Films

The irony and the ecstasy

Brian D. Johnson May 22 2000
Films

The irony and the ecstasy

Brian D. Johnson May 22 2000

The irony and the ecstasy

Films

A new movie mixes satire with drug-fuelled exhilaration

Brian D. Johnson

Filmmakers tend to strain themselves when trying to convey what it’s like to be on drugs. They resort to special effects and crazed metaphors-—the hallucinogenic hokum of the acid trip in Easy Rider, the pharmaceutical fuzz of Drugstore Cowboy, the junkie who dives down a toilet in Trainspotting. Alcohol is easier to do: actors love to play drunks, and film lends itself to woozy, liquefied imagery. But the drug experience often comes across as an untranslatable foreign language, a code for unknowably bad behaviour. And almost invariably it

leads to dire moral consequences— Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty gets himself killed just for scoring pot from the boy next door. But Human Traffic is quite another story. This manic excursion through the British rave scene is one of the most authentic, non-judgmental and purely exhilarating movies ever made about the simple act of getting stoned.

One of the reasons it works is that it comes straight from the source. Novice director Justin Kerrigan, now 26, was in his early 20s when he wrote the script, which he describes as “absolutely autobiographical.” Set in the director’s home

town of Cardiff, Wales, Human Traffic unfolds as a long night’s journey into party excess, tracking half a dozen ravers as they consume a balanced diet of ecstasy, cocaine, downers and alcohol. The narrative arc is dead simple: the ravers look forward to getting high, they get high, they come down. And Kerrigan casually finesses a romantic comedy out of the delirium, as the main character, Jip (John Simm), overcomes his sexual anxieties—“a case of Mr. Floppy”—by falling in love with his friend Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington).

“That’s exacdy what happened to me,” Kerrigan told Macleans. “I was Mr. Floppy and I fell in love with my mate.” When he was writing the film, he adds, “I was selling jeans, just like Jip. It seems that every generation goes through the same thing—sexual insecurities, social paranoia and frustrations that build up in the working week. Everyone at some stage can relate to a lost weekend. You get to Friday and you say, ‘To hell with it. Were going to have a scream. We’re going to live for the present, as opposed to a future which is never going to come.’ ” Clocking in at 99 minutes, Human Traffic zooms by as a speedball of witty dialogue, fantasy sequences and bluestreak monologues, with characters often talking direcdy to the camera—a device also used in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, the season’s other smart movie about music and pop culture. You can practically hear the brain cells popping as the characters plunge into the night. In fact, most of the extras dancing in the background are on ecstasy—Kerrigan

bused in hundreds of them and staged actual raves for the shoot.

The film’s hedonistic pulse is underscored by shrewd satire. There is a hilarious exchange between a black recordstore clerk with a Cockney accent and a white fan of jungle music babbling in Jamaican patois. And Kerrigan takes the mickey out of anti-drug propaganda, notably with a nightclub scene in which a TV interviewer asks Lulu and Nina (Nicola Reynolds) if they are on ecstasy. “No, we gave that up,” they

deadpan, “We’re on heroin now—we saw Trainspotting and it made us do it.” Trainspotting is the obvious precursor to Human Traffic, but this is a much lighter ride, with none of Trainspottings violence or scatology. And although Kerrigan expected his film to be controversial, ecstasy has become so widespread in Britain that the the movie opened without a ripple. Human Traffic has even taken Kerrigan into the mainstream. After the film had its North American première at Toronto’s film festival last fall—and the director stayed up all night on ecstasy—he was awakened by a phone call asking him to meet with Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. “I’ve had about an hour’s kip,” he says. “I’m on a come-down, and I have to meet Harvey.” Weinstein bought the film and signed Kerrigan to a three-picture deal—turning a lost weekend into a windfall.