FILM / Dealing in movie cliches: Marek Kohn on the Hollywood menace that is the National Film Theatre's forthcoming drug season

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The Independent Culture
WHEN IT comes to the depiction of drugs with a capital D, you can't beat the movies. Drugs and films grew up together. Back in 1894, just around the time that the idea of the 'demon dope' was taking shape, a short called Chinese Opium Den was made for Thomas Edison. By 1916, 'happy dust' was cranking up the pace in front of Hollywood's cameras and behind the scenes: as a Tinseltown in- joke, it surfaced in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr as Detective Coke Ennyday.

By then, too, drugs had assumed their familiar cinematic form - not as a gag for those in the know, but as the menace that launched a thousand awful warnings. As the National Film Theatre's forthcoming drug season shows, the message hasn't changed much between The Devil's Needle, made in 1916, and New Jack City, made in 1990.

It is only too clear from Joint Ventures: Hollywood and Drugs that drugs have done precious little to further the artistic development of cinema. Drug movies rarely aspire to art, though. They fictionalise, create characters, concoct elaborate fantasies, but none of this is innovative, being squarely in the tradition of downmarket dope journalism. The traditional drug movie is, in fact, simply popular journalism translated into moving pictures. As such, it is far more effective a tool of persuasion than any print is ever able to be.

Its hallmark is the reverse disclaimer: the characters may be fictional, but they bear a close resemblance to persons living or dead. The Pace That Kills, made in 1928, opens with a long caption homily about the 'demon dope', the 'most tragic problem ever encountered'. 'If we don't confront the problem,' warns the caption that closes New Jack City, 'then drugs will continue to destroy our country.' The critics may look down their noses at these crude didactic devices, but audiences take the message home.

The basic formula is that of a direct address to the audience, combined with stereotyped set-pieces illustrating the key points of the drug menace. Initially, melodrama was used to reach the desired emotional pitch; nowadays, with the relaxation of

censorship, ultra-violence serves the purpose.

The best of all set-pieces was the withdrawal scene, and nobody ever surpassed Frank Sinatra's cold turkey catharsis in Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (to be screened on 10 and 11 September).

As Frankie Machine, the card-school dealer trying to shake the monkey off his back, Sinatra gets Kim Novak to hide all sharp objects and lock him in her room, where he rolls, cramps, contorts, smashes the furniture and tries to jump out of the window. Addiction is depicted as a state closer to demonic possession than to ordinary sickness.

The classic drug movie is a vehicle for articulating a simple set of precepts. The first is that a few tastes at most are sufficient to cause addiction; the second is that addiction suppresses or even eradicates the will; the third is that moral, social and mental collapse are its inevitable consequence.

Rigid, hysterical principles like these leave little room for nuance, or even characterisation. That is also true of the newer wave of drug movies like New Jack City (29, 30 September) and Scarface (18, 19 September), gangster films in which cocaine

signifies megalomania.

Occasionally, however, a drug film subverts its own rhetorical framework. The Pace That Kills (5 September, with The Devil's Needle) is the story of how country boy Eddie leaves his blonde sweetheart on the farm and goes to the city in search of his sister. The metropolis turns out, in fact, to be full of young women. They are forward, confident, hedonistic and sophisticated; the narrative is therefore obliged to mete out exemplary punishments.

After securing a humble position in a department store, Eddie finds himself working alongside Fannie, a flighty type who introduces him to city nightlife and the 'headache powders' she keeps tucked into her stocking top. The inevitable decline ensues: eventually, they are living in squalor and Eddie is in the throes of withdrawal. As he writhes on the bed and rolls his eyes, Fannie's face silently registers that there is just one way for her to get the money for the drugs he craves. She steps out

into the street . . .

And she walks off with the film. Through the sacrifice she makes for love, she becomes a heroine, despite her moral abjection. Both of them jump in the river in the end, though.

The silent movies established the architecture of the drug genre, but few survive. Broken Blossoms (2 September), made in 1919, is not really a drug movie at all. It merits inclusion, however, because of its beautiful set-piece opium den scene, which shows the drug as an agent dissolving the taboo against miscegenation: the prime moral danger is not the drug itself, but the promiscuous intermingling of white women and men of colour.

One of the favourite myths about opium dens was that they included sophisticated establishments with elaborate security systems (confined, in The Pace That Kills, to a Buddha with light-up eyes). Even this detail endures, but now it has become the pseudo-corporate crack centre of New Jack City, with its computers and customers' security passes. It signifies not race-mixing, but the ability of a black criminal syndicate to compete with the traditional Italian one.

Nowadays, the race thing is up front. Back in 1958, it was all in the dialogue. High School Confidential (21, 22 September) is about a generation gap marked, above all, by language, its centrepiece the scene where the school marijuana dealer takes over the class and tells the story of Columbus in hipspeak. There are two striking things about these teenagers. One is that they had a Less Than Zero mentality several years before Bret Easton Ellis was born. The second is that the argot that separates them from their elders, and which the plot links with amorality and drugs, is essentially black.

Today, of course, the only sort of hysteria that High School Confidential and Reefer Madness (8, 9 September) induce is that of late-night hilarity for a hip generation. 'I'm dying to blast but I'm clean,' wails Joanie Staples, the teenage marijuana

addict in High School Confidential. Joanie, Frankie Machine, Snowy, the Dracula-like cocaine dealer of The Pace That Kills - all are now figures of fun. But as a genre, the dope movie is as impervious to ridicule as any other variety of moral crusade.

Marek Kohn is the author of 'Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground' (Lawrence & Wishart)

(Photographs omitted)