Go Go Tales: Ferrara’s Backstage Musical, Starring Asia Argento, Midnight Screening

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Midnight Section)–It’s one of the paradoxes of the film world, but the only viable platform for new works from Abel Ferrara, king of sleaze (“Bad Lieutenant,” King of New York”) is the most prestigious film festival in the world.
And so it is with his latest film Go Go Tales, a sort of a backstage musical starring Asia Argento, which received its world premiere in Cannes’ Midnight Section (where it belongs).

Having lost his support from American distributors and audiences, Ferrara now depends on festivals like Cannes, where his last 5 or 6 features had premiered, a place where cineastes are both more appreciative and forgiving when it comes to filmmakers of his kind.

“Go Go Tales” is a personal movie in the sense that it pays a tribute to a phenom on the verge of extinction that existed right in the midst of Ferrara’s neighborhood, the Union Square area.
In the production notes, Ferrara observes: “For whatever reason, the neighborhood became a haven for topless clubs. The names changed with the seasons, but the core crew didn’t. Decked out in tuxes and razor haircuts, they manned the velvet ropes the outside from the in, 100 percent.”

“Go Go Tales” is an idiosyncratic work bearing Ferrara’s unique signature and stylistic touches. Thematically, though, it builds on a whole tradition of backstage works from John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” to Canadian Atom Egoyan’s superlative “Exotica” to Robert Altman’s backstage radio film, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

It’s a legitimate question to ask, why make this movie now, since lap top dancing clubs are a match made in heaven of subject matter and Ferrara’s grungy sensibility, one that has always relied on excess and sleaze, be it drugs, sex, nudity, or violence.

The first thing to be said about Ferrara’s comedic film (some will debate that term) is that although it is completely set within the confines of one club, Ray Ruby’s Paradise, it is not claustrophobic due to the helmer’s vibrantly vivid camera that never stops wandering around the place. This particular lap-dancing club is managed by MC Ray (Willem Dafoe) and his Irish accountant partner Jay (Roy Dotrice), protected by the front man Baron (Bob Hoskins).

The place has seen better days. There are no many customers and the strippers aren’t getting paid. Moreover, Ray’s brother and main financier, beauty parlor owner Johnnie (Matthew Modine) is threatening to pull his support, and the landlady Lilian (Sylvia Miles) continues to complain and demand her rent. Too much seems to depend on the successful result of one of the lottery tickets bought by Ray.

Star performer is the sexy and scary Monroe, played by Italian actress Asia Argento, who I saw in at least three movies this year at Cannes (the others being “Boarding Gate,” also in the Midnight Section, Catherine Breillat’s “Old Mistress,” which was in competition). It’s impossible to tell whose idea it was, but at one point Monroe engages in an act that almost outdoes Divine’s notorious one in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”she kisses a Rottweiler dog.

For Ferrara, the club is a contempo haven, a paradise for fools, as he notes: “Once inside, the first hit of seeing the girls never failed to blow my mind. They were truly fabulous: Tall, cool and g-stringed out. Maybe it was the combination of near naked women, writhing in front of the well-dressed guys, to music that always sounded better than anywhere else, which makes the memory so long-lasting and vivid.”

The movie is certainly vivid with its look at the gorgeous, seemingly uninhibited performers. Problem is, most of the strippers come across as stereotypes since they are either silly or neurotic and insecure. Feminist critics will have a field day with Ferrara’s “male gaze,” and the way he objectifies the club’s women to sex objects (and even toys).

I found justification for Ferrara’s “male gaze” and his favoring the male over the female characters by his noting that, “Ironically, it was the guys who worked there, who were the actors, bouncers, DJs and bartenders, dreaming, auditioning and scheming for a stardom that, incredibly, came to a chosen few.”

Ferrara has never been a storyteller, and in “Go Go Tales,” he is even less interested in conventional narrative or characterization than is his usual norm. The movie establishes its distinctive setting and persona in the first reel, and then just goes on to record in details the “routine” lives of the men and women who work at the club; there is hardly any development in the later chapters.

Ultimately, “Go Go Tales” is about Ferrara the filmmaker rather than an anatomy of the strip clubs. His restless camera, improvised, overlapping dialogue, and dynamic framing help make his film watchable and in sequences even enjoyable. I suspect it’s a movie that will sit better late at night, after a couple of drinks. (I attended a press screening early in the day).

The film’s tone is accurate in evoking the ambience of such clubs, a peculiar combination of visual pleasure, seductive temptation, and illusory intimacy. Most of the strippers are beautiful to behold from any possible angle, and Ferrara seemed to be intrigued in covering their flesh, position, and movement from as many angles as possible.

With few exceptions, Ferrara has not been particularly good or graceful with his performersunless they are aggressive and gutsy like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, or here Asia Argento. Dafoe looks right but acts wrong, and his rendition of a song may be a mistake (and certainly one of the film’s weakest scene). Typecast, Hoskins is doing his familiar gruff shtick. Stuck with an unappealing role, Modine again renders an unappealing performance. However, as noted, “Go Go Tales” is not about acting.

Credits

Running time: 96 minutes
Production companies: Bellatrix Media, Go Go Tales Inc., De Nigris Producer: Massimo Gatti
Executive producers: Enrico Coletti and Massimo Cortesi
Cinematography: Fabio Cianchetti
Editor: Fabio Nunziata
Production design: Frank de Curtis
Music: Francis Kuipers

Cast

Willem Dafoe
Matthew Modine
Bob Hoskins
Asia Argento
Sylvia Miles
Roy Dotrice