Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day On Earth is a beautiful, intimate, hallucinatory, romantic picture of the end of the world. A cinematic apocalyptic vision for a time in history when few of us can imagine a future, Ferrara’s film takes the macrocosmic event of global annihilation and places it within a visually stunning aural experience that is both personal and global at the same time. It is a tale of love, sobriety and the apocalypse told through an exceptionally insulated perspective that manages to achieve global resonance through its emotional sincerity and the manipulation of media within the film and the aesthetics of the film itself.
4:44 is exactly what the title says it is. It is about the last day on earth. Due to some nebulous environmental disaster caused by the depletion of the ozone, the world is going to end at exactly 4:44 a.m, and Abel Ferrara takes us through to that final hour. Everyone knows that they have one last day on the planet. The question is: What do you do when you know the world is coming to an end? How would you spend your last day on earth if you knew it was the last? Do you go about your ordinary business? Do you hold on tight to the ones you love? Do you kill yourself, get wasted and obliterate yourself as the world is obliterated, or do you stare the end in the face? The movie shows a little of all of these and ultimately leads us to a place where these questions are no longer necessary.
Even though the world is coming to an end, Ferrara’s film doesn’t really show us the world. Like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, this is not a grand spectacle disaster film. It is small, intimate and personal. Of course, the plausibility of the narrative is questionable, but this is not a movie about scientific fact. It is about emotional vulnerability and a return to or reinvention of Romantic mysticism in the face of global disaster. Neither Melancholia nor 4:44 Last Day on Earth is about real facts and real science. These films are about experiencing the interior world of human emotions in The Age of No Future, an age when we are compelled to throw rationality out the door because there is not one damn thing that feels rational when we look outside our own door. In an interview at NIFF, Abel Ferrara states, “[In this movie we] stay closer to the Twilight Zone than to science. We’re not making a documentary about how the world would end if it did end, you know.” Indeed, even though grounded in the very real environment of New York City, the movie manipulates color, sound, lighting and media to give an otherworldly effect (a Twilight Zone effect) and move us beyond the real (and therefore beyond science) as it focuses on a very specific microcosmic view of the world coming to an end.
The entire film takes place in the very specific and isolated world of two bohemian Lower East Side artists – the retired actor Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and his much younger girlfriend Skye (Shanyn Leigh, who in “real life” is Abel Ferrara’s girlfriend). Set in a Manhattan loft, 4:44 delivers the end of the world in a very intimate environment confined to the perspective of this narrow – and privileged – slice of the population. However, like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which is also set in an environment of extremely isolated privilege, the emotional sincerity of Ferrara’s vision leads us beyond the isolated setting of its characters and gives us a beautifully personal experience of the apocalypse as sublime erasure. Even though we see the end of the world through a very narrow perspective, Ferrara manipulates the film, compelling us to identify with the plight of Cisco and Skye. Their plight also becomes our plight. We are facing down the end of the world through the eyes of its characters, but 4:44 also adds another dimension, merging love with the apocalypse and giving us one hell of a sweet love story as the planet is blown to oblivion.
But, the love story and the sincerity of the film take time to unfold as our perspective evolves with the characters. On the surface, it would seem that Skye and Cisco are easy to mock. I had that initial gut reaction when I first witnessed these two ultra cool and privileged bohemians living in their multi-thousand dollar per month loft. Ferrara has the details down – everything from the New Age spiritualist playing sitar on an iPad to the Whole Foods canned foods on the kitchen shelf to Cisco’s iPhone and Apple laptop computer. Sure, Skye and Cisco aren’t bankers or brokers, but their Cultural Capital is hanging on their walls and lining the bookshelves of their New York loft. We look at these two fashionably hip people (Skye painting out her end of the world scenario on the floor while changing into a infinite wardrobe while Cisco parades around mumbling at his large screen TV, laptop, and iPone), and it’s easy to wonder why the hell we should care about them when there are so many other people in the world who are drastically less privileged than these two seemingly oblivious characters. However, Ferrara pulls the rug out from under our inclination to mock and deride Cisco and Skye. He shows that at the end of the world, we’re all the same, that Cisco and Skye are two people with hearts, emotions, and families, and that they have to face death just like everyone else on the planet even if they do happen to be occupying a very exclusive and insulated world.
The brilliance of the film is that we do end up caring about Cisco and Skye, largely because they show that they care about others and aren’t as selfish as they initially seem, and because their love for each other is so profoundly sincere. We want love to win. At the end of the day, or the end of the world, people are people, and Cisco and Skye have to struggle with their fears just like the rest of us. We may want to sneer at them, but the film wears its heart on its sleeve, and we can’t help but get sucked into its romantic sentimentalism and buy into Cisco and Skye’s fucked-up childish love. By following them through their last day on earth and witnessing how their love for each other takes them through to the end, we are able to lighten our own load as we look out our window or into our TV or computer screen and see the impending apocalypse reported to us through the daily news of war, economic collapse and environmental disasters.
The film may be isolated in its setting, but it manages to give us a global view while maintaining a singularly personal perspective. Because the movie so singularly focuses on Cisco and Skye, every small detail of their final day counts. Whether painting, fucking, ranting, dancing, or eating, every detail of their last day alive is brought into sharp focus. Suddenly, a nap is a tragedy because it represents precious minutes lost on the planet. A conversation through Skype with Ciscso’s daughter and ex-wife becomes a heartbreaking final goodbye in the banality of the conversation. Cisco’s daughter talks about spending her last hours playing video games with a friend while the wife berates Cisco for cheating on her and abandoning his family. It’s the kind of domestic argument that could happen any day, except this is the last day, and that makes it so much more devastating in its ordinariness. The ordinary is heightened to the extraordinary because of our awareness that it is the end of the ordinary, and this adds to the hallucinatory and emotional impact of the film.
But it’s not just Cisco and Skye’s world that is ending. It is the whole world. We are given pieces of the world through news clips and the internet, in an intersection of the spiritual, mass media, and the apocalypse. We watch Cisco interrogating the Dalai Lama as he speaks on TV. In newscasts, millions of people gather at the Vatican; thousands kneel for prayer in a Middle Eastern Mosque; Africans beat drums and perform a death dance; a news reporter bids his final farewell to spend his last hours on the planet with his family. The world of the movie may be narrowed to this New York loft, but Ferrara brilliantly uses media to expand the scope of the film’s vision so we see the world ending through Cisco’s eyes as he absorbs it in the technology that surrounds him. It is the experience of the global through the intimate, and it provides a hallucinatory yet internally real experience.
Ferrara’s budget was extremely limited. Other than one scene when Cisco goes outside to look for drugs, the entire film was shot in only fifteen days on location in a New York loft. The constrained environment and urgency of filming certainly adds a pulse to the film as time on the set was almost as limited as the time when the world is coming to an end. In addition, Ferrara relies on the technology of Skype to bring actors in from the outside and to expand his “set.” The use of Skype situates the film within the technology of the present, and it underscores the artificial sense of proximity and inherent distance that is woven into the “web”. You can hug your computer screen, but it’s not going to hug you back.
The use of Skype is both timely and haunting in the film. Whether it is Cisco jibing with his buddies who are having an end of the year party, a Vietnamese kid saying goodbye to his family in Vietnam, or Skye talking to her mother in London, somehow seeing these people through the window of technology makes the distance between them even more tangible. Their last goodbyes are so fragile as they break up in the inevitably bad connection that Skype delivers. Imagine having to say your last goodbye to your loved ones through a bad internet connection on a computer screen. In the NIFF interview, Ferrara describes Skype as, “The people are there and not there.” Indeed that is the sense we get through the use of Skype in the film. The faces of family and loved ones hover in distortion, their voices breaking up in digital delay. They are simultaneously “real” people, electronic ghosts, and the voices of the dead they are about to become.
Interestingly, Ferrara uses technology to make us feel the emotional impact of what that last day on earth really means for individual people. Rather than distancing us through technology, the fragility of the medium lures us into the tenderness of the film. In a beautifully poignant scene which represents a turning point in the story, Skye and Cisco order takeout food. It seems like such a careless meaningless gesture. Who orders takeout food when the end of the world is coming? A Vietnamese boy delivers the food, and Cisco realizes that he doesn’t even know the boy’s name even though he has delivered food countless times. Cisco finds out the boy’s name is Li and starts handing him fistfuls of cash as if that could atone for years of ignorance. Money, as we see in that gesture, no longer amounts to anything. Everyone is level when it comes to the end of the world, and a handful of cash won’t buy you a way out. The kid confusingly stuffs the money in his pockets while Cisco, continuing to need to make some kind of amends before the world explodes, asks Li if there is anything he can do for him. The boy replies, “Skypey?”, and he uses Cisco’s laptop to Skype chat with his family in Vietnam (who happen to be the actor’s real family in Vietnam, adding another dimension of emotional realness in the film).
As Li speaks to his family in Vietnamese, Skye looks on with a trace of uncomfortable mockery, clearly resentful that the boy is taking up her precious time on earth. No subtitles are provided for the conversation, so the audience as well as Cisco and Skye interpret the conversation through the emotion in Li’s voice and the flickering faces on the computer screen. Skye’s mouth droops as she realizes the impact of Li’s conversation, what it means for him, for his family and what it means for her and everyone else on the planet. In that moment, Skye has to move beyond herself and understand that everyone on Earth is facing the same end that she is facing. We don’t need to speak the same language. We don’t need subtitles as Cisco and Skye bear witness to Li’s extremely personal last goodbye. Li’s mother, brother and family look out of the computer screen as a baby cries from the sidelines. We don’t understand a word, yet we understand everything. It verges on an act of uncomfortable voyeurism for Cisco and Skye and us as we watch this final goodbye that is heartbreaking in both its intimacy and its distance. Li waves goodbye. His family’s faces are held on the screen in a flickering moment of tremendous love and loss before he closes the lid of the laptop and lowers his head to kiss it. The finality of the gesture is heartbreaking. The sense of mourning for the loss that is coming is painfully tangible as Li stares down at the closed computer. That a laptop can deliver such emotional resonance is a testament to Ferrara’s brilliant and innovative filmmaking.
The film’s heart hinges on the scene when the laptop closes and Li walks off the screen. It is the moment when our identification opens up along with Cisco and Skye’s. The scene gives us access to the global emotion in the film while also underscoring the intimately personal individual losses that will occur when the world comes to an end. In that one moment, Skye and Cisco gulp down their own mortality and the finality of their life. As they stand in their loft looking at Li and his family and facing their own death, all the emblems of their cool lifestyle don’t mean shit. In the end, it will all be blown to bits and become nothing like everything and everyone else on the planet, including the delivery boy Li and his family. So they have to figure out how to deal with it.
But the movie is not mean-spirited, angry or particularly nihilistic. In many ways, it is more about human emotion and the fragility of life than it is about the end of the world. Just as Skye and Cisco have to recognize the individual humanity of Li and his family (and see him as a person beyond just “the delivery boy”), we also are led through a journey that allows us to see Cisco and Skye beyond the trappings of their cool art loft existence. Skype plays a role in another emotionally critical scene when Skye calls her mother on Skype. Her mother appears on the screen, her face worn with life. She speaks in a working class British accent, talking in a cloud of smoke as she rants about all the laws against cigarette smoking on the council estate (public housing) where she lives. At first, we laugh just like we do in earlier scenes with Cisco and Skye. But the more the mother and daughter talk, the more tender the scene becomes. The mother tries to console Skye, telling her she’s lived a good life and “did everything to make a name for yourself in this world they’ve destroyed.” The mother’s voice cracks with her barely contained grief, and her hard edge breaks into the fragility of the Skype connection and life itself. In this scene, not only do we experience Skye as an individual with history and family, but also we see that for all the cultural capital of her life in the loft, that she does not come from the life of privilege that her surroundings indicate. We see that surface appearances aren’t always what they seem. So, we have the same experience with Skye that Skye has with Li. The movie opens our eyes to the basic humanity in all of us, regardless of what our surface impressions may be.
While Skye is on the phone with her mother, Cisco flees the loft and heads to the streets where he ends up in an apartment with a group of people, including a drug dealer, a couple of women getting high, and his sober brother Noah who he hasn’t seen in years. In this scene, Cisco also is given history and family as we learn that he is a recovered junkie. His brother talks about staring down the end of the world with sober eyes wide open while Cisco struggles with his desire to get high and break his sobriety. For anyone in recovery or who has been around drugs, this scene is strikingly realistic. Cisco’s internal battle along with the narrative in general comes from a deeply personal place inside Abel Ferrara who is a recovered addict wearing his own badge of sobriety. Cisco’s struggle with sobriety at the end of the world is closely woven into the heart of the film. The fact that love wins out over drugs in the end certainly makes this film a romantic tale of redemption.
There are small moments in the film that show the tension in Cisco between living the sober life and wanting to give into his addiction. He is torn between recognizing that the end of the world is coming and wanting to make every minute count and battling with his desire obliterate himself. He walks outside, tosses his diary over the balcony, and stands on the roof ranting. He watches a man leap to his death from a fire escape. When Cisco screams out “No!” in a way we feel that he is screaming at himself to not throw his life away even in these last hours he has on earth. When the man is left dead and a woman puts a coat over him, Cisco screams, “Don’t do that! Instead light a candle or something!” As Cisco stands on the roof looking around him and grappling with his own existential crisis, he is struggling between the outer destruction of the world and the fragile architecture of his own sobriety.
When Cisco leaves the apartment with his stashed away heroin, he walks through the streets of New York. Every person he passes is portrayed with tender humanity and compassion. Jimmy Valentino croons karaoke from a lounge as if he is cutting the soundtrack for the end of the world from the chords of his heart. A young glam punk stumbles drunk onto the sidewalk with a bottle of booze, his tottering body as fragile and fucked up as the world itself. Paz De La Huerta makes a cameo stumbling high through the streets and ranting as if her random words can make sense out of the chaos that has brought her world to an end. These are the streets of lost souls, and one level, the movie is showing that we are all lost souls. The best we can hope for is to find each other in a world that is exploding around us.
In the final scene of the film, when sobriety and love reign, Cisco and Skye embrace each other on the floor waiting for the world to end. Skye tells Cisco, “All we have is each other.” Then the screen goes blank as we hear her voice whisper, “We are angels now.” All the beauty of the film is condensed into that one quiet statement. The movie starts with us feeling distanced by the cultural privilege of the film’s protagonists and the technology that is streaming at us in their loft, but by the end we feel the “angelic” spirits Cisco and Skye and of all the fragile humans who are going to die when the world comes to an end. Ferrara’s vision is of a world of innocents stumbling at odds with the forces of destruction, and it is uniquely his world – the world of art and love and music and of drug addicts struggling with sobriety and their own conflicted spirituality.
That we are distinctly watching Abel Ferrara’s world comes across clearly in the way the film operates on an aesthetic level. In the film, Skye is an artist, and she spends much of the duration of the film layering paint on a huge canvas on the floor. She dips her big brushes in color and splashes them across a field of black. She slowly constructs her own image of the Ouroboros, the mystical symbol of eternity, death and rebirth. The film itself is like Abel Ferrara’s own Ouroboros , his own personal painting of death, redemption and rebirth. The saturated colors – reds, greens, and blues – and the way they build and morph and change during the film, make the screen look like a painting in progress. The movie builds into a distinct rhythm as it cuts between images on computer monitors and televisions and between Skye and Cisco’s emotional rises and falls, between desperation and resignation and rage and love. Skye’s paintbrush provides a back rhythm as the actual music soundtrack fluctuates between haunting sonic riffs on the electric guitar, gut pouring blues, lounge music and the sonic overload streaming from global media as the world crashes down. The film ebbs and flows building with emotional intensity as it cuts through people, media, color, and sound. As the clock ticks away to those final moments before the end comes crashing down, the film explodes into a luscious hallucinatory spectacle that itself shows The End Of Things as an aural experience that will take us higher than any trip on LSD or any amount of heroin coursing through our veins. 4:44 Last Day On Earth is Abel Ferrara’s cinematic trip, and it pulses with the beat of his heart in a visceral, beautiful, and sublime image of love and our own fragile mortality.
4:44 Last Day on Earth is currently playing at select theaters and available via cable on demand.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.