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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara, 2007)

It's not what it looks like!

No, really, it's not. One in three images from a Google Image search for Go Go Tales is from this bit, which lasts about ten milliseconds and, really it's just the setting and Argento's wardrobe that make the moment any degree more or less icky than what you've probably seen at least once at the local dog run, i.e. somebody's just a little bit too comfortable with Fido. By the time you wince and avert, it's over.

"Frisbees with my face on them? What was I thinking?"
- Ray Ruby, Go Go Tales

In some scenarios, a film takes on its decisive form on the set, and in others, it is rescued in the editing room. Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, an appealing if ultimately unwound day-in-the-life comedy about the desperate-to-please, born-to-lose manager of a red-light topless bar, is a bit of both. It actually peaks during the wordless opening shots - which turn out to be from the latter third of the film (and thus are all the more mysterious for being presented out of context) - a sensual, overhead track across weary, tuxedoed Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe), and a cut to a melancholy ballerina across the room. The title appears in slanted blocks and the venue that will dominate nearly the whole of the film's running time is established with dancing girls and the authoritarian voices of their male guardians. A barely-coherent emcee presides over what is closer to a chintzy costume spectacular than an opportunity to ogle live nude girls, creating an unexpected (if tenuous) link between real, foundational ideas about how these clubs work (where masculine voice and muscle are equated to the power and profit motive behind the male gaze) and Ray's grand vision - to be illustrated with decreasing subtlety as the film progresses - of simply putting on a big show in the name of old-fashioned, old-timey theater.

Following the out-of-context opening shots and the subsequent establishment of Ray Ruby's club, Ferrara begins an extended duet between plot and plotless. The left brain of the film inscribes upon the narrative body a form closer to Frank Borzage's Stage Door Canteen - or a Cassavetes film, if The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was somehow transformed into an Office-like (UK version) comedy of desperation and anxiety - seemingly with each member of Ferrara's extended cinematic family getting a little bit of screen time. The right brain creates a ruse of what "matters," i.e. Ray's position of management and the desperate measures to which he resorts to maintain his grip, fending off attacks from every quarter.

Ten-odd minutes in, the first female voice hits the soundtrack like the slow grounding of a battleship across jagged rocks, accompanied by the image of a godless ostrich of a landlady: two-time Oscar nominee and Warhol-Morrissey veteran Sylvia Miles, the most authentic NYC/Boca Raton nomad ever depicted in the history of film, braying threats to transform the hovel into a Bed, Bath & Beyond - possibly a real threat, and possibly, running parallel with Ray's myriad of delusions, it's real only to her. But her character amounts to an extended cameo, a celebration of Sylvia by a director who adores her more than a platoon of glittery torsos. At the same time, Ray's surreal plan of saving his club through the purchase of hundreds of lottery tickets surfaces - Ferrara perhaps hoping to inject the same all-you-need-is-a-dollar-and-a-dream butterflies into the sink-or-swim tale of Ray Ruby.

"'Win For Life.' What a great name."

Mirroring Ray's perhaps-unconscious defiance of conventional, exploitative thinking in the name of art, Go Go Tales is all but devoid of unobstructed, lewd-minded shots of girls dancing. That is, there are plenty of girls and they're usually dancing (and yes, Asia Argento kinda-sorta tongue-kisses a dog, but no more grotesquely than Woody Harrelson did in Zombieland), but instead of blowing them out with 10,000-Watt floodlights and unrelenting closeups, Ferrara shoots the scenes with the same blue-tinged, chiaroscuro medium shots he uses for every other frame in the film: girls, management, patrons, the office, whatever. This is a democratizing aesthetic rather than a sexual-exploitative one, about which I'll say more in a moment, but basically it lines up with what Ferrara "says" in the way he shoots many of his movies, that we're all down in the gutter, and he's down there with us, and we're none the worse for wear, and he loves the sinner in himself, and that means he loves all a youse, too, if you'll just give him a shot.

"Did Ray ever beatchas?"
[chorus of] "No..." [from the girls]

A skid row version of Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, much of Go Go Tales rises and falls on the success of the cast's, and the editor's, ability to conceal the improv structure of most, if not all, of its scenes. Not all of this gets a pass. A lesson lost on many filmmakers, skilled improv is not the same as ad-libbing, and many exchanges in Go Go Tales appear to have been ad-libbed, turning much of the film into a macro version of the hastily-prepared talent show that - alarmingly - is expected to provide scaffolding for the narrative/non-narrative's home stretch. Less distressing is Dafoe's confession monologue, seemingly blueprinted on Peter Lorre's in M - concluding the film with a chord of auto-critique, or autobiography, that we should concede has been there the whole time, that all Ferrara wants is to be loved for his ramshackle, wrong-side-of-the-tracks charm, that he's a rebel and he'll never ever be any good, that he gambles, okay, he gambles. Okay?

Imperfect as it may be, Ferrara's far more intuitive visual aesthetic works overtime to compensate for GGT's liabilities as an Altman-/Cassavetes-esque narrative tapestry. Working in conjunction with the light and color matrix outlined above, Ferrara's camera moves in lithe, sinuous brushstrokes (sometimes in a W, sometimes in a tilted ellipse, sometimes just in an oddly-composed pan, or a lingering gaze on the club's double doors) that more fully express the beauty he sees in the venues and characters of ill-repute than any words or minced plotting the movie otherwise contains. The club, like the film, is not exactly a winning proposition, but if there's real beauty, a soulfulness that isn't faked, does it matter? It's a lot harder for an investor, who's sunk an untold fortune into bankrolling his brother's cracked dream, or a landlady who's been guaranteed the valley-less security of a corporate brand, to be persuaded by this plea than it is for a viewer.
- Jaime N. Christley, Curator

"...above all this, the film exudes a scuzzy warmth, like a puppy out in the alley licking up a puddle of spilled Schlitz. Take it home."
- Michael Sicinski, The Academic Hack

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