The first time I saw Abel Ferrara's The Blackout (1997), it struck me as high-pitched, overwrought and phony. I reacted to it as I would in knee-jerk fashion to a hysterical melodrama. My next viewing was late one night, when I was exhausted from a long day, and my defenses were down. Suddenly, it didn’t feel melodramatic at all, but made of pure and true emotion—wrenching, disturbing, and most painful of all—disallowing of cathartic relief.
More than with any other filmmaker that I can think of, Ferrara's cinema is one of wondrous messiness. You see it seconds into this film, when Matty (Matthew Modine, in a role written for another Matt, Dillon) comes to Miami to spend time with his French girlfriend Annie (Beatrice Dalle). She’s sitting at a table, chatting with other actor types, when he walks in and practically lifts her off her chair. They kiss, slowly, clumsily, noisily, lips and tongues and teeth completely unchoreographed and uncoordinated, the messiest kiss you ever saw. And it goes on and on to the point when it makes you uncomfortable. Then you realize that Ferrara could never have scripted the details of that kiss—it had to have happened in the actors’ improvisation. It also reminds you of how damn clean (and untrue-to-life!) were the last thousand kisses you saw on a movie screen.
Much later, after Matty has joined AA and moved in with his clean and wholesome art dealer girlfriend Susan (Claudia Schiffer), Ferrara shows you another kiss. This one is whispery-soft, affectionate, lips barely touching, and Matty strokes Susan's cheek at the end as if he were kissing a child, a daughter perhaps. It is a gentle, anomalous moment—a peaceful interlude that feels unnatural and thus temporary.
Most interestingly, the “messiness” of Ferrara’s vision is mirrored in Dennis Hopper, who plays filmmaker Mickey Ray (named for Nick Ray, and in a role written for Mickey Rourke). Mickey makes pornos and his set looks as chaotic as (I’ve read) Ferrara’s does. He’s got five video cameras going at once, capturing all manner of improvisation and accident. When two actors have a marital spat off-camera, he barks (as Ferrara well might in real life): “Make this work-related…Use it, use it! Don’t spew it all here!”
Mickey is a strange hybrid of Ferrarian method and hack-like venality. He is remaking Emile Zola’s Nana as a skin flick set in Miami. And he’s a bit hazy on details. Of the cinema’s capacity for truth, he declares: “Godard says 24 frames a minute….or is that a second?” If Godard made films about prostitution, for Mickey they are one and the same: financial backers of his film get to have sex on-screen.
One of my favorite cinematic low-cal after-dinner mints is Jonathan Demme’s Married To The Mob, but each time I watch it, I’m reminded of how colorless and dull Modine is in it. Ferrara pushes hard against Modine’s bland boyishness in The Blackout. By making this blond, clean-cut, terminally genial actor a coke-sniffing, booze-swilling, self-destructive debaucher, Modine’s performance ends up being truly troubling because of these tensions.
Finally, Ferrara’s strategy of having several cameras recording simultaneously on the set is complemented here by his recent discovery of AVID. This is a movie with dozens of lush lap dissolves, layering sometimes four or five images together to give form to Matty’s crowded nightmares—or to his waking moments by externalizing his subjectivity. When he gets in the back of a limo and takes a ripping snort of coke, we dissolve to a sunburst as the lens catches the sun (and Matty catches his high).
Last fall I saw Ferrara’s new film, Mary, at the Toronto film festival. It was the very last of my 35 films there and maybe because I was tired, it really frustrated me. Then I remembered that my response to it was almost identical to the first time I saw The Blackout. (Like Hopper’s half-hack, half-auteur in The Blackout, Matthew Modine plays a filmmaker who's half-Mel Gibson, half-Ferrara.) I consciously remember liking the few calm, collected, “unmessy” sequences in the film, in which Forest Whitaker as a TV show host interviews various theology experts. But right now, after coming to love and appreciate The Blackout, it’s the rest of Mary, emotionally messy and tortured, that I feel like revisiting.
- Mubarak Ali at Supposed Aura.
- Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity.
- Charles Bronson vs. God.
- Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit.
- Brian Darr at Hell On Frisco Bay.
- Martin Degrell at Detoured.
- Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina’s Sweater.
- Richard Gibson.
- Ed Gonzalez at Slant.
- Aaron Graham at More Than Meets The Mogwai.
- Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
- Eric Henderson at When Canses Were Classeled.
- Aaron Hillis at Cinephiliac.
- Darren Hughes at Long Pauses.
- Rich Juzwiak at Four Four.
- David Lowery at Drifting.
- Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee And More Coffee.
- Notes On Cinema.
- Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door.
- Harry Tuttle at Screenville.