I used to believe, like Wenders or Godard, in the death of cinema. I accepted it as fact but never believed in it. The movies, that’s what I believed in—a dark room, shadows on a surface, a bunch of lonely people sitting down, looking up.
Like Leos Carax to Serge Daney, Abel Ferrara showed me there’d be cinema ‘til the end of the world.
At first I thought Abel Ferrara’s films were badly acted; I soon realized Ferrara would take bad acting with truth in it over a masterpiece of falsehoods. (Later I found out that Ferrara would, in Dangerous Game and New Rose Hotel, use one to create the other.)
I thought his films were too commercial. “Already captivated by cinema, I didn’t need to be seduced as well,” as Serge Daney put it. Hollywood in the 21st century is a highly sophisticated marketing ploy. The director is the brand imprinted on a culture waterboarded by advertising. To refuse to sell images is to refuse to sell yourself, I thought, it’s tantamount to treason, or at least sabotage, but what I quickly realized is that Ferrara’s films don’t sell anything: not gangsters, pastiche, heroism, or violence, none of the things we’ve come to expect to see peddled in contemporary genre films. Not even tickets. There’s a reason most Ferrara films have failed to receive nationwide theatrical distribution. With the arguable exception of King of New York, the violence in Ferrara’s films isn’t on display like it would be in a Michael Bay picture, say; gangsters and vampires are critiqued, as are Ferrara’s films themselves (King of New York, one of Ferrara’s best but most problematic pictures, was itself critiqued by The Funeral and ‘R Xmas).
Still, I lived by the words of Henri Langlois, who said that “to love cinema is to love life.” So what about all the murderers, rapists, and junkies walking around Ferrara’s films polluting the astral plane thinking of T&A or their next fix? A great cinema is a moral cinema, I thought; it has to propagate equality, and the burden of responsibility extends to the viewer: great films watch us, like Daney said, and what wastes our time, cheapens our lives.
I came to realize Ferrara really does love cinema. The evidence is on the screen, in a crane shot in China Girl where the camera swoops down over the sidewalk and comes crashing through a doorway in search of Joey Chin. It’s in King of New York, when Frank White is reunited with his gang; in The Addiction when vampires orgy; and in Mary when a rock is thrown through a car window, bringing the characters into the street and in contact with life itself. It’s a love of sensation, balanced, unusually, with attention to moments of reflection, something like John Ford’s famous grace notes. I’m thinking, in terms of Ferrara, of Tye watching a neighbor pull his laundry in out of the rain in China Girl, or the camera panning across reflections in the windows of a building, down to the crowded street below in The Addiction; the little moments when life emerges from all that celluloid.
La beauté est dans la rue.
What makes a film cinema, rather than commerce or fabrication? It could be an image, a few seconds etched into our retinas, a single moment of truth where the lies we tell ourselves and the lives we lead smash together, collapse, explode.
I came to realize that Ferrara probably did love life, he just had a funny way of showing it. The sincerity of Bad Lieutenant, ‘R Xmas, and Go Go Tales catches you by surprise. Absence of irony differentiates Ferrara from many of his contemporaries; a refusal to glorify—and an insistence on confronting—the evil that men do links Ferrara to Fassbinder and Pasolini, chroniclers of corruption who were, like Ferrara, reviled in their home countries.
If the refusal to sell images separates Ferrara from Hollywood in general, the refusal to pander to an audience separates him from other independents. Slow films rule festivals these days, offering what can feel to the unsympathetic viewer like an endless variation on the theme of a static camera aimed at an empty frame; Ferrara’s films suggest a director willing to embarrass himself, to risk falling flat on his face. In his latest picture, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, everything is at stake. The ozone layer has been depleted and everyone knows the precise date and time when the earth is going to explode, but the end of the world functions less as subject and more as a conceit used to ratchet up the intensity of the film to something all-consuming; bodies and faces fill the frame like they did in silent film, and the tragedy of the finale brings with it a feeling of transcendence I haven’t experienced in cinema since Mauvais Sang. It’s Ferrara’s best film, I thought, after a single viewing.
On one hand, 4:44 echoes the other Ferrara films that deal with dependence, from Bad Lieutenant to The Blackout, and on the other, it explores new territory, existing as it does in the long tradition of men making films for women, male directors documenting love for their leading lady onscreen (New Rose Hotel is more a film about a woman’s ability to turn one’s life upside down than it is a document of Ferrara and Argento’s affair).
Ferrara has, depending upon the interview, described 4:44 as either a film about love or a film about addiction; when I saw him speak at the US premiere of 4:44 at the 2011 New York Film Festival, he discounted the other conclusion, that it’s a film about climate change. “Look, it’s not an earth science project about the end of the world,” Ferrara said. It’s just a film they made on Delancey St., he seems to be saying (from a twenty-four page script).
As funding for independent films has become harder and harder to find through the usual channels, Ferrara has grown increasingly resourceful. “Budget is a philosophical concept,” he said at the NYFF. Part of what enabled him to turn a twenty-four page script into an eighty-five minute film, as he and his crew did with 4:44, is the (some say, self-consciously) artsy, discontinuous editing style that his late period films employ. Unusually long cross-fades between shots have the temporary effect of visually complex superimpositions.
The role of the dissolve in late Ferrara is worth studying. It allows Ferrara to, in a sense, make films from nothing, to build on nothing like the most supreme stylist, like a Sirk or a Losey, and to arrive at what Luc Moullet called, in a piece on Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels, the “archi-false”:
“When one has nothing to start with, all excess, all forms of expression are good. […] In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true.” (Cahiers du cinéma, no. 87, September 1958, trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia)
Ferrara’s use of dissolves begins in earnest in New Rose Hotel, in the closing flashback that inaugurates Ferrara’s late period. But what does the slow dissolve mean to Ferrara? I think it’s a way of slowing down without foregoing sensation. Look at 4:44: the slow tempo, so uncharacteristic of a film about the apocalypse, heightens the tension, so that Shanyn Leigh’s few outbursts are like primal screams reverberating throughout the entire picture, which feels, despite its subject, like an optimistic work, that of a man who wants to keep working at all costs. When Defoe’s character leaves their apartment to visit junkie pals from his past, it’s like Ferrara stepping back into a film from before he was sober; he likes it there but can’t stay long. Beauty is in the streets, still, but living is all that matters now.
I’ll admit, there are films I love before even seeing them, with titles so preposterous they’re indefensible, which is what draws me to them: One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. The Lusty Men. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. For me, 4:44: Last Day on Earth is one of these films, a cheap & terrific picture about love, habits and–yes–climate change, the first great film about that huge unknowable subject looming over our century (and our lives) like a panzer.
4:44 Last Day on Earth opens in theatres and on-demand March 23.