Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Monday, December 17, 2012

Drug of Choice: 4:44 - LAST DAY ON EARTH (2012)


The apocalypse, or at any rate the end of the Mayan... thing... is Friday. Some preparation may be in order, and if you're reading this blog that means movie choices. What's the ideal apocalypse film you want to be watching at the very moment of apocalypse? I've already seen mine. Just the other night. Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth. It couldn't be more timely! In other words, if you live in New York City, and are a permanently drug-addled middle-aged artist in recovery and share a loft apartment with a younger or older partner and you've always looked forward to the end of the world as an ideal excuse to relapse, 4:44 - Last Day on Earth belongs to you as much as it does me. And man it belongs to me. If you substitute whiskey for heroin, and make the guy slightly less famous, the apartment slightly less cool, Dafoe is me! Either way, fuck it. Just don't forget the weird numeric title and to set your clocks back. Way back. To zero.

Of course television figures prominently in the film. How else would we know for sure the world is ending? We see the main character Cisco (Willem Dafoe) watch Al Gore talk about the truth of global warming with a knowing smirk; We see him watch the Dali Lama with a big old grin; and finally he watches NY1's Pat Kiernan with concern. Cisco's younger girlfriend, Skye (Shanyn Leigh) meanwhile paints a grim ouroboros figure on a big piece of paper on the floor at the other end of the loft. As artistic couples do, Cisco and Skye fool around, fight, putter, try to break each other's concentration out of sublimated creative jealousy, and so forth. It may take some extra dirt in your nails to identify with the part where Dafoe almost does some heroin (or meth or something) even after six months clean (or whatever),  but it's the last day on earth, and in an Abel Ferrara film it's always the last day on earth --so this is double your pleasure day, and never a better time than whenever to do the mortal coil shuffle sensitive bluesy minor key melancholy madness munchies malaise trip.

 
Top: 4:44 / Bottom: Seeking a Friend
Ferrara's druggy Catholic kinetics have been in short supply stateside of late due to, apparently, fucked-up deals with French producers at Studio-Canal. His tale of the virgin Mary was supposed to be pretty heavy, and there was Go-Go Tales, both MIA.  It don't matter --4:44 is as perfect a career and global autobiographical capstone as we're likely to get. And as such it functions fine as a skewed sequel to his very first film, Driller Killer (1979), which, we may recall, ends on a very similar, under-the-sheets apocalyptic fade. Driller gets a bad rap because it was banned in Britain during the whole 'video nasty' 80s, but it's really just a good mix of grit, grime and druggy Catholic anti-punk punk energy, with some drill killings thrown in to keep you from dozing off. The killer targets older male derelicts rather than foxy young women (probably on account of his fear of failure, and growing up to be just like them - failed artists-turned-homeless-junkies living on park benches. More than these sporadic and half-heartedly-filmed murders (marred by terrible blood the consistency and color of rusty tap water), Ferrara seems preoccupied with his central character, played by himself. He's slowly going crazy, maybe because downstairs from his loft is a loud, terrible glam-punk band and they practice constantly. His two girlfriends end up hanging out there and when the band finally gets a date at Max's Kansas City, even Abel gets shoehorned into going. All of which which both drives his character insane as he tries to concentrate on painting his buffalo canvas (a picture of a buffalo, I mean, on a regular canvas) and provides a way to pad the running time (as both of his girlfriends end up preferring to rock out down there rather than watch him paint and curse the fates - and he's smart enough to understand why they would).

Both Driller and 4:44  are apocalyptic in their own way. In Driller, the artist exorcises his terror and madness by drilling old homeless guys instead of Skyping or almost relapsing like Dafoe does here. Both end the same way - with a couple in bed and a fade out (to white and red respectively) while the girl whispers soothing gentle words in OS voiceover. And Ferrara doesn't star in the latter film, but there's little doubt that Dafoe is playing Abel, right down to casting Shanyn Leigh, Abel's real life girlfriend.

Ferrara is Driller Killer
Ferrara's longtime screenwriter Nicholas St. John isn't billed on 4:44 and based on the hesitant weirdness of it all, I'm betting a lot of the dialogue and action was improvised, which I totally get. What are you going to do during the last 24 hours on earth, fumble through scripts? Most of all, the characters are really just avatars of ourselves as we watch TV on the last day of the world. We take a break and look out the window and dig on how empty the city seems. We try a lot of things to grant our lives some last-minute meaning. And then our addiction shows up out of the emotional blue with a hastily scrawled IOU note you gave it back when you got sober. In return for not crippling you with the horrors you promised that--if the world ever came to an end--you would relapse. You figured why not- you'd be spared the hangover or the St. Vitus or whatever came after. And you forgot about it, but your Addiction never did. And it's come to collect.

I know mine would, I promised it that if the eternal thirst would just back off I'd relapse when the apocalypse came. And it's coming!


Is this why Ferrara made this film in the first place? To deal with "that" issue in a way that hasn't really been dealt with? Because 4:44 more than any other apocalypse film I know brings us to the crystalline point imagined by every recovering alcoholic or addict, the 'if you know the world is about to end, is it okay to relapse?' point. I wrote about it a bit in a discussion of the film 2012, which I called "Day of a Million Relapses!" There's a character in that named Harry (Blu Mankuma), the beautiful old African American jazz man father of one of the main characters, the bleeding heart geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The two have a nice farewell via ship-to-shore phone (Harry's a pianist in residence on a cruise liner) and upon hanging up--his responsibility to his son completed--Harry grabs a Jack Daniels off a passing waiter's tray.

His old sax man (George Segal) remarks: "Harry, you haven't had a drink in 25 years!"  Harry doesn't even answer, just takes a big swig and sits back down. Damn that's cool. He's doomed and relapsed and doesn't give a shit! As someone with only half his 'time served,' I can't help but cheer!! Someone in that scriptwriting pool knows the score! Finally --a disaster movie actually put in what every sober alcoholic waits for--the unshakable excuse to relapse. (fulll)


But as it turns out it's just not that easy for poor Cisco. Spurred on after a hilarious fight between Skye, and his ex-wife on Skype --trying to break it up and protect his computer from being slapped shut by Skye while the wife jeers and curses onscreen -- Cisco goes out onto the street, to his old dealer's house and climbs in through the fire escape window, like the old days.... all right. Now things are going to perk up, you think. Now, we shall return to Ferrara's druggy urban Steadicam rhythms. The mood in here is jovial, sexy, intelligent. These are believably his cool downtown friends and their interaction feels natural and real, the way only Abel could really conjure back in the day.


But Cisco's plan is blocked because his NA sponsor, Noah (Greenwich Village musician Paul Hipp), happens to be there, canoodling but not getting high, and instead reveling in the freedom of choice. His choice. He's totally cool with other people doing it in front of him though, he says. Noah 'chooses' to just hang out with his old user buddies but face the end with clear open eyes. He tells Cisco it's his choice too, but he should choose not to pick up. It's a bizarre moment that few who are not addicts will probably truly understand.... we've been waiting, after all, for this. It's the night of a million relapses! Those of us who are in recovery will have mixed emotions. On the one hand, good for him, on the other that's not his sponsor's business --let the man do his thing! He has an IOU to pay. It's like if you're Jekyll and you make a deal with Hyde that he will go away on the condition he gets to come back for the end of the world. Even though it's just you making deals with yourself, it's still a valid contract, my brother!

 
In the end, as it always does, the only thing that saves the artist is the art. The drugs are either a means to that end or a hindrance. Nothing else matters. Skye spreads great puddles of color all over the floor and makes a giant protective circle ouroboros for them to lie in (shades of the cave made of sticks in Von Trier's Melancholia. (meinen posten hier )and of course Dafoe was in Von Trier's previous film, Antichrist, so there you are, the web of genius is all connected...

Dafoe is the key, and art, and it's all about to end, so get inside this circle before the snake swallows up the world. Dafoe has no one to act with, no audience with whom to perform (except us, in the shadows, of course) while she works, so he watches TV.

This is another interesting aspect since Skye never doubts how she wants to spend her last hours, painting. She has what I've referred to as the addict's Keith Richards life preserver, wherein you have that one thing you're good at so you just do it, constantly, either practicing, composing, creating or jamming - and that's what keeps you from freaking out, succumbing to depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts, bad decisions, killing yourself, metaphysically drowning, and so forth. Their guitars--always at hand--are what saves the life of Richards, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) in The Runaways (see my post here).


Of course Ferrara's limited budget doesn't allow for real world-swallowing, so its conveyed via stock footage and newscasts which is fine with me. I enjoy the tense energy of the mixture, the camera following Dafoe around wondering when he's going to go off. The film feels padded even at 74 minutes, but Ferrara spares us the rerunning of previous footage in his similarly multi-media / post-modern adaptation of William Gibson's New Rose Hotel (which starred Dafoe with Christopher Walken and Asia Argento) and like in that underrated film, Ferrara allows the action to unfold as it would in real life, i.e. mostly somewhere else, watched by the characters from their secluded den of druggy, sex-boosted comfort. With so many screens onscreen, the post-modern affect has completely subsumed the real. The only way to stay above the multimedia din is via sex, meditation or art, and in Ferrara's film all finally three merge into the simulacrum so it's all as it should be. After all, in the final count, you and the TV are two snakes, facing each other, but they're One! 
 

Even if you can't relate to the addict stuff, it's worth seeing just to soak up Ferrara's legendary fly-on-the-wall NYC authenticity, with such great details as NY1's Pat Kiernan, an inescapable presence in most New Yorkers' frenzied mornings, delivering a professional sign off indicating he's been happy to have been a part of your life and now he and his co-workers are going home to their families. Kiernan plays these moments with beautiful grace: angry, poetic and always stoic. As Frank Lovece of Film Review International notes:
In a nice surprise, given how lame most TV and movie news anchors sound, Kiernan, of the local-news channel New York 1, offers onscreen reports that sound like a broadcast journalist; perhaps he himself actually wrote them. His final signoff is dignified and humane without becoming sentimental or overwrought in the least.
It's interesting that this journal of international cinema sees nothing offensive in Kiernan's statement in the film that "Al Gore was right,"  and that global warming will take us out in a blinding solar flash at exactly 4:44 AM. Meanwhile condemnation of the same line comes from Will Leitch something called Deadspin: 
In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, what gets us is the ozone layer, i.e. not caring about it. (Writer-director Abel Ferrara actually makes poor Kiernan say, "Al Gore ... was right." Ferrara should be arrested for that.) This is the lamest possible reason for the world to end in a movie, because what kills us should be a metaphor for the sins of man, not the actual sins of man. Of course, most of the movie involves Willem Dafoe in his apartment doing yoga, muttering to himself and playing around on Skype, so whatever it is that hastens the end of our suffering, as far as I'm concerned, will suffice.
Man, it's easy to tell which writers are American, sometimes. Naturally such a fellow would want the world to end as soon as possible, cuz he's tired of looking for a real job. Haw Haw! Just kidding my man, hey man, what's your name?


As I say, your mileage may vary. Let me give you some tips: a good way to watch 4:44 is while calling loved ones and chatting idly with friends on the phone, with laptops and Kindles all playing different documentaries and TV shows. Put Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, or The Quantum Activist or 10 Questions for the Dali Lama on your laptop, with the sound off, and position it about 10 feet away from your main TV screen but still in view, tilted towards the other screen so it looks like they're watching each other. That way you can feel the erosion of the screen membrane and make it all more urgent. A brilliant little moment indicative of this--what Steven Shaviro calls "post-modern affect"-- occurs when Skye looks across the length of the loft from the floor by the window, and the lof is pitch dark, as Cisco is out scoring, and she's startled to see an old black man sitting in a chair staring at her. How did he get in and what does he want? As she starts moving trepidatiously towards him he suddenly vanishes into a square white static. He was just on TV, a big flatscreen that was left on in the dark and is now off. It was just a coincidence that he was framed on the TV and the TV was off the ground in such a way to look like a chair. The sudden change is jarring, funny, and brilliant, the coolest post-modern goodnight ghost set-up since The Ring. These are the kinds of things Godard and Antonioni fans look for but most Americans don't expect from one of our own. In an earlier post I wrote that, in a post-cinematic affect you're neither safe nor in danger, neither an actor nor an extra, neither on TV or in front of it. The way man and space merge into one dream consciousness in 2001 is the way man and TV merge into one dream consciousness in 2012 at 4:44 - no accident they're both number titled.


More ways to metatextualize your experience: If you meditate, do so when Dafoe does, assume his poses as if he's a yoga instructor. Counterpoint your own movements with those of the camera as it paces around the loft. Dig that Anita Pallenberg plays Skye's mother and remember fondly her insane work in Performance (1968) as part of a threesome living in a big hippy house (ala the Ferrara and the two girls in Driller Killer). Here she looks pretty haggard, speaking over Skype to give daughter the fare thee well in a deep, gravelly voice, and to let her know she's proud of her artistic drive. You can bet that Anita Pallenberg would be fine with you dating her daughter -  no matter how old or poor you were - as long as you were cool and artistic. You can feel her benign indifference to the mundanity of bourgeois morals in the Teutonic depth of her voice. This is a film with no villains, no purpose, it just waits, it has the guts to stand still and let the finish line come roaring.

An ideal movie to see while you're alone or with your lover and if they don't like the film as much as you do and so are on their iPhone or browsing the web while you're watching, so much the better. I never saw this in the theater but I can't imagine liking it nearly as much outside the safety of my own NYC artist loft-ish bunker. Of course if you're a materialist who's never had any addiction problems and is not an artist or struggling with a contempt for mainstream society that keeps you isolated like Max Von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters, then good for you! For the rest of us, who've felt the oroborous tightening the last few years and feel it's now reaching its zero reset black hole point, for better or worse, I say congratulations for making it this far. Even if nothing tangible 'happens' - no meteors or alien invasion or super volcano eruption or massive chain reaction tectonic plate shift or pole reversal or planet wave or solar storm -- you have already felt the apocalypse, the eruption of fire and Gomorrah in your thirsty veins. Some of us have shot a million dollars worth of white powder and wood onto the logs to keep that star alive within our pulsing systems. Some of us have almost drowned our nebulae with whiskey just so we could drag our moldy carcasses to this one beautiful point in history. Some of us have felt the hot pink fuzzy warmth of God or the white light ticking us down to our soul, and felt our heart chakras opening up now. Breathe in with me now children, ooooommm, all together now ommmmm like spiral antennae picking up the cosmic frequencies beaming right into our planet from the galactic alignment.



All I ask for myself, oh wonderful Quetzlcoatl of Machu Pichu, is some ruby slippers, so I can clack them three times, chant "no place like Hommmmmm" and then wake up back in the spring of Syracuse 1987, when I was 20 and in a locally popular hippie band, surrounded by gorgeous everything, had the world by the tail, and could drink like nothing you've ever seen. How I wish I could go back! And yet... how glad I am to know for almost certain I won't have to.

 To rest assured even without assurance, is this not the highest wisdom?

2 comments:

  1. I watched this movie on Friday night. I loved it. I was born an Abel Ferrera man and I will die an Abel Ferrera man. The scene with. Willem Dafoe trekking over fire escape habit trails to score some dope was pretty great. Mister Buzzkill 20 years clean was kind of rude. Natasha Lyonne - "I just want to get laid!" Yeah sure, Natasha, it's the end of the world, don't take any shit from your boyfriend/sponsor who would rather protect others' sobriety than fuck you on the last day on earth. I could see his perspective - Why pick up on your way out, when if you wait a few hours that monkey will be dead forever? Yeah, yeah, it's always the end of the world somewhere, but still, mind your own business. "I'm just a drug dealer sitting here telling you the truth." Great movie. Bumping into a drunk Paz de la Huerta on the sidewalk on your way back to your apartment, girlfriend changing into formal gowns to paint, there are worse days to finish all this up with.

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  2. thanks for sharing.

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