On Abel Ferrara’s, “Siberia”

Never have I been at such a loss to begin a film review. The question any reader may reasonably want answered by the end of such a thing as this is whether or not the reviewer is recommending the movie. There are degrees of this—I’ve seen comedies I didn’t necessarily think were brilliant, but funnier to me than a lot of other people, so maybe I point up a couple things and someone else catches on to my enjoyment of them. I might also have come across popular movies worth reviewing for subtexts I thought the general audience had missed. And then there is the question of reviewing something like this.

I’ve only touched on Ferrara’s movies in the most general terms in the past, and maybe that points at what I’m facing now—I’ve been reticent to deconstruct this body of work. As soon as I say that The Addiction is a vampire movie, it’s a denigration. Or when I name, as so many before me have, The Driller Killer as a low budget horror flick, The Funeral as a gangster movie, New Rose Hotel as cyber-punk; these classifications take something away from the impression they’ve all left on me, and that too is something I’m loathe to deconstruct.

It so happens that from my experience, the thing to do is wait and read reviews of any movie this director puts out until you’ve seen the thing. Because if there’s one thing I have no trouble at all saying—and with all due respect to our American audience of critics and box-office rabble—it’s that most people haven’t the first clue what’s going on in these films. And so what is it that’s going on, I’m meant to tell—why are these films so important to me?

I’ve alienated myself on more than one occasion by bringing an Abel Ferrara video to a party. What should have been obvious to me at the time was that of course these films aren’t for everyone. If they were for everyone I wouldn’t love them the way I do. So to save you dear readers some time and perhaps trauma, you can skip Ferrara’s list entirely if you’re squeamish about violence (though “Siberia” itself is not particularly violent); nor do I recommend them if you’re looking for a tidy resolution, or if you’ve a low tolerance for existentialist indulgence, or intimate studies humanizing character flaws; moody arcs leading to a slow then final cut from the inside out; depicted as much as an inevitability as the result of any of these character flaws; it’s a cut which reveals as much about the viewer as it does about the depicted subject and impact of these conditions we know to be bigger than us; as much about the loneliness of any given character as the chemistry between mankind and the world it has rendered for itself, tossing about at a rate and velocity defying this idea that we can jump off the trajectory of our personal disasters at any time.

I saw “Siberia” in the near worst of circumstances. I watched on a computer with a dark screen and a tiny speaker, and my copy was low in volume. This was at the hotel where I work—I had to turn the heater off to have a chance at hearing at least most of the dialogue, some of which isn’t in English, and there were no subtitles. There is no story, in any traditional sense, other than backstories of childhood and broken marriage, referenced in what may or may not be a dream sequence broken up and thusly strung together by sublime images of this character (I want to say Clint) riding a dog sled through a stunning, wintry no man’s land we’re to believe is Siberia, and I did, though I read shortly after viewing that it was filmed mostly in Mexico. Willem Dafoe is Ferrara’s go to lead, and as even some of the detractors of this movie (and certain other films from their long list of collaborations) will attest, he was as interesting to watch as he always is. There are horrific scenes and strange scenes, and there’s nudity in pregnancy and a bizarre lovely dance around a pole with kids and flags or something to what I think was the entire recording of “Runaway” by Del Shannon.

I feel I have been allowed access to some of the most intimate details of Ferrara’s existence from having seen “Siberia,” and yet I’m still inclined to hold back the kind of speculation it would take to lay this out for anyone. I don’t think but wonder if I’d need to have followed any aspect of his life (he is based in Europe now, enjoying a very different audience than when he was based in Hollywood) or earlier films (structured more closely to what I am used to thinking of as a “movie”) to have had the viewing experience I did—it moved me. It moved and transported me and turned my focus inward in ways that still don’t make sense to me and I’ll certainly see it again on a real TV or hopefully even a theater screen at some point and though Ferrara is around seventy years old I believe, I hope he keeps making movies for a while yet; whenever he stops, I’ll miss them dearly.

Would I recommend it? Not to most, and mostly because I wouldn’t want to have to hear back from anyone about it. This one, this one in particular I’ll just keep to myself, thanks. There are plenty of movies I won’t mind talking about and recommending or slamming in this saturated market of entertainment; some I’ve seen, some I haven’t and will or won’t, but this one gets filed away as personal somehow; scarcely analyzed, deeply appreciated, and personal. 


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