Strip Tease

As the man himself might say: Who da fuck is Abel Ferrara?

The self-taught pioneer of post-porn punxploitation—The Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981)—Ferrara positioned himself as a lumpen Scorsese with his Little Italy-set youth-gang film China Girl (1987) and relatively big-budget adult-gangster flick King of New York (1990). He came into his own in the mid-’90s with the astonishing one-two punch of Bad Lieutenant (1992) and The Addiction (1995), with Madonna’s best movie—Dangerous Game (1993)—appearing in between.

Ferrara’s oeuvre has always juggled the sacred and the profane, although things got a bit more dicey after The Funeral (1996), his last movie to get widespread U.S. distribution. Still, he managed to survive the millennium in style: witness Mary (2005) and Go Go Tales (2007), the latter of which, after a midnight screening four New York Film Festivals ago, is finally getting a run.

A highly personal movie, Go Go Tales finds Ferrara in a frenzied yet pensive mode. Virtually the entire movie is set within the tawdry NYC confines of Ray Ruby’s Paradise, an institution that equally suggests an off-Wall Street titty bar and the magic theater from Steppenwolf (and was constructed for the movie in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios). Paradise’s nonstop sweat-perfumed hubbub is immediately established with a blast of Archie Bell & the Drells to herald the contortions of a Hula-Hooping stripper. The beat goes on for some 90 minutes of choreographed pole-writhing, lap-dancing and flamboyant backstage catastrophes—notably a tanning-bed fire—interspersed with the machinations of club proprietor and compulsive gambler Ray Ruby (up-for-anything Willem Dafoe) as he dodges his numerous creditors and schemes to game the Lotto.

Shtick runs rampant. Sylvia Miles’ foul-mouthed harridan landlady installs herself at the bar and channels Joan Rivers, shrieking about the Bed Bath & Beyond she’s going to bring in to replace the Paradise at $18,000 per month with a 99-year lease. Midway through, Asia Argento—the Queen of I-Don’t-Give-a-Shit—coolly erupts into the proceedings for a show-stopping number that involves the exchange of bodily fluids with her pet Rottweiler. Not to be outdone, deadpan Dafoe follows up with a ludicrously sensitive lounge song, delivered amid a phalanx of writhing strippers.

This improvisational field day for mouthy actors has obvious affinities with John Cassavetes’ strip-club-set The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and backstage drama Opening Night. Still, as its title suggests, Go Go Tales is something kinder and gentler—a lovingly wrought urban fable, part low-rent Fellini, part latter-day Damon Runyon. (The dapper skeevy Dafoe and his bellowing major domo Bob Hoskins could be Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit in a skid-row revival of Guys and Dolls.) When, in the movie’s most passionate scene, the beleaguered Ray Ruby defends his Paradise as a cathedral of free expression, Go Go Tales strips itself bare. No amount of writhing pulchritude or gutter language can conceal this movie’s essential innocence.

Go Go Tales was written and directed by Abel Ferrara; and stars Willem Dafoe, Asia Argento, Bob Hoskins, Matthew Modine and Sylvia Miles. Not rated. Select theaters.

This review did not appear in print.

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