While both of the films under review here are not without their flaws—to put it charitably—both share the same assets: the main character is played by Willem Dafoe, one of the most interesting film actors for the past thirty years, and the theme of extinction, one of the most relevant to the period we are living in, monopoly capital in its dotage.
Opening last night at the IFC Center in New York, Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a sort of poor man’s version of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. The apocalypse does not arrive in the form of colliding planets but an ozone layer so depleted that the earth will be burned to a crisp at the appointed hour: 4:44 am. Nearly all the action takes place in a Soho loft rather than the lavishly appointed mansion of von Trier’s vastly overrated work. Dafoe plays an actor named Cisco and Shanyn Leigh—Ferrara’s long-time companion–is his girl friend Skye, an artist who devotes herself in her final hours to working on a large, dark-hued canvas. When they are not talking to each other about doomsday, they are having sex. All in all, the impression is one of improvised dialog in the style of John Cassavetes.
Unlike von Trier, Ferrara is far more concerned about the state of the planet rather than the emotional state of his principal characters. As zero hour approaches, TV newsmen give updates on the firestorm that is about to devour the earth. Since Ferrara’s budget probably did not exceed what I make in a year as a programmer, there are no special effects such as the kind that attend Hollywood blockbusters in this vein like 2012 or Knowing. Indeed, the street scenes shot from the window of the loft depict a New York City not that much different from normal. Taxis ply the streets of Soho and pedestrians stroll by casually. There are gestures to the supposed calamity that ensues such as Cisco’s neighbor jumping to his death from an adjoining roof but that’s about it.
About the best thing you can say about the film is that it probably conveys a more realistic psychological portrait of how people much like us will behave in their final hours than in any kind of overwrought scenario involving grand gestures. Mostly Skye is content to do more or less the same thing he ordinarily does, like hanging out with some friends. In the most memorable scene in Ferrara’s film, Skye enters a neighborhood hangout through a window and joins his cronies in a final drink. Among them is Diana, played by Anita Pallenberg, Mick Jagger’s old girlfriend. There’s nothing like watching old Bohemians having fun, even if it is one minute to midnight.
Even at his less than best, Abel Ferrara is always a compelling figure whose works are very close in spirit and theme to very early Martin Scorsese. For example, Bad Lieutenant stars Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel as a cocaine-addicted cop with Catholic guilt hang-up’s. It is simply brilliant. Another Ferrara film worth seeing is The Addiction that IMDB describes: “A New York philosophy grad student turns into a vampire after getting bitten by one, and then tries to come to terms with her new lifestyle and frequent craving for human blood.” Who can ask for more?
Since Ferrara hardly seems like the kind of director who would be concerned about environmental issues such as the ozone layer, one might ask what motivated him to make such a film. In his own words as related in an interview with A.V. Club, Ferrara saw things not that differently than Frederick Engels: “More civilized places than this have ended up gone from the fucking world. Why should we not be one of them? As barbaric is we are, it’s a miracle we haven’t blown ourselves off the face of the earth so far.”
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.
–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man
Opening on April 6th in New York’s Sunshine Cinema and elsewhere (check here for details), The Hunter stars Dafoe as a professional hunter who has been hired to track down and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, a species that supposedly became extinct about a hundred years ago, on behalf of a shadowy multinational that wants to use a toxin in the animal’s flesh for military purposes.
While it shared the stripes of a tiger (and the body of a wolf), this animal had much more in common with the Tasmanian Devil, the creature that should be familiar to anybody old enough to enjoy the Warner Brothers cartoon character and that appears to be going the same route as the Tiger: extinction.
The publicity notes I got from the film led me to believe that it was concerned about environmental questions, not only species extinction but over the clash between logging and wildlife preservation. The Tasmanian Tiger that Dafoe tracks is in the middle of a forest that is being encroached upon by loggers who harass him, not knowing that he is as mercenary as them.
Indeed, the film is much more about hunting than Green issues. In the press notes, director Daniel Nettheim tells us:
One of the great revelations for me in the making of this film was the intricacy involved in the laying of traps and snares. There can be a great deal of artistry, and philosophy, involved in the act of hunting … Although the hunting sequences in the film may appear as cruel or brutal to some, hunting is one of the oldest pursuits known to mankind, and carries with it a long tradition of wisdom and skill. I hope we have been able to capture some of its inherent beauty.
And producer Vincent Sheehan advises that the film was neutral on the logging question: “It is a sensitive issue but also such a significant part of the culture that you could not avoid it. We didn’t want to sanitize the issue but our story doesn’t take sides. The Loggers on site and at the pub were real, the protestors were too.”
So what is the film really about? It is not about the fate of wildlife, but about the existential dilemmas faced by the hunter, who is torn between his job and his belief that the Tasmanian Tiger should be preserved, as well as his self-imposed isolation as a kind of hit-man and the love offered him by the women and children whose home he is sharing in Tasmania on a temporary basis. The tale has more in common with Hemingway than Edward Abbey.
The Hunter is based on Australian Julia Leigh’s 1999 novel. A sympathetic academic article on the novel titled Australian Writing, Deep Ecology and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter describes it in terms familiar to anybody who has read the screeds on Spiked Online or any other libertarian outlet hostile to environmentalism:
The narrative has a number of features which are heretical to the orthodoxy of Australian environmental writing. Firstly, it repudiates the harmonious language of heritage in which the works of Nature and the works of Man should be protected and celebrated as part of the national estate.
No thanks—I’ll stick with Edward Abbey.