Abel Ferrara, who is both the director and subject of “Alive in France,” deserves to be at the center of a documentary. He’s a filmmaker who has given us one extraordinary film — “Bad Lieutenant” (1992) — along with a few good ones (like his 1981 midnight movie “Ms. 45,” which first put the gun-toting badass heroine on screen) and a whole lot of squalidly semi-interesting and “dangerous” downtown art trash. Ferrara hasn’t had a hit, even a micro-indie cult hit, in decades. Yet there’s a reason that he’s been toiling away on his own debauched wavelength of devoted squalor for nearly 40 years. As an artist, he left the loop of influence long ago, but as an underground celebrity beatnik who drags his mystique around with him like a ratty ball and chain, he’s irreplaceable.
The first time I ever went to Rome, I was strolling, on my first day, down Via Veneto, and there — of course! — was Ferrara (he lives there), not just walking but skulking, dressed in a nice jacket but still looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame as an aging poet-derelict. I thought: Who needs more Abel Ferrara movies? Abel Ferrara is a movie.
“Alive in France” is a thrown-together documentary about a tiny tour of French rock clubs that Ferrara went on along with his makeshift band in October 2016, all to perform songs from his soundtracks and publicize a touring retrospective of his films. If you think that Ferrara can be an awkward director, just wait until you see him get up on stage with a guitar and sing raspy blues-rock in his “black” voice or lead a jaunty upbeat number with lyrics that go, “Dee Dee Ramone! Why don’t you call on the phone?/Why don’t you come back home?/Why’d you leave us alone?” Ferrara is 65 now, with choppy longish white hair, scrunchy weatherbeaten features, the teeth of a ’60s B-movie reptile, and a hipster’s gaze of eternal penetrating cool. At times he seems to be playing his own gutter version of a superhero: Wasted-Man. Yet he’s a compelling figure, because there’s a garbage fire inside him that burns more brightly than he looks.
“Alive in France” is a bit of a contradiction. It’s a “bohemian” vérité home movie that’s all about tossing things off and making it up as you go along, yet it’s infused with a top-heavy boomer narcissism. In Paris, Ferrara is interviewed by a reporter, who asks him about the documentary he’s making, and so we get to see him talk about the movie we’re now watching, as if it was the most important thing in the world. Ferrara, born in 1951, has that gut-bucket boomer belief in the power of his own mojo. He talks with the husky rasp of someone who grew up modeling himself on mobsters, and while you might expect his band to emulate Lou Reed, their musical references are a lot squarer — the Stones, the Doors, Dylan, Springsteen.
Yet the more you hear them, the more they sound like a bar band you want to come back to. Ferrara, in his way, is an appealing lead singer, like Leonard Cohen crossed with a friendly gorilla. At one point the band does an infectiously propulsive song that sounds like a minor-key version of “L.A. Woman.” It turns out to be a revamped version of the title song to “Bad Lieutenant,” with lyrics that go, “I!! I’m a bad lieutenant!” Yet it’s catchy, as are most of the concert clips in “Alive in France.”
The rest of the film is ramshackle and indulgent, and that will limit its possibilities for release. It’s all built around Ferrara, who as a character is coated in geological layers of New York. The primal layer, intriguingly, couldn’t be further from his mystique: In his dese-dem-dose inflections, delivered in a voice of sandpaper, you can still hear the grunt who was born in the Bronx. Layered on top of that is the teenage art-head who moved to the Westchester suburb of Peekskill when he was 15, then the ’60s cat who never stopped saying “man,” the Charles Bukowski grizzled-addict reptile of the streets, and now, after too many years of wreckage, the serene survivor. (He’s married, for a second time, to actress Cristina Chiriac, and they have a beautiful baby.)
The touring Euro retrospective of Ferrara’s films is entitled “Addiction at Work,” and that’s an indication of what the center of life has been for him. Interviewed at a museum, he characterizes “Bad Lieutenant,” his great grunge drama of addiction, as a “nightmare,” which sounds honest, but you may wish that Ferrara were more up front about the lethal pleasures of his lifestyle.
That’s the movie someone should really make about Abel Ferrara: not a shaggy ramble that mirrors his DIY aesthetic, but a probing, crafted portrait that captures how a filmmaker like this one emerged out of a particular place and time, and found a cachet, and even went to Hollywood (where he had some of his greatest success directing television, like the pilot episode for Michael Mann’s “Crime Story”), and, through it all, kept dropping out, because that’s what his anti-bourgeois reflexes taught him to do. A documentary self-portrait as casually slipshod as “Alive in France” represents its own form of dropping out. But with Abel Ferrara, you know one thing: He’ll be back.