Films

The Stoned Screen

Brian D. Johnson April 16 2001
Films

The Stoned Screen

Brian D. Johnson April 16 2001

The Stoned Screen

Films

Brian D. Johnson

Director Martin Scorsese once said that movies are “really a kind of dream state, like taking dope.” But a lot of movies these days are not just like taking dope; they’re about taking dope. Just look at some of the recent Oscar nominees. In Traffic, a 16-year-old white girl lying in bed—an odalisque with baby fat—watches in a stoned reverie as a naked black man shoots heroin into her ankle. In Requiem for a Dream, a junkie Adonis probes for a vein in a black-and-blue forearm, while his mother is strung out on diet pills and TV game shows. In Almost Famous, a rocker on acid proclaims he’s God and jumps off a roof into a pool. And now comes Blow, a drug-culture version of the American Dream—starring Johnny Depp as George Jung, the entrepreneur who unleashed cocaine on North America in the 1970s.

Depp is adorable. Who else could make a big-time drug dealer seem so sweedy naïve? He comes across as the Johnny Appleseed of cocaine. But Blows nostalgia trip through the drug culture’s coming of age—from the innocence of weed to the corruption of coke—follows a familiar arc. And by the end of

it, the kicks have been cut with so much baby-powder sentiment, it makes you wonder if the Drug Movie, once at the experimental edge of cinema, is now being peddled as just another recreational formula.

The genre has been with us for a while, at least since 1969’s Easy Rider. And let’s be specific. By Drug Movie, we don’t mean crime flicks like The French Connection that focus on catching drug dealers. Or rehab movies like Clean and Sober that are about getting off drugs. The Drug Movie is about getting off, period. Which is not to say the euphoria goes unpunished. Those who get off rarely get off scot-free: the high is usually followed by a sobering crash.

In fact, the Drug Movie has a hyperbolic sense of morality that’s at once biblical and burlesque. From the martyred bikers of Easy Rider to the tortured souls of Requiem for a Dream, its heroes are typically outlaw pilgrims on a quest for altered consciousness. And the drug itself is an ingestible Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s taboo crystallized, the ultimate fetish commodity. Cocaine is powdered greed; heroin is the slow ink of the devil; hallucinogens are a ticket to

madness. Only marijuana gets off lightly, blowing smoke in the face of banal rectitude, although lets not forget that in American Beauty the suburban dad who develops a taste for killer weed ends up dead. Not from the weed, of course, but from the marine next door—not unlike the redneck shotgun blast that blew away Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda at the end of Easy Rider.

More often than not, the Drug Movie is a doomed romance, the last stand of the stoned against the system. But it has also been synonymous with a revolution in filmmaking, a desire to disrupt straight narrative with visual delirium. Its no coincidence that Easy Rider, which erupted from the counterculture and served as its eulogy, became the first independent film of the American New Wave to challenge Hollywood. As amateurish as it was, it ushered in the idea of the movie-as-drugtrip. (Of course, some might argue that the previous years 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first trip flick, even if the only drugs involved were those ingested by the audience.)

Over the past three decades, the Drug Movie, like the drug trade, has expanded its arsenal. Attempts to synthesize mindaltering experience on-screen have become more authentic and non-judgmental. Gus Van Sant captured the snowy cocoon of pharmaceuticals in Drugstore Cowboy—the unrepentant memoir of a jailed dope fiend who describes the rush “as a warm itch that surged along until the brain consumed it in a general explosion.” Oliver Stone (The Doors) and Canadas Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) have both scaled the Everest of drug re-enactment: the acid trip. Trainspotting rolled

back new frontiers of junkie heaven, and hell, by plunging the camera into the eye of the needle, and down the toilet. And you can almost hear the brain cells popping in Human Traffic, an exhilarating ode to ecstasy: a movie that wants to be a drug.

From Easy Rider to Blow, the Drug Movie has become an addiction all its own

Simulating substance abuse has become a kind of pornography. And in the repertoire of drug porn, shooting up is still the most cinematic fetish—the equivalent to the money shot in a sex scene. David Cronenberg once told me that needles are the one thing that makes him squeamish in movies. Well, he must have squirmed like a creature from Shivers when he saw Pulp Fictions scene of an overdosed Uma Thurman being stabbed in the heart with a giant syringe of adrenaline. Like addicts

constantly upping their dose, filmmakers keep devising ever more graphic fix scenes. Melanie Griffith jams a needle into her neck in Another Day in Paradise, as does Ben Stiller in Permanent Midnight. Requiem for a Dream takes drug porn to new heights with a techno-pulse montage of microscopic close-ups: smack bubbling under a flame, a needle snorkelling it up, a pupil dilating like a spring-loaded parasol.

Shoving cocaine up your nose, on the other hand, is not very sexy to watch. While heroin in movies has come to signify bohemian squalor—and tragic wisdom—cocaine almost always represents corruption and the wrong kind of wealth. It’s the New Money drug. That was its role in Scorseses Goodfellas, about a New Jersey kid who makes it as a gangster, then gets lost in a blizzard of coke. E T. Anderson took a similar tack with Boogie Nights, about a porn star whose career nose-dives.

Both are stories of Seventies excess, about the rise and fall of blue-collar boys who make it in the underworld. And so is Blow, a movie transparently modelled on Goodfellas. Like the Scorsese film, it’s based on the biography of a man behind bars {Blow, Bruce Porter’s compelling 1993 biography of George Jung). Director Ted Demme mimics the Goodfellas style of voice-over narration. And to drive home the homage, he even casts Goodfellas star Ray Liotta as George’s father.

The movie starts well, with Can’t You Hear Me Knocking by the Rolling Stones scorching through a fast-cut odyssey of cocaine production, from a vat of paste in the Colombian jungle to bundles of white bricks on a California airstrip. Then we flash back to a blue-collar household near Boston, where George is being raised by a broken-down father (Ray Liotta) and a mean-spirited mother (Rachel Griffiths). With a friend, George drives out to California in 1965, and ends up in Manhattan Beach, where the streets are paved with Acapulco gold and the girl next door is a stewardess in a bikini.

Our hero hooks up with a potdealing hairdresser (a flaming Paul Reubens), and before long George is flying in bales of marijuana from Mexico. When he gets caught with 660 lb. of the stuff, he tells the court that he just “crossed an imaginary line with a bunch of plants.” In jail, George meets the high-level Colombian contact who guides him to the next level. Prison, says George, “was a crime school—I went in with a bachelor of marijuana and graduated with a doctorate of cocaine.” All this is heady stuff, and as George brazenly sets himself up as the American point man for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cocaine cartel, the film skips along with the energy of a good success story. But as George’s world unravels, the movie stalls, like a drug wearing off. Penelope Cruz shows up in a shallow role as his Colombian wife, Mirtha, who turns into a fiery nag. (Between his wife and mother, George is beset by shrewish women.) The chemistry between Cruz and Depp never materializes. And as the movie drifts to a melancholy fade— George bonding with his dad and missing his daughter—

you’re really starting to miss the cocaine.

Blow lacks the intricate detail and propulsive rhythm that made Goodfellas so satisfying. It’s a substance-abuse flick that lacks substance. But it does touch on quite a phenomenon. As George observes: “Cocaine exploded on American culture like an atomic bomb. It started in Hollywood and spread.” Once it was accepted by actors and musicians, he adds, everyone else followed.

Show business has always been the motor force of the drug culture. And drug movies are a form of Hollywood self-portraiture. Depp, who played gonzo acidhead Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has his own history of heavy drug use. As for Demme (nephew of director Jonathan), in a phone interview from New York City last week, he declined to talk about his personal habits. “But obviously being in the entertainment biz, you see a lot,” he said. “I’ve been around people who have been in the game. And recently, I’ve run into a few people who have been affected pretty badly by the game. And that has affected my life.” Demme, 36, certainly knows that any drug movie, pro or con, has to provide a vicarious high. “A lot of people will tell you that drugs are really fun,” he says, “particularly people who were partying a lot in the 70s. If the whole movie is no, no, no, then who would want to go to that party?”

Even Steven Soderbergh, whose Traffic paints a dark picture of drugs, appreciates the importance of making them seductive. The drug-taking scenes are the movie’s most erotic moments—its only erotic moments. Over lunch in Toronto last year, Soderbergh said that when he shot the scene of teenagers cooking up free-base cocaine, he had no shortage of volunteers from the crew offering to demonstrate exactly how it was done. But then, Hollywood has a firsthand appreciation of the art of getting high, and the price of coming down. It is, after all, in the business of trafficking dreams. Eïïl

COOL MOVIES ON DRUGS: A USER’S GUIDE

REEFER MADNESS 1936 The anti-pot propaganda film (aka Tell Your Children) is reborn as a high-camp comedy for the children of the Sixties.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS 1967 g

Showbiz melodrama, with Patty Duke as an actress on uppers (“Sure I take dolls!

I got to get up at five in the morning and sparkle, sparkle, sparkle!”)

EASY RIDER 1969 ^ ^ fyk

A movie about the stoned, by the stoned, for the stoned. The screen’s first “you had to be there” acid trip is improvised in a New Orleans cemetery. Far out.

GIMME SHELTER 1970

The Rolling Stones and the Hells Angels bring music, drugs and murder to Altamont, Calif. A gloriously bad trip.

PERFORMANCE 1970 #

Mick Jagger does some bisexual shapeshifting with a gangster, two girls and some psychedelics in a London flat.

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK 1971 ft

Junk vérité, with AI Pacino cruising Manhattan’s mean streets: when an extra shoots up, it looks very unsimulated.

UP IN SMOKE 1978 ^

Cheech and Chong target an audience highly prone to laughter.

ALTERED STATES 1980

William Hurt looks for enlightenment in LSD and sensory deprivation tanks. Problem is, he keeps having religious hallucinations during sex.

SID & NANCY 1986 ft

As junkie Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, Gary Oldman is a human train wreck.

BLUE VELVET 1986

Dennis Hopper, who has tried everything, plays a psycho sucking on nitrous oxide.

DEAD RINGERS 1988

David Cronenberg directs Jeremy Irons as self-medicating twin gynecologists.

DRUGSTORE COWBOY 1989 ft

As a defrocked junkie priest, William Burroughs gives Matt Dillon his Beat blessing. Director Gus Van Sant’s finest hour.

The ultimate cocaine jag: Ray Liotta races around like a man on fire, trying to deal coke, and fix his life, while making tomato sauce.

NAKED LUNCH 1991

A writer cuts “the black meat of the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede” with insecticide

(“It’s a Kafka high. You feel like a bug”). RUSH 1991 ft

Jason Patrie and Jennifer Jason Leigh are nares who get hooked on hard evidence.

THE BASKETBALL DIARIES 1995 ft

A pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio rolls up his sleeves to play junkie poet Jim Carroll.

HARD CORE LOGO 1996 &

Canada’s Bruce McDonald whips up a goat’s head soup of an acid trip.

TRAINSPOTTING 1996 ft

Heroin, pro and con. Pro: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had and multiply it by a thousand.” Con: a mother ignores her dead baby to look for another fix.

FEAR AND LOATHING , ft IN LAS VEGAS 1998 ^ Ö &

Slapstick psychedelia. Johnny Depp dresses up as Hunter S. Thompson, for whom ether is the drug of last resort. A movie that must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

GO 1999 (v3)

Sarah Polley deals ecstasy. Look for the stoned subtitled conversation with a cat.

GRASS 1999 ^

Ron Mann compiles the greatest hits of pot prohibition. Woody Harrelson narrates.

HUMAN TRAFFIC 1999 @

Trainspotting without the violence or the hassle. A bunch of kids from Cardiff, Wales, go to a rave and live to tell about it.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM 2000 ft

Hair-raising drug porn, making the equation between legal and illegal addictions.

TRAFFIC 2000 ft (¿> ^

It covers all the bases: gangsters, cops, pimps, kids, parents. Its mantra: the war on drugs can’t be won; let the healing begin.

Brian D. Johnson