possible reasons: either he is in such a self-destructive cycle that he wants to lose his bets and ultimately his life. Or, he doesn't really believe in the fix after all and wants his fellow substance abuser and traitor to New York, Darryl Strawberry, to hand him salvation with a Dodger victory. Either interpretation has fascinating repercussions for the end of the film; if it's self-destruction LT wants, it's self-destruction LT gets by mainlining heroin and parking his car in front of Trump Tower after sending his lifeline on the next bus out of town. But if the baseball Championship isn't fixed, then perhaps neither is Catholicism, something LT finally seems to admit just before the famous appearance of Jesus at the end of the film.

Whether LT is motivated by faith or by a suicidal urge, or by a twisted combination of the two (I tend to think it's this third option), I found something appealing about the neatness of the ending that I don't usually get out of most films of this genre. It works because LT is so clearly a fictional creation, where so many substance abuser movies focus on real or reality-based people. Somehow it's cathartic for this character who was never really portrayed as fully human but more as a personification of the most selfishly depraved human tendencies, to be able to be released from his abject existence. I won't go so far as to say I found the end uplifting, but at least it was a kind of relief. I really don't expect I'll ever want to see Bad Lieutenant again, but I'm very glad I saw it this once.

And I'm excited to try out more of Ferrara's work. Like Michael Guillen I hope Mary is among the titles announced as part of the 49th SFIFF tomorrow. And I definitely plan to explore more of the director's filmography with aid of this Blog-a-Thon. Ms. 45 and New Rose Hotel seem like the most likely next candidates for me to track down.

One last note: in one scene of Bad Lieutenant two children are watching a cartoon on television. A song plays: "We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again." The cartoon is the Fifth Column Mouse and it was directed by the most underrated of the great Warner Brothers cartoon directors, Friz Freleng, creator of Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, the Tweety and Sylvester team-up, Bugsy and Mugsy, the Pink Panther and a huge animated legacy. Despite sources to the contrary, I understand 2006 is Freleng's centennial year, and I haven't heard a peep about it from anywhere other than my mouth. Would anyone be up for a Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon sometime between now and Freleng's August 21 birthday?

Special thanks to girish for launching this FerraraThon and for helping me out in a major way with the mp3 link.
First off, kudos for the perfect use of "Stygian." I've loved that word since the first time I read Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and a response to Bad Lieutenant is the ideal place to pull it out.

You're absolutely right about the end of the film. Of the Ferrara films I've seen, it's the most perfectly plotted and coherent. That last shot of the crowd gathering around LT's car feels genuinely, classically tragic to me. I'm also not sure how to describe his moment of redemption, but clearly it's important that he acted.
I can't ever listen to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and not be reminded of how it was sampled by Schooly D in this twisted milestone. Did you know it took years to finally work out the copyright lawsuit with Jimmy Page and crew? Who do they think they are, the Rolling Stones?

I dig the idea of a Freleng blog-a-thon, and I think his actual centennial birthday (August 21st is a Monday) would be the perfect date to host such an exercise.
I'll second the Freleng blogathon -- great idea!

As for that cartoon, to this day that scene haunts me. Between Keitel's waking mass on the sofa, and the way the kid is staring at the TV -- just so damn creepy. To see that cartoon on its own, I'm sure the song is pretty innocuous. But in the context of that scene it's the most psychologically disturbing piece of music ever recorded.
I'm in for Freleng, for sure! Great idea!

Thanks for this article, Brian. Bad Lieutenant is a film I was certainly underwhelmed by when I saw it as it rode the wave of its NC-17 notoriety on its original release. But you've got me wanting to see it again, something I really didn't think was possible. Ferrara is definitely a mixed bag for me-- I tend to find him, as you described this character study, humorless, and not up to the kinds of exercises he generally sets for himself, style-wise. But at least he's in there swinging, and for every dud like The Blackout (sorry, Girish!) there's a gem like Body Snatchers or Ms. .45 or King of New York. Have fun on your Ferrara journey. And thanks for inspiring me to give him another try.
Great post, Brian.
I've seen Bad Lieutenant just once, in the theaters in 1993. I bought the DVD but my fingers tremble every time I reach for it...

The Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon is a brilliant idea, Brian. Count me in.

Perhaps you might think about doing, at some point, a Freleng announcement post with (if you can) a list of films along with the DVDs they may be found on. That might make the hunt a lot easier for everyone and would be much appreciated, I suspect.
Thanks for coming by and commenting, all!

Darren, I really need to expose myself to Angels in America. Especially since I work for a (the?) library that has a video copy of the original stage production.

Aaron, I was vaguely aware of some kind of legal tiff over Kashmir, but I didn't know even as many details as you mention. I can't stand the sample clearance regime the music industry currently operates under. I could go on and on about it but I won't.

Filmbrain, I think that's one of Freleng's cartoons that I haven't seen in its entirety (he made hundereds, so there's a lot of those). I agree with you about how creepy it is in context of the film.

I'm thrilles there's so much enthusiasm about a Freleng Blog-a-Thon. I'll try to put up an "official" announcement post as soon as I humanly can, which might not be for another week or so. The big film festival out here just announced its lineup today and I'm reeling (Sokurov's the Sun, Garrell's the Regular Lovers, an award presentation to Guy Maddin, and a slew of Japanese films are first-glance highlights not previously known); press screenings start tomorrow. Not to mention all the things going on in my life outside films and blogs this week.
RE: ...It's true that Johnny Breitzer's drumming is anything but metronomic, and it may help to be able to visualize what his playing style actually looked like. I'm sorry I'm unable to provide that image.

Having been amongst the lucky few that got to witness the 'Kings in their full blown college glory days, I will now try to provide the aforementioned image.

He dominated the drum throne as Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann sat upon her oversized rocking chair. I'm sure his feet actually touched the ground, as he was able to operate the foot pedal while he nearly rhythmically bashed the snare, toms, and cymbals, but I can't remember actually seeing that.

It was as if a child was having his first experience of fashioning pots and pans into a drum set. But with real drums.

The look of innocent joy that radiated from his face while he stumbled through the songs like "The Fool" (of the Tarot's Major Arcana) was a crucial balance to the darker energies spit forth by the rest of the band.

As far as I can tell, the Johnny Breitzers of the world have already have inhereted the earth. The rest of us are just now catching on.

And I would also like to mention that I had a dream about 2 years ago where Slump-John B. introduced me to his family. I dreamt him a loving father, and reverent husband. Blessings, Johnny, wherever you are!
I wasn't in your latin class. I only took french.

At any rate, I enjoyed the description of johnny drumming.

"I dreamt him a loving father, and reverent husband"

- I think this is pretty accurate, last I heard.
That's good to hear. Thanks for stopping by, and of course thanks for the music I still enjoy after all these years.
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