Bad Cops, Good Drugs and Self Destruction: If you like FILTH, you’ll love BAD LIEUTENANT (1992)

Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a film about your average cop: a corrupt headcase with a gun who was born to be a criminal, but turned out to be a late developer. If you like James McAvoy in Filth, you’ll love Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. This cop knows how to mix his drugs. He’s also good at mixing his drug taking with a lot of stealing, drug dealing, screaming, whoring, and hard drinking. He does have some problems with gambling, though.

Ferrara is always willing to go to dark places, and in Harvey Keitel he found an actor who could go all the way. This NC-17 B-flick full of drugs, degeneracy, wild nihilism, suicidal apathy, horrific rape, and total self destruction is such a beautiful train wreck to watch that even Roger Ebert thinks it’s wonderful. But it’s not the subject matter that makes the film: it’s Harvey Keitel. The parallels to Jon S. Baird’s Filth (2013) are striking, specifically James McAvoy’s reach-out-and-choke-the-audience performance.

This is one bad lieutenant

Harvey Keitel plays the titular and unnamed Bad Lieutenant, the baddest of bad cops, who makes McAvoy’s Filth corruption seem like schoolboy pranks. Keitel pulls the entire film up from its b-movie vibe. The cinematography is so bad it makes shot/reverse shot look nouvelle vague. But it doesn’t make any difference at all while you’re watching it. The visceral shock of Keitel’s acting makes everything else peripheral. See the stills? They don’t come close to matching the intensity of the performance at 24 frames per second. Rogert Ebert wrote, “Harvey Keitel plays this man with such uncompromised honesty that the performance can only be called courageous…” That’s a delicate way to put it. It’s better described as a performance of beautiful insanity.

Gambling his life away, lying, conning, thieving, stealing evidence, selling drugs, robbing criminals, sexually assaulting teenagers, snorting cocaine, smoking crack, smoking heroin, shooting heroin, shooting at people, shooting at car radios, and drinking to oblivion in a naked stupor while whoring with bondage hookers: this Bad Lieutenant is far too busy tearing his world apart to photocopy an image of his phallus just to pull the department secretary.

BAD.LIEUTENANT-(NC-17.RATING).avi_snapshot_01.30.07_[2014.05.13_04.56.38]Now, if you’re here for the existential nihilism like me, I have to warn you: it’s not really the elusive nihilist film you’ve been searching for, because like most screen nihilists, this Bad Lieutenant comes with a twist. Unlike most filmmakers who deal with nihilistic characters, however, Ferrara’s lens never really makes judgments. The camera just watches. And this is one hell of a spectacle.

If you want to see a more phillosophical brand of nihilism in action, check out Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), whose lens is somewhat judgmental but leaves things open to interpretation. Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971) glorifies Michael Caine’s nihilist antihero. Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) is closer to the philosophical mark, and David Thewlis is as mesmerizing as Keitel. Finally, another worthy Ferrara film is King of New York (1990) with Christopher Walken as gangster antihero.

Ferrara is currently filming Pasolini starring Willem Dafoe as the infamous Italian poet, critic and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, in a portrayal of his final days leading up to his mysterious murder. Let’s hope that film gets released because if there ever was a great cinephile biopic in the making, it’s a story about Pasolini.

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Junk Dilemmas: Day 739

I feel like I’m fading away….

I cannot resist turning back to watch my own once-precious skyscrapers collapse into crystalline forms and shift in dimensions with the phases of the moon. The past is so alive and present, even rendered unto ruins. It’s not easy to let go of what’s lost when your future is buried under the dark debris of memories of what might have been. Death doesn’t lie in the future. Death lives in the moment. She whispers to you in the hollow places between unspoken words.

We all live in the past, with the present unfolding before us like a tapestry of promises woven from our dreams. But the past is a sandcastle made up of ashes and bones. Perhaps there will come a day when someone will appreciate my ancient ruins; stop to stare at them in curiosity as I stopped, once, to stare at the fresh grave of a soldier. I wanted to escape death, so I willed life to stop. On the edge of time’s glacial black abyss, I peered over the edge and—

Black_with_White_spot

Time is not a river. It is the horror of the singularity within a black hole. Forever destroying, forever fleeting, in the darkness and the silence of moments we cannot comprehend. This momentary abyss shatters everything around us, every now and every then and all forever. I can only look backwards to see the future before me. I want to escape it. I will it to stop. On the edge of time’s glacial black abyss, I peer over the edge and—

I won’t resist turning back to watch my own precious skyscrapers collapse into crystalline forms and shift in dimensions with the phases of each new moon. The future is alive, even if the past is rendered unto ruins. It’s not easy to let go of what’s behind you when your past is right before you, buried under the dark debris of thoughts of what your life could be. Death doesn’t lie in the past. Death lives in the moment. She whispers to you in the hollow places between unspoken words.

Colonel Kurtz as existentialist philosopher in Apocalypse Now

Colonel Kurtz

An existential philosopher with a spider on his head

Colonel Kurtz is not insane. He’s an existentialist philosopher. A Nietzschean superman. Some of his speeches could just as easily be spliced into the works of Camus, Nietzsche, Sartre.

Like this speech, with its touches of Albert Camus’ The Plague and its darkened Nietzschean undertones:

“We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp…and this old man came running after us…they had hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And, I remember, I, I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out…and I want to remember it, I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized like I was shot, like I was shot with a diamond. A diamond bullet, right through my forehead. And I thought, my God, the genius of that. The genius. The will, to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. Then I realized they were stronger than we. … It’s judgement that defeats us.”

Or this existential nihilist sentiment that almost sounds like a post-modern Zarathustra:

“…what is often called ruthless, what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly. Quickly. Awake. Looking at it. … I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid, lying morality. And so I am beyond caring.”

 

And that, by the way, is what junk withdrawal is like. Pure, existential horror.

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Find what you love and let it kill you

L'Atalante

If you don’t know well enough what you love (or love well enough what you know) to throw caution to the wind, to accept the cruelty of chance and failure and death in pursuit of what you love, then you aren’t living. You’re just killing time.

His body ravaged by wounds and years of exertion, Alexander the Great died after a brief louvre-portrait-alexander-great-356illness. His army had refused to march further into India, forcing his return to Babylon. He was 32; killed by what he loved—war.

Jean Vigo’s weak health was exhausted by the effort of finishing his first feature film, L’Atalante. After he finished editing it, he died from an illness complicated by the tuberculosis he had managed to survive for years. He was 29.

In other words, a life worth living is worth dying for.

If Alexander had halted his campaign after conquering Persia, he would simply have been Alexander III, a Greek king who was born at the right place and the right time. Philip II had already laid the groundwork for a Greek invasion of Persia. Alexander was a brilliant general, but he would not have earned his place in history had he not been driven to death by what he loved in life.

JeanVigoVigo, in contrast, had never been a healthy man. He devoted himself to cinema after reading books about filmmaking while in hospital. With just one feature-length film to his name, he is remembered today not only for his films but as the grandfather of the French New Wave, a movement that arguably caused the most radical change in the art of filmmaking since sound.

What you let kill you will define your fleeting existence in this world—and sorry, gunslinger, there are no other worlds than these.

So, stop killing time waiting for death, and start dying for what you love.

The origins of the quotation, “find what you love and let it kill you,” are unknown. It has been misattributed to Charles Bukowski.

Meet Mark Renton, Junk Philosopher

Mark Renton

Mark Renton, Junk Philosopher

“…ma concept ay success and failure only operates on an individual rather than an individual and societal level. Due tae this failure tae recognise societal reward, success (and failure) can only ever be fleeting experiences for me, as that experience cannae be sustained by the socially–supported condoning of wealth, power, status, etc., nor, in the case ay failure, by stigma or reproach.

…Why should ah reject the world, see masel as better than it? Because ah do, that’s why. Because ah fuckin am, and that’s that… Basically, aw ah ask is that cunts mind their ain business and ah’ll dae the same. Why is it that because ye use hard drugs every cunt feels that they have a right tae dissect and analyse ye? Once ye accept that they huv that

Irvine Welsh, Junk Philosopher

Irvine Welsh, Junk Philosopher

right, ye’ll join them in the search fir this holy grail, this thing that makes ye tick. Ye’ll then defer tae them, allowin yersel tae be conned intae believin any biscuit–ersed theory ay behaviour they choose tae attach tae ye. Then yir theirs, no yir ain; the dependency shifts from the drug to them. Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ay sound mind etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir am failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind–numbing and spirit–crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked–up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.

Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem.” — Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, 1993

Philosophy of the Drug Film: Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 and Louis Malle’s The Fire Within

Le Feu FolletThe philosophical drug film is a modern invention. Its literary equivalent dates at least to de Quincey. Most of these stories are biography, and whether or not you agree with the implication that there can be thoughtful purpose to addiction, even the medical community presupposes (in scientific answers) the philosophical question: “Why?” Unlike Trainspotting, with its emphasis on character, sensation and style (not unlike its source material)—or more didactic/exploitative predecessors such as The Man With the Golden Arm, Trash, The Panic in Needle Park, Christiane F. (ad infinitum/ad nauseam)—this rare breed of drug film distinguishes itself from its cousins by having something to say beyond didactics, grit, shock; even beyond characterisation and style. As of yet, most are literary adaptations; but film is a young medium.

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 (2011) might be called a film about social isolation (Trier has highlighted this theme in interviews) and self-reflection, but it is also that most curious kind of film: a philosophical film about addiction. Like Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), it is a contemporized adaptation of the 1931 French novella Le Feu Follet, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (published in English as Will o’ the Wisp). The novella is based on the life of Dadaist/Surrealist poet/dandy Jacques Rigaut, who promised in his twenties to commit suicide at 30, and was as good as his word. I have long loved Malle’s film, and would like to have updated the story again myself. So it was much to my surprise when, by chance, I came across Oslo, August 31, and scene by scene, noted the story it was based on, as well as the fact that there might not be much point in filming it again for a while in light of Trier’s excellent work. Thankfully, Trier abandons Malle’s outdated moral façade of alcoholism and returns to the source with heroin as the protagonist’s drug of choice. The literary tradition of these stories powerfully suggests there is no more philosophical drug user than the intellectual opiate addict, whose drug does not stupefy the mind, and whose lifestyle presents both a rejection of and by society that surpasses many plights of poverty and prison, let alone the plight of the common drunk.

The Fire Within

“We drunks are poor cousins, and we know it. Anyway, we fade away fast.”

Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet, in his best performance), is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to leave the comfort of his apartment at a luxury rehab clinic. He has made a conscious decision to end his life on July 21. In the meantime, he visits his friends one by one, taking a last chance to look for reasons to live. Sometimes he makes his visitations with the composure of a resurrected messiah, and at other times—when his emotions rise to the fore with alcohol, bonhomie (or lack thereof), or sexual attraction—he loses composure altogether. It is precisely these emotional experiences that present Alain with the opportunity to reconsider.

In a parallel life, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a heroin addict two weeks away from completing rehab, journeys to Oslo for a job interview. His is the converse of Alain’s journey. Anders comes to Oslo with reasons to live, after a sudden attempted suicide in the opening of the film, whereas Alain is giving life one last chance to convince him not to leave it. By this logic, Alain is seeking unconvincing and Anders convincing that he should try again. This departure in point of view is the defining difference of the film.

While Alain starts his journey with composure before encountering emotional experiences, Anders starts his journey with a baptism of sorts. He emerges soaking wet and in tears from a sudden attempt to drown himself. It’s this rebirth that shapes his journey to Oslo, in which he becomes the metaphorical ghost of the past making visitations upon his friends and his world. But Anders journey is really an internal one; more so than Alain’s. Anders’ rationality grows and his emotions subside on his journey in Oslo. He responds like a man tempted by trials, with increasing calmness and conviction. Were it not for the trip to Oslo, Anders may have simply made another miserable attempt to walk into the lake. Instead, his journey provides a quest on which he confronts his fears with realities. Whether the conviction he draws from the experience is morally justifiable is irrelevant. Life offers no simple answers. In a sense, these are coming-of-age stories where maturity is reached in the contemplation of suicide, which is to say contemplation of the meaning of life.

Anders and Thomas

Anders rejects the muddled arguments of the complacent intellectual.

Alain questions the purpose of the academic’s life

Anders exists in a world with more faults than he can accept. But he also refuses to absolve himself of blame, or to accept platitudes as substitutes for the honest appraisal of the world that he demands. His first visitation is upon his friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a university lecturer. Thomas, who looks as if he’s being haunted by a ghost, patronizes Anders with irrelevant quotations. He offers him stale platitudes and an invitation to complacency. Thomas offers an empty defense of life and the world. His head is “bursting with trivialities,” as his lecture culminates in a finale in which he explains how trivial his own existence is. When Thomas says, “Be a loser, if that’s what you want,” he means it literally and without sarcasm, and goes on to explain the boredom of his life, which is only interrupted by intermittent moments of little consequence. “I got a Playstation. We sit and play video games,” he admits, somewhat depressed. For all his ability to quote Proust with little or no point, it is Thomas who is the loser, and he suggests as much with his own total complacency. “Happy is probably an exaggeration, but it’s okay. You can get there if you want to.” To which Anders replies, “It’s not as if I want to live your life… It seems meaningless to me.” From Anders’ point of view, it is Thomas who is the ghost.

“I was dealing a bit as well. Should I put that on my CV?”

“I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.”

Anders assesses himself and the world with growing clarity on his journey. He calls himself stupid and unable to write, yet proves he is capable and intelligent in his job interview at the newspaper. He doesn’t avoid the interview: he takes the reasonable steps society might expect of him. But in the confines of the editor’s office, Anders can’t help but find more fault with more evidence of a vacuous world. At the editor’s invitation to comment, he criticizes the newspaper’s articles about HBO series and video games. The editor’s inane response: “People want something light.”

It is when the world seems unreasonable that Anders refuses to compromise. He won’t lie about his past, and is thus confronted by the editor’s palpable unease when the man finds he’s interviewing a heroin addict. But it’s Anders who rejects the editor, not the other way around. Emotional self-defense notwithstanding, Anders appraises the world with increasing rationality as the journey wears on. Rational appraisal gradually outweighs emotion and ultimately strengthens his convictions. Anders can’t accept a world where his arguably irrelevant past addiction would prevent him from being hired. He won’t even tell a harmless lie to compromise with such a world. He may set too high standards, but his pessimism and self-deprecation isn’t necessarily an emotional weakness. Anders is an intellectual, not an escapist. He reaches nihilism as a matter of logic. It’s hard to imagine Anders voice when Alain says to the object of his dislike, “I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.” Alain is the escapist who wishes he could go through the motions. Anders refuses on principle to try.

Alone in the crowd.

In a memorable scene, Anders sits in a restaurant observing the lives and conversations of those around him. At a nearby table a girl discusses a bucket list of things she would like to do in life: go skinny dipping, get a good job, make useful every day items—little things among the obligatory desires for fame and fortune. Anders will be confronted with some of these same experiences on his journey, and he will reject them all outright. To Anders they sound like ripples on the surface of time. He is looking for something more meaningful and real, but no one has it on offer.

So he ventures into the pretty, sunlit streets, where is alone with his thoughts among the bustling crowds. He recounts to himself what he learned from his parents. It is another inventory of delicate minutia, the small things in life that Thomas and the girl in the restaurant find worth living for. These memories, too, offer no real answers. Like the past, the future has little to offer him either. Children are a metaphor for this future in the film, and children consistently interrupt his journey, but Anders’ world-weariness never shows any cracks. To put off the search for meaning into the next generation is to simply spin a wheel back to the starting point.

The arc of the journey: emotion to reason, coming-of-age as coming-of-death

Anders is relatively self-assured about his ability to restrain himself from relapse if he chooses life. He simply doesn’t make that choice. His visit to the heroin dealer is a means to an end, not a thrill. He stands there bored, with contempt for the aimless life of the dealer who, like Thomas, has nothing to speak of but video games, aside from his depressing accumulation of electronics and shoes. Anders, unsurprisingly, is unimpressed. Perhaps he has a better fix on the meaning of life than those who have lived safer lives, and gone through less tragedy. What doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, but it certainly opens your eyes.

As Anders says to Thomas, “It’s not about the heroin. Not really.”

Joachim Trier’s  Oslo, August 31 is available on DVD and Hulu Plus.

Louis Malle’s The Fire Within is available on Criterion DVD and Hulu Plus.