Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper:Who Gets Stuck With All the Bad Luck?

Subject A:Howard the Duck



A duck caught in a world that he did not create. Irascible, frustrated, a citizen of the most warped and chaotic corner of the Marvel Universe, in a situation he has little control over.

Subject B: Daffy Duck

A petulant, sarcastic, hapless individual, tormented by hunters, rabbits and martians. Trapped in a cartoon, one time manipulated by an insane animator who turned out to be none other than his rabbit nemesis. Irascible, frustrated, a citizen of a universe so looney it's part of its name, in a situation he has no control over.



Subject C: Donald Duck

A pantsless cuckold and a cauldron of seething rage. He is mad at this girlfriend, at his nephews, at local chipmunks, at his mentally challenged anthropoid dog friend. Irascible, frustrated, an angry man in a place where anger is either comical or the province of villains.



Why, you might ask, am I providing you with half-assed psychological profiles of cartoon ducks? It seems weird even for me. Well, I'm doing this because people that watch Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper might think that the killer's tendency to talk like a cartoon duck is weird and stupid. They might think Fulci is being weird for weird's sake or creepy for creepy's sake and while it's weird and it's creepy, it makes perfect sense. Okay, maybe my standards for "perfect sense" have atrophied over the years but the cartoon duck thing still works artistically. It's a valid metaphor. Really. New York Ripper is a gory police procedural/giallo about a guy that commits egregiously violent acts on women and taunts the police by talking like a duck and it makes sense for him to do so, not just in the context of the plot but in the context of artistic choices.

If it doesn't impress that somebody pulled this off, I'd like to see what kind of cinematic voodoo earns your respect. Anyway, New York Ripper begins in broad daylight, like many Fulci movies do. Lucio Fulci seems to have a vendetta against people going out during the day. You'll get stabbed, you'll get raped, you'll get eaten by a zombie on a boat. Get a job as a third shift Speedway clerk, it's the only way you'll be safe. An old man is walking his golden retriever near the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a sweet scene, one you know is not going to last. The movie proves you right when the dog finds a rotted hand.

When we get to the police precinct, we meet the cop investigating the severed hand found by dog case. When anybody finds a severed hand, it's serious business but when it's an adorable dog, the cops jump to action interviewing the murder victim's insufferable landlady in true police procedural fashion. It's unsettling that a severed hand is involved in this because Lieutenant Williams, the man in charge of the case, does not seem much like a real cop, he seems like a TV cop. His every line of dialogue feels fake and transparent down to his weird "I don't want people to find out that deep down I care about things" demeanor.

First time I watched this, I was left wondering why it was that this grisly murder was being solved by such a flat protagonist, such a cop show caricature. Second time I watched it, I asked a different question. Why is it we trivialized and sanitized murder for so long in our police procedurals and cop shows? Before the disgusting forensics show trend that now dominates the genre, cop shows depicted how we wanted crime to be, we wanted it to be smooth, we wanted it to be gore free and we wanted it to happen well outside our backyards. The police procedural was safe place for us, a refuge...like cartoons. Whether the fake cop show veneer is that way on purpose or unintentionally, Fulci has put shards of glass in a great American comfort food. Did you ever see an episode of Kojak where a woman was ripped open on a ferry?

When the ferry murder occurs, it becomes very clear that we're in a New York where even in broad daylight gruesome and immoral things are happening and nobody is safe. The police procedural has been transplanted into the New York of Driller Killer and Ms.45 and when Lucio Fulci's working in Ferrara country, we're going to witness some epically fucked up shit. A trenchcoated woman watches a live sex show as a creepy bastard watches her watching it, taking in her masturbatory ecstasy and voyeuristic thrill. The woman in the show goes from degrading herself on stage to being alone in the dark, is grabbed the sketchy guy, is stabbed brutally with a broken bottle and is killed. Fulci seems to be saying that humiliation and degradation lead to death. It is obvious that misogyny breeds killers but not so obvious that the loss of women's dignity will lead often to the loss of their lives. When we take away dignity, we create violence.

Which brings me to the duck. The killer quacks and talks like a cartoon as he is killing and after the murders, calls Lieutenant Williams while speaking in his duck voice. It seems silly and offputting for the sake of being offputting, but as I said there's a reason for it in the plot and a reason for the artistic choice. All the cartoon ducks I mentioned face a lack of dignity, a lack of restraint and a lack of capacity to deal with their chaotic surroundings. In a New York where everybody shows signs of perversion (Williams makes time with a prostitute, the arrogant bastard psychologist that helps him on the case buys a gay porno magazine, probably a huge deal in an Italian movie from 1982) with poverty and hyperstimulation everywhere things are worse than in the Disney, Marvel or Warner Brothers worlds, there are all the frustrations but none of the safety and warmth and none of the censorship. Donald Duck would no doubt have a criminal record in early 80s New York, as would Daffy and even Howard (and Howard knows Spiderman). The killings are not simple Freudian murders but motivated by a kind of poetic psychology as we tend to see in gialli. The world is absurd and unfair and filthy and he has to vent his frustration somehow.

Female sexuality is something we've always sought to control and moderate. If it gets out of hand, it can be perceived as intimidating, wild and a source of disorder and a way of squandering a powerful gift of which men are in awe. The New York of New York Ripper is choked in sexual kudzu and thus is an aberration, one that is particularly painful for a man like the murderer in New York Ripper. The intricacies of his motivation are so novel that I don't wish to spoil them, based in part in the out of control sexuality around him but, as I said it's not that simple.

New York Ripper is a film to be experienced, not to be described, which is why I find myself a bit inarticulate in discussing its plot points and breaking down its scenes and more comfortable talking about theme and atmosphere The sexuality and the gore and the strangeness make it a giallo every bit as fascinating as Argento's best but possessing a wholly unique atmosphere combining grindhouse sleaze with copshow cliche.

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