The Blackout (1997)

It is a sign of just how despairing this latest Abel Ferrara movie is that the city of New York, previously his semi-private inferno of bad faith and psychotic violence, represents a perhaps illusory oasis of calm and reason where the protagonist can temporarily get his head back together.

In the use of a Hollywood-associated lead character, an insistent switching between the staged and the actual as filtered through Micky's omnipresent cam-corder and even the casting of a blonde no one could possibly have taken seriously as an actress, there is a sense that Ferrara might be returning to the terrain of Snake Eyes (aka Dangerous Games), the least satisfactory of his mature works, maybe in an attempt to get right what was fudged on the first attempt. If that was the intention, then the spell of the original, as with Annie 1's shadow over Annie 2, proves hard to shake off, for this shares with the earlier film a lack of the precision in insanity that marks the best of Ferrara, though its singular focus on Matty and the relegation of the director figure to the role of nemesis/conscience/monster at least gives it a more direct, cogent feel.

In all of Ferrara's works, stretching back to The Driller Killer, the central character is out of control and on a course for self-willed death - here, in a weird variant on A Star Is Born complete with a post-mortem communion with the martyred Annie 2 ('did you miss me?') - and the director deliberately blurs distinctions between character, performer and creator. In his first film, Ferrara actually stepped centre screen and played the psychotic artist with the power drill, while in Snake Eyes, he recalled Harvey Keitel from Bad Lieutenant to play a filmmaker obviously modeled on himself. Here, he distances himself a little from Matty, allowing Matthew Modine to invest the collapsing actor with an unusually battered little boy charm that is perhaps more seductive than that of the typical male Ferrara psychopath.

As in Ms .45, Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction, a descent into violence is as much a process of self-discovery as dissolution, with a subtle carry-over theme alluded to as two party girls crawl over the stoned Matty, prompting him to muse 'it's like I'm in a vampire movie'. The film's most disturbing sequence finds the sober Matty alone in the hotel room where he once argued with Annie, calculatedly draining vodka miniatures from the minibar and hooking up with his old drug connection, not to get high but to get in touch with his memory of what happened during the eponymous blackout. It is perhaps inevitable that, embodied by Claudia Schiffer, sanity is a somewhat less appealing prospect than madness. Represented by smooching to classical guitar or psychobabble spieling to an AA group or a shrink, the clean life in New York is far less involving or intriguing than the admittedly nightmare world of Miami, where Beatrice Dalle smoulders with a huge tattoo on her shoulder or Dennis Hopper is reinvents Emile Zola in a style somewhere between Showgirls and a snuff movie.

Hopper seems here let off the leash for the first time since Blue Velvet, playing Micky - presumably at least in part the Ferrara substitute - as mercurial, abusive, druggy ('it's not a question of "did I?". It's "Do I remember?"'), mephistophelean and finally sane. This is indeed the man who could direct The Last Movie, and Hopper brings along forty years of movie baggage as he embarks on what could be seen either as a caricature of the Ferrara method as perceived by non-admirers or a self-aware critique of the dangers of stepping half into a sea of madness in order to capture on film the thrashing of the poor souls who can't make it back to the shore and are carried off into the depths. The script comes perilously close to editorialising in Micky's final abusive speech as he drives Matty to suicide by exposing his worthlessness, but Hopper plays it with a manic edge that suggests his own character's complicity in what Matty has done and indeed Ferrara's in condemning the actions of a character he has himself created and shaped.

At this stage in his career, a Ferrara movie commands respect and demands multiple viewings. If The Blackout seems not quite up to the level of his most recent masterpieces - King of New York, Bad Lieutenant and (especially) The Addiction - it might be that it misses the input of his usual screenwriter Nicholas St John and denies itself the now-familiar milieux of New York and catholicism. Nevertheless, no one in the American cinema is willing or able to go as far as this, and Ferrara must be classed as one of the greatest directors currently working at the top of his form.

First Published In: Sight and Sound (March 1998) pp.40-41 (UK)

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