Jean (Edie Falco) and Kathy (Lili Taylor) are graduate students in philosophy in New York.
To explain the meaning of such historical atrocities as the Holocaust and the My-Lai massacre, Kathy obsessively studies images of witness.
“There is no history,” she muses, “Everything we are is eternally with us. The question becomes, what can save us from spreading the blight in ever-widening circles?"
Actress Lili Taylor makes “the blight” sound like “the polite,” indicting bourgeois obtuseness as the enemy.
Bourgeois liberalism is obsessed with trying to explain those catastrophic moments of history when all hell breaks loose...
...when collective human nature jumps the rails, as if the power of reason could ever explain such atrocities.
Kathy internalizes an impotent sense of guilt until she herself goes over to the dark side.
Perhaps only a child would ask, “Why?” when confronted with history's most brutal riddles; yet that unanswered, unanswerable “Why?” is significant.
The vampire Casanova (Annabella Sciorra) approaches Kathy, drags her into an alley and attacks her.
Casanova bites Kathy’s throat, then calls her a “collaborator.”
Having been “pushed” once, we see that Kathy decides to “leap” ever after. Here Kathy approaches a fellow student with the intention of biting her.
“My indifference is not the concern here,” Kathy tells her victim, who sobs, asking how she could do this. “It’s your astonishment that needs studying.”
The iconoclastic “grunge” culture of the 1990s has all but become a nostalgic memory. To say that it lacked a certain staying power is to overlook the irony that it never intended one. Its most iconic hero-martyr, Kurt Cobain of the rock band Nirvana, was an imploding enigma who shunned the spotlight as much as he courted it, and whose violent early death remains the great expressive riddling metaphor of that era (cf. Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, 2004). We may never know entirely for certain whether Cobain “jumped” or “was pushed.” Perhaps the extremity of some lives is such that the distinction almost blurs and ceases to matter.
A chilling thought. But so went the “instant karma” of the 90s in general, a decade when grassroots activism of all kinds seemed far from dead — and yet, that activism, though sometimes compared with the radical movements of the 1960s in spirit, seems to have spawned little real change. Here we are in the middle of a highly conservative decade, as if the questions of the 90s had never even been asked, let alone (partially) answered. What remains of the 90s is, ultimately, its murky aura of uncertainty and instability, its final wish to be left alone, its tattered edges preserved in the albums of a dozen or so important bands and rappers and in a slew of fascinating films, many of them made independently of Hollywood. The 90s begin and end as a media phenomenon.
In fact, this is how the 90s were most like the 60s, in the way that cutting-edge artists became the beneficiaries of a Zeitgeist that felt wide open; beneficiaries of a certain public largesse for rarefied cultural events like poetry tents at Lollapalooza, and of an avid audience for bizarre performance art that often resembled circus sideshows (and sometimes literally were). Popular music enjoyed a renaissance of artistic possibilities: like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles in the 60s, Nine Inch Nails, Dr. Dre and Nirvana sold billions of records while creating works that were more serious and rigorous than the usual pop culture fare. One could hardly call it a counter-culture, though, because even at its darkest it was everywhere, like a billboard. Again, as in the 60s, the center of the mainstream was briefly forced to pay maximum attention to what the edge was out there cooking up.
Quentin Tarantino is popularly thought of as the filmmaker who best represents what was known as Generation X, but it was actually another director, Abel Ferrara, who voiced the rougher, edgier concerns of 90s culture. Ferrara, who has been making films since the late 70s, came into his own in the 90s with a string of high-minded, lurid, sometimes ultra-violent “male melodramas” that boldly rewrote the code of the traditional cop/gangster film: King of New York (1990), The Bad Lieutenant (1992), The Funeral (1996). These powerful films, scripted by Ferrara’s collaborator Nicholas St. John, stared amoral nihilism hard in the face; apprehended freedom as the inevitable gateway to total abandon, corruption and loss-of-self; and finally, posited death as the only possible fate for those who defied the common rules. Though somewhat of a departure from their other films, The Addiction (1994) was made at a time when the partnership between Ferrara and St. John was at its high point.
All of these films — much like Tarantino’s — emanated from an intense hipster world of the drug culture, meta-filmic references, mob mythology, big-city atmosphere, and sex warfare. But Ferrara’s work was more low-budget, more hand-tooled, gritty, and stark. Tarantino, savvier with the media and working harder at self-promotion, stole Ferrara’s thunder somewhat, by offering a slicker, more glamorous Hollywood version of what Ferrara was doing as a kind of guerilla auteur. If Ferrara was rooted in New York, the old-guard East where rich tradition had always been at loggerheads with expansion, then Tarantino represented the flashy New World of L.A. — glossier, shallower, more plastic. Tarantino’s films won over audiences by winking at them. What he often likes to have his characters say, “Be cool,” suggests a congratulatory message to the audience, as if saying: “You are so cool to be here, watching this.” Ferrara, far more immersed in his “bad-ass” material, never seemed interested in congratulating anyone.
If we compare Ferrara’s landmark The Bad Lieutenant with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), it becomes clear that the treatment of hard drugs, for one thing, is completely different. Pulp Fiction’s heroin-using hit man, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), is depicted in a glamorous, even warm light. The montage of him driving his car after shooting up, with his heavy-lidded, baby-Buddha face bathed in a heavenly glow, was exactly the kind of soft-core “commercial” that helped create the short-lived vogue for heroin chic. And though we see that Vega is a connoisseur of the strongest smack from all over the world, he seems to control his habit rather than have it control him. His shooting-up is purely recreational, the way a more prosaic character might unwind with a bottle of whisky or a joint.
On the other hand, Ferrara offers nothing even remotely recreational about the drug use in his films. Not only is it more driven and obsessive, and less overtly fun, it’s also always of tragic proportions, an all-consuming existential gamble, something one cannot walk away from. Unlike Vega, the “bad lieutenant” (Harvey Keitel) is resolutely un-glamorous, even pathetic: staggering around naked, falling, slumping, weeping like a baby. Ferrara shows the haggard morning after the binge, something Tarantino almost completely glosses over. (Even the near-overdose of Mia [Uma Thurman] in Pulp Fiction, though harrowing, is merely the prompt for another high-octane adrenaline rush, not a moment of real tragedy; as one more thrill among many in a thrills-laden film, it comes and goes without much ultimate impact on the characters’ lives.)
Tarantino points forward toward the era of disinformation we have entered now — a preoccupied wartime world that believes what it wants to, particularly if the imagery is colorful and loaded with enough sex appeal. As Jean-Luc Godard has pointed out, it hardly seems coincidental that the American prison camps where Iraqis are detained, are (or perhaps should be) called “reservoir dogs,” after the way Tarantino has prepared the current generation for a delirious acceptance of torture as a normal, even an escapist, experience. Ferrara, however, remains bound to a more honest and disturbing set of values, where questions need to be fully digested, looked at from all sides; and where there is no unequivocal “yes” or “no” to issues of moral temptation.
The questions that arise are frequent and fair. Why didn’t more of the art of the 90s stick? Why are popular music and mainstream cinema more corporate now than ever before? What happened to independent cinema, for instance, once considered the brave hope of artistic filmmaking, yet reduced so quickly to an all-too-eager sub-genre of mainstream Hollywood? Partly it’s the inevitable co-opting effects of capitalism. As soon as any audience-market could be unearthed for loud, noisy, angry music (or for acoustic music, for that matter), or for low-budget, raw, sincere films with hand-held camerawork and gritty location shooting, corporate money flooded toward those artists and instantly neutralized their outsider status. Somewhere Gil-Scott Herron must have been smiling. In the 90s, “sincerity” itself became a selling point, if not an outright commodity, as in the MTV Unplugged series, where chart-topping rock stars were recruited to perform stripped-down acoustic versions of their hit songs. But such intimacy only works if it’s wholly unmotivated by greed or exploitation. And many of the Unplugged episodes degenerated into a kind of de rigueur attempt to prove that a hit single could generate itself twice, once in an amplified version and again in a softer, quieter one.
This monotonous spirit of re-packaging/re-selling the same product is overtly at work in the proliferation of movie soundtracks on CD. In the 90s, this genre expanded from an arcane, occasional thing (for movies that depended largely on songs, like musicals, or for certain exceptional, genre-transcending masterworks like Curtis Mayfield's essential "Superfly" ) into one of the largest sections of the record store. This was because enthusiastic filmgoers, if they liked a movie, could be persuaded to purchase that movie’s soundtrack in order to extend their memory of the film. This marketing strategy was so successful that it changed the formal laws of filmmaking itself. Directors are now encouraged to overload their films with soundtrack-ready songs, with the result that many Hollywood films have come to feature an oppressive and mindless use of music. “Oppressive and mindless,” because the overlaying of a familiar pop song over a scene deprives the audience of its ability to think freely about what it’s watching. The message of the song (the song’s lyrics and ready-made cultural reputation) overwhelms the meaning of the image, hijacks it, nails it down one-dimensionally.
What’s most discouraging about the way consumers flock to purchase soundtracks is that the success of marketing soundtracks validates a certain intellectual and artistic recycling of ideas and products in general. In the absence of a wholly new creation, a vacuum is formed; this is as true in the world of culture as it is in scientific theory. In vacuum-compression, the pressure eventually exhausts or at least contains itself. But when a vacuum is encouraged and cultivated, when it is artificially sustained and even “rewarded,” it expands its field of force. This is the eternal banker’s logic of the “sure thing.” Instead of offering new and challenging artworks to the mass audience, the corporate media culture has instead weaned that audience to accept a stale and steady diet of what it already knows by heart.