In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
“The information highway is leading straight to hell…”
The films of Abel Ferrara are probably too anguished and tragic to be called hangout movies. To an extent, they wallow in states of sin, doom, and moral disrepair: a personal hell in Bad Lieutenant, the Lower East Side as it faces the end of time in 4:44 Last Day On Earth, a grueling film shoot in Dangerous Game. To the circles of Ferrara’s inferno, one can also add the indistinct cyberpunk future of his 1998 William Gibson adaption, New Rose Hotel. It’s a shame that Ferrara’s forays into the fantastic—such as Body Snatchers and the vampire film The Addiction—are more obscure than his crime films and psychodramas, as they interpret well-worn sci-fi and horror tropes in very personal and unsettling ways. But New Rose Hotel is a strange movie. It might be the only film of its time to portray a connected, information-economy digital future more or less accurately—not as an eclectic, visor-wearing, multicultural smorgasbord (à la Until The End Of The World or Johnny Mnemonic, the former indebted to Gibson, the latter loosely based on one of his early stories), but as a global nowhere of small screens, where the day-to-day reliance on data and video draws basic facts into question. By definition, a virtual reality isn’t a reality at all.
So call it a prescient or prophetic film. It’s a languorous, trip-hop movie, very in its own head, and it pushes the limits of how much of a narrative can remain invisible, as though it were taking the old adage that science fiction is the literature of ideas very literally. It’s set almost entirely indoors, in hotel suites and lobbies. And though futuristic technology is central to the plot, it’s never seen. In fact, at least half of the plot occurs off screen, as Ferrara never leaves the point of view of an unnamed corporate mercenary (Willem Dafoe, sporting a very of-its-time soul patch) and his philosophizing colleague Fox (Christopher Walken), who have been hired to pull off a corporate defection involving a scientist they never see face-to-face. As low-budget anti-spectacle, it’s pretty brazen. The perverse faithfulness of the script (by Ferrara and the splendidly named Christ Zois) to Gibson’s original short story only highlights the intangibility of New Rose Hotel. The dialogue often mimics the father of cyberpunk’s early prose. It’s that hyper-materialist composite quality in which the object of every third sentence is a speculative trend, kink, or technology. A man looks a woman up and down and says to her, “The outfit is Chinese. Knockoffs, not Tokyo originals. It’s good, but the accessories don’t do it justice.”
I think of it as akin to the low-budget sci-fi and horror B-movies of a much earlier generation, whose blank spaces asked for some kind of leap from the audience to facilitate a point. But New Rose Hotel is part of a tradition of alienated sci-fi that rarely makes it to the screen—the sort that deals not with how basic tenets of the human experience might endure, but how they could be irreparably damaged. And its future, in theory, is a lot like our present. The impression of not being set anywhere in particular is boosted by the fact that Ferrara and his longtime director of photography, Ken Kelsch, shot a lot of the film in close-up, sometimes with long lenses that confuse space. It’s another thing that makes New Rose Hotel so unusual: Its mise-en-scène is basically all faces, even in the grainy videos through which Dafoe’s character (and thus the audience) sees much of the plot unfold. So of course it’s about how people relate to one another. The first major scene is one of my favorites in the film—a perfect example of a Ferrara hangout scene, lit in extreme chiaroscuro and blocks of red. It features some of Ferrara’s most ambitious sound design, basking in the din of languages, chatter, and music. The whole sequence is a sardine can of stylized conversation and sex.
In order to pull off their scheme, Fox and the nameless protagonist hire a prostitute named Sandii (Asia Argento) to seduce the scientist in question in exchange for $1 million. In typical noir fashion, our nameless protagonist falls for her just as the plan is starting to come together. But suspense is not the film’s goal. The caper—financed by a Japanese corporation, targeted at a German rival, and involving a hotel in Austria and a research laboratory in Morocco—is a sequence of virtual transactions that the movie makes no attempt to visualize, creating an intentional emptiness at its center. Almost everything that happens is as real as money in a bank account: It’s there because it says so on a screen. But what we actually see in the film, besides the protagonist waiting around and talking to Fox, is his relationship with Sandii, the femme fatale. In both a literal and a figurative way, the film is very murky, but it has a sort of conceptual purity. The unnamed man is always is always clothed in black, Fox in off-white, and Sandii in red. There is a repeat of the iconic image of Ferrara’s gangster film King Of New York, the city pressed in glass. And there are all those anonymous hotel rooms. A hotel room is a contradiction, at once private and impersonal, in equal parts a symbol of hedonism and banality.
New Rose Hotel is imperfect in its strangeness; its vague, indirect minimalism can be hypnotic or off-putting. But these are the kind of imperfections that make a point. The metaphor of art and sex work always seems less tired in Ferrara’s hands, in part because his films tend to portray art as something that is both intimate and exploitative and because he never seems to begrudge his characters for either paying or being paid for sex and skin. (It’s telling that his most warm-hearted film, Go Go Tales, is set around a strip club.) Hotels are just another example of something very personal being commoditized. The title itself is the name of the derelict Tokyo capsule hotel where the unnamed man hides out in the final third of the movie—an ersatz, but oddly poignant metaphor for the dark night of the soul. His phony relationship with Sandii is the most tangible thing in the film. It’s where New Rose Hotel retreats. In a world where everything has become somewhat virtual, what’s to keep a person from disappearing into their memories? Why leave the hotel?