Bad Lieutenant (1992) dir. Abel Ferraro writ. Zoe Lund and Abel Ferraro cine. Ken Kelsch star. Harvey Keitel (the "Bad" Lieutenant), Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Victoria Bactel et. al.
Back in the forties when Ferrara's ancestors made this kind of social commentary by positing fiction against documentary it was called neo-realism -- but what do you call it in the nineties when there are no taboos on subject, venue, or message? Neo-voyeurism?
Bad Lieutenant is as brilliant as it is black, both in its technical execution and redemptive study of a corrupt New York narcotics detective (Keitel) whose disintegration and eventual annihilation is given meaning by its contradictory ending of Christian forgiveness and sacrifice.
It must be difficult for some of the Catholic orthodoxy to watch this movie, especially the rape of the nun in a church in Spanish Harlem. It might be even more difficult to watch the detective masturbate to the pantomime he has blackmailed two teenage girls to perform. Full frontal male nudity, main-line dope injection, murder, blasphemy... there are many scenes that cry out for denial but roll over us like a flash-frame commercial for vice.
And on it goes, the jump cuts dropping us into situations of crime and depravity like unexpected blows to the head. The sound is often ambient -- the street, Talk Radio, the ball game -- force-feeding the narrative in a relentless harmony as the BL drives through the city monitoring the fortunes of Darryl Strawberry vs. the New York Mets. As Strawberry goes (LA Dodgers), so goes the Lieutenant as he keeps gambling on double or nothing with his bookie. It's as if he's stalking his fate when he sits in a bar or in a crack house, watches Strawberry strike out on the tube.
And what's the purpose of this New Age exercise of novelle vague editing and neo-realist conscience? Must you watch until the ending to find out anything new? Keitel's role is an anti-hero archetype for the nineties, one which defines his career as an actor: everything thereafter must be parody (and we see that in The Piano, Pulp Fiction, et. al.). As tragedy demands, there must be a reversal of Fortune and there is: the Mets come back to win and go on to the World Series; ruined, the BL collects his dope money and then -- instead of using it to defray his gambling debt -- gives it away to the two hoods who raped the nun, sends them out of town on a bus, gets assasinated by his bookie, but hey, he's redeemed himself from the blasphemy of his recent corrupt and degraded career.
As plot and sub-plot merge, maybe what's lost and what's won isn't as clear as it should be. Maybe the exposition is too esoteric, too New York. Maybe we're hallucinating as badly as Kietel.
It wouldn't matter about any of this -- Bad Lieutenant would still be a watermark for drama in the nineties because of the masturbation scene. While many of his actions as a corrupt Robin Hood of the multicultural urban ghetto are familiar fare from other action films, it is this scene with its delineation of male rage and male despair that marks it as one of the great moments in American cinema.
Night. It's raining. He pulls over a car with two teenage girls, tells them their left taillight is out, quickly discovers they have no license, don't have permission to use the auto. "I could give you a warning," he says. "But you do something for me, I'll do something for you...."
They wait. And the quid pro quo is this: "Ever suck a guy's cock?"
One bares her ass, while the other simulates fellatio. The BL unzips, jerks off as he chants a litany of sexual obscenities, a talk-dirty chant to help him ejaculate against the door of the car. Not a nice scene, but an honest one. The truth of it goes well beyond the gratuitous into the sexual pathology of the male trapped by the directive of his phantom hormones and the absurd conventions of the institutions that try to control him.
For instance, the Church:
BL: Am I gonna put up 50 g's 'cause these chicks in penguin suits get raped?
Cop: What is your problem?
BL: The Church is a racket.
Cop: You a Catholic?
BL: (smiling) I'm a Catholic.
Cop: Why don't you have a little bit of fuckin' respect....
Oddly, absurdly, he does have respect. He voyeurs the nun's confession to her priest, he confronts the nun, he tries to understand the baffling logic of her forgiveness. Eventually he does, although we don't know if he's been blind-sided by hallucinations of Christ and a final toll of his self-abuse. Even though he's stoned and drunk most of the time, consorts with the dregs, his re-education is on-going.
Junkie Mistress: Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others... we gotta eat away at ourselves, we gotta eat our legs, we got the energy to walk... we got to come in order to go... we gotta suck ourselves off, eat away at ourselves until there's nothing left but appetite... we give and give, it's crazy, it don't make sense... Jesus said so many times....
Drugs, sex, gambling, murder, the melody of vice, the genesis of crime and religion. It's a vicious story with an ambiguous message: does he become the Good Lieutenant? Or is his finale just another confused act of voyeurism?
© LR 94/99
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