How 4:44 Last Day on Earth Helped Me Process My Mortality

Movies Features Abel Ferrara
How 4:44 Last Day on Earth Helped Me Process My Mortality

I’m 31 years old, and I’ve almost died twice. I have a gastrointestinal autoimmune disease that restricts my diet, essentially rejecting 99% of things I could put into my body and making me violently ill if I attempt to consume them. Over the 13 years since this disease developed in me, I’ve only discovered three things that I can safely eat: Plain baked chicken breast, white rice and baked potato chips. Drinking only water, that’s all I’ve eaten for over a decade.

My first brush with death came before the doctors could figure out what was wrong with me. I’ve always had a sensitive stomach, but when I was 20 I began to get more sick more often. This wasn’t unusual for me, so I chalked it up to being a particularly rough period and just tried to push through it. Eventually, it got to a point where it was so frequent that I had to quit my job and stop leaving my apartment. That apartment is where I would stay for the next three years, unable to get out of bed due to the toll this illness was taking on my body and the fact that every test the doctors put me through led to them constantly knowing what was wrong with me, yet not being able to find why. It’s a haunting thing to be described as “a medical mystery” by your own doctor when you’re just over 20, seeing your body slowly turn into a skeleton because you can’t keep down any food—cutting your diet back to nothing but rice for months and dropping your 5’8” frame to just 85 lbs.

It was at this point that my eyesight began to fade, my vision becoming blurred and having a green tint cast over everything I was seeing. I still recall trying to discern if the episodes of The X-Files I was binging to distract from the pain were supposed to look green or if that was simply the latest symptom of the thing I was sure was going to kill me. A visit to an eye doctor—just one of at least a dozen who had tried to figure out what was wrong with me in the last few years—led to him saying another thing that will forever stick with me: That the only time he had seen eyes with the condition mine currently had was in prisoners of war, people who had been starved for months on end. Thankfully, he knew how to help. Because my body couldn’t digest vitamins or take pills, he prescribed a liquid version of the vitamins I wasn’t getting from my (lack of a) diet, and this started to put me on a bit of a mend.

Not too long after, my primary doctor finally gave me a diagnosis, and we began rebuilding my system to figure out what foods I might be able to tolerate, and to supplement nutrients I needed that I couldn’t get otherwise. It hasn’t been an easy process. Five years later I would reach my second near-death experience. My body crashed to the point where I had to be rushed to the hospital at 6 AM for an emergency blood transfusion due to levels doctors described as never having seen so low “in a living person.” That set me up for another course of vitamins that I take every day, and another I get injected once a month, all trying to keep me going in a world that doesn’t seem like it wants me around.

All of this is to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been…difficult for me. With an autoimmune disease that puts me at high risk, paired with severe obsessive compulsive disorder that developed about a decade ago, seeing the world overrun by a virus felt like the end times. So much work trying to build myself back up, ultimately for nothing. The beginning of the pandemic, somehow over two years ago now, was loaded with despair. My long-term partner Samm had to stay with their similarly high-risk mother and, due to an attempt to keep as many people as possible safe, we decided it would be best for me to isolate. If one of us caught it, best not to spread it to the other, we thought. Besides, it will only take a few weeks of everyone staying in before things go back to normal.

Those weeks turned into months and now, of course, years, and while so many have returned to their lives only slightly inconvenienced, if at all, by this new world, I remain inside and very much alone. Through all of those years of being so close to death I was terrified of the end, but also so exhausted and weakened by my illness that I didn’t have much time to process what that meant. I just existed, one day at a time, with no hope for a future beyond my four walls—and that looming death feels just as present as it did back then. As I realized this wasn’t going to end soon, I did what I’ve always done: Thrown myself into films. To give myself some sense of routine, I marathoned directors I loved but always wanted to see more films from. First John Carpenter, then Abbas Kiarostami, then Abel Ferrara.

Beginning with Ferrara’s early exploitation-tinged works The Driller Killer and Ms .45, I moved through his ‘80s and ‘90s output, hitting films like King of New York and The Funeral, until eventually coming to 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Premiering at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, before being released in early 2012, this insular drama depicts the end of the world through the eyes of a couple, Cisco and Skye (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh), living in their New York City apartment. While the cause of the apocalypse is explained as the rapid deterioration of the ozone layer, far quicker than even the most alarmist scientists predicted, the reality is essentially the same as the one faced by everyone in the real world: We are all going to die, and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

This is a universal truth, yet the nature of life, health and abled bodies often means that many can stave off processing that mortality for dozens and dozens of years before it becomes a more imminent concern. Being disabled gives a different perspective, especially when you are confronted every day, now more than ever, with the reality that this world isn’t built to accommodate disabled folks. Here I am two years later, still inside, without much chance of getting out unless I want to risk myself for something as miniscule as going to a movie theater. It’s easy for an able-bodied person to jokingly exaggerate and say that “It’s worth risking death to see The Batman,” but when that risk is real? Not so much.

4:44 Last Day on Earth came to me in the early days, the summer of 2020, when those concerns were even more present than the reality I’m living now—which is mostly the same, only I’ve gotten slightly more used to it. It hit me at a time when I needed it the most, though, as if something was calling me towards it, knowing that I needed to witness what Ferrara had put out there 10 years prior. Ferrara’s trajectory has risen through different eras, from adult films and exploitation to gangster dramas, vampire flicks and eventually existential meditations on our own relationship with mortality.

One might credit his shift into describing himself as Buddhist (he rejects the word “converted”) beginning around 2007 with the turn in his thematic material, but he’s always grappled with the idea of what comes next, and what that means for the present. Religious conflict was a major part of Bad Lieutenant, his controversial Harvey Keitel dirty cop film that garnered as much acclaim as it did abhorrence for its violent confrontations of things we often are too scared to discuss. Still, there is something unique in how his films turned towards the more experimental, kaleidoscopic and abstract since he moved to Rome following September 11th, 2001.

His recent films lean even heavier into these ideas of finding an acceptance with our place in the world, our place between when we were born and when we die, and how these are all merely states of existence, rather than a beginning and an end. It’s what made 4:44 Last Day on Earth the perfect film for me to experience on a dark, lonely night of the soul when I felt my most nihilistic and afraid. Ferrara doesn’t hide from death in his films—quite the opposite, clearly. Yet you also can’t say that his work feels hopeless, nor pessimistic. Yes, Last Day on Earth begins with the understanding that we are responsible for the destruction of this world, and it doesn’t let that off the hook, but it also doesn’t focus its attention on a world-ending catastrophe and the notion that people will eat each other alive if we know the end is nigh.

Instead, it centers on two people living out the last day in their apartment, by themselves. There is plenty of conflict—this is still reality, after all, and dilemmas will arise between any two people, particularly lovers—but the casualness through which Ferrara approaches the end creates this odd sense of ease, of comfort, of serenity. The apartment is flooded with broadcasts of spiritual and political leaders and newscasters documenting the end, a reminder of the ways in which we process so much of the world through our screens, but also how we use them to form and maintain connection.

Cisco and Skye receive a food delivery from a young man, whom Cisco invites in so that he can get him some money. The world is ending, yet this man must work his delivery job, and Cisco must pay him for that food despite the fact that none of them will be here in less than 24 hours. In a moment of humanity, Cisco asks the man if he can do anything for him. The delivery man asks for one thing: “Skype.” Cisco allows him to make a video call. A few people are on the other end and English-only speakers won’t know what they’re saying (Ferrara doesn’t provide subtitles), but it seems from their body language that this is a call to family, using technology to make that final conversation with the people he loves happen.

It hit hard for me as a person who has spent most of my time in this pandemic completely alone. Once vaccines became available, Samm and I started to make some efforts to see each other on occasion, but due to my illness I still have to stay home more often than not and there’s not a realistic way for us to live together since their mom needs them for support. So, most of my days and nights are alone, relying on phones and the internet to connect me with others. Interestingly enough, though, it’s been exactly that which has allowed me to build a community of friends in the past two years, as Zoom and being stuck at home became (for a period of time) a more universal experience. It led to movie game nights and other events that allowed people of like minds to connect face-to-face over video calls. I still deal with loneliness, the desire to have physical experiences hanging out with friends, but I can appreciate the gift that is being able to build these connections despite our circumstances.

After a fight with Skye, Cisco leaves their apartment and walks over to a friend’s place. There’s a small get-together happening, and he sits down to talk with the group, including Tina (Natasha Lyonne) and Noah (Paul Hipp). They chat about life, love, sex and drugs. Whether they should shoot up on the final day and give up the sobriety they’ve long held, a theme that likely hit a personal place for the now-sober Ferrara. This quiet moment speaks to that power of connection, that knowledge that when it’s all coming to an end, the best thing is to share some time with other people. If nothing else, that’s what I’ve learned in these last two years. On my toughest days, it is the relationships I have with people in my life—whether it’s Samm or my recent Zoom friends—that keep me going.

When it’s not quite so tough, though, there’re still reminders that there are plenty of things to appreciate in life. Ferrara doesn’t wallow in the misery of the end. Last Day on Earth contains so much beauty that speaks to the juxtaposition he has constantly found in his recent work. Gorgeous music, Skye’s pouring of love into the painting she works on throughout the film, Cisco simply walking out onto the roof and taking in the fresh air. In their final moments, Skye recites her wedding vows to Cisco as the couple embraces, and Ferrara hits us with a montage of worldly wonder—the totality of the universe, in all its glory, contained in a series of moments before this plane of existence concludes.

Last year, while interviewing Ferrara, I asked him about presenting these two distinct outlooks on life in his films. On one hand, there’s despair. On the other, we see serenity. In films like these, he’s captured the idea that both outlooks can exist simultaneously.

“With this pandemic going on, the big upside, I think, is gratitude,” he said. “The gratitude is bringing the kids to the park. Something you take totally for granted when you’re too lazy to just get a cup of coffee, sit down and have a drink with somebody. What you’re taking for granted is life itself. It’s that beauty of it, and how much you miss it when it’s taken away from you in the worst situation. That’s the lesson, I think, is the gratitude.”

I’ve spent a lot of time these past two years considering my own gratitude. Gratitude for those small moments, and perhaps a regret that I didn’t appreciate them more when I had them. Still, even if I’m not able to sit down and have a cup of coffee with a friend, there is plenty to appreciate in life, regardless of the circumstances. “I’m an optimist,” Ferrara expressed later in our conversation. “Even when I was a drug addict, I was an optimist. Nowadays, I’m a grateful dude and I’m looking way more towards that. The bad things are going to come. Not even the bad things necessarily. Life is what it is, man. It’s rough. It’s rough without having to look for it—without generating it. The more you’re positive, the more you’re an optimist, the more you can handle some of this shit that you’re going to have to fucking deal with.”

Death is one of those things that we’re all “going to have to fucking deal with.” We can meet that with fear, with desperation to avoid it, or with the knowledge that we’ve got time to appreciate the gifts that life has to offer for however long we’ve got. That doesn’t mean avoiding the truth of what’s wrong in the world, or what’s terrifying about it. Every day I have to accept that today isn’t going to be a day where I can go outside, go to a movie theater or a concert, or visit my friends in person. Tomorrow won’t be either, or the day after that. But there’s still so much that I can appreciate. As 4:44 Last Day on Earth captures, inside of that New York City apartment is the enormity of life. Pain, tragedy, beauty, wonder. It’s all there. And it’s all inside of me as well.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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