Tuesday, August 21, 2012

4:44: The Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2012)

The characters in Abel Ferrara's 4:44: The Last Day on Earth react to the world's impending doom with astonishing calm. Perhaps they, too, are burned out on all the apocalyptic fare at the cineplex, ranging from gargantuan, hollow spectacles like 2012 to arthouse features like The Turin Horse or Melancholia. Heck, even Terrence Malick's rapturous celebration of the humanity's connection to the universe in The Tree of Life featured a vision of its end, the sun expanding until scorching all life from the Earth before vaporizing the desiccated husk. As actor Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and painter Skye (Shanyn Leigh) go about their routines in their loft, initially displaying no indication that they are even upset, much less terrified with the prospect of a total extinction that has been calculated to the exact time (that of the film's title), one begins to wonder if Hollywood has managed to desensitize us not merely to intimate violence but our own doom.

But then, given how comfortable the couple's flat is, it is not such a stretch of the imagination that they should feel at least somewhat relaxed as they head to their deaths along with the rest of the human race. Production designer Frank De Curtis and composer Francis Kulpers previously teamed with Ferrara on his superb 2007 film Go-Go Tales, where they managed to make a wretched strip joint seem not claustrophobic and solipsistic but expansive and oddly warm. Their work here mirrors that incongruously big smallness, once again sidestepping the obvious aesthetic and tonal choice to allow Ferrara to take new directions with generic material. Indeed, 4:44, like Go-Go Tales, emerges as a film of unexpected gentleness and humanity, though perhaps this is all relative when speaking of a director who got his start with softcore porn and grisly exploitation fare.

Many people, typically pandering politicians and pundits, often say that disasters bring out the best in people. This is of course, rarely true; the fleeting national unity triggered by 9/11, for instance, came at the expense of a wave of racism and xenophobia that in some circles endures a decade later. Yet Ferrara shows the world truly responding to a horrible event with grace and decorum. News reports describe everyone on a plane just hugging each other, while a friend of Cisco's mentions a nearby shop owner giving one last round to the regulars and then leaving his place unlocked so anyone could have a last drink in the last few days before the end. And when Ferrara swiftly moves into a sex scene, the speed with which he gets down and dirty is both narratively justified—what would you do with a loved one during your final days on the planet?—and aestheticized with tenderness.

As unorthodox as this all is, however, it would make for a poor full-length film with its general absence of drama. Gradually, sorrow, anger and all the other emotions one would expect of this kind of movie creep into the film, as if it traversed the five stages of grief in reverse. Both characters have their breakdowns, aimed at everyone and no one. An attempt by Cisco to speak to his daughter on Skype leads to a disastrous stab at reconciliation with his ex-wife that leads to an explosive argument between Cisco and his new lover that is about anything but Cisco's outreach. Yet even the moments of conflict are fleeting, and the fact that the arguments are uniformly over matters that seem so trivial in the face of the situation must surely be the point. What conflict could Ferrara invent, after all, that would truly stand up to the magnitude of the horror hovering over his characters?

Instead, he merely records how we might say our goodbyes to each other. The director uses technology with a bit of cheek, using iPads, laptops and HD-TVs to show figures blaming our end on our reckless expansion and our obsession with unchecked technological growth. Ferrara does not show Al Gore or the Dalai Lama on an endless loop as a form of lecturing endorsement, he does so to show the irony, even hypocrisy, of those warning for the need to dial back resource-draining comfort having to spread their message through the very things they protest. Such people must use current communication devices because that is the only way to reach people. Indeed, if Ferrara is making any kind of endorsement at all, it is for these new tools of interpersonal connection over mass stretches of space. The characters names even play into this: Cisco shares his name with a leading manufacturer of networking equipment, wile Skye's name is but one letter removed from the video chat software that allows for most of the film's conversations with the world outside the couple's flat.

The film's rawest, most beautiful moment, in fact, is the one that owes everything to modernity. Cisco orders Vietnamese food and copiously tips the poor boy still stuck doing this in mankind's final hours. But money means nothing anymore, and a look of baffled helplessness crosses his face as he continues to hand the kid $100 bills. Currency, the cornerstone of a civilization, is now worthless, and Cisco doesn't know what to do. Cautiously, the boy asks for a more meaningful tip, to use Cisco's internet connection to contact his family back in Vietnam. Cisco, relieved to offer something useful, acquiesces, and the young man has a calm face-to-face chat with loved ones he might not have seen in years. The camera, like Cisco and Skye, look on, not understanding the language but knowing full well what is being said. When he is done, the kid gently closes the laptop lid and kisses it with such reverence he practically dares anyone to dismiss the shot as pure product placement. Skye tearfully thanks the young man for sharing that with them, such a privileged, white thing to say, and yet so appropriate given what he allows the couple, and the audience, to eavesdrop upon.

4:44: The Last Day on Earth suggests we shall all die as we lived, which is both reassuring and vaguely depressing. Ferrara dangles out didactic reasons for our demise and personal drama as familiar window dressing to ease the audience into something far simpler yet more resonant. It finds human life void of any serious meaning, but where Melancholia took that same assessment as a reason to look forward to our destruction, 4:44 seeks to make peace with the insignificant meanings we all find in our lives. Taken with Go-Go Tales, which twists Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie into an optimistic comedy, the film shows a mellowed Ferrara, but one still able to extract basic truths from his raw setups. If this marks a turning point for the director, it will be interesting to see how many of those who previously found his work and ideas too savage will now find him too soft.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review, it makes me wonder if Ferrara based this film on Ray Bradbury's 'The Last Night of the World' which you can read in its brief entirity over at Esquire.com... (didn't want to direct link it, but was the first hit in the search) Anyway, I hope to watch this someday, thanks for reminding me.