A Trip Through Drugs in Cinema
The debate has raged on for years and shows no sign of any clear resolve. Some see drugs as a scourge on society while others view it as hypocritical for alcohol and cigarettes to be legal while the ban on drugs continues. While this is not the forum to add further to this complex issue, instead we have taken a look at how the medium of film has tackled the subject and how the attitude to drugs and it’s representation has changed with the passing of time.
TELL YOUR CHILDREN (aka Reefer Madness) (1936)
“Because the dread Marijuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter....or yours....or YOURS!”
The rather alarmist quotation above is taken from the written warning that appears at the beginning of Tell Your Children, a 1936 propaganda film, allegedly financed by a small, church group. It’s purpose was to inform parents of the “dire consequences” of smoking marijuana as it shows us an admittedly fictional story but one the filmmakers claim is based on real life events. The various pot-smoking characters in Tell Your Children attempt rape, commit suicide, end up in an asylum for the criminally insane and make maniacal demands of a young woman to play a piano faster and faster. Not long after it was released, exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper purchased Tell Your Children and renamed it Reefer Madness. It was then distributed on the exploitation circuit before fading into obscurity. However it found a new audience in the 1970’s and became a favourite for Midnight Movie screenings with 99 percent of the audience more than likely made up of giggling stoners. Ah irony.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955)
One of the very first films to deal with drug abuse in a realistic manner was Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm which is based on the 1949 novel by Nelson Algren. It stars Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, an ex-con who managed to beat his addiction to heroin while in prison. However, he finds it difficult to stay clean while on the outside and is soon back on drugs culminating in Kim Novak locking him in her apartment and helping him through cold turkey. In an interview in 1956, Sinatra said that he was as content with that performance than anything he had ever done at the time. Although not as gritty as future films that would tackle the same subject, the film was controversial upon its release due it’s depiction of drug usage. The Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code refused to give it their seal of approval which usually meant the film would bomb at the box office but United Artists released the film anyway and it went on to be a huge success. This paved the way for the eventual decline of the Production Code as more and more films were released which challenged the code’s strict moralistic guidelines. It was abandoned altogether in 1968 and replaced with the more lenient film rating system.
3. EASY RIDER (1969)
Arguably more of a groundbreaking film as opposed to a cinematic masterpiece, Easy Rider was revolutionary in terms of it’s portrayal of the hippie counterculture. The protagonists of the film, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (also the director) are not represented as ailing, drug addicts but rather young men who casually enjoy taking marijuana and LSD as they travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans on motorcycles. Although only in a supporting role, Jack Nicholson is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film, playing an alcoholic lawyer whom Fonda and Hopper pick up along the way. It was this performance that helped transform Nicholson’s career from B-movie actor to film star. As the trio travel through the Southern states of America they encounter prejudice from the locals and ultimately meet a brutal end at the hands of bigoted hillbillies. Maybe this violent conclusion was a metaphor for how the rest of the country, the Government included, viewed the hippie counterculture; frightened of it, incapable of understanding it and willing to use force to combat it. Or maybe Fonda and Hopper just hated hillbillies. They were both high at the time so who knows what their intention was.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)
Who better than Terry Gilliam to adapt what many would have considered to be an ‘unfilmable’ novel. Hunter S Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was originally published in 1971 in Rolling Stone magazine as a two-part article entitled ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.’ Thompson’s novel captured the mood, at the time, which was felt by many who were part of the 1960’s counterculture, when the realisation sank in that they weren’t going to change the world. As Gilliam himself puts it, “By the 1970’s it was all broken.” Watching the film you get a sense that you’re experiencing your own personal drug trip, as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, played by Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro respectively, travel to Las Vegas in a convertible while ingesting various concoctions of drugs. Many criticised Gilliam’s film for a lack of a coherent narrative but you can’t fault it’s unique, drug fuelled imagery. Just don’t watch it on Christmas day with your Nan. She’ll hate it.
As synonymous with the 1990’s as Gateway PC’s and floppy hair, Trainspotting is a stylish yet nonetheless harrowing depiction of heroin addiction. It follows a group of Scottish misfits focusing primarily on their drug abuse and their efforts to get clean, while also dealing with their sex lives, their national identity and their various discussions involving James Bond and Lou Reed. Although published in 1993, the novel by Irvine Welsh is set in the late 80’s and has more of a lot more of a fractured narrative than Danny Boyle’s tight, film version. When it was released in 1996, Trainspotting drew both instant acclaim and virulent criticism. Failed presidential candidate Bob Dole said it glorified heroin although he later confessed that he hadn’t actually seen it. While Boyle readily admitted that he wanted to glamorize drug taking to some extent in order to give an honest account as to the reasons why people take drugs, the film also shows the grim reality of life for an addict. The protagonist, Renton, climbs into ‘The Worst Toilet In Scotland’ in order to retrieve a anal suppository he has excreted after a violent bout of diarrhoea. Later we witness him suffering through debilitating withdrawal symptoms when trying kick his habit. One of the other characters contracts AIDS and on top of that we see a baby die because her drug addict mother has neglected her. Not the best advertisement for heroin it has to be said.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)
The character of Renton in the film Trainspotting alludes to the fact that his mother is herself a drug addict but in a “socially acceptable way,” This concept is explored in detail in Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem For A Dream as it mirrors a mother’s dependency on prescription medication with her son and his girlfriend’s addiction to heroin. As we entered the ‘noughties’ the use of prescription medication had become rampant in Western society, particularly in the United States, so it’s fitting that Requiem For A Dream was released in 2000 with it’s depiction of new kinds of “acceptable” drugs for the new millennium. However the film’s themes move beyond substance abuse as it challenges our notion of what drugs are and delves further into the subject of addiction. It could be argued that the character of the mother, brilliantly played by Ellen Burstyn, is addicted to the beauty of her youth as well as television and the supposedly alluring trappings that are associated with it. Aronofsky’s impeccable direction coupled with Clint Mansell’s pulsating, atmospheric score make Requiem For A Dream a bleak yet thoroughly engrossing film.
Like the James Joyce novel Ulysses, Adam and Paul takes place over the course of one day in Dublin. as it follows the two title characters who encounter friends and strangers and look for any means necessary to acquire money so they can buy heroin.
What’s interesting about Adam & Paul is how sympathetic and likeable the two main characters are as we the audience find ourselves completely in synch with their predicament, hoping they get their fix so it will end the pain of their withdrawal if just for a little while. Morality is blurred even further when they mug a young teenager with Down syndrome yet despite this, it’s impossible to dislike them as they both display a sad, vulnerability. The tone of Adam & Paul starts off light-hearted and humorous but as their day progresses their world becomes darker; a shift in mood which could be seen as a metaphor for the highs and lows of drug taking. By the end of the film it’s clear that Adam and Paul are pariahs, not only of society but also of their own social group as they wander aimlessly through the deserted night time streets of Dublin. Although just a day in the life of a drug addict it could be said that Adam & Paul is one of the best and certainly one of the most truthful accounts of drug addiction.