It’s buzzing hot electric at Jack Dempsey’s in the middle of a freak Wednesday rainstorm. The jukebox is plugging away, house remixes of old pop chestnuts I’m too preoccupied to recognize. Sitting down to drinks and burgers with my boy Tony Vitamins after the show, rapping heavy about movie screenings and payroll taxes like a bunch of old misers. The kids at the bar drunkenly sway to the music as we pontificate on the unheralded brilliance of The Last American Virgin and try to keep our thoughts off the film we just saw.
Finally, the question hits – “What did you think of the movie, David?”
The jumble of words I concocted was much sound and fury significant of nothing.
Like it or not, Abel Ferrara’s new film, 4:44 Last Day On Earth, kind of has that effect on people. It’s a stunning about-face and a game-changer from a director whose previous works were built on foundations that have nothing to do with his newest work. Last Day On Earth is a challenge to maneuver, a filmic Rorschach Test that holds few pleasures for the casual moviegoer, yet poses significant rewards for anyone open enough to accept the deeper meaning of what Ferrara is trying to say. It exists less as a movie and more as an outgrowth of the soul, the delicate scribbling of a born survivor opening his door and letting his audience catch a glimpse at his world.
Trapped in the middle of the Biblical Apocalypse, Cisco and Skye (ably played by veteran actor Willem Dafoe and Shannyn Leigh, Abel’s girlfriend turned Sedgwick ingénue) are two New Yorkers whose history remains a mystery. While obviously well-heeled and financially set, it’s never clear how the two of them manage to afford their lavish existence. When the news comes down that the world is due to end in a matter of hours, the details quit mattering as much as the grand truth – Imminent death is the great equalizer, money loses its’ value when everyone is due to meet their maker, and despite it all…Chinese restaurants will still deliver food to their patrons even as we all get ready to “see the light show.”
The genius of Last Day on Earth lays not in the storytelling, but in the careful eye for details that Ferrara and his crew exhibit. It exists not only as a parable of humanity on its’ final stretches, but as a eulogy to New York itself. The city exists almost as a character in and of itself, full of life even as it ceases to exist. The coke can man shuffles into frame, his weary bones making the circular jaunt from the Lower East Side to Greenwich Village in pursuit of the next 5-cent goldmine. Giggling junkies chop massive rails of Cocaine with their spent Metro Cards, waiting for the moment of truth. Cheap bars on Rivington Street continue to pound out awful karaoke as their patrons stumble through Elvis standards as a means to forget the inevitable truth. The only thing missing is Clayton Patterson and his camera…knowing Clay, he’d be all over the place that night.
But what does it all mean? The question seared into my brain as I tried to make sense of it all in the recesses of my cranium. Better to just wing it later, find the truth in my words when my ears aren’t getting clogged with old U2 songs. My turkey burger reveals itself to be surprisingly flavorless – Jack Dempsey’s ghost laughing at me from beyond the grave. Vitamins & I rush out to chain-smoke, looking for the truth in freezing rain and nicotine.
Feeling refreshed, we get back to our table to find two young girls and a preening metrosexual hovering around. Normally, this kind of uninvited intrusion into our shared group-think would be an annoyance but the film keeps rattling my cage. It’s about shedding inhibition, I say silently to myself. It’s about letting go of the trials and tribulations of the past and getting down to the bare bones of who we are as human beings. Satisfied by this progress, I sit down as one of our surprise visitors sees fit to introduce herself into our spectrum.
“My friend and her date want to make out, do you mind if I sit with you guys?”
I size her up quickly. She’s Midwestern cute with a cherubic face and a look in her eyes that suggests warmth. She’s obviously new to the city as she lacks the thousand-yard stare that seems ever more popular in this day and age. We quickly engage into the kind of conversation that people have when one side is a little deeper into the cups than others. She’s drunk enough to find me charming, but I’d rather she speak to Vitamins.
She leaves to get her coat, and I’m left to think about Last Day on Earth again.
If it’s about freeing oneself from societal rules and regulations, it’s also about taking stock and inventory of one’s own life in the midst of destruction. We make connections in the world in order to build our own invisible fortress of Shared Consciousness and melded minds. One is never truly broken down when surrounded by those that we love. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. When we all die as one, we find individuality in our own analysis of the way we live our lives. The thought process is frightening, and I fight to keep from breaking down in the middle of Jack Dempsey’s as I realize that if put into the same situation…I will die lonely and broken, surrounded by material goods that have since lost any real value, replacements for human interaction and affections disguised as cultural building blocks. When one can’t buy their friendships, what will I have left? What mark have I made on other people? This is only a small part of what Last Day on Earth is about and I predict that nobody else will feel the same way.
Grabbing life by the horns, we pay for our meal and head for the door. I spot the girl from before sitting at the bar and I feel the urge to go in for the kill. I will socialize Tony Vitamins at the expense of my own dignity. I want him to know what it feels like to connect with somebody again; I want him to feel the self-worth that only the first inklings of romance can provide. I want him…to hook up.
“Excuse me, madam…my friend over there, he really likes you but he’s just too shy to say anything. His last girlfriend really kicked his ass and raked him over the coals. Not to be too much of a burden, but it would make my year if you’d just give him your contact info and talk to him for a bit.”
She seems a bit uninterested, the fire snuffing out with each successive Martini.
“Look, I’m his financial advisor. I know exactly what he pulls, and I’m telling you right now that if you’re the kind of woman looking for a solid investment, he’s one of them. Give him a chance and I guarantee that he will cook his way right into your heart.”
Bingo. A bar napkin comes out and a pen gets produced. She writes her information down and hands it to me. Her last words a compliment on my salesmanship. Another night of doing the Lord’s Work is complete.
We hit the train to get back home. Surrounded by the Bridge-and-Tunnel’s loud catcalls and misplaced machismo, I finally get some time in to think about what this movie really was about and why it affected me so. If I really wanted to boil it down…it’s not about humanity. It’s not about the Apocalypse. It’s about Abel Ferrara as a human being. It’s his love letter to the woman that saved him from a life of untold misery. When he shuffles off this mortal coil, the only thing he wants to hear and see is the gleam in her eyes and the sound of her breathing. It’s all any of us can hope for – to find somebody who makes us want to be a better person. Someone who can make us drop all of our dirty habits out of the sheer fear of hurting them. A man or woman who can reach deep into our souls and make the pain go away with just a reassuring word. It’s romance, sex, death, Eros, Thanatos, Lovecraft and Lawrence rolled into one teeming mass of movie.
Last Day on Earth is more than a movie. It’s a glimpse into one man’s soul and its’ reflection upon our own. The galley of critics I saw it with might trash it on their blogs, but those people wear clothes I would probably hang myself in to let the world know how much I hated my life. I can’t tell anybody to see it or not see it, but those brave enough to open up to it can prepare to have their souls strip-mined by the feature’s end. The Future is Now.