A Bar Where Everybody Knows Your Pole Dance

06.01.2011, The New York Times
By Manohla Dargis

Heaven, David Byrne likes to sing, is a bar where the band plays your favorite song and everyone leaves the party at the same time. Mostly, though, “heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens,” which pretty much describes the usual scene at Ray Ruby’s Paradise Lounge. A gorgeously tawdry nirvana set in Manhattan, Paradise Lounge is an old-school strip club run by a soulful dreamer, Ray Ruby (a wonderful Willem Dafoe), who with love and not enough money is struggling to keep his people and parts in play – a beautiful metaphor for the filmmaking hard times faced by the likes of Abel Ferrara. Shot in late 2006 and shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007, “Go Go Tales” is the latest fiction film from Mr. Ferrara, one of the great undersung American independents. It’s a measure of the lamentable state of independent distribution in this country that the movie, despite receiving some critical support at Cannes, never hooked an American buyer, which is why it’s opening in New York at the Anthology Film Archives as part of a special program. That five-title series, “Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century,” also includes “Mary,” an unhinged 2005 fiction about the making of a Jesus movie, and “Chelsea on the Rocks,” the director’s 2008 docu-tour through the demimonde haunt known as the Chelsea Hotel. The Chelsea has nothing on the Paradise Lounge, which, while persuasively set in Manhattan – the Bronx-born Mr. Ferrara’s longtime stomping ground – was created at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where this director of essential New York films like “Bad Lieutenant” was then living. At once a performance space, a church and a circus, the Paradise Lounge is kept oiled and running by the Baron (a spot-on Bob Hoskins), a barker cum uberbouncer and Ray’s flexing muscle. The gargoyles, planted on bar stools and roving through the penumbral light, are played by character types like Burt Young, Franky Cee and Sylvia Miles, who bellows a hilarious, rueful song of gentrification (via Bed Bath & Beyond) over the final credits. The film opens with two mysterious visions, a restlessly moving overhead shot of Ray with his eyes at half mast and a frontal image of a woman wearing a pink tutu and toe shoes. Is Ray dreaming? Yes and no, for while the Paradise Lounge is vividly summoned up – the pulsing music, sparkling skin and cawing voices all have a rich, sensual presence – the place and the movie both have the aspect of a reverie. The shape of that dream unfolds leisurely, almost luxuriantly, in an episodic narrative which, as its name suggests, serves as a kind of fable. This being an Abel Ferrara production, the cheeky title also refers to the adoringly filmed, glitter-dusted women, which might be insulting but here comes off as merely playful. There’s an old-fashioned quality to the Paradise Lounge – its female workers generally frolic in G-strings and pasties, while their male counterparts usually wear suits – which makes it something of a nostalgia trip. The vibe is respectful, intimate, both professional and familial. The women perform for men, who leer and at times cheer, but keep their hands if not their money to themselves. Working with the cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, Mr. Ferrara presents the acts, most of which involve rather desultory pole dancing, often in medium shot, notably avoiding the invasive close-ups that bring out the salacious worst when some filmmakers hit strip clubs. Mr. Ferrara isn’t an innocent, not exactly, but because he clearly feels at home in this world, he expresses an honest, heartfelt respect for its inhabitants and habitués. A story more or less emerges amid the fragmented performances and snippets of conversation. Ray, with an assistant, Jay (Roy Dotrice), has come up with a dodgy lottery scheme that they hope will reap them a big reward. Months behind in the rent, Ray and his lounge are being kept afloat, if barely, by his brother, Johnie (a nimble Matthew Modine), a hairdresser with a little dog and an expansive heart. But Johnie, his patience worn thin, gives Ray an ultimatum, a deadline that – along with the screeching from the lounge’s harridan landlady (that would be Ms. Miles), the impending lottery and Mr. Dafoe’s twitchy, sympathetic performance as an unlikely optimist – gives the story its modest tension. A lovely drift of a movie, “Go Go Tales” commands your attention even as it lulls you along. Conspicuously inspired by John Cassavetes’s “Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” among other touchstones, it is a sincere and inspired meditation on art and creation, but in a loose, funny key. Mr. Ferrara has called “Go Go Tales” his “first intentional comedy,” a self-deprecating (if sometimes true!) comment for an artist who has always known how to make you gasp with laughter and sometimes in horror. Here, with a terrific cast – including an eye-popping Asia Argento memorably teamed up with a slobbering Rottweiler – he has delivered a touching and tender valentine to a lost New York, a city that now exists only as a hallucination.

GO GO TALES Opens on Friday in Manhattan. Written and directed by Abel Ferrara; director of photography, Fabio Cianchetti; music by Francis Kuipers; production design by Frank DeCurtis; costumes by Gemma Mascagni; produced by Bellatrix Media and Go Go Tales Inc. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Willem Dafoe (Ray Ruby), Bob Hoskins (The Baron), Matthew Modine (Johnie Ruby), Asia Argento (Monroe), Roy Dotrice (Jay), Lou Doillon (French), Riccardo Scamarcio (Doctor Steven), Franky Cee (Luigi), Burt Young (Murray) and Sylvia Miles (Lilian Murray).