Wednesday, June 1, 2016
I've recently been thinking about the films of Abel Ferrera again, for the first time in quite a while. Ferrera's films, especially Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral, and Ms. 45, were important to me when I was in college and throughout my twenties. Part of the attraction was clearly because his films were left of center, about characters living on the edge (of both society and a nervous breakdown), and above all else they had a realism that I craved in my movies back then. I still do, but as with most things as I age, that burning desire to see films about tortured people living tortured existences fades some. It's also partly because I immersed myself in that kind of cinema for a good long stretch back then, and I may have had my fill for a lifetime. That said, I still remember what made those films so transformative, and I can access that same feeling when I view them again all these years later. I'm hoping to write more at length about Ferrera and his films later, but after running across an old article online recently, I'm reminded of one of his more prominent collaborators, Zoe Lund. The actress and writer only worked on two of Ferrara's films, Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant, but her role in each left a lasting impact.
Lund was a unique talent who might have been a star beyond the downtown crowd had her career taken a different path. She was striking: large, pouty lips and big, wide-set and doe-shaped eyes that always seemed to evoke equal parts insouciance and sadness. In 1981 at the age of 17 she starred in Ms. 45, Ferrara’s low-budget rape and revenge film, where she gave an intensely affecting performance that made your heart slowly break for her. I can only imagine the trauma the filming must have caused to the young Lund. Sure, it’s a performance and it’s all fake, but she was put through simulated trauma, take after take. At first glance, especially from stills or movie posters showing Lund in a nun's costume firing a gun, the film appears to be a forgettable genre flick. Instead, and to Ferrara's credit, it's a serious look at just how much denigration, objectification, harassment, abuse, and dismissive attitudes women must deal with from men on a regular basis. Lund holds the film together, appearing in nearly every scene. As a mute young woman seeking revenge against men for the assaults she suffers at the start of the film, her performance is electric. Not speaking, she instead acts with her eyes and her body. It's a terrific performance.
Not wanting to be a member of “Abel’s stable,” Lund tried to cut her own path in the industry throughout the 1980s but never equaled the attention she garnered for Ms. 45. Eventually she returned to collaborating with Ferrara, this time co-writing the screenplay for (and starring in a small but pivotal role in) his most critically acclaimed film, 1992′s Bad Lieutenant. It’s also one of the most harrowing films of the era, or any era, for that matter. Harvey Keitel’s bad cop hates himself, hates his life, is consumed by guilt, and is spiraling down the drain rapidly. You’re watching a man destroy himself with copious amounts of drugs and self loathing; Lund must have drawn heavily on her own history of drug abuse while scripting the film with Ferrara. She wrote and spoke at length of heroin’s magical and romantic qualities. Years later, she claimed to have written the entire screenplay on her own. We’ll never know for sure, but from what we do know of her, she left her mark all over it. Seven years after Bad Lieutenant, Lund died of heart failure in Paris, her years of heavy drug use finally catching up with her. She was only 37. Now we only have pictures and a scant few movies to remember her by, and to speculate at what might have been had her short, difficult life been more forgiving.