Monday, January 23, 2017

The Blackout (1997)

In March 2015, Abel Ferrara issued a cease and desist letter to IFC Films, the American distributor for his Dominique Strauss-Kahn inspired Welcome to New York (2014) and Wild Bunch, the films global distributor on account of both IFC and Wild Bunch releasing the film to theatres and VOD outlets in an edited form, enraging Ferrara. An unfortunate situation yet hardly anything new for Ferrara who is no stranger to distribution issues. When the indie boom of the 90’s began to cool off, Ferrara began finding it increasingly difficult to secure legitimate distribution deals without being ripped off and the majority of his output since The Funeral (1996) has found itself is one form of distribution hell or another with films like Mary (2005) and Go-Go Tales (2007) playing the festival circuit only to disappear after the fact, or in the case of a film like ’R Xmas (2001), only be booked in three theatres in the US with no advertising by a distributor that one has one print. Ferrara also experienced mistreatment by the Hollywood studio system when Warner Bros. sidelined Body Snatchers (1993) by sneaking the film into a minuscule amount of theaters. The Blackout is yet another one of Ferrara’s films to be swept aside by distributors and with this film its especially tragic seeing as its one of Ferrara’s most fascinating and stylishly grim journeys into the human psyche.

After proposing to his pregnant girlfriend Annie in Miami, hotshot movie star and addict Mattie (Matthew Modine) is shocked to lean that Annie had an abortion to prevent her child from growing up with an alcoholic and drug addicted father. Distraught, Mattie goes out partying with his eccentric director friend Mickey (Dennis Hopper) which leads to a blackout. Fast forward 18 months later and Mattie is clean and sober, now living in New York and in a stable relationship with a new girlfriend. Mattie’s past however continues to haunt him. Desperately seeking closure for how things ended with Annie, Mattie returns to Miami to finally clear his conscience although it isn’t long before he slips back into his old ways and in the process discovers the dark truth about what happened the night of his blackout.

There have been many films that have tried to recreate drug induced experiences and more often that not the results have a tendency to be rather corny. With The Blackout however, Ferrara succeeds in crafting a legitimately disorienting experience which literally does feel like stepping into the cloudy headspace of an individual on a two day bender, believably portrayed by Modine. Ferrara not only achieves this visually with hallucinatory Lynchian editing and at times changing stock going from film to video which recalls Ferrara’s earlier Dangerous Game (1993), but also in the way Ferrara has the story play out. The film is intentionally incoherent, staggering from one random scenario to another seemingly without purpose much like an actual drunken evening, the consequences of which allow Ferrara to really delve deep into the ideas of overwhelming regret and guilt later on the film (another area where Modine really shines) which again places the film side by side with Dangerous Game. Ferrara also toys around with the concept of the doppelganger and chasing the ghosts of the past ala Hitchcock and Vertigo (1958) by introducing a second Annie in the middle of the film and certain scenes between her and Mattie further blur the memories of both Mattie and the audience and steer the film into almost Robbe-Grillet territory. There is also a debauched feeling of unreality to many of the scenes featuring Dennis Hopper with Mickey’s actions not making much logical sense yet still making enough sense within the overall context of the film.

The Blackout played at the Cannes Film Festival where according to critic Dave Kehr, the film “caused a stampede” and the film played other festivals throughout 1998. Afterwards the film began to suffer the distribution woes that Ferrara has become all too familiar with, and it wasn’t until 2001 when the film finally saw a home video release. Speaking to the AV Club in 2002, Ferrara spoke candidly about the films distribution issues stating  “The story with The Blackout is unbelievable… We made a deal with Destination Films that set up a distribution system. They bought two or three films, including The Blackout, raised $100 million, and never distributed anything. Five years later, they're trying to go bankrupt, saying all that's left is $35,000 out of $100 million, even though they never distributed one film… I'm just one of a ton of people this company screwed over. Can you imagine these pricks? They're basically trying to steal $100 million. It's a fucking robbery.” Even now The Blackout still seems to be a relatively obscure title to more casual viewers even after getting its belated DVD release. While its become one of Ferrara’s most divisive films to those who’ve seen it, its yet another example of Ferrara’s knack of dealing with heavy subject matter in a manner that is both slick and gritty. A brilliant, challenging film that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

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