No one has ever come to terms with how a civilized nation could plunge so wholly into mass murder and chaos.
Sade, Baudelaire, Artaud, Nietzsche, Bataille are huge Easter Island heads, half-buried warnings to a culture that prides itself on having quarantined the last vestiges of its barbaric past.
The master vampire Pena (Christopher Walken) uses nihilist writers/ philosophers to justify his lifestyle. “Read the books — Kafka, Beckett, Sartre. Do you think they were works of fiction?”
In a turn illustrating Nietzsche’s dictum, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” Kathy attacks a good Samaritan who stops to help her.
The Addiction does not celebrate the idea of “fascists” taking over higher learning…
….so much as it addresses the failure of the ideal of moral neutrality in education.
“You’re too egotistical,” Kathy tells her philosophy professor. She says all philosophy is propaganda, its success measured by a philosopher’s impact on other egos.
The campus is depicted as a small, brightly-lit parenthesis of civilization surrounded, only steps away, by the meanest of the mean streets. . .
. . . a night-time city livid with neon, alive with dealers and junkies, and lined with the bodies of the homeless.
To celebrate getting her doctoral degree….
….Kathy invites the dean and the faculty to a party at her home.
Her vampire minions wait at the party.
Kathy’s vampire army is made up of urban blacks, menial workers, hoodlums, the homeless and the poor...
...and makes a fascinating metaphor for what can happen to minority groups...
...when their needs are not met.
Kathy occupies the same bloodthirsty position as Lt. William Calley, the army platoon leader held responsible for the My-Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Earlier in the film, Kathy had argued that “more than one man” should be held responsible for collective atrocities...
...but by the end of the film, she herself is made to bear the full burden for the massacre she herself has organized.
What is the responsibility of the individual within collective actions? Armies function as collectivist organizations par excellence, where everything that is done is presumably the result of direct orders from above.
Vampirism (like cancer) is the by-product of a toxic society. This cheapening of life, a universal condition of the stronger preying on the weaker, occurs everywhere in class-stratified, capitalist society.
The Addiction is a vampire film that takes place, pointedly, in a post-AIDS world. When Kathy goes to the hospital after she is bitten, a doctor reassures her: “The AIDS virus wouldn’t manifest itself so quickly, if you’re worried about that.”
Though it hardly could be said to have spawned any vogues (not even for its gorgeous and moody black-and-white cinematography), The Addiction still packs quite a punch. As lyrical and atmospheric as it is (in a kind of modern-Gothic vein), it’s also hard-edged and intellectual, almost to a fault. Its characters moan about free will and Nietzsche, while complaining about how terminally awful everything is. In other words, as U.S. cinema goes The Addiction is a complete anomaly, a deeply personal film in an era when the personal film had become extremely rare.
Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor) is working toward her doctoral degree in philosophy at a New York City university. She watches a documentary about the My-Lai massacre with her friend and fellow student Jean (Edie Falco), and they have a brief but significant debate about how one should account for personal responsibility for acts of collective violence. Referring to the army platoon leader who was held single-handedly responsible for the massacre, Kathy says angrily:
Walking alone at night, Kathy is accosted by Cassanova (Annabella Sciorra), a tall woman dressed anomalously in a formal gown; Cassanova drags Kathy into an alley and bites her neck. After being ineffectually treated at a hospital, Kathy returns home but finds herself going through a bizarre, painful metamorphosis. No longer able to stomach food, and beginning to crave human blood, she goes out among the homeless, fills a syringe from the arm of a sleeping man (in a stunningly angled shot that has the hard, outlining light of a Georges Rouault painting), and injects herself.
She embarks on a willful odyssey of harming others and drinking their blood, consciously connecting her own actions with historic atrocities like the Holocaust. Looking at photographs of the camps, she thinks out loud:
Turning the university into a private playground for her violent needs, she seduces and attacks her philosophy professor, as well as a young woman she meets in the library. She corners Jean in a woman’s bathroom and bites her, telling her: “You know, this obtuseness is disheartening, especially in a doctoral candidate.”
Spreading off-campus, she claims several other victims, mainly from the lower orders of society: small-time hoodlums, menial workers. One night while on the prowl, she runs into Pena (Christopher Walken), who turns out to be a vampire himself, more experienced and heartless, having already lived for centuries “beyond good and evil,” as he puts it. He takes Kathy back to his loft, which is dominated by huge Julien Schnabel paintings, and lectures her about what it takes to be a real vampire:
Pena keeps her prisoner, bleeding her at regular intervals until she has nearly nothing left. Suffering miserably and desperate for a fix (“It’ll feel as if you hadn’t eaten,” Pena tells her, “in weeks”), Kathy eventually gets away, but collapses in a heap on the sidewalk. In a turn surely meant to illustrate Nietzsche’s famous dictum (“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”), she attacks a good Samaritan who stops to help her. After this experience, Kathy rallies her crusade with renewed force, more determined than ever to punish the world for its sins of obliviousness and hypocrisy.
Working feverishly, Kathy completes her dissertation and, to celebrate, invites the dean, the dissertation committee and the faculty to a private party. There, she and her vampire minions turn on the distinguished guests and slaughter them. “I’d like to share a little bit of what I’ve learned through these long, hard years of study,” she announces before falling on the dean’s throat and spitting a mouthful of blood at the camera. This organized mass carnage is to be read as Kathy’s existential statement as a practicing philosopher, equal parts protest, performance art, and Gidean acte gratuite.
She feels she has gone too far, even by her own rigorous logic. She is found wandering the streets, covered in blood and talking to herself, and is taken to a hospital. Overcome by guilt, she attempts to commit suicide by exposing herself to sunlight in her hospital bed, but Cassanova, the original vampire, reappears out of nowhere and snaps the blinds shut, telling her:
Nonetheless, Kathy is given last rites by a Catholic priest. But in the film’s final shot, she lays a rose on her own grave (the headstone reads: “I am the resurrection”) and walks away, her head held high, seemingly leaving her addiction behind.
Like Body Snatchers (1993), Ferrara and St. John’s tense remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Addiction is, on one level, a very literal entry in the horror film genre. But on other, less literal levels, The Addiction — much more ambitious and philosophical than Body Snatchers — treats its horror-derived subject as a complex metaphor for many different things. By deconstructing classic vampire mythology against a contemporary New York setting, among a circle of philosophy students, hipster professors, and Baudelaire-spouting sociopaths — all of whom are, or become, vampires for little reason other than that their explorations of nihilistic philosophy seem to lead them there — The Addiction makes vampirism stand in for a whole host of issues, including man’s inhumanity to man; the sheep-like groupthink of fascist societies; the struggle of free will versus determinism; the revolt of the free-thinking individual against bourgeois institutions like religion and morality; and finally, drug addiction.
This drug connection is hardly an arbitrary one. In the same way that the spread of vampirism is depicted in the film as a series of “forced seductions,” drug use could be said to proliferate based on a specious kind of personal charisma. Rather than assuming that drug use is spread (exclusively or at all) by movies or music that seem to glamorize drugs, it is more likely that addicts become hooked because of practicing addicts, whom they have come into contact with, perhaps at an impressionable time in their lives; actual people who make drug use seem thrilling and desirable: love will never be entirely absent from the beginning stages of addiction. The vampire luring victims is like the dealer who “turns someone on” for the first time. Both are seeking fresh blood and sustenance, company for their own habit, future disciples, and an extension of a warped, dysfunctional “family.”
It’s this acknowledgement of what people sometimes do to each other — selfishly, brutally, within the closed intimacy of relationships and encounters — that creates a platform for St. John and Ferrara to leap further into musings on the Holocaust and the My-Lai massacre. In these historic events, the already omnipresent tendency of humans to prey on each other becomes collectivized, public. Why did they do what they did? It is left to history to puzzle out the enigmas and assign some meaning to the chaos, but history is inadequate to give an ultimate explanation for the causes of brutality: we find out only who was “right” and who was “wrong” (as Benjamin said: who won and who lost), but never why things had to go as far as they did. That “why?” is a naïve, even a childish question, perhaps, but one that speaks to the fragile presence of goodness attempting to survive in an “evil” world. Indeed, as if to emphasize this, Ferrara intercuts the singing voices of children and stray shots of a little girl running on a grassy lawn (filmed in grainy 16-milimeter, indicative of home movies or a “psychological” flashback to childhood, perhaps Kathy’s own), as well as images of crucifixes, in certain scenes where Kathy is questioning her own descent into evil. The recovery of childhood’s lost innocence seems to be suggested as a motive, however spurious, for religious faith.
But religion itself, as an institution, is tainted by its historical involvement in the same polite coverups practiced by governments and armies; something more primal and pure must be uncovered, to replace dogma. The Addiction pursues the same provocative split-thinking of many romantic 19th and 20th century writers and philosophers, that an outmoded morality and virtue can only be reanimated by a thorough-going immersion in everything that is opposite to them: in vice, in crime, in madness, in death. The way down and out, the descent into hell is a major theme in the art and literature of romanticism. With man’s faith eroded, the far-seeing, sensitive being who still longs to have faith in something, goes toward darkness as if toward the light, there to see the dissolved reflection, in negative, of his own potential goodness. Explaining her addiction, Kathy says at one point:
In fact, dependency of all kinds is how modern, Faustian man knows that he has a soul — by losing it, by throwing it away, by yoking it to grinding and horrible physical need, thereby to better measure his soul by its pain. Delmore Schwartz, writing about the poet Rimbaud, articulates this:
Indeed, like a kind of latter-day Rimbaud, Kathy is carried far away from bourgeois morality in a systematic project of self-derangement — in a key scene, Jean has sent Kathy a get-well pot of flowers, and Kathy, as if in a fascinated trance, crumbles the petals and sifts the pebbly soil in her hands, slipping out of the acculturated symbolism of what a “flower” means and literally getting in touch with a “crazy,” primal awareness of the clay of creation, earth-qua-earth. But we note that Kathy’s strange quest begins in a serious investigation of individual and collective moral responsibilities, and it ends with a moment of distinctly religious clarity and certainty. Kathy passes through the stages of nihilism to carve out an ultimate sense of meaning. As one character in The Addiction puts it:
Pena, too, evokes renunciation and penance, referring to the Buddhists’ cultivation of the ability to “survive on a little.” Folding his hands together in a meditative posture, he lectures Kathy:
So, are the vampires radical liberationists or evil fascists? The Addiction dances back and forth on this point, but not without good reason. In a way that is already familiar from the writings of those radical culture heroes invoked by the film (Sade, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, et al.), we see that one man’s liberation can become another man’s enslavement. By fulfilling its own individual needs, the anarchized “I” often infringes on and violates the rights of others. “It makes no difference what I do, whether I draw blood or not,” Kathy says, echoing Schopenhauer’s sense of the world as a constant battleground of individual wills in conflict. “It is the violence of my will against theirs.” Renunciation of the will comes only after a long, hard-fought struggle to give up the lures and temptations of the world. But the “evil” world itself is never wholly defeated even when the individual will is successfully renounced — only that part of the world which is manifested in the individual.
(For Schopenhauer, of course, there was no other world but the world of each individual, since only in the consciousness of each individual can the world be experienced both subjectively — as “mine” — and objectively at the same time: i.e., can be felt to be real. In renouncing the world, then, one does truly defeat and destroy it, since one kills the only possible true representation the world can have: one’s own.)
Kathy must push against the world harder, must indulge her self-will more extravagantly, before finally coming to renunciation. Her angry refusal to submit (to God, to human law) is the significance of the gruesome scene in which Kathy and her vampires trap and slaughter the university’s dean and faculty. This cocktail-party massacre is where The Addiction most resembles a traditional horror film; but it’s also the point where the action of the film becomes most politicized. We note that the vampires have banded together as a cadre, almost like a terrorist cell, and that they have targeted the members of an upper-class elite as their victims. The way in which Ferrara brings shocking, visceral horror into an echt-bourgeois setting recalls Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and Pasolini’s Salo (1975), with those films’ often grisly debates about the fading point at which the power of anarchy hardens into fascism, or fascism deranges into “the anarchy of power.” Formally, this scene holds the same function as the recreated “Night of the Long Knives” in The Damned, an operatic set-piece in which Visconti fully unleashes — like an extended orgasm of violence — all of the pent-up hostility that has been seething throughout the film.
Ferrara has already “teased” the audience with many scenes of less graphic blood-letting, but the party scene marks the complete return of the repressed, in that Kathy has brought her vampirism home to roost, home to the staid university where she has been pretending to function normally. This closing of the circle is her attempt to locate the “enemy” as being no longer without (the Nazis; the soldiers who committed the My-Lai massacre), but within, in the form of the historian-impulse, the perceived tendency of academics to “feed off” such atrocities, waxing piously about their significance. Academics do so in a way that could be said to dull the edge of atrocity’s human pain by converting it into a museum piece, remote and safe under glass. “My indifference is not the concern here,” Kathy tells one of her sobbing, bleeding victims, “It’s your astonishment that needs studying.”
Not that universities necessarily deserve to be implicated in this way. It hardly needs to be said that today the universities are under fire by many forces on the right who want to hijack literature and scientific theory for their own agendas; sometimes using intimidation, religious ideologues have upset the balance between science/classroom and dogma/church by pushing for faith-based curriculum in the classrooms. Moreover, the big-city university — allegorized as a kind of monster luring in and corrupting Bible Belt children, turning them against the often narrow-minded ideology of their upbringing while “introducing” them to alcohol and sex — is a bugaboo of the radical religious and political right.
Universities used to be seen as places to broaden the outlooks of the young, and to temper their occasional tendency to think un-critically; the young, in their turn, were once eager to place their academic trust in a presumably well-learned faculty; now, some neo-conservatives seem to want universities to be nothing more than cocoon-like extensions of Sunday school and home-schooling, in which professors politely rubber-stamp the already ingrained viewpoints of their students without challenging them at all. How convenient for a conservative agenda that is dependent largely on fearful conformism, blind faith in the unregulated freedoms of corporate capitalism, and unreasoning xenophobia to wish to suppress the teaching of critical thinking in all its forms to the future generations. The vampires in The Addiction bear resemblance to such biased re-writers of history, insisting on turning back the clock on the Enlightenment, and yet, it isn’t so much that The Addiction feeds into or celebrates the scary idea of dogmatists and zealots taking over higher learning; what the film does do, however, is address the impossibility of the ideal of moral neutrality in education.
The campus is depicted as a small, brightly-lit parenthesis of civilization surrounded, only steps away, by the meanest of the mean streets, a night-time city livid with neon, alive with dealers and junkies, and lined with the bodies of the homeless. In this, of course, the film is only being truthful, in an almost documentary-like way, to the geographical reality of universities in New York; The Addiction, like a number of Ferrara’s films, is very much a “New York” film. Moreover, within the university, the great barbaric riddles of history are obsessively probed like ever-fresh wounds, but never healed, never fully resolved. A bewildered, impotent sense of guilt, internalized by the sensitive Kathy, only serves to torment her until she herself goes over to the dark side.
This “honesty” of negation, of nihilism — as opposed to society’s hypocritical whitewashing of disturbing realities — is one of the great raging debates of Western Culture. Liberal bourgeois society has always been obsessed with trying to explain those extraordinary moments when anti-liberalism dominates, when collective human nature jumps the rails, when all hell breaks loose — as if order and reason could ever explain such atrocities. Something more instinctual, more base and ugly, is summoned forth by genocides or wars, something beyond all reason. Again, figures such as Sade, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Artaud, Bataille, are huge Easter Island heads, half buried in the sand, warning signs for a culture that prides itself on having resisted and quarantined all remaining vestiges of the barbarous ancient past. “There is no history,” Kathy muses at one point, “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 words “the blight” sound like “the polite,” here, identifying and indicting bourgeois complacency as the real enemy.
Indeed, The Addiction postulates that the “philosophers” of today may be the heroin addicts, the prostitutes, the homeless, the serial killers — emblems of misery who have publicly and explicitly lost their wager, and whose self-destructive and predatory impulses give the ultimate lie to our carefully constructed idea of order. Kathy says,
The debate between speculative and empirical philosophy is explicitly invoked in The Addiction: “Essence is revealed by praxis,” Kathy says at several different points. And thus one could say that these “empirical” philosophers, the self-destructive and the predatory, have correctly understood the messages sent by the powerful — that the lives of the powerless are extremely cheap — and have acted accordingly. “I’m coming to terms with my own existence,” Kathy says, “applying what I’ve learned in my own being.”
As both Kathy and Pena make clear in their dogmatic speeches, their vampirism (like cancer) is the by-product of a toxic society; and indeed, we can say that this cheapening of life, this universal condition of the stronger preying on the weaker, occurs everywhere in a class-stratified capitalist society. An example: a chain of discount stores is owned by a powerful and largely invisible person (or small group of people), who would never work or shop in such a store themselves; the workers are denied health benefits or even a decent living wage, and the store’s patrons, barely more solvent themselves, are too distracted by the intermittent bargains to ask who owns the store and how they treat their workers. The bottom of the ladder does not even see the top, and the top does not care about the bottom. We could say, per the metaphoric logic of The Addiction, that this is already a “vampiric” model, with the fresh blood of the workers and the consumers going to feed someone else’s hunger.
Even more pointedly, the oil industry today, working with the government and the CIA to use various military actions to protect U.S. economic interests overseas (cf. Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, 2005), is vampiric in every sense. The devouring of emergent and underprivileged nations around the globe, as well as workers here at home, serves to keep our current wasteful national life ticking away like a line on a life-support system, a way of life which, like an addict’s or a vampire’s, is already morbid and untenable. The day-to-day activities of billionaire CEOs are considered a highly specialized, even an arcane form of labor; but most people are only dimly aware of what such CEO’s actually do. It’s a commonplace of criminal justice to say that, for every apprehended murderer or rapist in the street, dozens more go uncaught and unpunished. But no one ever says this about a criminal scandal like Enron, though presumably such corruption at the highest levels of business never occurs in isolation.
In recent years, the widespread cheapening of life has taken place in the name of “national security.” This is the main way that the current neo-con America resembles the same mentality that pervaded Nazi Germany. One can point to the Patriot Act, and the expanding powers of the FCC to limit what can be aired on radio and television, as a species of book-burning. One can say that wire-tapping of private phone lines by the government is an egregious erosion of our civil liberties. One can argue that 9/11 was propagandized as much (and as cynically) as the Reichstag fire. But at bottom, what is most alarming is the tacit agreement of the citizenry that the military and the police now have the right to kill civilians (as happened in December, 2005, with Mr. Alpizar at a Miami airport) and foreign detainees (the Iraqis who have died under torture and interrogation) in the name of “keeping us safe.” But who can really feel so protected and privileged anymore that he can no longer imagine himself on the wrong end of an officer’s gun or a D.A.’s investigation? After one has gotten people used to the idea of brutalizing some scapegoat (such as foreigners, seen as potential terrorists), the climate of fear and oppression quickly and invisibly extends until it has everyone thrashing in its net.
Ironically, Kathy ends in the same position as Lt. William Calley, the instigator of My-Lai invoked at the beginning of the film. As the vampires’ official leader, Kathy is the one who steps forward to assume sole responsibility for the massacre. The “master” vampires who led her down that road in the first place (Cassanova, Pena) are let off the hook, as are the lesser vampires who helped to carry out her plan. Kathy’s wish to be punished comes from an internal sense of guilt and justice; we notice that society itself does not punish her. But she is willing to accept death as a personal expiation. In this sense, showy acts of contrition do not represent a surrendering of the (Fascist) will, but a prolongation of it: the same ego that committed the crime now enshrouds itself in an equally egotistical “redemption.” This syndrome can be seen, to greater and lesser degree, in the public trial of any murderer who becomes, for a certain period of time, a media celebrity. Radical power, by definition, survives any neutralizing force against it and converts that force into further fuel. Negative attention is attention nonetheless.