Saturday, January 20, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Bad Lieutenant

Louisville, Kentucky's once proud Vogue Theater stands deserted now. Its doors closed for cine maniacs in late 1998 but the memories that it gave many of us will always exist. It was open for more than sixty years for the best foreign, arthouse, classic and independent films the world had to offer. The flickering light of the projector at one time offered for Louisville everyone from Monica Vitti in Red Desert to Bridget Fonda in Bodies Rest and Motion...hell, even Iggy Pop played played a show there. That's all over now though, while the marquee has been resurrected, rumor has it a series of shops will open inside and it will eventually become unrecognizable for us that remember.
I have many memories involving the Vogue including midnight movies and getting pulled over for speeding trying to make a screening of Casablanca. Many memories but one film I saw there stands out as my most memorable.
1992 saw Abel Ferrara un-leashing, on an unexpecting public, his most stunning tale of sin and redemption, the Zoe Lund scripted Bad Lieutenant. I'll never forget the first time I saw the poster advertising it's coming at the Vogue with a nude Harvey Keitel pictured under Abel Ferrara's name, which seemed to blaze. This wasn't just a film being announced, it seemed more like a war being proclaimed.
I was lucky enough to see the Final Ferrara-Lund collaboration the way it should be seen, in a darkened theater, completely uncut, original score intact witnessing more walk outs than I had ever seen before or since. The film that's available now isn't the one I saw, the available dvd is missing a major character in Schooly D's incendiary "Signifying Rapper". The song, which played such a major role, has been removed due to a silly and damaging lawsuit by Jimmy Page over a riff(I ask you who stole more riffs than Jimmy Page?). Only those who saw it in a theater or are lucky enough to have the very out of print original VHS have seen the film as it should be seen.
While the film contains one of the greatest of all performances with Harvey Keitel's shocking turn and stands as one of Ferrara's best works it is the story that the much missed Zoe Lund came up with that's the real star. The script might be co-credited to Victor Argo, Paul Calderon and Ferrara but it belongs to Zoe. I think she fashioned not only one of the great scripts ever but a major piece of spiritually enlightening literature. It's this spirituality and Lund's notion that even the most far gone and evil of characters can find redemption that sent people running out of the Vogue that night, not the graphic nudity, language or violence.
I would say that the theater was over half full at the start of the film but there were only a handful of us left by the end. I know that we all felt a bit transformed walking out after those closing credits, we all had a feeling that only a handful of the greatest films could have given us.
I've never seen a film that asked as much of it's audience as that one did. While many people left during the moments you might expect, the raping of the nun and Keitel pulling over the teenage girls, it was Jesus Christ appearing to Keitel's ravaged unnamed character that caused the most problems. I remember very clearly wanting to yell at a couple walking out that this is just the kind of man Jesus would indeed reach out to.
I doubt if I will ever have quite as visceral an experience with another film and another theater again. Abel Ferrara has made many great films since and he is still obsessed with getting the idea across that no man, no matter how far gone, is completely lost. Not since Pasolini has a director made so many confrontational and profoundly spiritual works.
Harvey Keitel has never bettered Bad Lieutenant and he remains America's great lost actor buried in a sea of direct to video junk.
We lost Zoe Lund in April of 1999, ironically just a few months after The Vogue Theater closed it's doors for the last time. I remember watching her ghostly shadow whispering to Keitel, "We gotta eat away at ourselves. We gotta eat our legs to get the energy to walk. We gotta come, so we can go. We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves til there's nothing left but appetite. We give, and give and give crazy. Cause a gift that makes sense ain't worth it. Jesus said seventy times seven. No one will ever understand why..."
I saw many films after Bad Lieutenant at the Vogue but somehow for me it was the last strip of film that its projectors light shined through. Somehow even in its deserted, sad state that film is still showing and a few of us are still left inside.

1 comment:

Tom Clark said...

About 5 years too late with this post but whatever... one of the best assessments I've read of the film. One of the most striking things is Ferrara's direction, always observant, never judgmental, which is aided emmensly by Ken Kelsch's almost documentary-esque cinematography. Mind blowing to think this film turns 20 this year, and still I dont think any film has come close to matching the initial impact of Bad Lieutenant, but then again very few directors have the balls Ferrara has to make daring films like this. A shame about Zoe checking out the way she did.