Love and death are ethical and metaphysical issues for Lynch, but they’re bound up in biology, too. Human flesh and organic processes are mysterious, unreliable, and frightening in these films. You can practically smell the decay.
In the foreground sits Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman), a young radical who only the night before was beaten and arrested by the police for, as his mother explains it, “making Communist speeches.” He sits here with George Simon (John Barrymore), a high-powered attorney whose office overlooks Manhattan from atop the Empire State Building.
It’s rare these days when I find myself identifying with a character in the same way that, say, the 7-year-old version of me identified with Charlie Bucket or the 15-year-old version of me identified with Holden Caulfield. But Dan Dunne, the crack-addicted, idealistic History teacher played by Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, is more like me than any other character I’ve met in quite some time.
To watch the body of Abel Ferrara’s films, as I’ve tried my best to do over the last month and a half, is to see a man wrestling obsessively — sadomasochistically, even — with the Irrational. The stylized violence, the scenery-chewing performances, the gratuitous and exploitative female nudity — all are window dressing. What’s at stake here is nothing less than the very possibility of grace.
But the adaptation of a written text to film also necessarily foregrounds the authority of images, imposing specificity on what an author might have chosen to describe more generally. I was surprised, for example, to find myself suddenly moved by an image of the small boxes in which Faunia stores the ashes of her dead children. In the novel, surprisingly little emphasis is placed on the ashes; Roth does not make of them an excuse for one of his patented ten-page diversions.
What she whispers to him is less important than the unexpected moment of silent intimacy shared between these two lovers in a crowded, noisy room. The whole film is in that image — Dix bowing his head to her as a gesture of trust; Laurel closing her eyes in hope of love, then opening them to the sight of a detective entering the room.
In the opening shot, Zahedi addresses the camera directly, introduces himself as Caveh, and tells us that for many years he was a sex addict. His film is a frank, neatly-plotted, and curiously moving recreation of those years. It’s also incredibly transgressive and very, very funny. Quite a balancing act.