‘R Xmas

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Abel Ferrara’s film ‘R Xmas (2001) reprises many of the defining themes of his earlier picture King Of New York (1990). In King Of New York, Ferrara depicted a city in which criminals and law enforcement officers worked as two halves of a whole. The bureaucracy that kept the urban machine running was as dependent on drug dealers as it was the law. Cops vs. Crooks in King Of New York as a kind of pseudo checks and balances. ‘R Xmas examines the fallout of an interruption to that harmony in the context of the nuclear family.

The family in ‘R Xmas is an unorthodox one. Husband (Lillo Brancato) and Wife (Drea de Matteo) are drug dealers who have given every imaginable privilege money can buy to their daughter Lisa (Lisa Valens). Ferrara never names the couple and in so doing leaves them an open ended surrogate for the spectator. Instead of concentrating on exposition, Ferrara delves into the specific ethnic cultures of the couple to paint a portrait of intimate contradictions and collaborative resolutions. In this way ‘R Xmas is not unlike China Girl (1987), The Funeral (1996), or Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009).

In a trend that can be traced back to The Driller Killer (1979), Ferrara focuses a good deal of ‘R Xmas on work; the family business. The first act of ‘R Xmas shows The Husband and Wife going through the daily routine of being powerful drug dealers. This business is treated as matter-of-factly as an extra shift at a Wal-Mart would be in any other film. ‘R Xmas predicts HBO’s The Wire (2002-08) in how it renders this specific brand of criminal activity. By showing the viewer the work, Ferrara destigmatizes the drug dealer, reducing the romantic character of the drug dealer in films like Scarface (1983) to something totally functional and ordinary to the point that it is almost relatable.

The nuclear family of ‘R Xmas exists in a state of harmony both privately and publicly. The drug dealers rub shoulders with the elite, legitimate bastions of the community in the same way that the family itself mixes and mingles Italian, Dominican, and Puerto Rican cultures. But this harmony that is in turns born out of familial love and political necessity is thwarted violently via the intervention of The Kidnapper (Ice-T). By film’s end the Husband and Wife are contemplating leaving their criminal lifestyle behind just as Rudy Giuliani is about to take office and disrupt that precious harmony forever.

This interruption threatens the family’s connections to the bureaucratic mechanisms of the city, organized crime, and the internal familial relationships. To resolve the issue and get her husband back, The Wife must run a yuletide gauntlet not unlike that faced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All The Way (1996). The Wife’s desperate pursuits coupled with the fraying connections reveals a deeply rooted symbiosis in both the public and private spheres occupied by these characters. Ferrara reveals the tissue that binds a family to its environment and explores the pressures that inevitably accompany collective living.

‘R Xmas is a visually dark film full of ambient stillness. The claustrophobic compositions of images of the family are juxtaposed with the more open spaces of community. Spaces are condensed through slow cross-dissolves to connect events occurring simultaneously across the city. The scenes where The Wife and The Kidnapper meet start wide and move in tighter with almost all of the movement relegated to the background, seen through the car windows. The streets of New York are the connecting tissue between family and politics where movement makes one vulnerable, leaves one exposed.

The actions of the antagonist, The Kidnapper, are politically motivated but ultimately self serving. The Kidnapper is both the intimate and the public impulses of ‘R Xmas working in tandem paradoxically. The Kidnapper’s family is chosen; it is the brotherhood of police officers. The political is intimate for The Kidnapper so he is empowered to disrupt both in the lives of the Husband and The Wife. There is no balance for The Kidnapper, just the single absolute of both public and private functioning as one, suggesting the fascism that is always the enemy in the films of Ferrara.

Ferrara clearly loves his characters, good and bad, with the same unconditional affection as John Cassavetes. The characters in ‘R Xmas may be unnamed but they are among the most human creations of the filmmaker’s long career. As Ferrara lets the spectator just live with these characters during the first act of ‘R Xmas, he is forging a bond between audience and spectacle. ‘R Xmas is a frank and often bleak glimpse at humanity in a far fetched, genre specific situation. Once again, Ferrara turns the American genre film into high art.