7 January 2010

Bad Lieutenant by Ferrara, 1992

Filed under: Christianity, Ktismata, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:28 am

“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house with spacious upper rooms, and cut out its windows, paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’

“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord.

“But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion.” Therefore thus says the Lord in regard to Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, “They will not lament for him: ‘Alas, my brother!’ or, ‘Alas, sister!’ They will not lament for him: ‘Alas for the master!’ or, ‘Alas for his splendor!’ He will be buried with a donkey’s burial, dragged off and thrown out behind the gates of Jerusalem.

“Go up to Lebanon and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan; cry out also from Abarim, for all your lovers have been crushed. I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your practice since your youth, that you have not obeyed My voice. The wind will sweep away all your shepherds, and your lovers will go into captivity; then you will surely be ashamed and humiliated because of all your wickedness. You who dwell in Lebanon, nestled in the cedars, how you will groan when pains come upon you, pain like a woman in childbirth!”

– Jeremiah 22:13-23

Last night I watched Bad Lieutenant: not the new New Orleans re-envisioning by Werner Herzog, but the New York original starring Harvey Keitel. It’s a much harsher and bleaker film than Herzog’s, but ultimately it’s a morality play, a Catholic parable about sin and guilt and penance, about the terrible capriciousness of fate, about justice and mercy and forgiveness. That the story centers not on ordinary civilians but on cops and mobsters and nuns means that the movie is also a social commentary — a jeremiad. Even Jesus makes two personal appearances: once on the cross, once off it.

Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is as old-fashioned and impassioned, as personal and universal as the Old Testament. As fascistically sadomasochistic too. In my prior writing about the Testaments I’ve gone for intellectual and weird in fiction, for creative and conciliatory in nonfiction. But now I’m becoming persuaded that to get at the meaning of this ancient reality you have to paint it red.



  1. ‘A donkey’s burial’.

    I’m trying to put that off as long as I can, but hey, remember the studies that said money really does buy happiness. I said it didn’t really, although I think it does buy some, in that case, the Helmsleys have a dual-person Life Celebration Pavillion for themselves to celebrate their rapaciousness, and they’ve got stained glass images of their real estate (including the Empire State Building) studding it. So big deal about the burial, we know what happened to Mozart (which is made into big a deal.)

    Lots of people go unmourned or get the Potter’s Field that haven’t been bad at all, and vice-versa.

    I saw this when it came out, and can’t remember much about it, except Keitel was still fairly impressive, better than currently as in ‘Life on Mars’, I believe that’s the TV series, I watched it once. I only remembered not liking watching the girl (and Keitel?) shoot up, it seemed like in the actual presence of it. I don’t know why things like that used to bother me on film, I was already in my 40s by then, and they don’t bother me now. Am surprised, though, at how little I remember of it, esp. since I thought I was moderately impressed with it at the time. Reminds me of other gritty films, like ‘Dance With a Stranger’, although that was based on fact, about the prostitute ‘Mrs. Ellis’, the last women to be hanged in England. That’s 1985, only saw it once, but remember nearly every minute of it, even though I didn’t like it much either. THAT was a real class-based ‘bad romance’. Have you seen it? Miranda Richardson’s great performance, and all sorts of period details all done fastidiously.

    So, did you think Bad Lieutenant a good film? It’s 18 years old now, does it look like new and seem powerful? It seems you thought so, and maybe I just forgot about it because I didn’t think many of the images themselves were that striking. Sometimes that’s why I’ll remember a film, for fragments, and not for the whole thing, which seemed basically pretty solid, although I never once thought of it again.


    Comment by butch cazza — 7 January 2010 @ 5:18 pm

  2. The girl shooting up with Keitel co-wrote the screenplay, then a few years later died of a heroin overdose. Certainly they’re shooting something for real in that scene.

    I was just thinking that if this movie had come out in 2009 I’d have regarded it as possibly the best picture of the year, so yes, I’d say it holds up well. In some ways it occupies the older sensibility of Coppola and Scorsese taken to even greater extremes, mixed with an almost Spanish Catholic surrealismo. Herzog’s version is a walk in the park in comparison. Keitel isn’t really a great actor, but he does put everything he’s got into roles like this, and his persona is so jarringly non-Hollywood that I always enjoy watching him.


    Comment by john doyle — 7 January 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  3. This is a tremendous movie posing tremendous questions about Christianity, as for Ferrara Shaviro is the authority on the subject, so you should read his writing before we embark on a discussion.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 9 January 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  4. In addition to its Catholicism, the movie also manifests a sort of unorthodox Orthodoxy. If God’s grace is revealed especially in forgiveness of sinners, then the biggest sinner is also the most wide-open channel for theophany. Rasputin practiced this sort of reverse asceticism; the Keitel character embodies it as well. In the end he passes his “blessing” on to the two nun-rapists. The ongoing saga of the Mets baseball team reinforces this view: in NY the Mets are legendary for their haplessness, so if they come from behind to beat the great LA Dodgers then it must be a miracle.

    Per your suggestion, vopr, I read Shaviro’s commentary on Ferrara’s most recent two movies, neither of which has been released in the US. I’ve never seen anything else by Ferrara, but if Bad Lieutenant is any indication then I’ve certainly been missing something.


    Comment by john doyle — 10 January 2010 @ 8:55 am

  5. From the Jeremiah passage: “how you will groan when pains come upon you, pain like a woman in childbirth!” This is a continuing theme in Judeo-Christianity: disaster spawns new birth; the two rapists are the bad lieutenant’s children. The nihilistic drive to apocalypse: how much of it is fueled by the hope of regeneration? And of course apocalypse itself becomes an accelerationist commodity, with the extinction the polar bears opening up the Northwest Passage and the Arctic oilfields.


    Comment by john doyle — 10 January 2010 @ 11:41 am

  6. If God’s grace is revealed especially in forgiveness of sinners, then the biggest sinner is also the most wide-open channel for theophany. Rasputin practiced this sort of reverse asceticism; the Keitel character embodies it as well.

    If you could refresh my memory on the plot – it’s been ten years since I saw it and I don’t have time to repeat.

    I remember that Keitel kept going despite everything, driven probably by the death drive, and that he found redemption in this extremity, but that the point was not in the extremity or blasphemy itself, rather in the fact that the redemption and the sin seemed to coexist parallel to each other and he was simultaneously the greatest sinner and a saint. So that he somehow managed to go beyond the splitting, the guilt. Also Shaviro’s words on the use of lighting and time speak to me directly.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 10 January 2010 @ 5:00 pm

  7. Lighting and time?

    Never mind discussing the details of the film if it’s faded from your memory. Juxtapose this movie with the Jeremiah passage: there’s a strong effort by Ferrara here to do not only Beauty and Truth but also Justice. It’s not a polemic that he’s put forward here — neither a maudlin reaffirmation nor a strident renunciation. It’s jarring, conflicted, troubling, provocative. This is what good fiction can do and it’s a big part of what drew me to fiction in the first place, regardless of whether that fiction is written or filmed.


    Comment by john doyle — 10 January 2010 @ 5:23 pm

  8. It remained burned in memory, but more for the visceral visionary scenes than for the plot, which I don’t even think is important

    I have to dig up the part of Shaviro’s text that discussed the light, but light is crucial in Ferrara because it’s simultaneously ”real” and otherworldly, or the otherworldly somehow emanates from the daily without being ”transcendent” etc

    But what sticks to mind the most is that Keitel suffers horribly and intensely, yet finds…not PLEASURE, because it’s not masochism, but should I dare call it a THEOSIS without knowing myself what I want to say; he never transcends the pain, and yet he lives fully, through his senses.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 10 January 2010 @ 8:32 pm

  9. It’s a very strongly plotted film; I just didn’t feel like writing a synopsis. But I agree that Keitel seems bent on self-destruction through drug abuse, reckless gambling, and pissing off the mob. In the end, through the forgiveness offered by the nun to the greatest of sinners, this excessive dissipation becomes the opening in which theosis happens. The viscerality is always charged with internal conflict, and to me it’s the conflict driving the affect that lives. Of course there are some great scenes that live in and of themselves, disconnected from plot and character development. I read an interview with Ferrara that, as director, he wants to have a reason to turn the camera on, to show something. He lets these scenes unfold of their own momentum, the intensity being an inevitable if startling development of what’s happening, rather than just being a manipulative setup to stimulate reaction in the viewer.

    Technical features of filming like lighting I tend not to notice unless I consciously pay attention, though I don’t doubt that it has unconscious effects on me as viewer. Also, nuances of lighting tend to get lost in downloads, especially dim lighting. As a visual artist you create these effects, and so they’re more salient to you I’m sure.


    Comment by john doyle — 10 January 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    • It’s a very strongly plotted film; I just didn’t feel like writing a synopsis.

      lol, I can’t imagine why.

      I hadn’t remembered that Strawberry was a character in this, and see that ‘the prodigal Strawberry has been linked to the lieutenant’, although I do remember when Strawberry problems were always in the news. Wiki has good summary of these, and it’s quite a tangle of things:



      Comment by butch cazza — 10 January 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  10. Daryl Strawberry plays a sort of demiurge. At the time this story takes place he’s already been traded from the Mets, a team on which he had been a great hero and which he had almost magically transformed into a winner, to the despised Dodgers. The Mets are in the playoffs against the Dodgers. Keitel believes that the Dodgers can’t lose, not least because of Strawberry’s presence. At one point Keitel claims actually to have spoken to Strawberry after one of the games, with Strawberry letting him know that the Dodgers are a sure thing, but we know this is either a lie or a hallucination. At one point we see Strawberry on a TV set striking out, but that’s as close as he comes to a true physical manifestation.

    The movie begins with a voice-over of a NY sports talk radio show in which a caller and the host vigorously discuss the Mets’ chances of taking the series. After the credits roll we see that Keitel is listening to this program on his car radio. Keitel’s betting pattern throughout the series drives the story, which reaches its culmination with the last out of the last game. And you’re right, Butch: despite his greatness as a ballplayer Strawberry was the “Bad Right Fielder” off the field, with cocaine and solicitation busts and who knows what-all.


    Comment by john doyle — 11 January 2010 @ 5:31 am

  11. The viscerality is always charged with internal conflict, and to me it’s the conflict driving the affect that lives

    I don’t understand this, clarification?

    Lighting is far from just a technical feature in films, as well you know. I don’t believe DIVX reduces the quality by so much as to remove the effect, but then if that’s really the problem maybe you could syphon the signal from your local Walmart Multiplex the way you used to rob your neighbours of internet, Eloise.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 11 January 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  12. I just wrote a fairly long response but lost it.

    Briefly, I’m saying that Ferrara’s visceral explosions emerge spontaneously from the intensely conflictual situations he puts his characters in. If the appropriate response is more subdued, Ferrara lets that happen too. As opposed to say Tarantino, who contrives situations in order that he might stage a big explosion. He’s interested in the viscera for its own sake, its own aesthetic. For Ferrara it’s the gradual and inevitable unfolding of situations that counts. He’s not unique in that regard, but his situations and characters are distinctly extreme, often as not resulting in extreme unfoldings.

    On lighting, Ferrara isn’t doing the chiaroscuro of noir, nor the urban glare of say Michael Mann. I noticed lighting in particular in rather bleak settings like the stairways of apartment buildings. The lighting seemed to emphasize Keitel’s increasing separation from his world, sometimes receding into shadow, sometimes standing out from the background.


    Comment by john doyle — 11 January 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  13. The thought that I am trying to articulate is that the lieutenant, although clearly schizophrenic, is both a saint and a sinner (accent on both). He accomplishes this because he has the courage to ”flesh out” his sin, as you underlined. Somehow, then, pain becomes meaningful; not as enjoyment or as redemption. The story reminds me of the last temptation of christ.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 12 January 2010 @ 6:02 pm

  14. I agree about the both/and, vopr. Keitel’s last day had parallels with Jesus’s Via Dolorosa to the cross: the whore who shoots him up is like Veronica wiping his face, he shares a last crack pipe with the two rapist-disciples. His mob connection won’t place Keite’s last bet: Keitel then calls him Judas. Keitel collects $30K in bet money from someone, which he’s supposed to hand over to this mobster; cf. the 30 pieces of silver that the Romans pay Judas for turning Jesus over to them. I suspect I’d notice more references if I watched the movie again.

    I recently checked out the novel version of Last Temptation by Kazantsakis but I got bogged down. I’ve never seen the film; it’s another one I should get my hands on. I requested it from the library some time ago, but some deadbeat who checked it out a few months ago hasn’t returned it.


    Comment by john doyle — 12 January 2010 @ 6:38 pm

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