J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45: Back to Clean Up New York Again

You know any film that gives a shout out to the Guardian Angels in its closing credits is the product of a very specific time and place.  Obviously, this is New York, but not just pre-Giuliani. It is also pre-Dinkins during the first Koch administration.  Things are pretty rotten, but they will improve a bit, only to get considerably worse before America’s Mayor turned the city around.  However, one violent crime victim does not have twelve years to wait for the City to become livable again.  She is determined to clean the town up, one male predator at a time, in Abel Ferrara’s exploitation favorite, Ms .45 (trailer here), which Drafthouse Films re-releases tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

Thana is an apparently mute seamstress who simply wants to be left alone to live her modest dormouse existence.  Then one night after work, she is sexually assaulted on two separate occasions.  The second was a home invader, whom she successfully fights off.  He will now be leaving her apartment in pieces.  She also takes possession of his gun and its seemingly endless supply of bullets.  The first time she uses it out of panic, but killing lowlife scum soon gets to be a compulsion for her.

Right, so let the body count begin.  Frankly, it is easy to see both why critics initially loathed Ms .45 and how it subsequently developed a rabid cult appreciation.  The film shows Ferrara’s gritty street level aesthetic at its absolute rawest, he also displays a surprisingly keen eye for visual composition.  The concluding conflagration’s Texas-sized Freudian imagery is especially bold.

Ostensibly, Ms .45 functions as a feminist-empowerment vigilante exercise, yet the film’s gender politics are rather slippery on closer examination.  Always a little off, the increasingly agitated Thana begins to conflate any innocent expression of male sexuality with violent sexual aggression, which holds potentially horrific implications.  It is tempting to interpret her choice of Halloween costume—a nun’s habit—as a commentary on feminist Puritanism.  Or perhaps Ferrara was just trying to offend Catholics.  Regardless, you have to respect a film with something to appall everybody.

Ferrara’s future Bad Lieutenant co-writer Zoë Tamerlis Lund fits the part of Thana disturbingly well (especially given her sadly premature end). She projects all kinds of vulnerability but is simultaneously spooky as all get out. Despite the film’s deliberate sleaziness, there are fine dramatic moments in 45, particularly Lund’s tragically ironic scene with a bar patron played by Jack Thibeau.

When watching Ms .45, it is hard to shake the uneasy feeling we are looking two years into the future of the de Blasio administration.  At least the music is funky, featuring some first class studio cats, like Artie Kaplan. Amusingly, the instrumentation heard on the soundtrack does not always match the musicians seen on-screen, but so be it.  This is not the sort of film where one should obsess over small details.  Instead, it is opportunity to see Ferrara truly in his element, serving up the vicarious guilty pleasures of street justice.  Recommended for cult film connoisseurs, the lovingly restored Ms .45 screens this weekend (12/13 & 12/14) midnight-ish at the IFC Center in New York and a tad earlier at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers.

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