JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Vampire as metaphor:
revisiting Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction

by Justin Vicari

1.

“Politics is the art of the possible, and what is always possible is to reduce the amount of real suffering in a bad time, and to enrich the quality of life in a good time. This is precisely what is not being done in America.” — Norman Mailer[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

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,”[2] 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?[3] 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" [1972]) 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.[4]

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.

2.

“There is a total and depressing lack of attention for that vast heart of political matter which is utterly resistant to categorization, calculation, or statistic. Politics is arithmetic, but politics is also rhetoric, passion, and an occasional idea to fire the imagination of millions.” — Norman Mailer [5]

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:

“Who sent him over there? Who put the gun in his hand?...If you’re gonna prosecute war crimes, you better make sure that more than one man takes the blame for everything.”

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:

“I finally see how all of this was possible. How we must look from out there. Kierkegaard was right, there is an awful precipice before us, but he was wrong about the leap. There is a difference between jumping and being pushed.”

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:

“My habit is controlled by my will — true, my will initially formed by my addiction, but now strong enough to control the conditions that dictate the fulfilling of my needs.”

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:

“The Seventh Circle? Dante described it perfectly. Bleeding trees waiting for Judgment Day when we can all hang ourselves from our own branches. It’s not that easy, Doctor. To find rest — takes a real genius…We do evil because we are evil, and what choices do such people have?”

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.[6] 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:

“Dependency is a marvelous thing. It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctoral material.”

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:

“Christianity is dying, therefore the [spiritual] need which one cannot deny will only be satisfied by a new discovery of the truth.[…] Man cannot live without an interpretation of the whole of life, which will tell him or seem to tell him what is good, what is right, what is important, and which will relate nature, man, man’s economy, and man’s art, so that they are not opposed in a conflict in which one or the other is abused and denied. As the city must have avenues, names, and numbers, if the citizen is to be able to go from one place to another, so some map of life is necessary as soon as human activity is concerned with anything more than the fulfillment of animal needs. . .”[7]

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:

“…suffering is a good thing. We should all hope to feel guilty, to feel pain, so we can seek pardon and ultimately freedom.”

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:

“That’s something you ought not to forget. You’re not a person, you’re nothing…You are a slave to what you are and you are nothing.”

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. Likewise, 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[8] — 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.[9]

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,

“Every philosopher has a predecessor, without whom his system of philosophy couldn’t have developed, and the same could be said for all of us, except it’s all failed, and you know why? Because our predecessor doesn’t have a name.”

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)[10] 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.

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]

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.

Notes

[1] Norman Mailer, The Presidential Papers (Berkley Medallion Books, New York: 1970), p. 4

[2] From the interview, “Cinema Is Over,” which appeared in The Guardian (April 29, 2005):

“‘[Tarantino] says he admires me, but that’s not true,’ Godard muses, then makes a cryptic remark about the torture and humiliation of prisoners by U.S. guards in Iraq. ‘What is never said about Tarantino is that those prisons we are shown pictures of, where the torture is taking place, are called “reservoir dogs.” I think the name is very appropriate.’”

[3] There is an exchange relevant to this question in Juliane Lorenz’s documentary, Life, Love and Celluloid (1997). Waxing despairingly about the state of independent cinema, Geoffrey Gilmore of the Sundance Film Festival says,

“Now too much of it’s being measured by the box office, and that’s the last thing we should be doing with American independent cinema…Then we become just an extension of Hollywood, and that’s unfortunately, something that a lot of different independent filmmakers are doing…In fact, we know for the most part that most of the people who are making independent films would jump, jump with both feet, at a Hollywood contract…”

To which Ms. Lorenz responds, “That’s what I think!”

[4] Moonlight Mile (2003), a recent commercial film that strives for the feel of an independent production, is marked by this kind of one-dimensional, “wall-to-wall” use of music. We know the characters are happy and in love because Van Morison’s “Sweet Thing” is playing on the soundtrack; in another scene, we know they are sad because Bob Dylan’s “Bucket of Tears” is playing. The weight of cinematic atmosphere, once borne by editing, lighting, camera movement, acting — intrinsic elements of film language — is here displaced onto a song that is already an instant signifier of mood. In a severe reduction of artistic possibilities, and as a direct result of turning the movie soundtrack into a false god, film becomes little more than a string of music videos laid end to end.

[5] Mailer, ibid, p. 5

[6] One could compare The Addiction with another horror film that reworks the vampire mythology in a uniquely modern context, David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977). In this film Rose (Marilyn Chambers) undergoes a biological mutation after an experimental skin graft operation: she grows a clitoris under her arm, with a needle-like head which she uses to puncture people and siphon out their blood. As a side effect of being bled, her victims contract rabies, and a deadly citywide epidemic ensues. Cronenberg’s vision explores an all-out horror of human sexuality. It was not coincidental that he chose the most celebrated porn star of the late 70s, Chambers, to play the vampire — here, a seductive and predatory carrier of infectious disease. Indeed, the scenes in which she finds her victims are played out as seductions based on pseudo-porn scenarios: a girl in a hot tub, an old man in a barn, a trucker who picks her up hitchhiking, a teenage boy at a shopping mall. Like Rabid, The Addiction treats vampirism as a kind of biological mutation with a distinctly sexualized component: blood is the desirable common fluid that erases lines of gender specificity. Already an allegory of the Freudian sexual polymorph, the vampire moves easily from prey of the opposite and the same sex because it’s the “asexual” blood within the body, not the body itself, that is sought. Rabid can be read, all too clearly, as a frighteningly apocalyptic predictor of AIDS as a consequence of rampant sexual permissiveness, just as The Addiction takes place, pointedly, in a post-AIDS world. When Kathy goes to the hospital after she is bitten, a doctor tries to reassure her by saying, “The AIDS virus wouldn’t manifest itself so quickly, if you’re worried about that.”

[7] Delmore Schwartz, “Rimbaud in Our Time,” Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz (Edited by Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 54-57

[8] Tom Wolfe’s recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, is essentially a neo-con tract about how the Ivy League universities “went bad” when they started letting in women and blacks, thereby “poisoning” the rarefied air of the all-white boys’ club which they had been since their inception. Supposedly, women and blacks challenge and overthrow the rule of mind by supplanting it with the disorderly, instinctual rule of the body, in the form of sex and athleticism! The players of basketball, the single most black-identified sport, are the villains of Wolfe’s book. And for the young female protagonist the message is clear: she would have been better off getting married after high school and becoming some Puritan’s housewife, rather than moving away to college where she learns how to be little more than a common prostitute. The Victorian mythos of the Fallen Woman returns here in the form of a girl barely out of puberty who has been “ruined” not so much by the actions of a single male as by the all-prevailing messages of her culture. Only in today’s neo-con era would such reductively racist and sexist ideas, such an unabashed yearning to return us to the segregated 40s and 50s, find any cultural cachet whatsoever.

[9] The milieu of philosophy students and teachers was a brilliant strategy on St. John’s part to incorporate heady Big Ideas as convincing, naturalistic dialogue — even while there is something resolutely anti-naturalistic about The Addiction’s insistence on set pieces and speeches. In the end, Kathy’s reign of terror, however bloody and unreasonable, is a revolt against the presumed irrelevance of her life inside the academic “ivory tower.” Hijacking the lofty attitudes of centuries of western thought in the name of destruction is her way of “going postal,” popular slang for all frustrated employees who snap one day and commit mass murder within the very places where they work.

[10] In December, 2005, Mr. Alpizar, a middle-class Latin-American passenger on a commercial flight in Miami, was reportedly behaving strangely; also, he would not let go of his briefcase. Believing that he may have been a terrorist with a bomb, though there was no clear evidence to support this, the National Guard surrounded Mr. Alpizar on the runway and held him at gunpoint. After a standoff in which the language barrier was apparently something of an issue, the unarmed man was gunned down. His widow later said that she tried to tell people that her husband was bi-polar and off his medications. But hardly any media coverage was given to her; and almost all the editorials came out in favor of the “difficult” job of policemen and military officers and how it’s better, in these cases, to be “safe than sorry.” The obvious questions: safety for whom? And are we so blinded, so unable to look back and self-examine, that we are no longer encouraged to express even legitimate regret for any mistake that results in the loss of human life?

In the metaphorical world of The Addiction, this tendency of the military to “shoot first and ask questions later” would be explained as simple, overpowering bloodlust; and the societal archetype to which those military officers would be said to conform would be the vampire.

[11] Mailer, ibid, p. 22

[12] Kathy’s defiant strength is brought out well by actress Lili Taylor. Physically, Taylor’s presence has always been unique: small and thin, but strong, brimming with frizzy-haired, raspy-voiced energy. I vividly remember watching the episode of The X-Files where Taylor guest-starred. She played a blind woman who becomes a suspect in a series of brutal slayings. Though completely sightless, she finds that she can “see” through the eyes of a killer while he commits his crimes, and she struggles to reach each crime scene in time to prevent the killer from murdering his victims. Her tough-talking loner persona, and her refusal to explain how she knew where and how the murders were committed, make her seem guilty to the police. But renegade FBI agent Fox (David Duchovny) sees her vulnerability. The indulgent, almost loving way that Duchovny looked at Taylor in that episode was a deliberate tribute to the way the counter-culture (and much of the mainstream) looked at her: as a kind of boho-hipster coffeehouse angel who could do no wrong. Taylor’s fascinating characterizations of strong, brainy, nihilistic women — especially in The Addiction and as Valerie Solanis in Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) — confirmed that she seemed to be rebelling against gender stereotypes and male power in everything she did. The truly tragic elements of her characters were somewhat swept away on a gleeful tide of what could be called “post-feminist camp.” If the camp of the 50s and 60s thrilled to delirious images of female passivity, suffering and hysteria (Valley of the Dolls being the classic example), then post-feminist camp (Gregg Araki; Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy; Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire; the media coverage of Karla Faye Tucker, etc.) gets off on gratuitous female violence and mayhem.

[13] The music of “gangsta rap,” another 90s cultural phenomenon (and integral to Ferrara’s films, in the rap songs composed and performed by Schoolly D), has been viewed as picking up where the rebellion of 60s rock left off, questioning dominant values and arguing with authority by expressing the raw feelings of an underclass. And yet, rap has also opened itself up to the criticism that it replaces positive and pro-active rebellion with a kind of solipsistic, selfish wallowing in crime and degradation, “selling out” rather than trying to change the world for the better. Of course, it could also be said that rap, for all its nihilism, has done more than any single piece of legislation to help cement a certain equality for blacks in society, by giving them a real voice that was enthralling and seductive to whites and other blacks alike. Rap emerged, at a moment after peaceable solutions to the race struggles had seemingly been exhausted, to confirm black superiority over whites as a fait accompli: the very sound of rap confirmed it, with its laid-back, sexed-up swagger. The low-key, drawling delivery of many of the male rappers stood out in stark contrast to the desperate, impotent shrieking of the white male grunge-rock singers, to suggest that a balance of power (sexual and otherwise) had shifted.

Perhaps it was because these new images were birthed from, and remained trapped within, the confines of the entertainment industry that, ultimately, blackness-as-product (like the symbolism of woman-as-fantasy-avenger) lacked the real political energy to change legislation or even rewrite the codes of the dominant paradigm. In today’s hyper-militarized, corporate culture, it is still the white men who flex their muscles, in spite of the fact that their image has come to be somewhat tarnished within the culture industry itself. The white guy in the suit is a straw-man villain defeated again and again in the movies, even as he grows more ravenous and regnant in real life. Perhaps this “tarnishing” has only served to make white men appear harmless and defeated, while leaving their power essentially undiminished and allowing it to flourish covertly.

[14] In The Funeral, there is an exchange that is directly relevant to this question of the uses of sainthood.  Jean (Sciorra), the browbeaten wife of a mobster, is caught praying at her shrine to Saint Agnes by her sister-in-law Helen (Gretchen Mol):

Helen: Who is that?

Jean: Saint Agnes.  They slit her throat when she refused the advances of some guy, she was twelve years old at the time.  They still have her headless body in some church in Italy.  She’s the patron saint of Purity.

Helen: You pray to her? Jean: She’s just there to remind me what happens when you say no.

Cynically, we see that belief in saints is already a kind of internalized good-cop/bad-cop routine: the consolation of homiletic, self-sacrificing piety on the one hand, and on the other hand, a way of keeping people fearful and “in line” in this world.

[15] Mailer, ibid, p. 7

[16] Mailer, ibid, pp. v-iv

[17] Mailer, ibid, p. 6


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