THE VIRGIN FILM YEAR BOOK
FACES OF THE FUTURE
ABEL FERRARA / ZOE TAMERLIS
by Myron Meisel
Zoe Tamerlis in 'Angel of Vengeance/Ms. 45'
Art thrives on adversity, and poverty of means need not yield poverty of expression. Assiduous archaeologists sifting through the dross of B-movies occasionally unearth an artifact of rare value, in which inspiration surmounts limitations, and a film achieves a peculiar beauty attendant on its aesthetic victory against formidable odds. The economics of the film industry have now banished the production of low-budget films to the underpopulated fringes of the business, and the joys of discovery amongst recent films have been rare. Still, no assessment of any year in cinema would be complete without some recognition of the signal achievement in the realm of what is now dubbed the "exploitation" film.
Made cheaply (for about $350,000) by some obviously hustling New Yorkers, Angel of Vengeance (released in the US under the title Ms. 45) applies a twist and variations to the familiar Death Wish formula of rampant vigilantism. Yet that vile Michael Winner opus otherwise bears little resemblance to this charged piece of film making. A deaf mute woman, lovely but almost pathologically shy, works in Manhattan's garment district. When she is raped twice in a single day, killing her second assailant, she is transformed into an obsessive murderer of men, until her rage is finally spent in an orgy of mayhem.
Director Abel Ferrara develops this rather tawdry tale with an astonishing plastic force, visual wit, strong control over emotional responses, expressionistic style and keen appreciation for the critical importance of establishing credible icons. As the hapless fury, Zoe Tamerlis makes one of the most exceptional debuts in recent film history, coming on like a rampaging Lillian Gish, visually startling and fascinating in mime and in repose. The film demands that her face carry an immense expressive burden, and the camera loves her.
Angel of Vengeance attracted a fair amount of favourable critical attention in the US where it was released theatrically almost two years after it was shot, winning the coveted Edgar G. Ulmer Award for 1981 and garnering a core of voting support for Zoe Tamerlis as best actress among the National Society of Film Critics. Even major newspaper critics in New York and Los Angeles praised the work, though the film attracted only modest business. According to Ferrara, the film's distribution in the UK has been stalled by withholding of censorship approval. Warner Brothers in London, however, say that after seeing the film -- which had already acquired a British title Angel of Vengeance - they decided to "pass" on it.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ferrara's direction is his brilliant measuring of technique. The exigencies of low budget film making often require unseemly haste, and Ferrara understandably throws away some minor scenes in single wide-angle shots, husbanding his resources so that when a shot or scene is essential, he can lavish on them the care necessary to make some brilliant choices register their fullest. Never has the rage and resentment of women at male harassment on the streets been more forcefully conveyed, and the gender role reversal is not exploited in a manner that would negate the compelling underlying ideology of sexual politics.
Born in the Bronx in 1952, Abel Ferrara was entranced by movies since he saw his first film, Sirk's Imitation of Life. Together with the screenwriter of Angel of Vengeance, Nicholas St. John, and his future soundman, the teenage Ferrara made 8mm films. Reuniting a decade later, the same childhood group began making shorts and then feature films, adding the extraordinary talents of cinematographer James Momel. Their first generally-released film, Driller Killer (1979), featured Ferrara as the eponymous assassin, a psychotic oil painter murdering derelicts with an electric drill plugged into a power belt worn around his waist. Today, Ferrara characterises that early work as being "like scratchings on a cave wall" in comparison with Angel of Vengeance, though the movie boasts William Friedkin among its adherents.
Ferrara tried to convey his affection for the often grim terrain of New York City by utilising locations throughout the City and seeing them, with Momel's aid, in a fresh, utterly unsentimental manner. He likes the freedom to improvise production decisions, which he can only achieve by meticulous planning.
His next project will be another St. John screenplay, Birds of Prey, a "political war drama set in New York in 1994, when the whole City is an armed camp in the grip of a revolution, not unlike El Salvador today." Despite initial Hollywood interest in the wake of Angel of Vengeance, Ferrara remains determined to make the film in his own way and is prepared to shoot it once again on a low budget if that is necessary to preserve his artistic vision.
He had even been prepared to abandon production on Angel of Vengeance when an extensive search had failed to uncover the right actress for the lead. Then someone sent over Zoe Tamerlis, a 16 year-old student at Columbia. "As soon as I looked at her through the peephole in the door of my loft studio, I knew she was the one I wanted."
Tamerlis grew up in New York City but has been carefully cultivating an aura of mystery in Hollywood, appearing dressed in black and making sudden appointments in odd locations like a latter-day Harry Lime. Committed to expressing her radical politics on film, she has written a screenplay, an epic political drama called Curfew: USA, in which she is attempting to create a genuinely revolutionary cinema within the Hollywood tradition. Meanwhile, she has secured strong agency representation and has been vying for a number of roles.
According to Tamerlis, her performance in Angel of Vengeance provoked a sniper attack on her in New York, wounding her. Nevertheless, she makes an articulate case far her criticism of the American film industry even while she shrewdly exploits its appetite for the novel and the elusive. She has the talent to be an absorbing actress and the temperament to be a commanding personality, achievements of personal style that belie her 19 years.