by Nicole Brenez
The burst of apocalyptic works that swept the big screen in 2012 did not owe as much to the Mayans, as to two films whose main contribution was to erect two, symmetrical peaks in the history of the simulacrum. The first was titled An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006), a histrionic slide-show about global warming that garnered two Academy Awards and a Nobel Prize for its protagonist, Al Gore. It achieved the kind of crossover that illusionist filmmakers can only dream of: to make a hypothesis become real, to invade the political imagination and influence the course of collective history. The second peak-film, 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009), transforms the first into a grand spectacle, arranges its special effects for a litany-like effect and reassures children, once again, that their parents are invincible, regardless of the situation. On the level of visual deluge, 2012 does not achieve the industrial poetry of The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004), but allows itself such a repetition of cataclysmic iconography that the overdose may effectively dissuades future authors from trying to go any further. So the Apocalypse refinds its Biblical function: by maximising the imagery of destruction, it serves as a protocol, inviting reflection by way of an eschatological fable.
By integrating Gore’s assertions, where his word took the images hostage, and leaving the blaring visions of Emmerich as a mere psychic background – thus enabling him to leave out all the usual “scenes to be made”, after the treatments provided by Alex Proyas (Knowing, 2009), John Hillcoat (The Road, 2009), Gregg Araki (Kaboom, 2010), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, 2011) and so many others in 2012 – Abel Ferrara delivers, in 4:44 Last Day on Earth, a modest version, where doubt, hesitation and fragility reign. Here the spaces, the objects, the scenographies are transformed more or less into a confessional, where everything is worthy of adoration: religious icons and statues, of course (Buddha, Our Lady, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Al Gore himself …); but also photographs and computers, embraced as if they truly contained the images whose appearances they transmit. The iconodulia that pervades 4:44 reminds us, above all,that Ferrara did not have to wait for the 2012 market to deal with ecological crises. In 1993, updating the figurative schema invented by Jack Finney in the 1950s, his Body Snatchers deployed the analysis that An Inconvenient Truth avoids: the collusion between capitalism, militarism and pollution. And in 1998, New Rose Hotel had already fabulated the destruction of humanity from genetic manipulations performed by international consortia. (An earlier draft of Zoë Lund’s screenplay planned to make the hero disappear in an ultimate white flash, to the sound of “I can’t hate you, baby.”)
But if the apocalyptic protocol allows, above all, a meditation on the meaning of life, then two Ferraran heroes assert themselves: in King of New York (1990), Frank White, the criminal who returns from among the dead to restore justice; and in The Addiction (1995), Kathleen Conklin, the philosophy student who somatises unto death a responsibility over history, faced with the collective crimes of the 20th century. More than any eschatological fantasy, their magnificent torments leave “a track of light (for us) to wonder at”, in the words of William Blake, in a poem dedicated to the economic causes of human catastrophe (“King Edward the Third,” in Poetical Sketches, 1783).
© Nicole Brenez July 2013