“The Bitter End”: A Reflection on 4:44 Last Day on Earth by Max Nelson
Opens in New York: March 23 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center
Hemingway was wrong. An honest story is not necessarily an interesting one – unless the storyteller lives like Ernest Hemingway. Case in point: Abel Ferrara’s new doomsday drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth. In a boisterous Q&A following the film’s Friday-night premiere at the IFC Center, Abel Ferrara suggested that the couple at the heart of the film are surrogates for the director and his girlfriend (not surprising, given that the female lead is Ferrara’s real-life partner). It’s a safe assumption that Cisco (Willem Dafoe)’s onscreen response to the world’s imminent demise is quite similar to what Ferrara’s would be. This makes 4:44 Last Day on Earth both an honest film and a difficult one to critique: would I, who have never even met Abel Ferrara, be justified in claiming not to respect the man, or in finding the way he’d choose to spend his final moments shallow and uninteresting (two responses which are, after all, practically the same thing)?
I’m forced to admit that I don’t find the onscreen behavior in 4:44 Last Day on Earth particularly meaningful. But I have, if not respect, a great deal of affection for this film. It’s not just Ferrara’s boundless sincerity that makes me like the film in spite of myself, though that’s part of it. I like 4:44 Last Day on Earth because, of the many high-profile doomsday films in recent memory, it strikes me as the only one that’s actually about the end of the world. A film like Melancholia might be ostensibly apocalyptic, but it’s the apocalypse as a plot device – as an excuse for Lars von Trier to articulate his ever-more-despairing view of human nature. The instinct of any doomsday director is to go universal – to observe how people might react to the world’s imminent end and to draw from those observations general conclusions about what people in general value. The film becomes more about those conclusions than about the situation that inspired them.
None of this for Ferrara. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is one man’s answer to how he’d spend his final hours: I’d make love to my girlfriend, drop in on a few old friends, get into one last fight with my ex, consider getting high. Ferrara’s answer—and, more elliptically, that of his painter girlfriend—are all we get. Everyone else’s responses, among them demonstrations of religious devotion and final musical performances, we see only through the eyes of this single couple watching TV in their apartment. A Chinese delivery boy’s farewell to his parents, made possible by Cisco’s Skype account, lacks subtitles—if the film’s central couple doesn’t understand the boy then neither do we.
By making the film about him and only him, Ferrara (perhaps even inadvertently) makes the film a challenge to us all. A film like Melancholia doesn’t force each of its viewers to ask themselves how they personally would spend their final moments—to dismiss the response of von Trier’s protagonists to their impending doom as unrealistic or insincere is to disagree with a particular view of what people in general are like. But the only point of comparison we have for evaluating one man’s individual response to the end of the word is our own personal response. Before we can pass judgment on Ferrara’s final hours we must first imagine how ours would differ from or improve on his.
Is 4:44 Last Day on Earth a shallow film? Maybe. But I know that I spent the entire subway ride home from the IFC pondering why I found it shallow, and in the process I was forced to investigate what I considered important and meaningful in life. I was denied the comfort of abstractions, unable to fall back on lines of thought that speak only in impersonal, universal terms. I had to ask myself whether my own hypothetical response to the end of days was worthy of respect. Is there another film in recent memory whose merits originate precisely from its lack thereof, whose very real and quite profound depths emerge only from its shallowness?