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

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


It's a certain truth: no one ever thinks about you as much as you think they do. And if you don't believe this truth to be self-evident, you can at least write about how no one ever thinks of you, and in the process change it so they do. And if not, at least you have your animus/anima, your inner voice whose dictation your fingers take while your ego sits to the side in rapt adoration. And like so many before me in the swamps of the East Side and Brooklyn, I've submissively followed my vampire anima like a doting Renfield, scooping up any fly turns of phrase or spider ideas she cares to drop behind her, protected from direct harm (her rabid fangs) only by some half-remembered Hegel quote kept around my neck. Lonely in the throng of my fellow lonesome vampire secretaries, all of us aging and dying as we're drug from one Annexia to the next while our vampire muses stay young and lush and flush in their coffin pages and occasionally celluloid.

Artistic communities are druggy communities or they're hack communities (craftsmen not visionaries) - this is inevitable. The East Village now can only be afforded by rich NYU students, old bastards with rent controlled apartments, and/or German or Japanese ex-pats. The Allies are chased across to Brooklyn, scrounging in the cracks between the "hood" and the rich hipster zones for a cheap rent that doesn't involve getting jumped when coming home in the dead of night, drunk as a lord, which is too frequent to dismiss.

But back in the 80s-90s, when you could live in downtown NYC for only $500 a month (with a roommate), there was a rash of female druggie vampire artists onscreen, serving well as metaphors for the city itself, and AIDs and drug addiction, and art's constant struggle for balance between inspiration and addiction. The thriving anonymity, and the mad dash of youth through the gates of decadent pleasure, it being the city never slept - all making it ideal vamp habitat. Now we live in squalor in Park Slope and make double what we used to but can't afford to go to a bar and buy $15 drinks, so everyone's in bed by midnight; we can barely afford a gallon of Coke Zero, 2 packs of cigarettes, fifth of bourbon, and gram of weed a day habit. No vamp can find us.

But there's always the 90s to revisit, and now, thanks to a genius female Iranian director, there's an indication some element of the black and white vampire urban druggy denizen dream lives on, in a sub-section of the Interzone where it's always balmy, where it's forever the past, and LPs and cassette mix tapes are still the hard currency of connection. Iran's Bad City (aka Bakersfield, CA) the paradise of an eternal spring break in a town one step away from the clankety-clank of Eraserhead. But first.


1995- Dir Abel Ferrara 

"Dependency is a marvelous thing," states Lili Taylor to her NYU thesis advisor as a segue for shooting up with him. "It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctorate material." Of course she's going to give him more than a sweet taste. She's going to drink his opiated blood and bask in her double craving being satisfied. Too bad, before long she's trapped in the loft of a pompous male vampire who drinks her blood and leaves her to contort in anemic withdrawal all day and night, leaving her a copy of Naked Lunch to help her learn to control her addiction, It's maybe the most extended, harrowing depiction of withdrawal I've ever seen, and I've been there (with alcohol, but the agonized hour-after-hour contortions were the same). She finally makes it to the street, as we all do, to get her fix but the point is made. And, even undead, this girl's got interesting things to say, both out loud and in the coolest voiceover narration in all of cinema, a veritable doctoral thesis-cum-advocacy for drug addiction.

 This is no bullshit. It's real philosophy in action, courtesy longtime "more Catholic-junkie synergy than a dozen Jim Carrols" screenwriter Nicholas St. John. And Taylor brings just the right mix of whispery conviction to the words. Cognizant of language's inadequacy even when stretched to the limit, she's the ideal doctoral candidate, able to back up being full of herself with minute annotations and quotes,  following her thesis to its "the horror, the horror" nadir/pinnacle, she embracing the madness and physical decomposition (i.e. the rotting teeth so common to heroin addicts) as par for the course when transcending the dichotomy of life and death.

It all starts when she's accosted on the street by sexy vampire Annabelle Sciorra who throws her into an alley (back when NYC had those) and says "tell me to go away" (the equivalent of "you don't want any part of this, kid" or "just say no") before throwing her against the wall and giving her the reverse fix. Scared but turned on, Taylor just can't say no to Sciorra's hot, exotic promise. Who could? We've all seen her in Jungle Fever. Therefore, it's all the victim's fault, but is that rationalization on the vamp's part, or one of those things, like they have to be invited in or can't cross your threshold?

Taylor's subsequent journey and rapture over her newfound abilities and widened perceptions-- even as they compel her to confront the horrors our usual sensory blinders and 'built-in forgetters" obscure--is riveting and intelligently rendered; her later decomposition evokes Jeff Goldblum's in Cronenberg's Fly --watching their  own slow motion decomposition with a theorist's dispassionate eye and a tripping writer's black comic cool, to succinctly elaborate on the strange joy involved with divesting oneself from ones' own fate.  They don't cling to outmoded parameters of self. If the pursuit of knowledge means they morph into some unknown creature, what else is life for?

Well I remember, around the same mid-90s period, scaring girlfriends and co-workers with my own drugged-out wild-eyed rants about how I could see through time, and how space was an illusion. I saw their concern and silence as if from a distance. Taylor's fellow doctoral candidate and study buddy Edie Falco, for example, is similarly horrified by how far off the deep-end diving board her once-sober and timid friend has fallen/risen. Taylor, in terse retort sneers: "Your obtuseness is disheartening as a doctoral candidate." Hot damn! And it's clear just who's gonna ace their thesis dissertation, who's just going to 'pass'. Falco hurries along the dotted lines of the known, buried in books, made sexless by proximity to library glue. But Taylor's seen beyond the veil, waltzed past all the old dead men still wrestling with phony differentiations between past and present, free will and destiny. And she still has the finely-etched hyper-perspicacity to succinctly elaborate--well within the parameters of dead philosopher quotations--whole new paradigms. In other words, Taylor's addiction--her disease--has organized her life, broadened her perspective, cinched her doctorate, and made her as quintessentially New York as Wendy Kroy in The Last Seduction (1995).

With its artsy black and white photography, The Addiction would look great on Blu-ray, but like so many Abel Ferrara movies, it seems mired in licensing disputes, so all I have to remember it by is my letterbox DVD (of dubious Eastern European origin). Even under such primitive conditions, however, it's a stunner that manages on a flop house budget what Coppola's Dracula couldn't with all its smoke and mirrors. Harkening back to the vampire film's mythopoetic Murnau roots, Nosferatu's hydra polyp magnifying glass lectures find parallel with Taylor's My Lai massacre microfiche montage. The Holocaust is also seen in photos set to that unforgettable whispery dissertative voiceover, visited by Falco and Taylor at a local museum exhibit -- seems alive, happening in the moment, the 3-D space of the exhibit like an intrusion of the past, of death divorced from history and time, made current through the seeing of it.

No one actually dies in this vamp universe, there's no time - and they were never living anyway, for one doesn't live below 14th Street. Artists and academics, they're smart enough to know that unless they say yes to dangerous experiences (unprotected anonymous sex, heroin, vampire biting) they'll have nothing interesting to say in their art or thesis and they'll wind up just another flyover college part-time faculty hack. Receiving the disease was their decision, like a "welcome to the disease which there is no cure for" bathroom mirror urban myth.

Throughout the film, Taylor is so sublimely low-key, sexy and very convincing in the lead she seems to become almost legitimately supernatural. She owns the role, the film, the city, she conquers with  nothing but her low height and a low purring whisper that seems born to say Nicolas St. John's clear-eyed lines. Abel must have lost his shit when he saw how good she was, how great this film was gonna be. Too bad more people can't get behind it, perhaps from their own lack of experience with either STDs, drugs or philosophy or New York and its druggy artsy undertow, the stolen shot seediness Abel captures better than anyone else. Also, it's hard to find. Not even legal in the US anymore, no region one to be found. Though I'd love to see it delivered in deep Criterion blacks, the fact that my copy is a semi-legal all-region non-anamorphic version (from Romania!) makes perfect meta commentary sense, as the film itself seems semi-legal, capturing a pre-ordinance-choked mid-90s Greenwich Village NYC, a Bleeker Street that's still wild and woolly; every storefront a decaying mass of failed punk band stickers, air pumping with ghetto blaster hip hop blaring from broken speakers.

It's not perfect - some of the dialogue about persecuting war crimes and living according to one's own blah blah is pretty naive --on the other hand, they are in college --maybe at NYU they do talk like that - certainly not where I've been. Russell Simmons was a producer, and there's a pretty dated, even tacky, soulful Temptations title theme song over the opening credits, often the stolen shot aspect of the walking around gets pretty woozy (they couldn't afford a Steadicam?) and the whispering is hard to hear. But how often does a film about NYC college life really have such a grasp on heroin culture, so much that it swims in decadent drugginess rather than merely dipping a toe in, making an analogy or two and then skittering away before the censor wakes up? Even Roger Avary comes off looking anemic. And it's not even just about that, the way Avary's or Larry Clark's would really be about sex and hot youth, this one's about philosophy, vampirism, AIDs and drugs and draws such a clear line between the four their differences vanish and they align like three identical transparency overlays. It's not enough to make out with your thesis advisor, you can get him to shoot up for the first time and then drink his blood, and it's not even just to get an A. You're not only doing all the reading, your passing judgment on it (likening the smell of the NYU library with the rot of a charnel house).

Then there's her look: you could fold images of Taylor in her shades (below) right in with Warhol's black and white Edie Sedgwick, Velvet Underground, and 'moving portraits' factory footage and not miss a mink-lined "beat." That's good, as again, it's their music that's this film's only real precedent (just the Hold Steady is their only real antecedent).

Re-watching Addiction lately for purposes of this post, I started writing down relevant quotes and found myself wanting to write down the whole script, each line like manna to any starving liberal arts graduate alcoholic or autodidact drug addict: "Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find." I lived by those words while drinking myself into oblivion all through the mid-to-late 90s. Watching Taylor convulse on the street in withdrawal reminded me of when I was so far gone it would take hours for me to get myself together enough to go to and from the liquor store, literally right next door, just one flight of stairs. With a twenty dollar bill taped to my shaking hand, trying to get my bourbon and make it back up to safety of The Thin Man without falling, vomiting or convulsing on the street and winding up at Bellevue in the care of old Bim. It being important too that I go and come back before the real shakes and DTs start.

"... little turkeys in straw hats."
So yeah, this is right up there with The Lost Weekend for the authentic NYC 90s addict-alcoholic experience, all the better for being, as is traditional for Ferrara, void of preachy sober resolutions. Instead, its a call to luxuriate inside your sickness. "Self realization is annihilation of self." Its a way to excuse and forgive the self-destructive tendencies clotting human history's arteries with war crimes so vile they crash time's mainframe. And Skooly D, a longtime Ferrara collaborator, appears and scores. Christopher Walken shows up for a few killer moments as already mentioned; Onyx, Cypress Hill beatboxes the soundtrack with druggy raps pitch-shifted through blunt smoke: "I want to get high / so high" while Ferrara's camera prowls the graffiti-caked turf, and if you were a big partier in NYC in the 90s, then damn, this be like a muhfuggin' scrapbook.

Today, well, junkies, your city is gone (from downtown anyway; the Safdie Brothers can still find the pulse in the back alleys of the outer boroughs). Luckily, the buzzy flashback of that first ecstasy and cocaine highball stroll at dawn after an all-night sesh lingers for decades after in the blood has dried, which is why Taylor wants to drink yours. Like all good druggie downtown vamps she wants the good stuff, the blood that's the richest with opiates and pheromone secretions-- pouncing on her prey only after the drugs trigger a massive release from the pituitary gland into their bloodstreams --just ask the drug-dealer alien in Dark Angel [1990] AKA I Come in Peace == that's the best shit there is.

1994 - Dir Michael Almereyda 

Like Taylor in The Addiction, Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) talks incessantly, albeit far less philosophically, with much less contentment with eternity. "I want to simplify my life," she blathers at a downtown bar to some future victim, "even on a superficial level."  The dude buys her another drink, as if hearing nothing she's saying, and she's barely saying anything, except that compared to NYC, all Europe is a rural village, and that the city actually gets more alive and exciting after midnight (no shit). Born "in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains," she's East Village Eurotrash from old Transylvanian money, currently grieving her father, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, seen via ingeniously overlapped and incorporated images from [the public domain] White Zombie), even though she hated him because he made her "eat butter." Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) has finally staked him, only after finding him strung out on drugs (like the real Bela), "old, confused, surrounded by zombies," notes Helsing, "he was like Elvis in the end."  Van Helsing's nephew (Marin Donovan)--the most fey boxer ever--is married to Nadja's new love interest (Galaxy Craze). They meet when Galaxy asks her for a cigarette at a nameless coffee house and we fall in love too, right off, with Craze's strung out 'love child of Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy' look. We can tell she would make a great vampire --her speech already half-forgotten, vaguely slurred but very open, like she's talking to a therapist while trying to hide that she's bleeped on Oxycodone courtesy the chick from Liquid Sky. David Lynch is the morgue attendant in charge of Drac/Bela's body. He helped produce the film --he's playing Mel Brooks to Michael Almereyda's version of himself forThe Elephant Man. Lots of video art with Pixelvision cameras making snow look Atari; Nadja walks down the street at night, digging the flakes, smoking and gliding, and then Portishead starts, "How can it feel / this moment?"  That's when Craze, looking super androgyne sexy in her lumberjack coat, asks for a light; the water starts to whistle in the kettle. She tells her his brother wants to destroy her."Does he live in Carpathia," Craze asks, concerned. Nadja looks at her coldly, "no - Brooklyn." The sound in these dialogue scenes is crisp, you wish like hell barroom chat could be this writerly with concrete details and deep analytical acuity. "The pain of life is the pain of fleeting joy." with the only music that which you put on the jukebox yourself, trippy 90s Lynch style post-noir trip-sludge, over which you might slide the words of your forceful Euro-style assertions of fleeting joy monologue like slotted spoons. 

Crazy keeps a tarantula as a pet, "he scares most people." The dialogue is pretty great; Nadja is impressed when Craze runs to grab the tarantula so she doesn't crush it in her freaking out over a Dracula puppet going off on their Christmas tree. You realize you would hang out with these people intensely for days after you met them, unable to tear yourself away, if you banged into them. As you wonder if the whole cast is matching Craze's zonked disaffect out of a kind of filial love (ala the men with Mina Harker in the novel of Dracula, or Helen "Mina Harker" Chandler in The Last Flight.)

Galaxy Craze
Nadja's writer-director Michael Almeyreda displays a clear love of the good things in life/death: cigarettes, Universal horror (particularly Dracula's Daughter), Jean Cocteau, and the lesbian vampire movies of the 70s, and cool, wry black and white art films like Lynch's, Madin's, and Kern's. He wondrously fuses the downtown grit of NYC with the Universal pre-code Expressionism of Karl Freund within a narrative structured like a loose remake of the 1935 Universal horror classic, Dracula's Daughter, (the 'first' lesbian vampire movie) crossed with the more overtly sapphic Vampire Lovers and Daughters of Darkness. The occasional lapses into pixelated imagery, culled from a then-the-rage Fisher Price Pixelvision movie camera, create a feeling of dreamy disconnect, reflecting perhaps the Nadja eye view (especially when she disappears into parallel dimensions, becoming in a sense one of the unseen audience) and making the rest of the film's grainy video-ish look seem like high grade nitrate by comparison. It's under the Pixelvision we're treated to one of the hottest lesbian bite scenes ever. It's subtle, beautiful, strange, and it outclasses Jean Rollin at his own game in one button (though Rollin would never throw away the hottest parts for such low pixel rates, and maybe that's the problem.) Even if heterosexuality triumphs in the end, it's hard to hate Martin Donovan for--like even Jared Harris here, all young and ravishing, as Nadja's doom-slinging twin brother--he's truly man-crushable, and he does have a pretty good reason, by then we're so far beyond either the hypocritical prudishness that undoes most vampiric/sapphic trysts. (See also: Almereyda's classy and underrated The Eternal.) And stick around to the end credits music cuz it's Spacehogg! Remember them? How a movie made in Manhattan in 1994 could know in advance how to make itself a perfect time and coolness-level capsule baffled the imagination of everyone but those of us who know the answer: Almereyda.... Almereyda. 

2014 Dir Anna Lily Amirpour

At last there's an Iranian vampire love story, told in resonant black and white and set in "Bad City," (actually the graveyards and oil derricks of Bakersfield, CA.), "pumping up money" as Hank Quinlan would say, or "blood" as vampire Plainview would say. A place where rock anthems are still and forever relevant, a timeless variation of the 80s with Madonna posters on the walls and where the days are marked by a junkie father's itchy paranoia. "The first western Iranian vampire movie" has a startling new talent in Sheila Vand, perfect and strange as a specter of feminist vengeance for oppressed women in Iran's repressive milieu. Wrapped in her black hijab like Dracula's cape (or Nadja's hood), she preys mainly on male predators, waiting until they've shot up heroin or done some lines of coke before making her move, all the better to get high off the blood (though this is never spelled out). Gauging their response to her silent staring and playfulness as she stalks and mirrors her quarry, she knows all men are not fit for killing. Most just yammer away like spoiled vain children, figuring out how to come onto her or why she's shadowing them, and if so, they may die.  The glass slipper right response comes from the young, insecure but semi-cool Arash (Arash Marandi), a go-getter forced to give up his prize car to dad's evil drug dealer, a giant, buff, coked-up, abusive tattooed pimp with a habit of sticking fingers in girls' mouths (big mistake). Even with his blood rich in ecstasy after a costume rave, our girl holds off indulging, instead engaging with him in a slow motion moment, beautifully set to a madly whirling disco ball and White Lies' "Death," a perfect song to bring them together as it builds slowly from just another click track into emotional sweep and grandeur all the more special for seeming to be coming so guilelessly true, "I love the quiet of the nighttime / the sun is drowned in deathly seas / I can feel my heart beating as I speed from / the sense of time catching up with me." It's the Let the Right One Inverse of Sixteen Candles: 

A lot of movies use pop songs, but how many 'get' the heady deep tissue impression pop music makes on the young, how the right songs come pouring from radios like poems conjured from their own unconscious, there to linger and associate this moment, this now, which has completely stopped, or at least slowed way down, with this song?  Dazed and Confused, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rushmore, The Big Chill, i.e. not very many. Most just try to force new songs from sister corporation labels down the synergy pipe--they don't get it. Kids dazzled by surging hormones are way better at feeling then analyzing or conveying their desires with any eloquence, so music fills the gap like a translator-cum-DJ wedding planner, and each song that does this hangs in the person's history like a combination scrapbook photo and emotional high replay. A Girl Walks Home Alone might be the first where pages of unspoken dialogue beams out between two quiet characters who barely move as the music plays. In other words, it does what Jarmusch hasn't been able to since Stranger than Paradise.

Slight as it is, Amirpour's film sits nicely between the druggie black and white vampire girl genre, the Tom Waits graveyard at the edge of town junkyard LA beatnik Jarmuschia, and the 'down and out' black and white 16mm post-neorealist movement from the early 00s Argentina new wave (as in Bolivia and Suddenly). I would have dug it if the film slowly turned to color during the ecstasy scene, then slowly back down to black and white for the come-down, but I'm always hoping more films will try that. Or any, besides Coffin Joe's Awakening of the Beast (1969) and Wizard of Oz. God damn it.

Either way, the film does nail exactly what ecstasy is like, capturing the rush of blood in the ear and the way a teasing hottie will surround you with auric tentacles of come-hither, leading you on only to brush you off the instant you bust a move, sending you reeling with the double kick of heady intoxication and sudden, short-shock shame. And in its own way, Amirpour's film does it all one better, the slow motion really reflects the temerity of the moment, while we wait for Anash's hand to come out of a glove compartment and the slow drone music drives us onwards, we move into the future, tapping our typewriter train ride way to Annexia, Zentropa, and on and on, loyal as Oskar, doomed as Håkan before him, ready for our William Tell routine, one goddamned Seward asylum fly at a time... but no drug so sweet as to turn the city again to color...


  1. This was really well written, directed and filmed. Cool recurring motifs like industrial machinery seen at various distances. The balloon dance was fantastically weird with a nice Fritz Lang touch. Reminded me a bit of Nadja, an indie film from the 90s, but this is a more methodical and discerning vampire.

  2. Don't know if it's crossed your path yet, but you got your wish on that Addiction blu-ray: not Criterion, but Arrow just released it, 4K, approved by director/cinematographer, all that puffery. Looks fuckin' great.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...