Abel Ferrara’s Messy Video Diary of a Messy Year

There is no writing credit for “Sportin’ Life,” which feels like an omission, but an apt one. On the one hand, this documentary self-portrait by rogue auteur Abel Ferrara feels wholly the product of his eccentric imagination, colored by his voice from beginning to hasty end. On the other, it’s impossible to imagine such a chaotic, clashing assemblage of half-thoughts and impulses being “written” per se: A video diary of the filmmaker’s travels and stasis from February to August of this year, edited with nary a moment to reflect ahead of its premiere at the Venice Film Festival this month, it gives every appearance of having been downloaded directly from his brain in its full antic, distracted form. Whose 2020 has been a year of tidy ideas, after all?

On the one hand, then, “Sportin’ Life” mostly captures the spirit of an enervating, dislocated time, as Ferrara touches on the disorientating effect of a global pandemic and, in somewhat more cursory fashion, a summer jolted from ennui by renewed Black Lives Matter protests. Whether anyone but his most die-hard fans will want to relive these months through his eyes is another question, though with the film clocking in at just 65 minutes, it’s at least a reasonably untaxing work of self-indulgence. The few people who thrilled to the 69-year-old filmmaker’s markedly similar 2017 doc “Alive in France” will again be tickled by this one, which was produced by Saint Laurent director Anthony Vaccarello as part of the fashion house’s ongoing “Self” project, which has thus far yielded noodlings by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and Gaspar Noé (“Lux Aeterna,” which cracked a Cannes premiere last year).

Somewhat surprisingly, given the Saint Laurent stamp, this is an authentically scrappy, scruffy work from Ferrara, who proved the enduring recklessness of his vision with this year’s exhilaratingly bizarre narrative feature “Siberia.” That film’s Berlinale premiere, plus the accompanying publicity roadshow with actor Willem Dafoe and Ferrara’s own blues-rock band, provides much of the footage for “Sportin’ Life” — whether it’s Ferrara and Dafoe jovially riffing off each other in junket interviews, or the whole entourage jamming on stage at the film’s post-screening party. Dafoe yowling his way through Del Shannon’s “Runaway” (a song key to “Siberia”) is a highlight, though Ferrara circles back to this material rather too often in such a brief running time: Audiences may reach the conclusion that the party was more of a blast to attend than it is to watch.

Still, there’s a poignantly self-aware sense of hubris to these tipsy postcards from the festival scene — once you consider, of course, that mere weeks after the Berlin shenanigans, the world would go into anxious, isolated lockdown. “Sportin’ Life” yanks us roughly between the director’s moods, providing rueful contrast to all that jazz with desolate shots of New York City’s ghost-town streetscapes at the height of the panic, or jarring news footage of life on the line in hospital virus wards, with bodies hooked to ventilators or zipped into bags, and Donald Trump regrettably promising that “one day, like a miracle, [the virus] will disappear.”

Ferrara doesn’t have much commentary of his own to add — while we’re still in the middle of the crisis, what is there really to say? — though multiple shots capture his masked face looking solemnly on as the world burns. Selected fragments of his family life with wife Cristina and daughter Anna, meanwhile, demonstrate that however freaky his films, he lives fretfully in the real world with the rest of us. None of these components especially go with anything else, and the film’s last-minute swerve into scenes of U.S. race riots and police violence seems literally tacked-on, as if Ferrara knew he couldn’t make a video diary of 2020 without them, but like many around him, still hasn’t found the language to describe and respond to a crisis underpinned by equal parts international rage and shame.

There’s at least something honest about the messiness and occasional superficiality of the documentary, as a ragged, unsynchronized collection of events and ideas — whether personal, trivial or globally resonant — that have passed through Ferrara’s eyes and his mind in the last year. It’s clear he’s still processing everything in his own idiosyncratic, haphazard fashion. It’s doubtful whether anyone actually needs “Sportin’ Life” more than Ferrara himself does: By the time he starts filling things out with random scenes from his past films, including “The Addiction” and “Pasolini,” the film seems to boil down to a simple statement of his continued presence, in a world where no continuity can be taken for granted.

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