Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales is both sweet and exhilarating. It’s almost Ferrara’s version of a Capraesque 1930s comedy, a pomo update of one of those films that was designed to make people feel good despite the Great Depression. It even risks a kind of old-fashioned corniness: since its theme is that, if you hold on and follow your dreams, there is always hope. And Ferrara pulls it off, with a panache that is all his own, but also with a kind of warm-hearted sincerity and sense of conviction reminiscent of the old movies: something that Hollywood today is utterly incapable of, being way too cynical, and way too driven by market research and special effects. Of course, nobody would confuse Go Go Tales with the old Hollywood, not when it is set entirely in a strip joint, and when it includes such scenes as the (already notorious) striptease by Asia Argento, in the course of which she French-kisses her Rottweiler.
Willem Dafoe stars as Ray Ruby, the proprietor of a strip club, and an obsessive gambler who blows all his money on the lottery. He’s beset by, among others: a landlady (Sylvia Miles, absolutely hilarious) who wants her back rent, but also threatens to close Ray down in order to rent out the space to Bed, Baths, and Beyond; a jealous medical student who has just discovered that his wife is one of the dancers; the dancers themselves, who are mad that Ray has fallen behind on paying them their wages; Ray’s brother Johnie (Matthew Modine) a successful hairdresser from Staten Island, who is tired of bankrolling Ray’s money-losing club; and many others. The film has almost no plot; Ray wins the lottery early on in the film, but then spends the rest of it looking frantically for the winning ticket, which he has somehow misplaced. Meanwhile we get a series of acts and vignettes, with various dancers, customers, sleazeballs and wise guys and befudddled passers-by. Pras from the Fugees plays the club’s chef, who is mad that Asia Argento’s Rottweiler has gone after his gourmet organic hot dogs; Bob Hoskins lurks around, as one of Ray’s tough-guy associates and general-purpose fixer and bouncer; and so on and so on.
So the film is really a frantic, never-ending series of vignettes, some of them things that are happening to, or between, the characters, and some of them explicitly presented as stage acts, the female dancers writhing alluringly for the benefit of the male customers (who are allowed to watch but not to touch, and who are never seen jerking off, but only sticking twenties (or hundreds?) into the waistbands of the dancers’ thongs. Ferrara has long been obsessed with strippers, who appear in many of his films (e.g., Fear City, Blackout, etc.), and with sex-as-exhibitionist display (e.g. Bad Lieutenant, in which Harvey Keitel does jerk off to an exhibitionist act he has coerced from a teenage girl, and New Rose Hotel), but here that whole obsession no longer feels sordid (or sinful, given the lapsed-Catholic twist of Ferrara’s obsession) — instead, it has been sublimated, beautified, so that both Dafoe’s character, and Ferrara himself via the camera, simply seem to be (respectfully, if you can believe that) worshipping beautiful women’s flesh.
In an odd way, I wouldn’t even call Go Go Tales voyeuristic, because the camera doesn’t isolate the dancers or their acts, but lovingly pans over them in the course of its restless, almost ADD-fueled (or cocaine-fueled?), explorations of the space of Ray Ruby’s Paradise. The dancers embody the little fantasies of the male clientele, but these dancers also have their own little fantasies, as is accentuated in the last part of the film, when the club is shut down and converted to a (non-sexual) cabaret, so that the “girls” (and Johnie as well) have the opportunity to express themselves artistically in ways that will hopefully (but obviously won’t really) appeal to the talent scouts and agents who are ostensibly (but not actually) in the audience. The club is an incubator of wishful fantasies — and as a whole, it is Ray Ruby’s fantasy of succeeding in the “business” by having a “joint” of his own — even though he is evidently clueless about how to attract an audience, let alone about holding on to his money instead of gambling it away. The club really is a paradise — one whose potential loss hovers movingly over the entire film — because of the way that it is a space of vicarious fantasy and redemption: not exactly a space of actual happiness, but certainly one of “the promise of happiness” (in precisely the terms of Stendhal’s famous quote: “La beaute n’est que la promesse de bonheur”). In so beautifully embodying this promise, the film as a whole (and Ray’s Paradise within it) implicitly expresses a whole theory of fantasy and desire — a theory that is quite different from the Freudian/Lacanian one with which we are familiar.
But I need to say more about the camera. As is always the case in Ferrara’s films — and as almost nobody seems to understand — the real libidinal force of the movie lies, less in the (often sleazy, and here somewhat de-sleazified, but still, let us say, “provocative”) content, than it does in the force field of intensities created by set design, lighting, and especially camera movement. Some of Ferrara’s films have an astringent visual austerity (I would put The Addiction and R-Xmas in this category), but many of them, including Go Go Tales, are lush and absorbing. Go Go Tales has only one location — the club itself, constructed in Rome on a Cinecitta sound stage — but the set is as alluring as anything in Fellini. Relative dimness, with relatively garish neon lights. The entire screen is split or multiplied into zones and patterns of garish, yet also dampened, color (is there a word to express what I want here? something like the equivalent for color film of what chiaroscuro is for black and white). There are also lost of shots mediated through video screens, or having the graininess of surveillance video footage. The camera roves restlessly through the space, usually gliding horizontally back and forth, in shallow focus, so that only one or some of the performers whose bodies are panned over appear clearly, while everything in another plane, either closer to or further from the camera, is blurred. Also, very often the camera is at not-quite-close-up distance: so that the pan passes over just a head, or just a torso, or just the feet, but there is always additional space to the left or right in the rectangle of the frame — it is rare (except at special climactic moments) to get either a distant shot that conveys a sense of the entire space, or a close-up that emphasizes the head, or head and upper torso, of a single character centered in the frame. The result is not a fragmentation of the body, so much as it is a melding of body and space, so that the bodies of the dancers, especially, seem to emerge out of the space of garish light and deep shadow, as if their glitter-sprinkled flesh were a sort of congelation of the club’s atmosphere itself. (The very fact of shallow focus and plane of obscurity only heightens this sense of congelation). The camerawork itself is what I can only call low-key ecstatic, never peaking to an orgasmic climax, but continually building intensity, alluring, seducing, expressing a desire that is not frustrated by its unfulfillment, but whose enjoyment is precisely its own teasing elaboration and elongation.
The acting is great, Dafoe and many others bundling life and energy into what, in other circumstances, could easily have been cornball roles. You can see how Dafoe/Ray is both a huckster and utterly sincere, whenever he makes one of his speeches about how he cares for his employees, how the club is “family,” and so on and so forth. In one scene, two of the dancers, evidently a couple, come in to Ray’s office to announce that one of them is pregnant and will not be able to dance for a while — but saying that nonetheless, in order to get by, they need for her to be paid during her time off. Ray is all solicitude and reassurance and caring while he talks with them; then he explodes into curses once they have left — this is yet another expense that he cannot afford when the club is about to go under. Yet, even though the solicitude is so evidently a shtick, it comes off with the sense that Ray actually means it. He’s sincere, even though, or precisely because, he is an actor. In the old Hollywood show biz sense, putting on a show is as “real” as anything else, and enaction makes the act genuine.
There’s also the scene where Dafoe/Ray is assuring Pras’ character that he enjoys his gourmet organic hot dogs. He takes a bit off a tray and sticks it in his mouth. Pras, a bit alarmed, says that these are the ones he hasn’t cooked yet; Dafoe continues to chew, assuring Pras all the while that his hot dogs are so good that they are even good raw, they are the “sushi of hot dogs,” etc. — even as the look on his face indicates how distasteful and indigestible this raw meat is. Ray is lying when he says that the morsel tastes good, but his desire to ingratiate, to reassure, to seduce and soothe both his workers and his clientele, is itself unfeigned. There’s an implicit theory of acting, simulation, becoming through performance here, alongside the implicit theory of fantasy and desire. To feign an affect is to put it on, to enter into it, and thereby to render it “true.”
The ending of Go Go Tales is magnificent, as we get (for once) a classical medium close-up on Dafoe as he gives a long, inspirational speech, confessing his errors, pleading for another chance, defiantly insisting that he will not give up his dreams (or give way on his desire) etc. — and finally, at the very last moment, finding the winning lottery ticket in a pocket of his “lucky jacket” that has just been returned to him from the cleaners. Dafoe’s speech is as wonderful as any of the orations Jimmy Stewart delivered for Frank Capra, with that same combination of hysteria, hokeyness, and yet passional intensity proving its assertions by the very fact of their enactment. Several reviews I have read have compared Go Go Tales to Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie; I am inclined to say that Ferrara’s film somehow combines the acting theories, or acting-effects of Capra and Cassavetes, weird a conjunction as that sounds.
I was fortunate enough to see the “international premiere” (i.e. the first public screening aside from Cannes) of Go Go Tales at the Montreal World Film Festival. Ferrara himself was in attendance. Introduced before the film, he looked out over the auditorium (in which there were many empty seats) and said, “Every empty seat is a knife in the heart of the director.” Afterwards, taking questions from the audience, Ferrara was somehow both relaxed and hyper, informative but also very funny. He seemed both aware of his own achievement as a director, and having come to terms with the fact that he will never receive the recognition he deserves as a director. At this point, I think that Ferrara has created a more powerful, and also (despite his obsessiveness) more varied body of work than even Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, let alone others of his American contemporaries. But he is probably too on the edge, with too anarchic and obsessive (even if these terms seem contradictory to one another) an imagination, to ever transcend his (merely) cult following. Yet this is one “cult” I am happy to be a member of.