PRINT October 1995


Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction

The Lost Object . . . must be therefore both adored and feared or despised, set apart. . . . “The most profound lost object” . . . is the immortality or perfection we imagine ourselves missing. . . . We invent gods and devils to measure up to it.
—Peter Canning, “The Regime of Misery and the System of Judgement”

FOR A WHILE THERE, as you may or may not remember, the abject was having its little moment on the intellectual catwalk, putting in its appearance as an esthetic-slash-ontological category. Confronted with the apparent impossibility of almost everything, we eagerly embraced the obvious Way Out—and became the losers we had always known we always were. But this time, with pride. Still, fashion is fashion, intellectual or otherwise, it can’t exist if it’s not fickle, and now the abject is well on its way to becoming abject itself. It’s looking more and more like last year’s glad rags, just like anything else, just like all of us; soon, it may not even be a career option anymore.

Which is why now is sort of the perfect moment for Abel Ferrara to have made The Addiction. Ferrara has always been a proponent of affirmative abjection, making a career out of films that managed to claw their way out of the genre ghetto, juiced up on smarts (some) and attitude (lots): gangster films, splatter films, science fiction films, cop films . . . . And since, in our particular romantic/fin-de-siècle moment, monsters are the symptom of choice, and vampires are such an effective metaphor for almost everything—AIDS, junkies, fame, the media, capitalism, everyone’s ongoing desire/inability to be young and beautiful forever, etc., etc.—the vampire genre is the right ghetto for the time. The Addiction locates itself squarely on the cusp that Ferrara films always occupy, hovering somewhere between painfully abject and painfully hip: it’s a vampire film except that the vampire is a philosophy grad student at NYU. Such a lovely Ferrara gesture, even if it was kind of an accident (according to the production notes, until the script for The Addiction plopped, “fully realized,” onto his desk, Ferrara thought the vampire thing was stupid, too abject even for his tastes). Of course, when you’re out there on the cutting edge, it’s always by accident.

In the real world, no one gets to be abject all on their own—it always happens in relation to a system, to the System. Canning calls it the System of Judgment; for Kant, it’s the Absolute; and in Sade, it’s Nature. For grad students, though, it’s all of the above, and School, too. Really: what could be more abject than being a grad student? Except, of course, being a philosophy grad student? Your skin is lousy, you have to dress like hell, you have no real job prospects (hey, East Oklahoma Tech is hiring, 19 a year, no chance of tenure though . . . ); you spend half your time listening to equally lame, albeit tenured, professors tell you why you can’t do anything, and the other half toadying up to those same tenured losers. Awful, just awful. . . .

So if you’re Kathleen (Lili Taylor), and that’s what you’re looking at, being a vampire has got to seem like a step up in the world. Which may or may not explain why, when she meets her first vampire (the way-better-dressed Annabella Sciarra) on the street, she can’t Just Say No—in The Addiction, as in the age of Reagan, that’s all it would take for her to stay out of trouble. Instead she sends out the message that she really wants it. Just like the rest of us would. After all, vampirism, here as elsewhere, is really nothing more or less than a certain kind of relation to the System: being a vampire means you’re on the inside looking out, rather than the other way round. Or, to paraphrase the greeting card: being a vampire means never having to say you’re abject. For a change.

After some initial awkwardness (a little confusion, some floor-writhing, a lot of Bosco/blood vomiting, and that no-reflection-in-the-mirror thing), Kathleen settles into her new life as the longed-for Lost Object quite nicely. She dresses cooler—lots of black, Doc Marten’s, sunglasses at night. Her skin clears up; she discovers how to ditch classes with aplomb; she seduces some poor midwestern anthro major with some groovy Feuerbach quotes, and her dissertation adviser with a needle full of blood. Out on the street, (un)life is better, too: when the gangsta rapper at the pizza parlor hassles her, Kathy just takes him home and sucks his blood. It’s easy, and apparently fun, too.

Vampirism is even a great career move, especially for a grad student: since academia is basically vampiric anyway, actually being a vampire is a great way to maneuver within the System. One has to be discreet, of course, nobody wants to hear that the Lost Object has been found (not, at least, by somebody else), so Christopher Walken puts in an appearance as a vampire with a day job, in order to remind Kathleen to “blend in.” Once she’s got that down, though, academia is a breeze. As “an NYU philosophy student living in a world where the . . . moral maxims of Nietzsche and Heidegger whiz through the air like machine gun fire” (production notes again), Kathleen had been forced to, um, duck a lot. As a vampire, though, she can exercise her will to power without angst, go without worrying about time, and ace her dissertation defense to boot.

In fact, if it weren’t for the action at the film’s climactic party, Kathleen would probably get tenure in two years, and then an endowed chair, and then she could farm out her teaching duties to her coterie of vampire TA’s while she worked on her book. As it is, the carnage at her graduation dinner is the best scene in a vampire movie since Christopher Lee stopped making those Hammer films: unintentionally (I think) hilarious, the bloodbath climax redeems The Addiction even as it redeems poor Kathleen. Apparently, even vampires get weltschmerz: in the end, Kathleen takes it so far over the top that she winds up on the other side altogether. Doing what every grad student in history has dreamed of doing, and staggering down the street wasted on too much blood, she and the film side, again, with the abject instead of the Object. Which is, of course, the real moral of all monster movies. So in retrospect you can enjoy the whole thing, including all of Ferrara’s sin, guilt, redemption, and Catholic/grad-school pretension, just like it was a real vampire flick, soon to appear on a Creature Feature matinee near you.

At movie’s end, there’s a priest and a cross and sunlight and everything, also just like a real vampire movie. Plus you’ve learned some valuable lessons. One: grad school sucks, unless, or until, you suck too. Two: the System sucks, unless, or until, you suck too, when it still sucks but you don’t mind so much. Three: vampires are pretentious, just like other grad students, and can OD, just like other junkies. Four: when you stop being a vampire, you have to give up your excellent wardrobe and shop at Talbots instead. And finally: the Catholics will get you in the end. Even vampires can convert.

Mark Van de Walle lives in Santa Fe, where he is an editor for The magazine. He contributes regularly to Art Issues and to Artforum.