Addicted: The Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film, ed. by Jack Stevenson. London: Creation Books, 2000. Trade paper, $19.95, 272pp, ISBN 1-84068-023-7
America’s War on Drugs has been raging for years, long before George Bush the Elder set off on his self-righteous crusade and long after his son, George W. Bush — a reputed coke snorter in his early days — took over the seat kept warm by his father. And while efforts to curb both narcotic usage and purchase have been met by only half-assed measures resulting in countless arrests of (mostly minority) petty dealers and knee-jerk Three Strikes legislation that spells certain doom for addicts who can’t kick — most notably as the bill’s author, Bill Simon, rides a different white horse to a recent victory in the California Republican primary — a deep consideration of the other Practice That Dare Not Speak Its Name as a social, financial, and physiological dependency is waylaid by more trenchant lip service leading to crackdowns on people that really don’t matter: the addicts themselves.
Stevenson’s most cogent point in the brilliant “Highway to Hell” is that, from the beginning of drug cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century, “Then, as now, the seed of myth was wrapped in the narrative cocoon of social and cultural propaganda that purportedly served a higher moral purpose while at the same time dealing out on a gut level what the bawling crowds really wanted — lurid entertainment loaded with gluttinous helpings of someone else’s tragic misfortune.” And, of course, then as now — we are currently “at war” in a country that is Ground Zero for global heroin production — that misfortune usually comes at the hands of the racial Other. From Edison’s 1894 Opium Joint (“aka Chinese Opium Den aka Opium Smokers,” as Stevson puts it — the film doth protest too much?) through blaxploitation classics like Shaft and to Brian De Palma’s classic revisionist stab at the American Dream, Scarface, drug exploitation cinema’s residual case is that (white) America has slowly been torn asunder by the darkies, yellows, and greaseballs who come bearing fruits of destruction. Indeed, it has been this paranoid interpretation of a severe social dilemma — make no mistake, drug abuse has cost millions of lives — that has informed the sensationalist spectacle of drugs onscreen. So, then, self-righteous whites not only get to derive a vicarious thrill from watching Al Pacino’s Tony Montana attempt to snort a line the size of a cigar, they also get to embellish that indirect high with the buckets of blood that results when the whole (pardon the pun) overblown narcotics palace comes crashing down in a hail of bullets.
And feel better about it, right? Exactly. “As screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz famously put it,” Stevenson writes, “‘The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end.’”
Of course, as much as drug cinema has its roots in racial prejudice, exploitation is fun enough in itself without the necessity of race paranoia. Enter the thoroughly hilarious and unsavory character of Dwain Esper, a master of the practice for close to twenty decades who (ahem) religiously exploited Mankiewicz’s axiom regarding moral denouements, however specious. Esper peddled his particularly laughable brand of drug exploitation pictures such as Narcotic, Sex Maniac, Assassin of Youth, Marihuana—Weed with Roots in Hell, among others. Esper, Stevenson proclaims, was the “king of the Forty Thieves,” a renegade band of producers and filmmakers who packed their salacious films into their cars and hit the road, showing them at any venue unsatisfied with the out-of-touch Production Code Administration’s stranglehold on Hollywood and major theaters around the country. In fact, who else but the king would trot an embalmed corpse at his showings, that of “Elmer the Dope Fiend,” as Stevenson tells it, “a turn-of the-century outlaw gunned down by a sheriff’s posse in 1911” who shortly thereafter ended up at a wax museum and was mistaken for a dummy until his “arm fell off”?
Like I said. Hilarious.
It is in such anecdotes and figures that punctuate both drug exploitation cinema and Stevenson’s humorous history of it, and it is during the attendant chapters in Part Two delineating its pharmacological presence in blaxploitation, science fiction and horror, underground cinema, as well as so-called educational and industry films — Sonny Bono in glitter pajamas lecturing on the ills of drug use? Can it get any worse than that? — that Addicted gets hopping. But like most things drug-related, it gets shaky after that, settling into list mode in Part Three, content to simply point and grunt and/or synopsize Scandinavian, Italian, and German examples (among others) of drug cinema. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because we do need those histories; it’s just that Stevenson’s sharp wit has kept Addicted a quick, rushing read. Part Three is a comedown like any other, I suppose.
But when Addicted jacks in to Part Four, tackling English-language films such as the aforementioned Scarface, Danny Boyle’s brilliant Trainspotting, the sensory overload of Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Larry Clark’s sobering Kids and more, things get back to swinging. While the analytical treatments of these films vary greatly in substance and form, the act of inclusion itself adds a certain level of canonicity to the procedure, providing a depth-by-association of sorts that helps to overlook any of the respective articles’ shortcomings. And although Tons May’s scholarly postmodern take on Fear and Loathingreads like a Derridean nightmare (names dropped: Bataille, Bordo, Butler, Foucault, Debord, to name a slight, and I mean slight, few), contains more footnotes (148!) than seemingly almost the entire book put together, along with some dicey arguments (namely, tired blanket assumptions about how the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s decades translated loosely into the following terms: community, comedown, mediocrity, and purposelessness) as well as some far-reaching propositions (notorious womanizer/wild man/brown buffalo Oscar Zeta Acosta as channeled through the amazing Benicio Del Toro’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s Dr. Gonzo has now become “ambiguously gendered”), it still is a heady take on a crucial text in drug cinema worth sifting through. If you want more accessible film analyses, however, Keith Perry’s superb take on sexual roles and lurid drug history in the making and content of Donald Cammel’s notorious Performance and Ben Felsenburg’s informed look at the controversial Larry Clark’s Kids will do the trick.
Far from being beholden to the exploitation trend found in earlier cinema dealing with drugs on the silver screen, Part Four’s essays instead sometimes tackle each film on its own particular historical and narrative terms. And whether it’s Felsenburg’s study of Clark’s seminal book Tulsa, May’s barrage of theorists and theories applied to one of Gilliam’s least accessible films, or Brett Lake-Benson’s more casual form in his study of De Palma’s Scarface (which, at one point, cleverly connects plot and character intricacies to cocaine’s debilitating physiological effects), Part Four brings the noise and is a suitable bookend to Stevenson’s romp through huckster history.
So tune in, turn on, and drop out next time you hit a bookstore and pick up Addicted, especially if you’re interested in the type of film study that tries to take its subject a bit more seriously than it takes itself. Because there’s nothing like a trip through Code hypocrisy, narcotic criminalization and glorification, or racial and cultural paranoia to really open your eyes to the comedy that passes for drug legislation and attitudes these days. Hopefully, Addicted will sober you up.