Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, September 09, 2013

1994: The year Fiorentino and Tarantino saved us from Vampire Morality

Now more than ever we're remembering the pre-CGI sci fi horror boom of the 1980s as a golden age, not just because we miss actual celluloid but because between drive-ins and theaters on the one side and VHS rental on the other, money was being made (this being the era still when video tapes cost $100 each and were bought only by video stores for rentals). In 1987 alone, two semi-big budget films came out about vampire teens, with almost the same story:  Near Dark and The Lost Boys. Both involve a vain, bland, petulant teenage hunk ready for his first false step, seduced by a hot young vampire girl who lures him into her weird pack (cuz he's hot) rather than just eating him. The pack in each film includes a small child vampire frustrated by their being frozen so long in a tiny form. And in both, this vain young male fledgling vamp wastes his gifts in lots of moral hand-wringing about drawing innocent blood.

Ugh, there's the rub. Like joining the army for the uniform's effect on girls but then refusing to pick up a gun as your mom told you not to, and being outraged when you're not allowed to just sidestep that part of training, because hotness = morality. It might seem noble but there's a name for men who live off women. In both films the hot vamp girl feeds the hero from her own wrist after she does the dirty work. But he gets no blood on his hands, thus doesn't lose his self-righteous sparkle. Oh Prunella! Oh Heaven forfend! Son, that's called being a mooch, the worst kind of pimp.

I refused to see either films in the theater at the time, because I hated seeing the 'brat pack' spill over into my favorite genres --me being around their same age, insecure, and deeply allergic to their sullen narcissism. I still am but I can tolerate the movies for two reasons: one, I'm older than them now (their image frozen by celluloid's vampirism) and two, because in 1994, Tarantino and Fiorentino set me free.

The Cool Kids (Top 2: Near Dark)

The buzzkills
Yeah man, Jason Patric in Lost Boys, Adrian Pasdar in Near Dark: two doe-eyed hunks used to getting every girl they want just be batting their doe eyes and looking across the room or plain at them with a slight sneer that reads "I'm already disappointed in you, yet I see something special, worthy of my time. Even so they rely on their potency signifier--a motorbike or horse--to do their small talk. But once they're 'bitten' or hooked into the life, they're clinging to their vamp girl like she's their new mommy (one of perhaps a long string of blank doormats expected to worship their lame peccadilloes). They suck, in short, not literally.

Both films assume we know and respect the hierarchy of attractiveness in boys but young male viewers who aren't doe-eyed hunks aren't about to identify with these clowns and we're the ones who watch these kind of movies, the ones who would--without a second thought--kill some humans and drink their blood if it meant getting a hottie into bed. We'd worry about our immortal souls at the proper time (after it was too late to do anything about it), when it was more Sophoclean. That would be a good angle: the awkward shy kid uses his vamp gifts to bite everyone whoever wronged him and gets so high off the hottie vamp's attention and the sense of belonging to the cool kids for the first time in his 'life' that he doesn't eve have a second thought until it's far too late to save his soul, yet still early enough he can still sense and mourn its loss.

Instead, in these two films, the doe-eyes just squirm and try to dodge their bloodletting responsibilities like Donnie Brasco with a gun to a squealer's head, waiting for a deux ex machina to rescue them from feeling compromised, unaware (due to bad writing or nervous producers) that those  'yellow brick road to hell' choices are what gives the tale oomph. Instead, they get to keep their hero's armor untarnished and we end up loathing these self-righteous mooches with a passion that lasts far longer than our ugly duckling phase. It lingers on all through our life that loathing, until we're old enough that we begin to beam nondescriptly at their moody foibles as we would our own grandchildren's.

Jason Patric in Lost Boys is exhibit A: When he sees Star (Jami Gertz) in a big beachside crowd gathered around an open air stage, he starts following her around as if he's already pissed at her for walking away from him, instead of falling onto her knees before his physical beauty. He considers his prettiness a sacred church. No laughing or running around should be allowed in his presence. This overconfidence gets a comeuppance when he's goaded into a dangerous beach race to one of the cooler vamp cavern hideouts and manipulated into drinking vampire blood. And for that reason alone these scenes are the best in the film, and director Schumacher ably captures the adrenalized swirl of energy around hooking up with a group of wild new friends, the need to belong weighed against the alarm bells going off deep in your sacral chakra.

Star, it turns out, has chosen to initiate a new member to the clan but dumbshit Patric can't figure out what's happening... chalking it up to some ecstasy or something in the blood wine he was given. Next day he's a pale, shaky mess who can barely keep his feet on the ground, which would still just be similar to the next day after bad ecstasy. Some of us back in the 90s had to fill our high heels with sand just to stop from floating away after nights of drinking weird potions in the basement with the boys, trippin' out on Miles Davis' Live Evil and driving home at dawn on the back of undulating black asphalt serpents with yellow dash line dorsal ridges. Even when cheap chemsits cut the MDMA with strychnine, we didn't blink!

Patric's a pussy.

Almost the exact same plot serves Near Dark but instead of Schumacher's ingenuity with packed beach boardwalk scenes, thousands of coordinated extras, colorful taxidermy gardens, folk art eccentrics, pumping anthem rock, and the ingenious literalizing of common phrases of parents (if your new friends jumped off a bridge, would you?), there's Kathryn Bigelow's moody Badlands-esque emptiness. She brings us vast fields like a lover's skin, the few straight roads like arteries begging to be punctured with gas stations, phone booths, and silos, and one of the more realistic looking biker bars caked with dust and the muted loneliness of the aging regulars, all the fight leeched out of them slowly by prolonged exposure to the emptiness of the landscape. When the vampire pack invades the bar, it's almost like they come as angels of deliverance from this glum nothingness.

Near Dark wins the contest just because it at least thinks to critique its doe eyed hunk's willingness to literally leech off his girlfriend. One could conceivably view this second-hand gulping as a metaphor for the hypocrisy of today's consumerist carnivores who get super indignant when confronted with images of factory farming. Who resent being compelled to look into their own prey's eyes as if willful blindness is a moral defense. Serve the calf's brains jellied inside the cow skull, you're gross, but the rump steak, a chef. Killing humans is no different than choosing your own lobster once you're not a human anymore. If we all had to do a few days work in the slaughterhouse, co-op style, how much you want to bet this country would be easily 70% vegetarian? No wait, I don't gamble. It might send the wrong idea to children!

I feel guilty every time I leave my cat or dog in the morning, or when I go to the zoo. I never got comfortable even fishing. Even throwing them back in, I winced at the pain from imagining a hook in my cheek. Rules of the Game (1939) is very brave in that - what other comedy shows dozens of bunnies and birds being shot, for real, and the hunters barely noticing, so wrapped up in their petty romantic intrigues? And though the characters don't flinch, Renoir does. But he doesn't blame them -- they are after all the very rich, the predator species of all cultures. It's what they do. That's real morality and if it leaves a strange taste in the mouth, savor it --that's the bitter tang of real art!

I tried being vegan during my big spiritual awakening of last fall (see 'Scrooge Satori Apocalypse', The Holy Madman for proof!) but simply got too dizzy in the end to keep it up. My body delighted in shedding all the crap from my system, but then ran out of stuff to shed, and began feeding on itself. My body was like fuck you I'm a meat eater, give me meat or after the little bit of fat we've stored is gone I'll start in on the muscle, bro, I just don't give a fuck. So I obeyed it, the way a vegan game warden obeys its aristocratic ruler. I learned one simply can't be holy these days without one's own private cook. And whatever happened to the apocalypse of 12/21/12? Aside from the trans-galaxial enlightenment I and dozens of others received either from galactic alignment or placebo effects, nothing happened. Not even ice cream... 'cuz it's dairy.

Going back to meat took its toll though, and now I'm blind in one eye again, so I don't have to think about the pain and bottom line-minded torture my dinner went through to reach me. Maybe the whole point of ignorance is bliss, there's a reason that Italian guy eats a steak in The Matrix and not a celery stalk.

Tony Scot's parallel lines 
Too bad filmmakers, even talented ones with some moral fibre (mmm mmm) like Neil Jordan, Bigelow, and Tony Scott, balk at the chance for true vampiric ambiguity: The Hunger, Interview with a Vampire, We Own the Night, Near Dark, The Lost Boys, the list of movies where a lucky stiff is vamped only to get all moral about killing is endless. It makes me wonder... is there any vampire movie where the newborn actually does kill a human or two without moping about it for the rest of the story? (see my post on Vampire Morality Blues). Damn I need a drink. Oh wait. I can't anymore. I'm like one of these vegan vamps, but for booze.

But then... a miracle happened. The year was 1994, a boozy flood came and washed the lack of sin off the screen. All that bad faith ended with a triple threat of charismatic young leads who got away with cold stone murders: Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction, and The Last Seduction. And in a less permanent way, Ferrara's The Addiction (1994).

Looking at them now, they're still cool -- but what was so energizing about them has been forgotten by the skin deep imitations - and what was that? That the lead characters all got away with murder. They killed the innocent and robbed and arranged murders and in the end got away scot-free. And we rooted for them every step of the way.

There are no words to describe our exhilaration after having to suffer through so much leftist moral hand-wringing over onscreen killing. Superheros crashing Humvees through shopping malls like maniacs, probably wiping out dozens with collateral damage, but then braking to not hit the main villain; whole crates of ammo being fired by The A-Team without one guy being even wounded; Cameron having to show that the hundreds of cops Arnold shot in T2 are only clipped in the leg (Fatalities = 0, it says on his monitor), it all got to be a serious problem.  But then came True Romance (1993), and the crazy couple got away with the loot, for once, and the girl didn't browbeat the man for killing her pimp! Hallelujah.

Naturally there has been some kickback. A couple of dumbass kids out in the boonies went on a killing spree after being inspired by Mickey and Mallory Knox, but their parents' lawsuit against Oliver Stone was unsuccessful!

Sadly, as they have always done, the Hollywood imitators of the Tarantino mythos got the surface right but missed the point. The skinny black ties and pop culture references didn't make the QT films great, it was the flatline savvy about death, about understanding that cinematic death doesn't equate to real life death, but that in realizing this the onscreen deaths actually become more real, more vivid; the more they are recognized as cinematic expressionism rather than glum social sermonizing, the more true they are. Audiences can be trusted to not all go home and kill Rodney Dangerfield. As Godard once said, it's not blood, it's red. When we want insincere Hollywood hedonists to lecture us about the sanctity of life and death we'll ask them. Go ahead and bite a neck or shoot a man, Billy! You've got nothing to lose but your fear of flying. Can't you ever let go of the handrails.. even in a dream?


  1. Despite the two films often being pitted against one another, I always go in with the conceit that the characters of The Lost Boys and Near Dark inhabit the same universe, where, as you articulated, the only real difference in vampirism is in regards to location. There is indeed a distinctive cultural divide between the open country planes of the Mid-Southwest and the (fictional) Santa Carla of southern costal California. One is desolate, the other is happening. One is the irrigated Old West, the other is MTV. I can almost picture David and his 'Mötley Crüe' crossing paths with Jesse’s gang of desperados, the latter of whom would probably mock the former for looking like a bunch of hair band fags – cue wicked vampire brawl. I say give Michael a break. It’s damn near impossible not to be pussified when you’re the child of a single mom played by Dianne Wiest and your kid brother hangs Rob Lowe posters on his bedroom wall. As for Adrian, I think in his case he was just dumb.

    "It makes me wonder... is there any vampire movie (Twilight aside, as they're all vegans) where the newborn actually does kill a human or two without moping about it for the rest of the story?"

    Well, you gotta give props to Coppola’s adaptation of Stoker’s Drac. The Count was pretty goddamn zestfully evil in that film; he fed babies to vampire bitches with a big laugh. The only time he sorta goes soft is on the issue turning Winona (clearly, having never seen Heathers). Otherwise, Check out the 1992 Innocent Blood from John Landis.

    Oh, man. Fiorentino. Jesus.

    As Mallory Knox, Juliette Lewis was the tempting but cautionary, bang-at-your-own-risk fantasy while Patricia Arquette as Alabama Worley epitomized the ultimate gal-pal fuck-buddy (who doesn’t want a big tits girlfriend that digs Kung Fu movies and leaves you "You’re so cool" messages on napkins?) But Fiorentino... well, let me put it this way: I was a young cinephile teen in the early 90s, so you can guess well enough the effect that her screen persona had on me; that smoky, raven-haired, noir incarnate. She was the kind of girl who’d lure you into a dark alley, both literally and metaphorically, and you’d follow despite you’re better instincts because, well, sexual gravity and all that. She was Bacall reimagined in the era of grunge music, indie new wave and, yes, Tarantino. I mean, shit, I even liked Jade!

  2. Thanks Canon - I know and Jade really killed her meteoric rise in its tracks - Last Seduction won her the boost up and in Jade she was collateral damage in the stoning of the egotistic ginger.


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