Monday, January 17, 2005

Thoughts on Bad Lieutenant

Revisited Bad Lieutenant the other night, that little 1980’s masterpiece of self-destruction, spiritual despair, heavy-handed metaphor and masturbatory martyrdom. Haven’t seen it in full since it was a first run theatrical thing at some place, now defunct, on Denman St. (what the hell was it called, the Stardust Theatre or something tacky like that? Remember that place?). I was, quite appropriately, a tad twisted in watching the film, and ended up scribbling a few notes on a piece of paper as a basis for writing later, between puffs on my pot pipe. What might they be? (He smooths out the paper on his desk). Can they be productively developed now, straight, with some distance from my viewing?

1. “Write for J____.” I had a friend who went down some very unhealthy roads re: drugs. He and I used to be acid buddies together; around the time that I calmed down on my drug use and started thinking about making myself employable and socially functional, he began to explore cocaine; later he got into heroin. I remember being horrified at the stories he would tell me – he chuckled when telling me how his mother had found his needles, assumedly (I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt) because he was amused at the out-of-control, melodramatic, problematic aspects of things – a “how fucked up is that” kind of laugh, not something more malign. Indeed it does sound like the basis for a new-style Hank Williams tune (b-side to “I Heard my Mother Praying for me,” a weeper if there ever was one: “I feel like such a jerk/and my dad has gone berserk/since my mother found my works/in my room”). Still, it was kind of disturbing to hear, as were his increasing supply of Hastings St. stories and the blackish boils on his neck (and possibly elsewhere). Not a great thing for a university-educated, creative fella like him to be doing: he was no stranger to what heroin can do to people, and tho’ some of his indulgence maybe can be explained as the youthful arrogance of one who believes himself immortal, in many ways, I felt, he should have known better than to start messing around with needles. Eventually I lost patience; he was feeling sorry for himself, going through some sort of crisis because his girlfriend left him (whose wouldn’t?) and I just had enough; how fucking dare he feel self-pity while making his family and friends watch his wilful transformation into a junkie? No one gets to feel that sorry for himself, in my opinion. Anyhow, I got judgmental; he got hostile, in response, and it more or less ended our friendship. (Our last exchange, by e-mail while I was in Japan, had him threatening to kill me if I ever called him a junkie again, ranting about how they’d have to use dental records to identify me, accusing me of cowardice in deserting him in a time of crisis, and so forth; it's been five years or more since I was last in contact with him). And the thing is: back in the good old days, he and I watched Bad Lieutenant together, perhaps even twice.

Watching the film again, I have to ask myself: how do texts like this function for people who are actually attracted to self destruction? Keitel’s downward spiral and his eventual attempts at self-redemption, when he finally reaches the bottom, surely stand as a sort of validation of the path he’s on: his instincts to destroy himself are precisely what end up bringing him to the point where he collapses and cries and is saved. Another more recent cultural text that romanticizes self-destruction, Fight Club, openly praises its protagonist’s attempts to “reach the bottom” as if it’s the only place worth getting to. This brings me to my second note, in which I ask:

2. Is this film “Catholic porn?” What, really, is with Catholics, anyhow? Are any of them well adjusted in later life? I was raised Catholic, and I’ve got all these crucifix-shaped scars I carved on my arms in my adolescence. The fellow Catholics I’ve been exposed to in the arts are also all fairly tortured souls: Graham Greene, Robert Stone, Georges Bataille, Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara, and Martin Scorsese, to name a few – they’re all fairly obsessed with sexual ill-health (see Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at my Door? sometime – Harvey Keitel’s first film and my favourite Scorsese, hands-down; sorry, Marty, but you were never better.) All these guys tend to craft fairly violent and disturbed works of art; none are strangers to the concept of self-destruction (most of Greene and Stone’s heroes are alcoholics or drug addicts, and all are cynics; many of their stories end in suicide, sometimes figured as martyrdom; Ferrara’s other films – most notably The Funeral, his other masterpiece, tho’ also his very flawed but interesting The Addiction – are all violent and wrought through with spiritual suffering, suicide, and so forth). Bataille I won’t even touch on – a true Catholic pornographer, go read The Story of the Eye sometime if you want something hot, sick, and disturbing to reach into your pants and peer into the darkest recesses of your soul… Catholics seem to get off on suffering in some odd way; the eventual peak of catharsis that Bad Lieutenant builds to is like this vast orgasm of tears and helplessness, and the film’s determination to bring us through it and to the compassion and “salvation” on the other end rival’s Dreyer’s Passion of Jeanne D’Arc for sheer spiritual masochism. Certainly I get off on it; I attain some measure of catharsis myself, watching Keitel crying and grovelling on the floor of the church, screaming accusations at a yet-demanding Christ-figure. I cry quite fulsomely through these scenes and feel somehow relieved of something, happier, afterwards. It seems like it’s worth asking: is this healthy?

I mean, maybe, yes, in a way. It’s part of our current nature to avoid painful emotions, to conceal them, to set them aside for later. We have to work, to function in society, to maintain mundane social relationships, to prepare faces to meet the faces we meet. Ever gone through a personal crisis that you couldn’t afford to let affect your job? Where you go to work each day and smile and “act professional,” then go home and cry and contemplate suicide? It’s probably a far more common experience than most people realize. And when the crisis passes and one can function normally, again, how eager are we to revisit the emotions that left us powerless, crying, and terrified? How much more tempting is it to try to lead an easy life, to entertain ourselves, to keep busy, to shunt aside the uncomfortable stuff and fake our way along, even while we know that painful, undealt-with things simmer in our breasts? I mean, isn’t that what consumer capitalism is all about, really? We're all too busy having fun to acknowledge how much pain we're really in.

So on one level, even if it does romanticize self-destruction, maybe there is a certain health to be found in Bad Lieutenant: by dragging us ever downwards, it eventually gets us in touch with those very feelings of powerlessness and despair and fear and loneliness and all that other good stuff that must be suppressed and shut inside, which would interfere with our being happy functional workers– as Bataille would doubtlessly agree; it occurs to me that this is similar to what he talks about at times in Erotism, about the birth of taboos, to contain and control possibly disruptive, deep-running eruptions (involving sex, death, violence, and otherwise herd-threatening emotions). By tapping into those emotions, doing its damnedest to access them in the heart of its viewers, it lets us experience them safely, lets us face them, frees us a little from their unfelt influence by provoking them, forcing them to come forth, getting us in touch with feelings we’d have a hard time safely releasing by some other means. (I suppose this is all fairly Aristotelian but I haven’t read any of that stuff in years). So even if we liken the film’s cathartic peak to some sort of weird orgasm for the Catholic sensibility, maybe it isn’t that bad, and maybe there’s even something to be said for Catholicism.

3. But there’s a third question that need be considered: what I’ve scribbled down as “the herd function of martyrdom.” Let’s be a bit Nietzschean for a moment and assume that pretty much everything that one finds in society exists there because it benefits the herd in some way or another. Why is it valuable that some people – be it my friend J____ or Abel Ferrara or whomever – be attracted to self-destruction, and desire to pursue it and romanticize it? On an individual level, it may function as some sort of bass-ackwards drive towards health – one finds the bottom, so one can experience repressed pains, release one’s sobs, and spring back up; and no doubt that's good for the herd, too – but on a societal level, more often than not, the end result of such drives is that the less healthy, less functional, less sane members of society essentially isolate and remove themselves. I mean, to use a tribal example that I only know as a generalized cliché, but which I guess actually did happen: think of old Inuit people deliberately wandering off into the snow to die, so as not to be a burden on their society. It doesn’t seem like an entirely unhealthy impulse, in harsh survival conditions. We live in a much more complex, less organic, more fragmented “tribe,” and are hardly have the harsh survival conditions that would justify such practices; but perhaps the impulse to punish or destroy oneself is nonetheless some sort of herd-related impulse, where one senses ones disease, ones confusion, the burden one is placing on society, and seeks to make amends. The sick soul is like a sick cell in the social fabric, contemplating removing itself so as to restore social harmony – it’s like a cancer that eats only itself.

That seemed like an interesting thought when I was stoned, but now I’m not so sure. It also doesn’t seem like the only possible explanation of how self-destructive thoughts can be valuable to the herd. Sick, perhaps one threatens oneself with the negative consequences of continuing to remain in an alienated, non-herd-approved state, as a sort of punitive “straighten up and fly right” threat, a different way of pushing the individual back into step with the group?

The Christian trip remains a strange thing, in any case. Christ teaches, basically, that one should value the herd so much as to die for it. “Be not afraid of the cross,” he says somewhere. Of course, Christ wasn’t snorting coke and screwing hookers, as we see ol’ Harvey doing in Bad Lieutenant; it's, shall we say, a different trip. Harvey makes a bad Christ figure (tho' I always loved the full-frontal nude dance that Harvey does when he’s drunk, in that film, reading it as a mocking of the crucifixion.) Tho' he makes a better Christ than he does a Judas (I never really liked The Last Temptation of Christ).

Anyhow, it’s a fun film to see again. Felt a bit more objective about it, this time through. As a younger man, I was more intent on getting off on it somehow. My not doing so, so much, seems a measure of health. Relatively speaking.

Post-script: lying in the bath, it occured to me to note that the one great unresolved question of BL for me is the use of sports. What is the film saying, overall, about the function of sports? The obsession with winning or losing runs an even parallel with the story of a man who may or may not self-destruct without being saved. And more specifically: it's fascinating that Harvey bets consistently against NY while advising his friends to do the opposite. Does he really believe that NY will win, and is betting against them out of some perverse self-punishing denial, or does he really believe LA will win, and wants to jack up his winnings by having as many people bet against them as possible? The film offers no clear answer, tho' it does seem that New York's winning is meant to take on some sort of symbolic value, by the end of the film. (New York does win, insofar as Harvey meets his inevitable violent end).

And now I must go to work.

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