It’s a difficult enough task to film New York. I do not mean by this, of course, to set all or part of a film in New York, as so many have done who neither deeply know nor particularly love the place (The Adjustment Bureau (2011), for a recent example; King Kong (1933) for a much earlier one) or even as has been admirably accomplished by some who are New Yorkers in their blood but whose directorial concern, rather than playing upon that fact, is to find characters, faces, little endroits both known and unknown, nuances, occasions, tricks. You have to put Woody Allen in this group, perhaps as its leader. His New York is all morceaux for the bourgeois tourist or nibbles at characters abstracted from place: a good case, David’s (Sam Waterston) architectural tour in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); or Mary (Diane Keaton) drenched at the Planetarium in Manhattan (1979); or the Canadian Marshall McLuhan appearing like a ghost in the lobby of the Beekman theatre on 2nd Avenue, in Annie Hall (1977). But Sidney Pollack belongs there, too (his Tootsie (1982) was a story that, if it couldn’t have taken place anywhere else, yet hardly ever actually tastes of New York, even when Dorothy Michaels (Dustin Hoffman) is invading the Russian Tea Room on West 57 St.). And once in a while, strangely enough, this can also be said for Martin Scorsese, especially with the extremely powerful Goodfellas (1990) in which the settings are almost always subsumed under the personalities of the characters. Mean Streets (1973) has the colour of the light right, and the tenement settings are authentic; but many of his later films focus on event, character, contestation, and climax more than place: possibly this is one reason why with Donnie Brasco (1995) the Englishman Mike Newell’s New York could seem so Scorsesean, since it had the same fixes. When I think of New York as a setting and a culture, of the peculiar New York frame of mind as configured in place, some of Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) rings very true, and this, perhaps, is because with this film he has been infected by the very infectious Abel Ferrara.
Ferrara is not especially interested in telltale perspectives (i.e., a romantic shot at the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge arching over the head); or in prototypical scenes (the Italian eatery or midtown deli [The Godfather (1972), made by a man from Detroit], obnoxious traffic [The Terminal (2004), made by a man from Los Angeles], the towering arroyo of apartment buildings running up the east side [Six Degrees of Separation (1993), made by an Aussie]); or in completely hackneyed—if spectacularly filmed–New York encounters (a monster from the netherworld fighting ghost busters on Central Park West, seen through the eyes of a Torontonian). All of these “New Yorks” are finally for tourists: they gaze at the city by looking “up” at its wonders. Ferrara has his nose to the pavement, he’s stepping along with business to do. He’s got his ears open. The images he captures are not for postcards, especially in The King of New York (1990), which has an intoxicatingly slimy quality. In Go Go Tales (2007) we don’t really ever get outside the strip club that is the film’s home. There’s no vision of towering skyscrapers or blatant walls of neon, madly rushing taxis, insufferable commercial glitz. We don’t tour the world of New York in this film, that world tours us—through its characters, its desperations, its insatiable and incessant longing for a success that seems so bitterly elusive.
Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) is the proprietor of a strip club called the Paradise. Here—always here, day and night–he’s suffering. Nothing is going quite right, nothing is according to plan, and he has a marvelous plan, dreamed up a long time ago but also this morning, every morning, and is it not, then, only a dream. Business is lagging. Aside from Ray’s rosy memory of some halcyon past, nothing but a cloud today, business has always lagged. This Paradise is all future, about which we should remember what Nabokov wrote in Transparent Things: “The future is but a figure of speech, a spectre of thought.” The girls—from Rome, from Paris, from Texas, you name it–are getting tired of hearing they’ll be paid tomorrow for the revelations of flesh they must provide today. “Within 24 hours.” “Within 48 hours.” Until the last syllable of recorded time. It’s all a question of the way one sees one’s future, because any one of them can leave on a breath, try to find work elsewhere in this sordid collapsing world; or else stay with the hope of being paid tomorrow. Tomorrow or tomorrow. The landlord Lilian (Sylvia Miles) is screaming for her rent, a shrew with lungs and enormous lips. Jay (Roy Dotrice) the business manager has so many figures—legit and illegit–racing through his head, so many scraps of paper filled with cryptic notes, he cannot think. The girls are getting very tired of hearing they’ll be paid tomorrow, they don’t want to lap dance anymore (yet, having spent years focusing their bodies and energies, they are prepared for little else, have nothing to say, think about nothing but their skin). Champagne is flowing into myriad rivers, underground rivers of the dead that rush and nourish and haunt, “more alive and more powerful,” Peter Ackroyd writes, “in their subterranean existence.” Everybody’s mouth is having a jolly time, but this is only because Baron (Bob Hoskins), the squat little majodomo, is handing out bottles to customers in exchange for the hope that each one will take up residence, stare forever at the crotch leaning dangerously close to his face: anything to keep these hopeless bimbos from leaving on the 8:38 to Babylon, Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Copague.
There’s a professional chef (as he names himself; in truth he’s Narcissus reborn), tall, inscrutable, obsessive, beyond exasperation: he’s sick and tired of cooking his organic, free-range hotdogs in a kitchen infiltrated by one of the strippers and her much too hungry dog–there are no living citizens of this city without a beef. Ray’s little brother has showed up now, Johnie (Matthew Modine) the hairdresser from the future, scanning the territory like a well-manicured hitman slathered with too much lip gloss.
But Johnie is a hitman in fact, because tonight he plans to “pull the plug.” It’s enough, it’s more than enough, he’s thrown a fortune into this hopeless joint for this hopeless brother who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Lilian is at the bar, ensconced like a diva, swilling champagne and screaming that Ray is nothing but a loser—more than screaming: bellowing, with her loudspeaker mouth. They can hear Lilian in Bay Ridge, in Bayonne, in Battery Park, at the Bronx Zoo, on the Belt Parkway. The tanning machine has been fitted, irresponsibly, with the wrong lighting tube and catches fire with one of the girls inside—she escapes, screaming, and for a moment the place is a disaster zone in waiting. Ray and Jay, meanwhile, are secretly addicted to gambling, and for months now they have been pumping all of the profits into lottery tickets, tickets gathered and folded, tickets piled and packed, tickets stuffed away in every crevice of Jay’s cramped, shady office. Now, tonight, fandango!–they have actually won, won the spectacular sum of eighteen million dollars, actually, really, no kidding. But where is the ticket? Where is the golden ticket? Where has Jay put it, he has thousands of them? Thousands of tickets and tens of thousands, neatly bundled and stuffed away, hidden for just this moment of Revelation, and hopeless Jay is stumbling around trying to find them—he’s not so young, his eyesight isn’t so good–while Ray staves off his ravenous brother and the ravenous landlord and the hundred spontaneously arriving Chinese tourists ravenous to experience New York, experience it now, who walk in and then abruptly walk out again, in and out, maybe this place, maybe not, with the bus all gleamy as midnight outside at the curb, and the girls strutting around with increasing militancy, getting revolutionary about not having been paid . . .
There’s no end to it.
There no end to it, there was no beginning. It was here, it is here, it will always be here, the talking, the promising, the hope for tomorrow, the anger, the jealousy, the energy, the desperation, the hunt, the hopeless hunt, the desire to nestle, once and for all, into the crotch of success. Men staring into those dangerous crotches, wanting without an end to the want, hungry without hope of satisfaction, looking to find something, to find the “Open Sesame” that will cause that G-string to evanesce. Younger men, older men, men alone, men in company, holding their liquor glasses and staring at the girls, staring at the moving asses of the girls, staring between the legs, staring into the future, forgetting that the future is a figure of speech, believing in the untold promise offered by those girls, epitomes of civilization.
It all boils down to this, at the top of the Empire State Building and in the A train’s tunnel, on the plush Aubusson carpets of Sutton Place and on the tenement fire escapes of Grand Street. Everywhere surveillance, rebounding Ferrara’s camera and dividing it into a myriad haunting fragments. Cameras, angles, grainy pictures, continuous reportage. Everything seen except the one thing we want to see, that spectre of thought. It’s all news. It’s all old news. Even Ray, in his own office, is on camera, the surveiller surveilled, the vigilant invigilated, the girls are on camera in their dressing room, the bar is on camera, the dance floor is on camera, the private booths are on camera. Only hopeless Jay isn’t on camera. He’s watching what’s on camera, while tallying figures and trying to find the winning lottery ticket. Tallying figures. Think of a life spent in only addition, accretion, aggrandisement. One hundred plus one hundred is two hundred. Hunting for the ticket. Tallying figures. Hunting for the ticket. Watching those screens—wavering, grainy, blue-gray pictures of the dance, the pose, the capture, the surrender, the want: every phase of this another dollar.
(It was one of the first revelations I experienced in New York, when I was twelve. There is virtually no place to rest one’s feet without paying. Central Park is fine if you live nearby, otherwise you have to pay to get there. Paley Park, that oasis, didn’t exist until the 1970s. You go to the museum and you have to pace the marble floors, pain shooting up your calves, because there basically are no benches. You can go to Broadway in the 70s and see benches in the grassy median that splits the road, but they are occupied by old people reading the Times. There is very little experience in New York separate from cash transaction–perhaps watching the pigeons. Capitalism is not only manifest in New York, it is embodied there; New York is capitalism. Is Ray’s club the way out? Is that what the dancing girls are, those girls who won’t dance anymore if they don’t get paid–the way out of this morass?)
The girls have really and truly had enough, now they actually aren’t going to work anymore, and this is no joke. The system fractured, splintered. The workers in revolt. Ray is beside himself. Literally—as in ecstasy—he seems to stand outside of himself, looking at every aspect of this sordid affair. There isn’t a trick he misses (he has the chef hoping for a reality-tv show about him and the free-range hotdogs) and he’s planning to redecorate a chamber upstairs as the surface of the moon . . .. Look, we’ll do this. Look, we’ll do that. It’ll be fabulous. Ray is beside himself because the club, evidently, is slipping away; but he is the club; so he is slipping away; but to where? And how quickly? There are myriad lines in Dafoe’s face when he stops smiling, when he puts that marquee smile full of golden assurance into the locker. Every one of these lines goes into action to map out the future of Paradise, and all the time to spring back to dance its etch-a-sketch into Dafoe’s blue face.
None of the go go tales make a difference, none are going anywhere. Will the girls finally get paid? Not while we’re watching, that’s for certain. What about the rent, will Lilian get it? Ditto, and it’s four months she’s covered them, four stinking months–the word “stinking” comes out of her mouth like Puccini. The film isn’t about what’s happening, it’s about the movement of the happening, the swirling, the going of the go go, the go go of time, the go go of utopia, about endlessly crying, making the endlessly hopeful chant of the happening. The recounting of reality even as one lives it through complaint, memory, invective, conjecture. Not merely to breathe, then, or to see: but to say the ache of the breath, to sing the recession and expansion of the show. In New York, it’s always talk; anybody’s life is a go go tale. Cheap strip club music (it becomes the circulation of one’s blood), chatter from the patrons to pass the time, kill the time, make time, Ray thinking out loud, all those blueprints, quietly confronting his hostile staff, desperately charging Jay to keep searching for that ticket, the voices, the laughter, the voices, the voices, the voices. Let me tell you what it’s actually like to be in New York—not to visit. It’s all money, money coming from here and going there, small money, daily money, like a river molten and gleaming and never-ending, and one has to swim. The dry cleaner, the deli counterman for the cheese on rye with Russian and lettuce, the vegetable dealer for three zucchini and a tomato, the guy at the news kiosk for the Daily News, the bus driver, another bus driver, still another bus driver, the girl at the gilded box office for the ticket into the 2:30 matinee of Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia (1957) at The New Yorker, where you can hear a voice say “Culture is what’s left behind when everyone has gone home,” the guy who’s going to pour you that glass of wine, cheap wine, wine that when you pick up the glass blocks the light. Go Go Tales gives a marvelous picture of that precise and cutting formation, the flow of need and desire, the flow of talk, and a man who, if his head is going under, keeps bobbing to the surface again and again. The braying mantra from Lilian, “He’s a loser, he was born a loser, he’ll die a loser,” over and over, over and over, in a voice that could slice through steel, to be born, to die, to win, to lose, and the Baron’s sharp, staccato, Queens-inflected jabs (Bob Hoskins is one of the few British actors who can master American accents), his unctuous welcoming smiles, his slavish courtesies to the hungry men who have never understood satisfaction but are questing after it anyway, staring at those girls, his patent falseness, his non-stop gab. Non-stop. There is no moment of silence, except at the very beginning, when we see the body of Ray coming out of a nap on his couch, dreamland, pale blue, swirling, but then he has to come to attention and keep an eye, keep an eye, keep an eye. The money, the drinks, the girls, the girls, the men—“You cannot touch the girls!!!”–the girls, Lilian the devouring goddess, hopeless Jay.
“You cannot touch the girls!” But in cinema the audience cannot touch anything. The audience cannot touch, cannot taste, cannot smell (by late 1960, Smell-O-Vision was history). Here we stare at hungry consumers never permitted to eat, a Sisyphean extravaganza of gazes piled upon gazes, with the girls flashing the crotch in the eyes of the beholder who can only see. Paradise the nightclub, promising the future and only promising the future, is also cinema the nightclub, racing forward through the eyes. Ray’s desire (like Ferrara’s desire) is to keep cinema alive, but what is the desire of these men who frequent the place, line up at the edge of the stage, pay money to gain unimpeded visual access to the girls? What do they want? Even if they could touch, what is it, in the end of it all, that they would want? If the answer is freedom from wanting, then Ray must see to it that his clients are never free.
Intercut between the pieces of action, forming a beat that picks up a tribal rhythm, are close shots of the girls at work, almost naked, all but naked, naked in your imagination, covered in spangles, their hair outlandishly propped up into a second city that mounts up toward the sky, ziggurat buffants, floppy bejeweled tresses, and their writhing movements, rotations of their hips, their legion bent-over promises, their hungry lips, lips for tasting, lips for devouring, lips for devouring, lips for tasting. Intermeshed with all this, the eyes of the men who pay to be entertained here, limitless in their desire, cold, dead already. Men who want something, what is it they could want? Men who have come to the end of their tethers, who need some resolution, who need to find what has been lost or to lose what they have found and cannot be rid of. Is it only the vaginal opening they want so desperately to see, see and see again, that Courbetian “origine du monde,” weaving and throbbing in front of them beneath the most perfunctory shreds of armour. The money flowing like some life-giving fluid. The bent-over promises. The hypnotic chant, “Soon, not now, soon, not now, soon.”
Soon. It’s the American idea, after all, straight from the mouth of Rick Blaine: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” It’s the American idea in its purest, most honest form, that something better will come of all this mud, “All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud,” the idea that it is actually possible to build a new world. Here at Ray’s Paradise, just as at Rick’s in Casablanca (1942), every dollar is dedicated to this proposition.
Those undulating, warm-fleshed women, holding that pole, climbing that pole but never ever getting all the way to the top, squatting on that floor. They want Johnie to pay them, since it’s clear now that he’s the future, he’s the only hope. They are pressing him. He makes it clear that they’ll get paid when he wants to pay them, not when they want to get paid. He’ll do everything when he wants to do it. Paid = laid. The money is the spice of life. And this is Paradise, the great repository of spice. Paradise, it should be added, where things don’t look good anymore, the plug is going to be pulled, the landlord has men coming in tomorrow to take measurements. The camera always moving, hunting itself for the secret of success, the perfect view between those perfect legs, or the right lottery ticket from the sickening waste of useless ones, or the right wording of the right promise, “Tomorrow, tomorrow . . .” No, things aren’t working in Paradise. Then finally, of course–because it can only be this way–because Ray can keep the dogs at the door only so long, his office is just mobbed, it’s a protest movement, the procession winding up the blue stairs and visible on the closed-circuit television screen, fat tuxedos, girls in headdresses, the lonely Baron who doesn’t like seeing his clients taking that train out to Babylon. (In the only flawed instant in the film, Hoskins, an Englishman even though he is one of our great character actors, mispronounces the word as “Baby-LON,” but the insiders know it’s “BABBLE-in”; he also substitutes “Massa-PEEKA” for “Massa-PEEK-wa,” but we don’t really care, it’s all happening too fast, the wave of sludge is heading for the beach, and Paradise is all sliding too far down the dark tube of Now toward the white emptiness of Then.) As if the real isn’t sufficiently surreal yet, it is, of all nights, Thursday night, talent night, and all the girls get to dress up and do a legitimate performance for an audience of, you have it, talent scouts. (Of course, tonight no talent scouts have shown up.) One is in a tutu and dances en point; one twirls a baton; but a third sits at a keyboard and plays Bach’s Prelude No. 2 in D Minor, while at the bar an altercation starts up between Johnie and the girls who want their money now. This Johnie carries a tender little Papillon and seems to have applied, yes, mauve lipstick to his mouth. Perhaps he’s just a little too pretty for this Paradisiacal life. And the mobster Danny Cash (Joe Cortese) has shown up with his protégé, Dr. Steven (Riccardo Scamarcio), a hot young hygieno-buck eager to feast his eyes on the bodies he has learned how to understand but prefers to dream of. This creature has suddenly recognized that one of the strippers is––oh no!, his wife, what a scene!, what bel canto! And Danny himself is almost choking to death on a pastrami sandwich, but brave Dr. Steven hits him in the stomach and the pastrami goes flying through the air and hits a woman on the back of the head. The woman was . . . (You’ll have to see the movie.)
It seems evident enough, yet there is no moment when Ferrara even gives a hint to this effect, that Paradise is America, not the butt-of-cynics America, not America the Lost, nor America the haven of inutile politics, brazen cowpunchers, insane militarists, neoliberal neoChristian neoimperialists. It’s an America for the Euro-age, when the dollar is fleeting and the world is falling apart but still inhabited by those who would make it pure, those who believe it can be pure again, as it was when the forests were untapped and the birds wouldn’t stop singing. The America of William Carlos Williams, of Tennessee Williams, of Eugene O’Neill, of Edward Albee, of Jack Kerouac, all those saints of the road, gathered here in what will be Paradise if we let it, drinking themselves to oblivion while keeping their wits sharp for the turn in the road. The voice we hear after all the other voices have echoed away is Ray’s, proclaiming that things are just about to change, things are going to get better, it’s all going to happen, yes, for real. “I’m a gambler!” he admits to the angry throng who, having learned that he used their money to play the lottery, are ready to tear him limb from limb. “I love to gamble.” (He gambles to love.) America has always been a gamble. “You can’t get blood from a stone!” A stone—the male organ: and all those hungry males gazing and paying, paying and gazing and hoping, their stones getting harder and harder as they wait in the great Line-Up for the delivery of the grand promise.
Ray is speaking from his heart (Ferrara’s point is that New York is where the true Americans are, and that they always speak from the heart), and to show it, to show the sincerity that is all he truly owns in this life, he pats himself gently over the ribs, look, here, my actual heart. And then, magic!, something’s inside the jacket, his good-luck jacket that the dry cleaner hasn’t cleaned very well, and what could it be but the lottery ticket, yes, the great streamlined vehicle for tomorrow.