I initially posted this on Facebook, but I thought it would be good to present an expanded version here.
I just watched Abel Ferrara’s new movie, ZEROS AND ONES, and I was totally blown away by it. Though I realize that almost nobody will like it, aside from diehard Ferrara fans like myself. It’s entirely incomprehensible and opaque in conventional terms, but at the same time emotionally compelling and utterly gorgeous.
Incomprehensible and opaque: every scene screams genre (war film or spy film), and yet nothing adds up to a discernible narrative. Ethan Hawke walks or rides through the empty streets of COVID-ridden Rome at night. He wears military fatigues, and carries a gun and a video camera. He has enigmatic meetings with mysterious people, from Chinese heroin dealers, to a Muslim mullah who gives him advice, to military commandos who waterboard a prisoner, to Russian gangsters who kidnap him and oblige him to have sex with a woman while they record the scene on video, to a silent motorcyclist who takes him to a bridge from which he launches a drone. He also visits various people, including an Italian woman with a young child, with whom he seems to have some sort of pre-existing connection. And he comes across a number of disturbing tableaus; at one point he enters and explores a building that is littered with the bodies of murdered young women, blood splattered across their bodies. All through the movie, Hawke’s character remains dour and mostly silent, his voice is gruff when he does speak. Occasionally, we hear him in voiceover; here his comments are enigmatic. I don’t remember the exact words, but there is something to the effect that, for instance, “Jesus was just another soldier, killed in a three-thousand-year old war. But on whose side?” And again: “The world is the hiding place of God. To understand what’s outside of you, you must use what’s in you. If we hear what we already know, nothing new happens.”
There is no way to make sense of all this diverse footage, nor to figure out why precisely Hawke’s character is in Rome, or what his mission is. My Facebook friend, the film critic Steve Erickson, wrote in a response to my posting that “it feels like the subconscious of a 24 episode or Tom Clancy novel, with a seething id using similar imagery but making no literal sense.” In other words, the movie is composed from all the fears and fantasies that have fueled the “war on terror”, but without the accompanying ideology that binds them into narratives of good and evil. COVID is only an additional dimension of these fears and fantasies. Hawke’s character sometimes wears a mask, and sometimes doesn’t, without any necessary explanation as to why and when (sometimes deliberate continuity violations show him both ways in succeeding shots). Several times, as for instance when the Russian gangsters kidnap him, he is told something to the effect of: “don’t worry, we have all tested negative.”
Hawke also plays a second character, the twin brother of the first one, an imprisoned revolutionary (imprisoned in the US? in Italy? it isn’t clear). He is angry and florid in his rhetoric, whereas Hawke’s first character remains entirely undemonstrative. The brother’s amazing rant under interrogation (he is even injected with drugs to make him talk) sounds like a cross between Walt Whitman and Bakunin. The first Hawke character asks about his brother’s fate, sees footage of the brother’s interrogation (which is how we see it too, mediated by technological transmission), and eventually is told that the brother has been killed.
The movie is also punctuated by explosions, and by commando formations of armed soldiers (both male and female) in fatigues, guarding checkpoints or running off one is never sure where. As the film’s title suggests, digital technology is everywhere in the movie; images are continually being multiplied, transmitted, distorted, and viewed on screens (not to mention the way the film itself calls attention to how it is shot on digital video — something to which I will return). One minor character, the independent filmmaker Stephen Gurewitz, playing himself, only appears on screens as he talks to Hawke’s character on the phone and on computer monitors. At one point, Hawke’s primary character breaks into a room, where Guerwitz, on a huge computer monitor, immediately starts yelling at him to “get out — it’s a trap” — Hawke’s character exits the room through a window and fire escape just as armed troops are breaking down the door. Later Hawke’s character is told (if I followed this bit correctly) that Gurewitz has been killed; murder via video link actually makes a weird sort of sense in the ultra-mediated, yet for that very reason overwhelmingly visceral, world of this movie. The night footage of Rome, and of Hawke making his way through it, is taken from varying angles, including from up above. This footage has an almost documentary feel to it, at the same time it is ostentatiously digitized — I am not sure how to explain this paradox, but it does feel both these ways. The movie’s soundtrack, which plays a lot over the shots of Hawke moving through a nearly empty city, combines techno with bombastic rock; it feels entirely appropriate to the movie’s combination of lurid action and strange emptiness.
Emotionally compelling and utterly gorgeous: My favorite Ferrara films have always been the ones that work the visual image in remarkable ways, from the crisp black and white of The Addiction to the neon overload blur of so many of his films. Even when he adopts documentary plainnness (as in Welcome to New York), the raw looks he gives us are disconcerting. All these reworkings of the image depart literalness, and give the movies their pervasive emotional tones, which vary remarkably from one film to the next over the course of Ferrara’s career. In Zeros and Ones, Ferrara experiments with the image in new ways. The digital cinematography is murky, often deliberately underlit, and filled with a lot of noise. Ferrara previously did something like this in New Rose Hotel, with its combination of blurred digital images in some parts, oversaturated colors in other parts, and haunting indirect lighting in still others, even as the film displayed the vapidity of postmodern business hotel architecture.
But in Zeros and Ones, Ferrara explores the ambiguities of the digital image as never before. If the content of the film is fragmented genre exploitation scenes, then the form is visuals that are dark and blurry almost to the point of abstraction — or should I say, of abstract expressionism? The image in Zeros and Ones is filled with glitches, always on the verge of breaking up. The often handheld camera roves around, continually and jerkily. Extreme closeups alternate with shots of dark, empty streets, sometimes with lit-up architectural landmarks emerging out of the murk. Instead of the overwrought, lurid lighting of movies like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, here we have something on the order of Hito Steyerl’s “poor image”. These images are disorienting and disconcerting; but in their own way they are saturated with (mostly negative) affect, and they are (convulsively) beautiful.
Zeros and Ones is relentless, but actually quite short. It clocks in at less than an hour and a half; and even this includes the opening and closing credits, plus a prologue and an epilogue in which Ethan Hawke — speaking as himself, rather than as his characters — reflects on the movie. In the prologue, he says that he was excited to work with Ferrara, because he was blown away by the script. In the epilogue, interrupting the final credits, Hawke reveals that that prologue was actually shot before the movie, as a kind of teaser advertisement for investors. He adds that the pre-shooting script wasn’t really a script, and that even after making the movie and watching the final cut, he doesn’t really understand it. But he suggests that, just as he plays two characters, the revolutionary and the military operative of uncertain allegiances, so the movie dramatizes two opposing attitudes. One attitude is that everything is radically broken, the people who control the world are evil, and we are all going to die. The other attitude is that life is a miracle, and we should cherish it at every moment. He ends his epilogue by telling us that “this is part of the movie”; and then the final credits resume.
The entire movie takes place in a single night. It is dark when Hawke’s primary character arrives in Rome by train, and the night continues through most of the movie. Towards the end, he returns to the apartment of the Italian woman with a small child; he tells her that “it is finally happening” (though we have no idea as to what). Hawke’s character, the woman, and the child go up to the roof of her building, and watch troops assembling just as morning breaks. We are given no clues as to what the troops are doing; on the level of plot, nothing is resolved. As they daylight advances, we move from shots of the troops to shots of ordinary people watching whatever is going down (though we do not know what this is); and eventually to shots of children playing in the park. I guess that the dark night of the soul (understanding this both literally and figuratively) is finally over; though what succeeds it in the light of day is unclear.
In sum, I consider Zeros and Ones an amazing film. It comes out sort of like a collaboration between Samuel Fuller and Stan Brakhage — though I hesitate to make this comparison, because it is really pure Ferrara. You won’t like it if you are looking for any sort of coherent narrative. But if you have followed the arc of Abel Ferrara’s entire career, and see him as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, like I do, then you will probably appreciate this as a powerful expression of the now 70-year-old director’s extreme, yet oddly sober, “late style”.