One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2003 was to write more in this blog than I did last year–even if the entries are less polished (& hence less good).
I’ll start by talking about Abel Ferrara’s R-Xmas–which I think is the greatest Christmas movie, ever….
Of course, R-Xmas is filled with perversity, this being an Abel Ferrara movie. But Ferrara, known for his sleaze as well as his stylizations (what might also be called his decadent aestheticism) is the most underrated living American filmmaker, IMHO. And R-Xmas is truly as tender as it is perverse and sleazy, if not more so.
It’s a story about a Latino husband and wife, in New York City, who really love one another, and value family above all else. They want to get their 11-year-old daughter the doll she craves for Christmas. Only this doll is one of those toys that the manufacturer has deliberately produced in insufficient quantities, leading to yuppies fighting tooth and nail for them in FAO Schwartz.
What lengths will our protagonists go to get one of those dolls? They live in a beautiful condo in midtown Manhattan, and send their beloved daughter to a tony private school, and they want to be sure that she has whatever all the other kids from the wealthy families have.
There’s just one thing. Our protagonists are business people, which is how they can afford their tastefully bourgie lifestyle, despite the fact that they don’t exactly have Ivy League backgrounds. They are heroin dealers, in fact. They have another apartment in the ‘hood, in Washington Heights, which is where they cut the smack and hand it out to their street dealers for final distribution. And this is where things get really interesting.
The film eschews some of the more bizarre lighting and mise en scene that characterize many of Ferrara’s films. Instead, it takes a sober, almost documentary look at the business its protagonists are in, with long shots and sequences that record the everyday activities that such a business entails. In this way, the film completely demystifies the drug trade, by which I mean that it discredits the ubiquitous attempts to moralistically condemn it, as if it were qualitatively different from any other business in capitalist America today, and also discredits the (almost as common) attempts to romanticize it, to trade on the mystique of outlawry, or the special, decadently poetic lure of opium and heroin (drug of choice of Coleridge, De Quincey, Burroughs, Cobain, etc).
The only thing special about the heroin business, as this film presents it, is the fact that it comports some special risks. These become apparent half-way through the film, when the husband (Lillo Brancato, from The Sopranos) is kidnapped by a thuggish character with obscure motives (Ice-T), and the wife (Drea de Matteo, also from The Sopranos) has to ransom him, to save her family–without forgetting about that doll her daughter wants for Christmas.
I won’t go into any more plot summary; suffice it to say that Ferrara builds to an ambiguous, yet hopeful resolution, one that manages to evoke that all-American “Christmas spirit” without the treacle that this usually entails, but also without any air of superior-to-it-all irony. The film works because of the marvellous performances by the three main characters, but also because of the deglamorizing patience and careful observations of Ferrara’s camera. For long stretches of the movie, not much happens–and this is precisely right, because it is what captures the emotional states, and the values, that the protagonists have and that the film is really about–hard work, family. love, and all that. Even in the tense second half of the film, when we are waiting to see how the kidnapping will be resolved, and when time is of the essence (Ice-T gives de Matteo 15 minutes to come up with a lot of money) the film refuses to rush, and shows us how even the extraordinary responses of people in crisis draw from the background of their everyday lives.
To summarize, only somebody as extreme, as perverse, as crazy a sleaze aesthete as Abel Ferrara could have come up with something so unironically fervent and heartfelt.