Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Drugs and movies: getting high, coming down, wigging out, and managing the addiction

Is film the most potent art for relaying drug experiences? Its hypnotic, fluid, unprecedented fusion of sound, image, movement and forced perspective certainly feels aligned to some essence of the stream of consciousness, even to dreaming. But where drugs are concerned, I have to wonder if movies don’t get closer to the heart of the matter when they show restraint in how they use their multiform tools and effects.

Once you begin to survey movies that deal in drugs, it becomes clear that the medium’s generally most forceful when it evokes rather than illustrates. When filmmakers attempt to recreate hallucinations, the results are often malnourished or silly. But there are plenty of movies that approach drug states—of mind, body and soul—in thoughtful, inventive or insightful ways. For some reason most of them are American.

Is drug use a distinctly American movie theme? The numbers would have us think so. And there are certain American faces that keep reappearing in drug movies (or at least doing drugs in regular movies): Dennis Hopper, Max Perlich, Chloë Sevigny, Dean Stockwell, Roy Scheider, Keanu Reeves, Peter Fonda, Johnny Depp, William Hurt. Why these actors? Is it something written on their faces, something suspicious etched in their crooked smiles or glassy eyes? I wonder.

It’s these faces, captured in a moment of transition from relative sobriety to relative inebriation, that prompt my richest memories of delving into cinema’s drug state: Scheider’s Joe Gideon in
All That Jazz (1979) snorting a line to trigger “Showtime,” Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (86) inhaling some unnamed gas before changing into the scariest babbling stoner in the history of movies. Just thinking about these moments gives me a chill and a thrill.

Movies make a pretty good drug in themselves. The duration changes from film to film, but you can always split if you start tripping out. They can take a while to come down from, but generally cause no hangover. They are, however, potentially addictive, and encompass an impressive variety of experiences and perspectives.

Freaking Out

Some guy on acid attacking a pony-tailed Jack Nicholson with power tools in
Psych-Out (68), Rudy Ray Moore flipping out on angel dust at the loopy finale of Avenging Disco Godfather (80), Al Pacino wielding machine guns in Scarface (80), Richard E Grant turning his eyeballs into bulgy little rocks and definitely not staying cool in Withnail & I (87), William Hurt turning into a goddamned goat-eating monkey in Altered States (80): there’s no end to what the movies can tell us about bad trips. Such scenes smear together in my foggy memories of drug movies, but the films as a whole don’t necessarily propose any particular take on the role of drugs in our lives. To do that, it might be best to ease into things, to start with something mellow before digging into the heavy stuff.

Feeling Groovy

If pot is arguably the least harmful of illegal substances, the movies have, over a long period of diminishing hysteria, responded with stories that neither overtly praise nor condemn a pot-smoking lifestyle but rather use it for inspired comedic fodder. In this regard, while it’s not much of a movie overall,
How High (2001) has given us one of the most brilliant pot-based premises, with Redman and Method Man smoking their dead friend’s ashes in order to summon up his ghost, who then materializes to help them to ace their entrance exams for Harvard.

A far more esteemed if equally hazy ballad for blunt-smokers is, of course,
The Big Lebowski (1998). What lazy bliss is conjured up in the tumbling of tumbleweeds, the gliding of bowling balls, and Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” where rock’s most revered wordsmith is never so pleasing as when he just sings “la-la-la-la, la-da-da-da-da-da-da.” No one would mistake Jeff Bridges’ Dude—a guy who lights candles in the bath and splays out in the floor to listen to tapes of old bowling matches—for a go-getter protagonist, yet how much more satisfying that his clumsy apathy actually aids instead of inhibits him in his playing detective.

The Mark Inside

Things get weird fast in drug movies, but they can also prove to resonate as metaphors. In The Addiction (95), the drug is already inside you: it’s blood. Shot in a black and white that seems to saturate the urban grime, Abel Ferrara’s NYC vampire film is a thinly veiled allegory of junkie agony, treating addiction itself like a contagious virus. Everybody in this movie spouts existentialist philosophy: it’s terrifically pretentious, highly body conscious and surprisingly unnerving. Lily Taylor writhes on the floor a long time before pushing the limits of consent in her desperate search for a bloody fix. Christopher Walken, a veteran bloodsucker, shows up to advise her on coming to terms with being undead. He’s in the William S Burroughs role of the wise old junkie —he even cites Naked Lunch.

In fact, the shadow of Burroughs looms over a number of drug films, but none so much as David Cronenberg’s wildly inventive interpretation of Burroughs’s most famous novel.
Naked Lunch (91) hasn’t a single recognizable drug in it, but, drawing upon Burroughs’s biography as liberally as from his fiction, it conveys the most complex and harrowing closed circuit of addiction and eternal return in movies. Peter Weller is trapped is a cycle of sexual repression, schizophrenic disassociation, murder and dependency. The sense of unreality is beautifully heightened by the use of soundstages and the refusal to give any physical object a fixed appearance. And as the eloquently staged, chilling final sequence makes clear, the whole thing’s really about the birth of an artist and the devastating price to be paid for one’s muse.

The Palace of Wisdom

Life after drugs is rarely glamorous.
Drugstore Cowboy (89) gives us a nice primer right in its opening moments: Matt Dillon, resigned to a new life with no woman and no dope, working in a machine shop, his beatific face calmly recalling how he found himself in the back of this ambulance, while Abbie Lincoln sings “For All We Know” in her strange, staggered cadence and Super 8 reminiscences flicker melancholically on screen. The tone is elegant, eccentric and bittersweet.

Is it any surprise that Burroughs eventually turns up here, too? Seeing the man in the flesh gives
Drugstore Cowboy that extra tinge of authority, the slow steady way Burroughs turns in his seat to recognize Dillon, those small but lucid eyes that never seem to change in expression, that insect-like body. Walking with Dillon in the overcast daylight of Portland, Burroughs is an unforgettable presence, and it’s as though Gus Van Sant was suddenly making a documentary.

The Big Picture

Evocatively ungrounded in its floaty animation,
A Scanner Darkly (2006) is inspired by that other great voice of authority on dope in American letters. Paranoid and somewhat dysfunctional, Philip K Dick was very likely schizophrenic, yet his troubled mind was still organized and intelligent enough to work as a virtual conduit for a larger phenomenon of collective psychic malaise. Like Cronenberg did with Burroughs, and like Terry Gilliam did with Hunter S Thompson in the supremely drug-addled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Richard Linklater channeled Dick’s spirit as much as he did the source novel in bringing shape and sharpness to A Scanner Darkly, which proposes to reveal the US as a vast drug-pushing machine, thrusting Keanu Reeve’s narc into a maddening house of mirrors, assigned to spy on himself before the drugs in his system finally reach critical mass.

Where movies can take us with regards to drugs now is ambiguous. The subject has been explored from an impressive variety of angles in the last few decades, yet there are as many drug experiences as there are drug-takers, and those who take drugs, whether for transcendence or escape, don’t seem to be diminishing in number. No doubt there will be new stories to tell, new revelations to share, and with any luck, some of them will still sound good after the high has worn off.

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