Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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, or change it so they do. And 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 harm only by some half-remembered Hegel quote kept around my neck. Lonely in the throng of my fellow lonesome vampire secretaries, aging and dying as far back as those modernist vagabonds being ejected from the White Horse Tavern and dying on the gum-slicked cobblestones. All of us are always old, decayed, 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. The East Village now can only be afforded by rich NYU students, old bastards with rent controlled apartments, and German or Japanese ex-pats. The rest of us, the Allies, are chased across to Brooklyn, scrounging in the cracks between the ghetto 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 when you could live in downtown NYC for only $500 a month (with a roommate), there was a rash of female druggie vampire artists there, too, 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 lent itself to the vampire who relished that the city never slept. 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.

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 80s 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 taste of the white horse; she's going to drink his opiated blood and bask in her double craving being satisfied. The point is, 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 in itself, real philosophy in action, courtesy longtime Ferrara screenwriter Nicholas St. John. And Taylor brings just the right mix of zonked conviction to the words; never pretentious, always cognizant of language's inadequacy even when stretched to the limit. She's the ideal doctoral candidate, following her thesis to its "the horror, the horror" nadir/pinnacle, embracing the madness and physical decomposition (i.e. the rotting teeth so common to heroin addicts). 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. Are we kids or what? 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 is similar to, say, Jeff Goldblum's in Cronenberg's Fly, each watching their own slow motion decomposition with a theorist's dispassionate eye and a writer's ability to succinctly elaborate on the strange joy involved with divesting oneself from ones' own fate.  They'e in it for the knowledge, for the cracking it wide open, like true philosophizers, or poets (or true rationalizers, depending on whom you ask). They don't cling to outmoded parameters of self. If the pursuit of knowledge means they morph into some unknown creature, what else is there more worth becoming?

Well I remember, around the same mid-90s period, scaring girlfriends and co-workers with my own rants about how I could see through time, and how space was an illusion, my eyes wild, hands shaky, lips dry. Taylor's fellow doctoral candidate and study buddy Edie Falco, for example, is pretty horrified by how far off the deep-end diving board her once sober 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 the thesis dissertation. Falco hurried along the dotted lines of the known, buried in books, made sexless by proximity to library glue; Taylor's seen beyond the veil, she's 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, 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, 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 Zoetrope mirrors. Harkening back to the vampire film's mythopoetic Murnau roots--Nosferatu's hydra polyp magnifying glass lectures finding parallel to 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 local museum exhibit. It 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.

Maybe that's because no one actually dies in this vamp universe, there's no time - and they were never living anyway, not in the sense you mean, for one doesn't live that way below 14th Street. Instead, their cool undoes them, as being 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 wind up just another flyover college part-time faculty hack. Victims are told all the time that 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, its almost supernatural. She owns the role, the film, the city, and with nothing but her tiny 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 --the NYC that's still wild and woolly, every storefront a decaying mass of failed punk band stickers. 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."

Re-watching it 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 would try to get to and from the liquor store, literally right next door, and one flight of stairs, a twenty dollar billl taped to my shaking hand, trying to get my bourbon and vodka 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.

"... little turkeys in straw hats."
So yeah, this is right up there with The Lost Weekend for the authentic NYC 90s addict-alcoholic experience. "Self realization is annihilation of self." Skooly D, a longtime Ferrara collaborator, appears and scores while Taylor wrestles with her habit's thousand dimensions and finding a way to excuse and forgive the self-destructive tendencies clotting human history's arteries with crimes so vile they crash time's mainframe. Christopher Walken shows up for a few killer moments, luring Taylor to his apartment, draining her nearly dry, while boasting how well his habit is under control and urging her to read Naked Lunch. What a dick. Cypress Hill beatboxes the soundtrack with druggy raps pitch-shifted through a 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 goddamn scrapbook.

Meanwhile, your city is gone but the buzzy flashback of that first ecstasy and cocaine highball stroll at dawn after an all-night sesh lingers decades in the blood, which is why Taylor wants to drink it. Like all good druggie downtown vamps she only wants the blood rich with opiates and pheromone secretions once the drugs trigger massive release from the pituitary gland into the bloodstream (just ask the drug-dealer alien in Dark Angel [1990] AKA I Come in Peace). That's the best there is, the dope shit.

By comparison, sex is strictly for the tourists.

1994 - Dir Michael Almereyda 

Like Taylor in The Addiction, Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) talks incessantly, albeit far less philosophically, more true to the city rather than NYU grad school. "I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level," she blathers at a bar to some future victim dude who 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. "I was born near the Black Sea, in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains," she says. Dig. She may be rich East Village Eurotrash from old Transylvanian money but she's grieving her father, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, 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 just staked him after finding him strung out on drugs, old "confused, surrounded by zombies. He was just going through the motions," Van H's nephew Marin Donovan plays the most fey boxer ever and just happens to be married to Nadja's new love interest, a cute little closeted-even-unto-herself Galaxy Craze. Nadja is weary of her jet set life and longing to love again, even if she knows it will hurt in the long run: "Life is full of pain, but I am not afraid. The pain that I feel is the pain of fleeting joy." She's also dying... "for a cigarette."

They meet when Galaxy asks her for one 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 know right off that she would make a great vampire, her speech vaguely slurred but very open like she's talking to a therapist while trying to hide that she's sailing along the Oxycodone sea. Nadja and her pretty boy servant pick up Drac's body from a confused David Lynch as the morgue attendant. It starts to snow as she walks down the street at night, smoking and gliding, and then Portishead starts, "How can it feel / this moment?" 

Galaxy Craze
Nadja's writer-director Michael Almeyreda displays a clear love of cigarettes, Universal pre-code horror, and the lesbian vampire movies of the 70s, with Gothic shots that wondrously fuse the downtown grit of NYC with the Universal pre-code Expressionism of Karl Freund. Structured like a loose remake of the 1935 Universal horror classic, Dracula's Daughter, there's also unambiguous references to The 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, like Frodo when he puts on the ring) 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 outclasses Jean Rollin at his own game in one button. Even if heterosexuality triumphs in the end, it's hard to hate Martin Donovan. (See also: Almereyda's classy and underrated The Eternal.)

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 amidst 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 on the walls and days are marked by a junkie father's itchy paranoia. "The first western Iranian vampire movie" has a startling doppelganger effect in Sheila Vand's similarity to the film's writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, as a specter of feminist vengeance for oppressed women in Iran's repressive milieu. Wrapped in her black cape 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, not all men are fit for killing. Most just yammer away like spoiled vain children, figuring out how to come onto her or why she's shadowing them. All but young, insecure but semi-cool Arash (Arash Marandi), a Lynch-ish young 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). Thanks to a chain of events, Arash gets his car back, and a suitcase full of drugs and money. Even with his blood rich in ecstasy, though, after a costume rave, our girl holds off indulging, instead engaging 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 come so guileless and true, the Let the Right One Inverse of Sixteen Candles: "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." I've been listening to it on my phone ever since.

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. They all try though. A Girl Walks Home Alone might be the first where not only does a song enhance the mood, pages of dialogue are being beamed silently outwards while characters barely move and the music plays. In other words, it does what Jarmusch tries to.

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 vibe, and the 'down and out' black and white 16mm post-neorealist movement from the early 00s in South America vibe (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 via the rush of blood in the ear sound editing and the way a teasing hottie will surround you with auric tentacles of come hither only to brush you off in an instant and send 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... and no drug ever so sweet as to turn the city ever again to color...

1 comment:

  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.


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