Wednesday, April 01, 2015


Like so many broken down NYC artists and writers before me, I've submissively followed my vampire anima--my creative muse-- 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 of madness) only by some half-remembered Hegel quote kept around my ravaged 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--I simultaneously crave and fear the isolation she needs to emerge from her hairy coffin. 

The East Village where I used to live now can only be afforded by the rich or older-than-me bastards with rent controlled apartments. But back in the 80s-90s you could live in downtown NYC for only $500 a month, and there was a sudden outbreak of female druggie downtown vampire artists onscreen, serving well as metaphors for the city itself, and AIDs, drug addiction, and art's constant struggle for fresh blood. Anonymous thirsty youth prowling a city that never sleeps just waiting for a bite = 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 now - and our anima slumbers out of reach, deep in the Demeter's rat-infested hold.

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 90s black-and-white druggy urban vampire dream lives on, in a sub-section--west side-- 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) a town located between the grime of Bleeker Street and the clankety-clank of Eraserhead. 

1995- Dir Abel Ferrara 

"Dependency is a marvelous thing," whispers Lili Taylor to her NYU thesis advisor as they shoot up together. "It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctorate material." Of course she's going to give him more than just dissertations and heroin, she's going to give him eternal hunger in exchange for his opiated blood --basking in the satisfaction of two cravings being satisfied in one suck. She rules her space, this guy may be a teacher but he's at her feet. Yet before long she's trapped in the loft of a pompous male vampire who drinks her blood and leaves her to contort the day away in agonizing anemic double-withdrawal, giving her the gift of a copy of Burroughs/ Naked Lunch to help her learn to control her junky cravings. Ferrara leans in on Taylor's prolonged, agonized day --maybe the most extended, harrowing depiction of drug withdrawal I've ever seen, or felt (though mine were from alcohol-- probably only about 1/10 as agonizing but very similar movements and breathing). She finally makes it into the service elevator and down to the street, as we all do, to get her fix, the city barely noticing how messed up she is, which is both its best and worst habit.

Naturally someone helps, giving more than the Red Cross would ever ask and she's fine again. 

The Addiction, in other words, in a 90s black-and-white horror movie that's about a lot more than just stakes and exsanguination, it's got interesting things to say--both out loud and in the coolest voiceover narration in all of cinema, a veritable doctoral thesis on evil-cum-advocacy for drug addiction, whispered by Lili Taylor, so glassy-eyed perfect for the part it's like you're overhearing while nosing around some downtown NYC bookstore. 

This is no bullshit vamp psychobabble or empty LA posturing, It's real NYC, real philosophy in action, courtesy a script by Ferrara's long-time "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--a sublime mix between the idealistic and jaded, the philosophy-mad young Ritalin prescription-owning liberal arts NYU sophomore, made instantly seasoned cool by a few semesters of literary salons under Washington Square's ever-popping space needle. Cognizant of language's inadequacy even when stretched to the limit, yet unable to stop talking, she's the ideal doctoral candidate, i.e. she's annotated. She's able to back up being full of herself with memorized quotes. Following her thesis to its "the horror, the horror" nadir/pinnacle, she embraces 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, pleasure and pain, being and nothing. 

It all starts when--just a normal grad student heading home-- she's accosted on the street by sexy vampire Annabelle Sciorra, who leads 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 that sets it off. 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--a way rapists take advantage of fear-paralysis-- or one of those lore things, like they have to be invited in or can't cross your threshold?

Taylor's subsequent journey from shame to rapture includes an expanding wealth of widened perception--brain opening up to encompass all the horrors our conscious minds usually suppresses. As her brain opens, her body decomposes. Like Jeff Goldblum's Brundle in Cronenberg's Fly, she notes her corporeal changes a dispassionate theorist's eye, succinctly elaborating on the strange joy involved with divesting oneself from ones' own fate. They let their known parameters of self be outmoded. If the pursuit of knowledge means they morph into some unknown creature, what else is life for? Only emotion makes it all bad or tragic.

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 similarly timid friend has fallen/risen. Taylor, in terse retort sneers: "Your obtuseness is disheartening as a doctoral candidate." Hot damn! She said obtuseness! From then on, 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 as a side effect of proximity to the fumes from old library glue. But Taylor's huffing the solvents of the opiated beyond--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--these new paradigms to the thesis committee. The addiction has organized her life, broadened her perspective, cinched her doctorate, and made her as full of moral decay and intellectual flourish as New York City itself.

With its Weegee-style black and white photography, The Addiction manages on a flop house budget what Coppola's Dracula couldn't with all its smoke and mirrors, which is to harken all the way back to the vampire film's mythopoetic Murnau roots. Nosferatu's dissertation on the hydra polyp finds parallel with Taylor's My Lai massacre microfiche montage. The invasion of disease-carrying rats in Mina's hometown finds parallel in The Holocaust exhibit, visited by Falco and Taylor at a local museum--mass Europen death happening in the moment-- the 3-D space of 2D photos from the camps 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. They just drag themselves around Artists and academics alone are 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. For some that's a death sentence, for others, it's a diploma. 

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 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 STDs, drugs, philosophy. history, pretentious salons, or New York and its flea-bitten artsy undertow, its stolen shot seediness, which 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. (PS 6/22- it's since come out on Blu-ray! Yay!)

Look, 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). Russell Simmons was a producer, which might explain the music not always being perfect (i.e. the tacky, soulful Temptations title theme song). Often the guerilla-style stolen street shots can get pretty shaky/woozy, and the whispering is sometimes hard to hear. But how often does a film about NYC college life really have such an authentic grasp on both grad school babble and heroin culture, so much that it swims in decadent drugginess and high-falutin' concepts rather than merely dipping a toe in and then skittering away, giggling or screaming? Even Roger Avary's heroin users comes off looking anemic by comparison. The Addiciton is in fact the only film of its kind, the only one to blend philosophical theory with folklore/vampirism, AIDs, addictive drugs and draws such a clear line between the four their differences vanish and they align like three identical transparency overlays. Kids need to learn --it's no longer enough to make out with your thesis advisor to be 'radical'. Shoot up for the first time, and drink his blood! Do the reading and then you can pass judgment on it (likening the smell of the NYU library with the rot of a charnel house) on your way out. 

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
 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/thirsty liberal arts graduate alcoholic or autodidact drug addict wandering the wilderness: "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 get downstairs to the liquor store--which was, literally, right next door. With a twenty dollar bill taped to my shaking hand, I'd try to be too fast to stumble, trying to get my bourbon and make it back up to safety of my apartment 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 soon- 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, it's a call to luxuriate inside your sickness. "Self realization is annihilation of self." Its a way to excuse, rationalize, and forgive the self-destructive tendencies clotting human history's arteries with war crimes so vile they crash time's mainframe, and to forgive, forgive, and rationalize our own self-poisoning.

Oh yeah, 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---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! An Iranian vampire love story, told in resonant black and white and set in the 80s (at least music-wise) in the fictional but familiar "Bad City," (actually Bakerfield, CA), run-down and littered with ever-pumping skeletal oil derricks (pumping up "blood" as Daniel Plainview would say). There's nowhere to run but out in the depressed Bad City, the only people on the street are hustlers and drug-dealers; the only thing worth having is a car; the days are marked by a junkie father's itchy paranoia. First-time director/skateboard star Amirpour makes a big entrance with this film--positing herself somewhere between Sofia Coppola and Abel Ferrara--as does star Sheila Vand, as strange and cool a specter of feminist vengeance for oppressed Middle-Eastern women as you could ask for. Wrapped in her black hijab like Dracula's cape (or Nadja's hood), she preys mainly on male predators, usually 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, it will be clear to any one of a drug-using nature). Her hunting pattern is to silently stalking her and mirror her (male) quarry, gauging whether to kill them based on their response. The wrong responses get killed, some just get passed by, 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 though Arash's blood is rich in MDMA (after a costume rave where he dresses as Dracula), our heroine holds off indulging, instead bringing him up to her room and engaging with him in an extended slow-motion shared moment below a madly whirling disco ball, with White Lies' "Death"-- playing on her record player. A perfect song to bring them together, as it builds slowly to an emotional grandeur all the more special for seeming to be coming so guilelessly true to their shared moment ("I love the quiet of the nighttime / the sun is drowned in deathly seas") Amirpour lets the moment completely land and for that moment the film becomes the Let the Right One In-verse 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, Lost in Translation 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, 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.

Slight as it is, Amirpour's film sits nicely inside the druggie black and white vampire girl genre, it's the Tom Waits graveyard at the edge of the 'down and out' black and white 16mm post-neorealist movement between Jarmusch's early work and the early 00s Argentine 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. I'm always hoping more films will try that kind of thing. So few do, 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 White Lies moment does all that one better, the slow motion really reflects the temerity of the moment, and so it does later as well, while we wait for Anash's hand to come out of a glove compartment--wondering if a gun will come out-- and the slow drone music drives us onwards into the oil-black 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.


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