JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Kathy seems to escape her own female biological “imperative” by literally metamorphosing. Her fetal writhing on her mattress in the days after the first attack suggests a long labor of self re-birth. Her reincarnated self is Woman in name only.

Kathy, as if in a trance, crumbles a pot of flowers in her hands, getting in touch with a “crazy,” primal awareness of the clay of creation, earth-qua-earth.

At its most extreme form, identity itself is as a kind of addiction, a yielding of the self in a series of gestures that are only realizable for moments at a time within the public, visible realm, but which preoccupy the self, the maker of the gestures, more and more. To be anything is a studied apprenticeship, a lifelong labor of self-creation.

“I’m rotting away inside,” Kathy says, “but I’m not dying.” Jean’s first instinct is to suspect that Kathy has become a drug addict, a judgment that Kathy does not deny.

The vampire luring victims is like the dealer who “turns someone on” for the first time. Both seek fresh blood and sustenance, company for their own habit, future disciples, and an extension of a warped, dysfunctional “family.”

Hedonism of all kinds becomes a modern sainthood when pursued to the point of complete self-destruction.

The film seems to suggest that a motive, however spurious, for religious faith is to reover childhood’s lost innocence.

Overcome by guilt, Kathy 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.

Nonetheless, Kathy is given last rites by a Catholic priest.

But in the film’s final scene, she lays a rose on her own grave and walks away, her head held high, seemingly leaving her addiction behind.

Kathy's epitaph reads, "I am the resurrection and the life." St. John and Ferrara found, in vampirism, a perfect metaphor for the often stillborn energies of anarchic radicalism whenever and wherever those energies arise.

The mythological vampire is the great troubled watcher of history, moving helplessly throughout all time and space, powerless either to change the world or, indeed, to leave it.

 

3.

“Existential politics is simple. It has a basic argument: if there is a strong ineradicable strain in human nature, one must not try to suppress it or anomaly, cancer, and plague will follow. Instead one must find an art into which it can grow.”
— Norman Mailer[11]

[open endnotes in new window]

Many of the Ferrara-St. John films center on an iconoclastic character driven by rampant self-will. This figure is usually male. The Bad Lieutenant is a corrupt cop, addicted to booze, drugs and gambling. Eddie (Harvey Keitel), the egotistical director in Dangerous Game (1993), is abusive of women. He cheats on his devoted wife with Sarah (Madonna), the glamorous star of the film he is making, then uses the lead actor in his film (James Russo) to get revenge on Sarah, whipping both his players into a Method-derived frenzy of on-set violence and degradation.

Dangerous Game is a relentless investigation of sexual warfare between men and women. Eddie’s special coaching of the James Russo character to be more and more abusive of Sarah as the shooting wears on becomes a frightening evocation of the patriarchal “boy’s club.” The woman is held responsible for all the unwitting reactions she evokes from men, even angry and violent ones. She is passively trapped by her co-workers’ expectations that, because she is a “bigger star” (Madonna was perfectly cast in this role), she must think she is better than they are. And she is trapped by the script, which gives her no moment in which she can challenge her male co-star on his own terms. Rather, each time she attempts to challenge the men, they up the ante by humiliating and hurting her still more — until it becomes clear that the director wants nothing less than her blood. “You keep giving me the script!” Eddie berates her in a scene where Russo’s character has gotten too real in his method acting and nicked her with a knife. “I gave you an actress who just got her fucking throat cut,” Sarah tries to defend herself, stanching her raw wound, but Eddie only tells her to shut up.

Sarah’s passivity is somewhat unusual, however. Other Ferrara/St. John heroines actively enjoy “flipping the script.” Ms. 45 (1979) is the story of an unassuming deaf-mute (Zoe Tamerlis) who, after being raped twice in one day, becomes a compulsive serial killer of men. The feminist implications of this film are still being hotly debated: Is Ms. 45 an extremist allegory of empowerment, or a lurid wallow in the vision of an aberrant woman sinking to the lowest common denominator — or is it somehow both at the same time? In many ways, The Addiction fits with all of these patterns. Kathy is like Ferrara’s male protagonists, self-centered and destructive; but we are never allowed to forget that she is also Woman, a cipher, a shadowy denizen of a kind of gender ghetto, using her sexuality to lure and trap male victims, or to gain the sisterly trust of female ones.[12]

Here we are seeing the remorseless double nature of all fantasies of “empowerment.” (It’s equally arguable that, post-Men’s-Movement, Ferrara’s male protagonists are helplessly seeking a kind of empowerment of their own, fleeing into drug use and violence as a way to recover some lost sense of entitlement or heroism.) The victim cannot “make up” for victimization by becoming an oppressor: the coercive laws of the social order ensure that only the original oppression gets reified over and over again.[13] The intractable, blood-thirsty heroines of Ms. 45 and The Addiction are finally not avatars of Kali, the mythical revenge-goddess, but women who have been forced to engage with the male world of power on its own terms, thereby extending the reach of that power.

Again, we are reminded of Kathy’s words, “There is a difference between jumping and being pushed.” Kathy’s own life has become so extreme, her indifference to others so callous, that in the end she can no longer claim to be a victim, even though she was one, legitimately. Having been pushed, once, she takes back her own agency with a vengeance by leaping ever after.

We are left with nothing but the forms of the power structures repeated now even among minorities and the disenfranchised, social situations from which the oppressions of power should be banished as a lesson all-too-painfully learned. The utopian vision of the 60s — a world potentially without any power lines or power structures — has turned into an unfortunate compromise, wherein the powerless can attain recognition and status only by becoming as cold and ruthless as their oppressors.

In The Addiction Kathy seems to escape her own female biological “imperative” by literally metamorphosing: her fetal writhing on her mattress in the days after the first attack suggests a long labor of self rebirth. Her reincarnated self is Woman in name only. For much of the film, Kathy dresses in mannish jackets and jeans; when she does don a dress it is almost always as a theatrical gesture. In one of the film’s most beautiful shots, she sits in the back of a cab applying lipstick while the neon lights of the city wash across the cab’s window. But her voiceover speaks of the dissolving of selfhood in the vicious circles of addiction: “We drink to escape the fact we’re alcoholics…” At its most extreme form, identity itself is acknowledged as a kind of addiction, a yielding of the self in a series of gestures that are only realizable for moments at a time within the public, visible realm, but which preoccupy the self, the maker of the gestures, more and more. To be anything — even if it is what one literally “is” or has always been — is never automatic but a studied apprenticeship, a lifelong labor of self-creation. Before Kathy bites Jean, she demonstrates how her own body is changing by pulling a tooth out of her mouth: “I’m rotting away inside,” Kathy says, “but I’m not dying.” Jean’s first instinct is to suspect that Kathy has become a drug addict, a judgment that Kathy does not deny. In this, the addict is again allied with the vampire, in that both have their bodies and souls re-shaped, re-sculpted, by their need. But the addict’s body (as also in The Bad Lieutenant and Dangerous Game) deteriorates, begins to fall apart, to die, even as the soul within becomes more “visible” in its pain, while the inhuman, indestructible, soul-less body of the vampire has the potential to extend its moment into immortality.

This body-soul split is how St. John and Ferrara make the case for addiction, in all its forms, as an inherently spiritual quest. Addiction “purifies” the body into an indefinable essence, a pure will, even as the body evaporates into nothing. In 19th century fiction physical illness had the same function: the fallen characters in Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest are “redeemed” by long wasting illnesses that sap the body and leave the fragile soul revealed. Beneath this trope, historically, is a puritanical hatred of the body, and the feeling that the human soul has no place in this world and cannot survive or even show itself here. This dichotomy also breaks down along political lines. The left likes to share prosperity in the form of social programs because it believes in the progress of the body in this life. The right hoards prosperity and punishes the body, willing to sacrifice actual lives (in wartime and in periods of massive unemployment) because it only believes (or claims to believe) in the progress of the soul in the next life.

Since souls themselves are inherently unreal, the more intangible and faraway the soul is, the more real it seems. About the spiritual, the medium of air has more to teach us than any solid matter. If drug addicts' souls are revealed, like a flickering candle, in the wear and tear worked on their body, and if vampires are creatures who have shed their soul forever, then both models become alternatives to the puritanical, right-wing model of the “iron soul” (an oxymoron) built up through repression and abnegation. Hedonism of all kinds becomes the modern sainthood when pursued to the point of complete self-destruction. In more fervent, superstitious times, people turned to their patron saints (legendary martyrs) whenever various earthly crises made them seek succor; those saints were vivid exemplars whose suffering acted as a kind of litmus-test for one’s own. Today, it’s the overdosed junkie on the news, the nameless murdered prostitute, who become the fleeting, disposable saints of our social panic and distress (“There but for the grace of God…”). Having gone too far in transgressing the social order, they serve to confirm and affirm the foundations of that order all the more powerfully — just as the old saints died to uphold the idea of God or the lesson of some Virtue which needed to be taught in the eternal schoolrooms of bourgeois society: patience, chastity, temperance, etc. [14] Anything but cant and formula, the spectacle of true renunciation is always a terrifying sight. The toxic end-result of extreme, internal voyages of self-discovery is often the chilling reality that, when the will finally does overtake the self and pushes over into abject dependency, the will itself evaporates and no self is left. Hence the final line of The Addiction, Kathy’s knowing epitaph for her temporal existence: “Self-revelation is annihilation of self.”

4.

“Politics is like a body of organs. When the body is sick, it is usually because one or another organ has become too weak or too powerful in its function. If the disproportion is acute, a war goes on in the body, an inflammatory sickness, a fever, a crisis. The war decided, the organ subsides, different in size, stronger or weaker, it returns to its part of the body’s function. Acute disease is cure.”
— Norman Mailer[15]

Challenging and disturbing works of art, such as The Addiction, are often the ironic by-products of a certain sense of order and security. It’s when artists feel secure as members of a given social combine that they can bring themselves to articulate penetrating questions about the ways in which humanity has historically faltered, or the ways in which the social combine itself remains unstable, hypocritical, or lacking. When security all but completely disappears from the equation, these questions give way to more immediate and desperate ones. And art often shrivels into the escapist entertainment that is required to pacify the unhappy masses.

In The Addiction, the sudden restrictions imposed upon Kathy force her to negotiate a new way of dealing with the world: in short, to try to take it over. The poor, the homeless, the women, the black hoodlums who are all members of Kathy’s vampire army, form a fascinating metaphor for what can happen to the minorities and lower orders of society when their needs are not met. Again, the gruesome party scene can be read as an act of protest, with these lower orders literally feeding on privileged members of an upper class.

Such dramatized conflict between social forces is what Norman Mailer has called “existential politics,” or the politics of “the outlaw” versus “the sheriff.” The outlaw is characterized by his irreverence, the sheriff by his entrenched commitment to the forces of mediocrity:

“In America few people will trust you unless you are irreverent; there was a message returned to us by our frontier that the outlaw is worth more than the sheriff […] for every sheriff must labor finally on the side of all those mediocrities who made a profit from mediocrity by extinguishing (let a new Marx rise among us) the promise of others.”[16]

We see that the economy of existential politics is not based on capital so much as the indefinable quality of “charisma,” an equally finite resource and perhaps a rarer one. This primacy of interpersonal dynamism is explicitly echoed by Kathy’s research in The Addiction, specifically her conclusion in her dissertation that all philosophical writing strives to be didactic, persuasive, and that the only discernible measure of a philosopher’s worth is his “impact on other egos.”

This argument can be Machiavellian at worst, and is at any rate deeply relative. Yet the kernel of hipster truth at its heart needs to be taken into account. Any leader must earn the right to rule from a human standpoint, precisely by being, pointedly, human — rather than totalitarian, systemic, a faceless organization. Functionally, existential politics plays out as the need to vividly externalize ideological conflicts within the arena of public debate, and to allow these conflicts to become galvanized around certain charismatic figures. Totalitarian facelessness — represented by the status quo but, even more than this, by a condition of never even knowing the identity of one’s true “enemy” — becomes the greatest evil, because it is unidentifiable and unstoppable once it has taken root. In the following passage Mailer uses the trope of the FBI — its mythic status in the U.S. unconscious as a gray invisible force, an “organization” par excellence — as a way of explaining existential politics:

“[The FBI] has been an evil force. What has made it even more deadening has been the personality of its director, which is to say the lack of personality in its director. The FBI has been a political idea; its essence could be stated: America is in need of a secret police […] The idea is fearful enough, but when no personality embodies it, no other personality may contest it. The cause of secret police-ness advances like a plague. So an existential President would look for a man with a salient personality to put as head of the FBI. Under such a man, the fortunes of the FBI would falter or prosper, but its activities would be dramatized, its victories would come from open struggle, and its success would cease to resemble the certainty of the house percentage in a gambling casino. The FBI would be forced to exist rather than proliferate.”[17]

Even an “enlightened” existential politician is presumably concerned only with the consolidation and extension of his own power, albeit a power that feels less coerced perhaps and more like “love” freely offered to a desirable candidate. If the destiny of each person is within their own hands, then sometimes the destiny of one man can become synonymous with the collectivity, when the People place themselves into his hands. This theme lends itself to allegorical, even Shakespearean, theater. But the real working-out of these arguments can become demagogic: Mailer’s “advancing plague” is paralleled, in The Addiction, by the stifling complacency which Kathy first struggles against — and then, later, by the epidemic of vampirism which she herself unleashes. The power of the individual to influence others and, in so doing, to make or break historical events, is always a tremendous gamble, because the “sickness that cures” has often been worse, historically, than the original disease.

If social evolution proceeds, inevitably, by the willful actions of “great men” bent on domination, then this evolution is often tainted, at its core, by something akin to bloodlust. The assertion that social evolution is ever wholly “natural,” or even occasioned by the will of the majority, is a lie in any era. Metaphorically, the vampire answers this call of blood-thirsty evolution, of evolution by hook or crook: as a towering individualist who has survived with a vengeance against the terrors of death and nonexistence, of facelessness; and who is yet, on his other side, a pathetic, hidden creature entirely dependent on second-hand experience and life (the blood of others). Much of this turns, of course, on the relation between the individual and society. The ability of the vampire to blend in, to disguise his/her true agenda, is a Mailerian allegory of the cancerous onslaught of totalitarian facelessness. And in the same way that the blood of the living becomes sustenance to the vampire, so the social order itself, as a living mass, falls before the ego of the politician (existential or otherwise), who must first view that social order as real and alive, rather than as a subset of faceless facts, in order to sink his teeth into it; but who nonetheless must, like a Robespierre, use it to raise himself above it. Just as the living are turned into the zombie undead by contact with a vampire, so the social order is sapped and deadened, benumbed, by the inevitable traces of paternalistic authority in every leader.

In the end, what made the activist spirit of the 90s more short-lived and dilatory than the activism of the 60s was probably its acute sense of belatedness: everything in the 90s was aware that it lived in the shadow of the 60s, and had to deal with the “first-ness” of that earlier decade. The resistance to being seen as a walking-taking cliché undermined the potential sincerity of 90s radicals. What is most lyrical and elegiac about The Addiction is the way it suggests a kind of requiem for its own moment in time, a pause, a held breath in the middle of a breathless decade. This quality of mourning — for what was still only, at that time, in the midst of passing — is echoed by the strange stasis and morbidity of the vampire’s ongoing death-in-life. In this sense, St. John and Ferrara found, in vampirism, a perfect metaphor for the often stillborn energies of anarchic radicalism whenever and wherever those energies arise. The mythological vampire is the great troubled watcher of history, moving helplessly throughout all time and space, powerless either to change the world or, indeed, to leave it.

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