Ferrara: Ms. 45 (1981)
Although Abel Ferrara had released one or two features prior to Ms. 45, this rape-and-revenge extravaganza really feels like his first sustained transition from adult to arthouse cinema. Set in Manhattan, it’s about a mute seamstress, Thana (Zoe Tamerlis Lund) who is raped twice in one day – the first time on her way from work, the second time after her apartment is burgled – and restyles herself as a vigilante on behalf of women across the island. By the time Ferrara was filming, the rape-and-revenge film’s heyday had long passed, with the result that this doesn’t exactly feel like a continuation of 70s exploitation cinema but a cool and calculated contemplation of some of the aesthetic possibilities that would characterise Ferrara’s vision of Manhattan over the next two decades. In that sense, the film is defined above all by Thana’s muteness, which is all the more noticeable in that Ferrara would subsequently become one of the talkiest and most dialogue-driven of indie directors. As a result, the film is structured around a series of eloquent and articulate silences, especially because it takes us some time, as an audience, to realise that Thana is mute, rather than shy. If anything, it only becomes clear at the moment of rape itself that she is unable to speak, as Ferrara strays away from the actual sexual contact to focus on the writhing expressions of a face that can’t scream, cry or show any other signs of either fear or weakness.
Of course that inability to articulate the crime in any direct way is what makes Thana’s transition so powerful, as the silence of the victim segues into the silence of the vigilante more seamlessly and subliminally than in any revenge film I’ve ever seen. Constrained by her muteness to articulate her experience in and through action, Thana embarks upon two sustained activities that more or less drive the film’s narrative: chopping up the second rape victim and gradually disposing of his body parts all over Manhattan, and embarking upon a revenge spree on behalf of every woman in the city who is at risk of rape. Poised between all the spaces where body parts might be dumped and all the nooks and crannies where rape is likely to occur, Thana increasingly feels as if she’s taking back the noir as much as taking back the night, consciously embracing and revising the femme fatale as a feminist archetype as she stalks across an eerie, otherworldly Manhattan. In the process, Ferrara’s camera identifies with her by also somewhat muting itself, allowing objects and images to speak to it with a peculiarly plaintive and poignant urgency, especially in and around his incredible transitions from shot to shot, which are almost tactile in their disjunctive incongruity.
That eeriness is only enhanced by the fact that Thana soon starts to target cases of incipient rape – a makeout that doesn’t seem quite right, a man complaining about his wife in a bar – as much as rape itself, which also means seeking out those areas of the city that are incipiently but not completely noirish, resulting in an incredibly evocative depiction of the uneven development of downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s. As the film becomes more and more preoccupied with Thana’s flanerie – or flaneuserie – those abrupt and incongruous transitions of the opening start to simply become a function of the city’s urban geography, as we’re continually dropped in the midst of some glitzy, high-profile public space only to turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves in a haunted and deserted alley. In that way, the film beautifully captures rape as a spatial possibility, even a spatial necessity, within the overall logic of the city. More specifically – and it is here that the exploitation film’s oscillation between hard left and hard right affiliations comes to the fore – the diversity and hedonism of Manhattan nightlife all seems to converge on rape, with the final bloodbath taking place at a queer party arranged by Thana’s employer, a high-end fashion house in the Garment District.
In some ways, that queer angle culminates both the chilly austerity of the film as well as a subsidiary, darkly comic angle that alleviates it at as well. On the one hand, Thana’s place of work initially seems like one of the few spaces in the film that might be immune from her rampage, just because it is so pervasively feminine and gay that it doesn’t seem to pose a threat. As the film goes on, however, it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s precisely these supposed high-end safe spaces that are the most likely to collapse suddenly into a rape tableau, as evinced in the quite startling way in which Thana’s boss seems to discover he is straight as soon as the (distant) possibility of rape confronts him at the staff party. At these moments, it feels as if the film is promulgating a radical feminist conflation of heterosexuality and rape, as well as positing Thana’s rampage as a kind of radical celibacy; she goes to the party as a nun, her boss as a vampire. As the film proceeds, however, it also feels as if this fashion house functions like something of a microcosm for the plight of women in Manhattan as well – seamstresses or models, all the women who work there are condemned to a certain kind of muteness, with the result that Thana’s transformation doesn’t make her any more visible or audible at work, it just reframes her as a model rather than a seamstress. Finding her transformation subsumed back into the system that motivated it, it makes sense that she concludes the film with such a systematically destructive act against precisely the commodified queerness that initially seemed to offer her safe harbour.
For all that the final party scene – and the queer angle more generally – culminates the uncompromising austerity of the film, however, its very queerness also resides in the way in which it simultaneously culminates a more comic, reparative and irreverent angle as well. Without fully giving himself over exploitation shlockiness, Ferrara suffuses Thana’s revenge with a wryly absurd quality – at one point, she extends her victims to male dogs – as well as using it to puncture the aspirations and pretensions of indie romantic cinema, most hilariously in an extended rape tableau that fuses the creepiest and most sentimental moments of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. In the same way, the final bloodbath plays a bit like a comic riff on the ways in which queer people and culture are often positioned as collateral damage to alleviate moments of pressure in heteronormative films. By treating them as quasi-parodic collateral damage, Ms. 45 short-circuits that logic, freeing up queerness to circulate in the film in a more residual but more liberated way, releasing an energy that was beautifully captured in a YouTube mashup from about five years ago that paired the slow-motion bloodbath scene with “Streetlight,” the opening track from John Maus’ We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves.
In that sense, Ferrara’s New York is very much positioned between the formative moments in gay liberation in the late 70s and the gradual commodification of liberated gay culture in the late 80s, turning instead to a more restless, curious queerness that takes Thana as its mouthpiece and representative. In her collection of all the places in the city where bodies might be co-opted, manipulated and disposed, she often feels like a ghost of all the cruising sites and venues that were on the verge of extinction, at least for a certain generation of gay clientele. From the beginning of his career to his most recent outing in Pasolini, Ferrara has been fascinated by this roving, restless sexuality without a name, and it finds one of its most formative expressions in Ms. 45, a beautiful introduction and prologue to his wider body of work.
Billy, in your reviews, you’re very attentive to landscapes and cityscapes that are also connected to issues specific to them. I really like this aspect of your film criticism. I just want to say here that Zoe Tamerlis Lund‘s role in writing and making Ms. 45 may have been even more important than Ferrara’s.
Thanks Therese – and I agree! I often feel I’m way too director-centred in the way I write…