4:44 Last Day on Earth: Living in the Apocalypse

The saddest movie to watch in 2021.

Abel Ferrara’s last decade of cinema has been defined by death. Whether explicitly about the death of an individual, the death of a planet or the death of a way of life, Ferrara’s last 10 years have been defined by impermanence and finality, from the apocalyptic wasteland in Siberia that physically manifests failure and isolation, to the decay of the family unit in Tommaso. The two most explicit in regards to Ferrara’s increased interest in death are Pasolini and his masterpiece, 4:44 Last Day on Earth. In Pasolini, he explores the final day of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, blending the events that took place across those final hours with an unfinished script that he was working on the day that he died. Pasolini creates the definitive portrait of an artist, Ferrara clearly finding resonance in the idea of Pasolini’s art becoming an extension of himself, as important in defining his final moments as the last cup of coffee or interaction with a friend. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is most similar to Pasolini in this regard, as it is also centred on the minutiae of someone’s final day before death, showing the small graceful moments of interaction before the final seconds hit. It is also about artists continuing to create and having their work define their final hours of existence, and both star Willem Dafoe in the lead roles as the doomed protagonist who only has seconds left to embrace everything about life. The two play perfectly as the most complete and brilliant late period works of one of America’s greatest filmmakers, two quiet films about approaching the end of life, ones that are consumed with unfathomable poignancy and heartbreak for every second of screentime, before peaking with feelings of devastation that linger for years after the credits roll. This essay will be focused on 4:44 Last Day on Earth over Pasolini, but it’s important to note how much of what made 4:44 Last Day on Earth so special was channelled into the fabrics of Pasolini, the fictional bleeding into the personal, leading to both becoming even more profound. 

4:44 Last Day on Earth is difficult for me to talk about because in many ways, it is the definitive pandemic movie. While it’s irritable to talk about the COVID-19 shit in relation to cinema in any capacity since no one wants to experience cinema that reminds them of this last year, 4:44 is the rare exception where the comparison is warranted and actually helps accentuate the strengths of the film. With the exception of only a couple of scenes involving a group of friends (including a coked out Natasha Lyonne), the entirety of 4:44 takes place in the apartment of the protagonists (played by Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) and is all about accepting the lack of control. There is nothing these two can do to make any changes, there is no place they can run to be safe, they are just stuck in these rooms watching as the world falls apart. There is a casualness to the whole production, like with our own worldwide circumstances, to cope with impending grief and terror, we as human beings tend to compartmentalise. Leigh is a painter so she continues to paint and create art that no one besides her and her partner Dafoe will ever see, yet she loses herself in the process in spite of its apparent pointlessness. In several wide shots examining the exterior of the apartment, we see people in gyms continuing to run and keep themselves active, even if it seems futile so close to the end of the world. 4:44’s stripped back and intimate view of the apocalypse captures the meditative realism of what would happen at the end of the world, we’d do our best to distract ourselves until the moment where time runs out and we’ve got nothing left to do but face whatever comes next. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in my room over the last year. Unlike many people, I’ve been too paranoid to go anywhere outside my own back garden since this all started last March. I know the realities of what this virus can do and have been affected by it for almost a year, and it’s meant that I’ve been even more terrified of getting it than I otherwise would have been. Watching the film now, it haunts me how much it captures the quiet protection and damning isolation that comes from being trapped in your own home, knowing that it might be or will be the last place you see before you die. The thing it also captures perfectly is how any embrace of social interaction, whether it’s in person or especially through a form of digital interaction, is the only thing we can cling onto in these hardest times. Throughout the film, Leigh interacts with her mother over video call, getting to hear her voice and feel her presence even though they can’t be together physically, something that resonates with me since I’ve not been able to see my mother for months. The most famous scene of the film however, from those who’ve seen it and some of those who haven’t, involves a food delivery worker that’s still making deliveries during the final day of his life. While this little moment could just be a damning indictment of the way America and capitalism works, making people believe they have to work as the apocalypse approaches, it becomes something profoundly intimate when Dafoe and Leigh let him use their computer. The aspect of the film that we’ve become used to, watching Leigh use her Skype account to stay connected to her mother, becomes slightly recontextualised as we watch this man get to see his family for the final time. There will not be the opportunity for this man to have one final phone call right before the day reaches its end, this is the last desperate conversation that they’ll get together. Ferrara’s decision not to include subtitles for this moment, allowing these people to have an intimate exchange without needing exclusively English speakers to understand is brilliant, as it helps amplify the physical aspects of the sequence. The way his voice cracks, the anger and sadness and brief hints of catharsis from getting the opportunity to share this experience with the people he loves, even without the ability to hold them as the sun sets. It is the best scene of Abel Ferrara’s career, which is an extremely high bar to reach. 

Ferrara’s not been known for his compassion or empathy as a filmmaker across the 40+ years of his career, his movies are grim and heartbreaking and especially violent. But there is always something profoundly human about them, underneath all the esoteric violence and decaying streets, there is a beating heart that makes all of these people and moments matter. Whether it’s the reminiscing on previous encounters in the central relationship in the climax of New Rose Hotel, to the gleeful celebration near the climax of Go Go Tales, to the last drink with friends in Pasolini, his work is filled with these little fragments of beauty that make the pain even more palpable. While Ferrara has experienced many criticisms over the decades, few of which I agree with, the one that I’ve never seen is the claim that he’s heartless or cruel. Like him or loathe him, the type of artist that Ferrara is, particularly in his later years, is built upon a desperate love for humanity and art. He adores the creation and the experience of art and loves these connections he finds with people, even if they can be volatile or frustrating and are destined to end in some form of heartbreak. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is his masterpiece because it’s centred on that principle. Over the course of the film, Dafoe and Leigh aren’t perfectly coalescing, they have their moments of unbelievable sexual passion and then the times where the isolation gets to them, they snap and fight and distance themselves from the other. Even with the acknowledgment of death, their personalities still ensure that there is conflict. There is nothing simple about their connection or their situation and it makes parts of the film difficult. Yet, they love each other and as the film approaches its climax, you feel how deeply that they do care, how much they matter to each other. They don’t lie together and kiss each other, clinging onto every second they have left in the other’s arms because of necessity or circumstance. There is such intense love and beauty in watching these two people accept that they’re going to die together, and that there’s nowhere else they’d rather be at the end than in each other’s arms. Ferrara is not an optimistic filmmaker but I’ve never seen a work about an inevitable apocalypse handle it with such tenderness, elegance and grace. These final goodbyes and teary embraces are amplified considerably by Leigh and especially Dafoe, who is doing the greatest work of his career as he oscillates between bitter denial and tragic vulnerability. You believe that you’re watching two people realise that they’re spending the rest of their lives together, and you watch them fully commit to each other as the stars fade for the final time.

4:44 Last Day On Earth is a film that’s hard to watch right now, especially if you don’t react well to news about everything going wrong in the world. It’s almost impossible to accept the realities of death or loss or the cosmic destruction that’s happening on our planet right now. There’s not much we can do right now but try to love the people we’re with, make the most of the time we have and do our best to try and make the world a better place until it’s time for our own last day. I would do anything right now to be stuck inside a room with the woman I love, creating and waiting for whatever comes at midnight to arrive and consume us both, knowing that no matter what lies beyond, we made the most of our time together. I would do so much for that. 

Recommendations

Quick prelude, I forgot to do these for the last few weeks, sorry! My current habit is copying and pasting the Google Doc that I write these on and publishing it before I have to reflect on my own writing. Gonna start trying to get into the rhythms of doing these 5 weekly recommendations Weekly instead of whenever I remember. Feel free to message me if you see that I’ve forgotten one week so I get it done the next week!

Hiroshima Mon Amour

The best thing I’ve seen in the last few weeks is Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. I was convinced just off of the basis of Last Year at Marienbad (rapidly rising up the list of my favourite movies list) and Night and Fog that Resnais was my favourite French New Wave filmmaker and Hiroshima Mon Amour just reaffirmed that belief. Resnais’ grasp of montage and intimacy is focused on alienation, a sense of ghostliness that permeates the entirety of his landscapes and character dynamics. No one ever feels like they’re really alive or present in this physical space, everyone feels like they’re drifting from one realm to another, being trapped in these oppressive and haunting places until their time’s up. The way Resnais uses montage here to connect the central couple’s relationship to the crimes committed against Hiroshima, a history of heartbreak and the entire socio-political relationship between France and Japan in the aftermath of World War II is astonishing, but what’s just as impressive as how it makes a relationship that’s currently active feel like it’s already over. It is clear from the start that their connection is finite and watching Riva and Okada interact in these spaces re-affirms that fact, they move around and touch each other wistfully, like they’re staring at old photographs instead of holding a person they claim to love a little bit. This means that like Marienbad, there is no classical romance or conventional heartbreak arc to be found by the end of Mon Amour, at least not in the same way as something like Brief Encounter. Instead Mon Amour captures the sensation of holding a partner, knowing that you’re likely never going to see them again after this embrace ends, and instead of being distraught or angry, you just walk away without saying a final word. It reminds me of remembering an ex of mine the other day and realising that I’d forgotten what her voice sounded like. A masterpiece.

The Brother from Another Planet

I have seen criminally little works by John Sayles, with this only been the second of his features I’ve seen following Lone Star, but that is guaranteed to change in 2021. Lone Star is one of my favourite films of all time, capturing the idea that horrifies me (growing older than your parent ever was) in such vivid masterful detail on top of crafting one of the most layered and heartbreaking communities I’ve ever seen in cinema. The Brother from Another Planet is obviously not on the same level as Lone Star, due to their drastically different genres, subject matters and production values, but it is one of the best low budget films I’ve seen from the 80s and resonated me on a deeper level. I’ve mentioned the planned piece that I’m working on involving Paul W.S Anderson and non-verbal communication and this gravitiated towards me in a similar way. The lead actor Joe Morton doesn’t say a single word in the entire film, as he’s an alien who has no ability to speak, and has to communicate and engage with the word simply with his body and kind demeanour. The way he interacts with women and random bar patrons is so compassionate and almost shy, there’s a tenderness in his eyes and movement that’s almost unprecedented in modern performances, but the stand out sequence of the film is witnessing him on the streets of New York, being overwhelmed by all the noise but finding beauty in certain images along the way. Morton’s eyes when experiencing true otherworldly catharsis are so sensitive and empathetic that it had me tearing up over moments that could have easily been ignored in other films. Brother is also a great film about gentrification and the decision to make Morton’s character a slave from another planet results in some very interesting commentary on the lingering effects of slavery in modern America, how the definition has shaped to fit into the new forms of legality and the increased amount of gentrification in particularly Black areas of American cities. A lot of it resonates really deeply today and it’s wild that a man like John Sayles was able to make this film in 1984 without ever embracing Black or misogynistic stereotypes. Something I also really appreciated, the pivot to dealing with drugs in the community isn’t focused on Morton going after individual dealers like in 2018’s The Hate U Give, but targeting the white businessmen who profit most off of disrupting poor Black communities. This is really worth checking out!

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - Carnage

I don’t really have many words for this since it’s still settling in with me, but it’s dramatically different to a Bad Seeds record since it’s not one, it sounds like something Cave and Ellis did completely on their own and that’s what I was hoping from this on that first listen. For now, I can tell you all that it’s my undisputed album of the year so far, which is impressive considering how great the Hayley Williams, Julien Baker and Madlib records have been. Every song is amazing but I’ve been most drawn to the fervently romantic closer Balcony Man, where Cave delivers every declaration of love with such emotional power that you know it’s his everything. Finding out this had dropped out of nowhere was one of the happiest surprises I’ve had in a long time and I promise to give thousands of more words into where this stacks up in Cave’s discography once I’ve got every song memorised to heart.

Brazil 1- 7 Germany

This obviously happened at the 2014 World Cup and it’s rare that you hear football matches from years ago analysed in detail, but goddamn it, I rewatched it lately and the stretch in the middle of the first half where the host nation Brazil concede 4 quick goals is one of the greatest artistic moments of my lifetime. The slow realisation after the second goal from the home audience that they might be screwed, turning into heartbroken shrieks and horrified booing as Germany don’t relent, deciding to keep their punishment going until the scoreline is astronomical. One late goal from Brazil doesn’t do anything to make up for it, in fact, it makes it a little more depressing since by the time the ball hits the back of the net, the overall result is clear. This will always be the most shocking moment in football to me and the one that really amplifies how important live crowds are to the sport, as the heartbroken cries help this game stand out as the squash match of a top star. It’s like Brock Lesnar vs John Cena at SummerSlam 2014 or Cody vs Mr Brodie Lee on AEW Dynamite last year, a complete demolition job where every brief moment of comeback just amplifies the feeling of doom. I remember sitting in a lounge with my family on holiday as this game played and watching as we all slowly got transfixed by the TV, being unable to turn away from the game that was unfolding before us. It made me love football truly once before, it helped me love it again now.

The Don Jon Trailer

My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.