When somebody pays attention to filmmaker Abel Ferrara, it's usually for something naughty he did--shooting Harvey Keitel on a date with Rosy Palm and her five sisters in Bad Lieutenant, or orchestrating the gang rape of a doe-eyed mute woman, only to have her launch a revenge killing spree in the cult hit Ms. 45.
Ferrara has taken to dark-heart playwright Paul Zindel's quote about "finding the most beautiful flowers can grow on compost heaps." Through 10 feature films, he has (not always successfully) erased the line that separates schlock from art, working mostly within commercial genres for which he has expressed contempt or ambivalence (the slasher film, the sci-fi thriller, the gangster epic).
It has been a thankless task, although his blood-spattered oeuvre is just waiting for some ballsy critic to make it the subject of some fat analytical tome. Unlike David Cronenberg, a Canadian kindred spirit who has graduated into the mainstream, Ferrara never lets you glimpse his cards. The audience is forced to pull on thick rubber boots and wade through the violence and depravity he often records for evidence of the redemption that is really Ferrara's main preoccupation. Mostly, people haven't bothered. (His 1979 feature debut, The Driller Killer, was dismissed by most as just another sexist slasher-flick until a few fans pointed out that feminist author Rita Mae Brown had written it.)
Ferrara's latest film doesn't want you to mistake its intentions. Shot in pristine black and white with an ominous hip-hop score, The Addiction is a vampire film that never mentions the "V" word. Longtime collaborator and childhood buddy Nicholas St. John has penned a dense philosophical meditation on the relationship between sin and guilt that stretches the conventions of the genre into abstract, unrecognizable shapes. Too distant for some, too mired in misery for others, the film insists you surrender completely to its slithery pace and morbid tone or dismiss it as excessively cerebral self-indulgence.
Be forewarned: It's not a movie for those Ann Rice geeks who think they can fall in love with any nocturnal bloodsucker who stalks their way. St. John hasn't written dialogue for his characters so much as long, thorny takes on the meaning of suffering. Your vision may begin to blur sometime around the 10th reference to Nietzsche, but the film is saved from outright ponderousness by Ferrara's artful eye for tart, inner-city visuals. Filmed in and around New York University, The Addiction pulses with the tension between St. John's cool philosophical musings (penned after the untimely death of his son) and Ferrara's self-consciously sinister, arty camera techniques.
The film follows philosophy student Kathy (Lili Taylor) into a heart of darkness that has begun beating long before she's dragged into an alley and bitten on the neck by a slinky, sexy stranger (Annabella Sciorra). What Kathy's professors and classmates see as a passionate, intuitive mind is actually a cranial torture device for this haunted young woman, whose dissertation on the nature of evil and the function of sorrow presses her to the ground with the weight of the world.
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Once bitten, Kathy is enrolled in a lab class of dark, demanding urges from which there will be no early withdrawal. She attempts to control and study her vampirism, at first withdrawing blood in small syringe doses from sleeping homeless people. Soon, she discovers that her compulsive desires are grounded as much in the need to inflict pain--symbolized in the bite--as drink blood. Kathy infects what appears to be half of the NYU student body, earns her degree, and invites the doctoral committee over for a celebration party that turns into an impromptu, messy blood drive.
The Addiction is not unique for its free-form plot or unabashed intellectualization of a topic that's supposed to defy rational thought. Ferrara and St. John have stripped the vampire myth clean, challenging us to study the angles and edges of the subconscious like an old piece of furniture. It's the paradox at the film's heart--a very verbal portrait of primal feelings beyond words--that makes it ultimately rewarding for anyone who can muster the patience to view a movie with no traditional emotional payoff.
It helps, of course, to have an actress as luminous as Lili Taylor in the lead. She is perhaps the most effortless performer working in independent cinema today, a woman who can convey a constellation of emotion with her eyes alone. There aren't many actors who can say lines like, "It's not my aloofness, but your astonishment, that bears study," and get away with it, but Taylor invests her grad-student character with a conviction that validates St. John's script and harmonizes beautifully with Ferrara's don't-beat-around-the-bush filmmaking. In her graceful hands, blood lust becomes a beautiful thing.
The USA Film Festival screens The Addiction as part of its Independent Showcase February 19, 7:30 p.m., at the AMC Glen Lakes Theatre, 9450 N. Central Expressway. Call 821-