I've always had a soft spot for Abel Ferrara's movies. Apart from the Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, I felt Ferrara was the third director who embodied and exemplified New York City. The difference is, he never shrugged off his grindhouse vibe or sought mainstream respectability even as his films became more personal and spiritual. Starting with BAD LIEUTENANT, Ferrara's themes often involved addiction and the search for spiritual redemption.
4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH is the first new movie from Abel Ferrara that's actually getting a release in the US for a long time. It is upfront about what it's about: the world is about to end, and it follows a New York writer, played by Willem Dafoe, and his artist girlfriend as they go about their last day while waiting for the inevitable. There's no plot per se. This is a mood piece, a filmed essay, thinly-veiled autobiography. It's all moments of hanging out, talking, stepping out to see what it's like outside on the streets of his Lower East Side neighbourhood (very specifically the stretch of Delancey Street that stops at the corner of Essex Street), moments of panic and sorrow, of messy unresolved family issues and meltdowns that just as quickly go away, of quiet, desperate sex and final declarations of love.
This is a defiant kind of arthouse movie, a cry from the heart, the diametrical opposite of the Hollywood blockbuster. This movie is, in many ways, New York. It recalls the movies of John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke and lesser-known indie filmmakers of the city who worked against the grain of Hollywood.
The movie is awash with subtext: an autobiographical meditation on Ferrara's own relationship with a younger woman (Shanyn Leigh, who plays Dafoe's girlfriend, is Ferrara's current girlfriend), on his recently-achieved sobriety from drug addiction and the continuing temptations to use that every addict faces, a celebration of the odd, slightly surreal milieu of the Lower East Side of artist's lofts, lowlife and ordinary working people, and the druggy New York Downtown Art scene, the air of creativity constantly on the verge of getting pushed out by gentrification. Ferrara has been upfront about his themes and motivations in an interview with Indiewire.
I'm sure there are people who will find 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH a self-indulgent, meandering load of twaddle, and if it opens in the UK, I'm willing to bet there will be reviews that dismiss it as such. What makes the movie worth your time is if you ever wanted to know what it really feels to there in New York, on those streets, in those apartments, with those people, whether you like them or not. There is an uncompromising desire in every frame to capture the reality of New York, using the loose plot of the end of the world as the merest excuse to do so. Though scripted, there is none of the neat, contrived sense of cliché you find in big Hollywood movies. This is the apocalypse in a world with Skype, iPhones and internet connections, where you can talk to the world without leaving your flat. It's like a time capsule for New York City as it is now. In that respect, it's fitting that it should star Willem Dafoe in a virtual one-man show, embodying not just the director but also in his face and background the entire baggage and history of the last twenty-odd years of the Downtown New York Arts scene in all its chaotic, messy, occasionally self-destructive, trippy and unpredictable glory, earned, lived-in, always on the edge of extinction but somehow still carrying on to the end.
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