Review: Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth

4:44 Last Day on Earth should have been a great film; or, rather, should have fit custom with my esoteric (read: weird and bitchy) standards for film. It has Willem Dafoe (Boondock Saints! Platoon! Movies that don’t star Toby McGuire!), the kind of guy who sits around waiting for touched-in-the-blood projects. It was directed by Abel Ferrara, who made Scorsese blush with Bad Lieutenant, who came from porn and then did The Funeral and King of New York. It was shot (lovingly) in my own Lower East Side – the neighborhood of New York City where I feel most at home, where all three of my favorites bars are, where I can eat upscale in my pajamas – and pretends (equally lovingly) that the LES is still the artist’s haven it was two decades ago before the NYU grads and trust-fund babies shuffled in. It even has Paz de la Huerta, my hands-down favorite actress from the demolition derby (played at both the corporeal and spiritual level) that is the Tribeca scene (Paz and I go back, but that’s a different story – about banana chocolate-chip muffins, amongst other things – for a different time).

And, since I’m reviewing the film – although stalwart Anobium readers know we don’t so much review works as combine them with common household chemicals at strange gravities, speeds and temperatures – I might as well tell you: the plot synopsis sounds suspiciously custom-built too, as if Ferrara had done a stalker’s due-diligence on me via Google and Facebook and then written the screenplay. Let me sum up and deflate excitement, simultaneously:

Cisco (Dafoe) and his girlfriend Skye – Shanyn Leigh, embodying my least favorite vodka and most favorite Valley – are the aforementioned artists, hiding out on the top-floor loft of a tenement on Ludlow Street. The film documents their last day on Earth or, more precisely, everybody’s (including the wonderfully grave Pat Kiernan, as himself, doing NY1’s local apocalyptic coverage). Why? Because – as Kiernan has it during his broadcast – ‘Al Gore was right’. The ozone layer is – in a clumsy piece of sci-fi concession – going to completely give out at precisely 4:44am EST. So, doomed beyond recourse, Cisco and Skye fuck (Ferrara shows off some not-to-be-watched-with-family art-porn chops), fight (over Cisco’s Skyping with his ex and their child), meditate (the film’s most noxiously self-involved – as well as clunkiest – metaphor: Cisco pictures himself sawing a tree down), and then fight some more. Skye spends most of her time sloshing (literally) layer after layer of paint onto a giant canvas. At one point, Cisco goes down the block – running into a drunk de la Huerta on Delancey Street (in what I believe to be a nifty piece of cinéma vérité) – to a friend’s house, where he shoots the shit with some old drug-buddies (including Natasha Lyonne, in another vérité moment) while they snort end-of-the-world lines of coke. Cisco stays strong and sober; he heads home to snuggle with Skye – who has, inexplicably, painted a massive (and massively meaningless) fluorescent Ouroboros atop her muddy swamp of paint – and waits for the final, inevitable voice-over. I mean apocalypse.

Could I synopsize in a more neutral fashion? Yes. But other people have already done that. Besides, it’s almost time for the weird science. But first, it’s worth saying that – though it’s hardly what one might come looking for in these parts – a few genuinely good performances in this play. I mean movie. I mean movie that clearly made more sense as theatre – with its capacious ability to handle melodramatic gesticulating – but needed to be filmed because, well, who has time for theatre? Okay. Enough snark, let me say this: there is one scene in the film – a Chinese-food delivery boy says a trans-Pacific goodbye to his family over Skype – that is brutal and touching. The dialog goes without subtitles or translation because – the film seems to momentarily realize – not everything has to be telegraphed. Afterwards, Cisco clumsily offers the boy a tight roll of dollar bills and Skye, ever the cliché, traps the poor kid in an awkward hug and thanks him for letting her and Cisco ‘know him’. It becomes hard to tell if the film is manifesting shit writing about good people, or good writing about shit people and yet the moment endures because it’s so plausible, so natural and humane. That said, this review isn’t quite done. In other words: natural and humane was three exits back, folks. So let’s move on.

You might be wondering: why tear down this film? Why not let Rotten Tomatoes do their thing and be done with it? Well, because there is much to learn from this film. It is, like the exhausting passages of the Bret Easton Ellis (circa Glamorama) or Mars Volta (after Francis the Mute), worth keeping around – worth preserving – because the intent was noble and the execution highly illustrative. So, with that in mind, I suggest the following:

Three Lessons from Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth

(1) Recursivity – Ferrara’s film poses, albeit clumsily, a fascinating question: what does an artist do on the last day of his or her life? Skye spends her day working on her canvas with an almost maternal intensity; she’s half painting, half nursing something to life. It’s a powerful metaphorical answer to questions about why artists do what they do, and potently honest as well. Artists – at least in Ferrara’s doomed world – are ultimately narcissists who, at best, project life onto their creations to avoid feeling like narcissists. Skye’s doomsday work harbors no illusions of ‘participating in a conversation’, it has no pop-punk illusions of social grandeur (ahem, My Chemical Romance), it will not, in other words, ‘reach’ anybody, her painting will not be there, someday, when a depressed teen needs to not feel alone (because all of those conversations, all those proto-suicides, all those somedays, are all about to get nullified).

Let’s be honest: how many of us would spend the last day writing or even reading? Sure, it sounds pretty HFC to finally finish The Master and Margarita as the world explodes, but I’d be more likely to spend the last day with my friends and family, eating the greasiest, most endangered animals I could find, drinking Remy Martin Louis XIII and – why not? – trying to time it so that I hit the crest of a hundred-dollar spoonful right as the world ended.

Sadly, Ferrara loses faith in his metaphor and – as the film ends – we see that Skye has painted the aforementioned symbolic albatross. I mean Ouroboros. What do we make of this? Is Skye – and by extension Ferrara – suggesting a cosmic rebirth of the characters and the world? Is Skye considering, post-reincarnation, a career is tribal tattooing? Are we to assume that, because Skye ultimately creates the film’s final visual statement, that her art was only seemingly narcissistic and that it has, in the end, transcended to the universal? Why, then, shove this into a film that keeps finding itself handcuffed to realist conventions? Art about artists, excepting bad biopics (Pollock, we’re looking at you) is always recursive: it is the thing it’s about. This presents great opportunities and deep pitfalls. And here’s the thing about artists who create artists: their creation is never cleverer than they are. So, yes, write about writers, paint about painting, but don’t set your creation a task that you’re not equal to. [See also: Finding Forester]

 (2) Speaking of Blowing Up the Outside World – there’s no shortage of pop-psychological reasons – often trickling down from the Ivory Towers – why we love watching the world blow up. Or almost blow up. Or blow up but then – thanks to the advent of time travel and retroactive continuity – reconstitute. Most of the time, the way the world is going to end is also the way it’s going to be saved. Handsome versions of every race and creed come together and realize, oh no! Aliens came to kill us! But they forgot to install McAfee Anti-Virus! Or: They forgot to bring Thera-Flu! But, unless you’re really going to lavish some nigh-erotic, Futurist attention on the destruction of the Earth – imagine a candy-flipping Roland Emmerich disaster flick and you’re on the way – the best reason to end the world to get your characters alone and then fuck them up. A good example is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which eschews the pan-seared metaphors of Night of the Walking Dead for slow-cooker allegory (patience, not flash, is the show’s highest virtue). Characters are most interesting under duress. Duress? Like, applying to college? Or choosing between a vampire and a werewolf? In the words of the corner crack-head: ‘no-no-no-no-no-no…’. Real duress. Like Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas duress (or, if you insist, The Road). And here’s the thing: the fact that eschatology is a blatantly literary device doesn’t require that you obscure the mechanism in sci-fi conceits. In other words, if the point of the end of the world is to push people to be interesting – instead of pale imitations of Judy Blume come-of-agers or urbane, New Yorker-ish twaddlers – then it doesn’t matter how the world is ending. You only run the risk of distracting your audience and sounding, well, stupid. Or, worse, sounding like you think your audience is stupid. Here, the Earth’s COD is the collapse of the ozone layer. That this would not happen instantaneously, that you could – amongst other things – wear sun-block, hide underground, stay in geosynchronous Earth-shadow orbit (or moon-shadow orbit, viva Cat Stevens!), hurts the realness of a film that shouldn’t need realness to do what it needs to do. That the title conceals a pointless reference to Evangelical numerology (Google the ‘Sermon of the Signs’ or check out Matthew 24:4-44… see it?) hurts almost as much. We’ll say nothing of the smarminess of actually penning the line: ‘Al Gore was right’. Of course he was fucking right. But that’s not a plot. That’s a talking point. Bottom line: come up with the coolest planetary snuff film ever, or keep the death off-stage.

(3) Rupture – in the director’s cut of Perfect Getaway, a clever-enough thriller (ingredients: 1 rounded scoop of Hitchcock, 2 tbsp Timothy Olyphant’s smile, 2 dozen B-roll shots of Hawaii), there is a strange scene in which  Steven Zahn and Mila Jolavich smoke crystal meth on the beach. Zahn, in an amphetamine rapture, waxes philosophical about perception and reality. Unlike the rest of the film, which is saturated in natural Hawaiian light, this scene is shot in bleached out, tungsten-blue light. In the middle of Zahn’s solipsistic monolog, the ocean stops moving, a wave frozen in mid-crash. It’s a fun scene – although it makes nearly no sense in the narrative and only a director’s turgid vanity could have gotten it filmed in the first place – in large part because it’s such a catastrophic rupture in the film: in terms of narrative (Zahn’s meth-use is absent throughout the rest of the film, but it provides a radically different explanation for his behavior), in terms of the film’s ‘reality’ and in terms of the film’s ‘style’. Like I said, not a good scene, but a fun scene. It’s hardly revolutionary – hardly Molly Bloom crying out ‘Oh Jamesy let me up out of this’ from the last pages of Ulysses – but fun.

Ferrara’s film has a similar scene in which Cisco and Skye meditate and the film then wanders into a trance-like state of its own. We see Cisco in a desolate desert landscape, confronted by an aboriginal (shades of The Doors). Cisco begins metaphorically sawing down a metaphorical tree (get it? White guilt? Environmental destruction? Ozone layer? Lesson: Trees good, sawing bad). To stabilize what might otherwise be comically trite, the colors get the full late-80s color-swirl treatment (favoring yellow, for no apparent reason) and some ostentatiously mystical music. Like Vaughn’s metholog, this scene has a defensible internal logic; that is, we could say the film hasn’t violated its own rigid adherence to minimalist, theatrical realism, it’s merely realistically representing Cisco’s ‘vision’ (this is how many academics deal with the occasional ruptures in 19th century and early 20th century realist literature that aren’t supposed to be up to such surrealist antics). So a case can be made for the trip-out, but the overall effect is that this scene sticks out as sorely and senselessly incongruous from the rest of the film.

Okay, so it’s not brilliant film-making, why kick Ferrara while he’s down? Well, (a) that’s the easiest way to kick someone, and (b) the intention is good. The point of such a vivid, hallucinatory scene in an otherwise subdued, naturalistic film, is twofold. First, from a narrative point of view, it condenses a great deal of information about Cisco into a dense package. He and Skye have ostensibly known each other a long time and – since, in the movie’s world, the end has been predicted considerably in advance – they aren’t, realistically, going to have a drawn out expository conversation about how either of them feel, they’ve already had it or they don’t need to. Second, it reminds us as viewers that the quiet, stripped down tone of the film is – to borrow from Guy Laramée (in his recent interview with Anobium’s Benjamin van Loon) – something of an ideology. To paraphrase Laramée, Realism doesn’t consider itself a perspective amongst others – surrealism, hyperbolism, absurdist, noir, etc – and, as the name implies, it’s probably the ideology of representation that’s most concerned with, shall we say, concealing its own machinery. A moment like Cisco’s fugue doesn’t exactly sabotage the machinery of realism, but it does threaten to expose it. The question is, why? Or, more importantly, what can we learn from it?

Perhaps this: film, literature, graphic arts – these things are machines for generating responses. Revealing the machinery doesn’t disable the machinery, but it changes the responses. Consider a different metaphor: Realism is a prostitute who offers the girlfriend experience; disavowal the artifice long enough and it feels real. It’s a very powerful effect and useful – even indispensible – at times. Why rupture it? To remind the audience who is in charge, to bring attention to your own skill in producing the realism effect, and – maybe most of all – to demonstrate to the audience, once you’ve broken the spell, just how attached they had become to the illusion.

[Feature image from Journey by Frame]

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