Film: Hollywood's real drug problem

Directors may be addicted to drug scenes, but the narcotic experience still gets a raw deal in the movies. By Adam Mars-Jones
Click to follow
Terry Gilliam's film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an attempt both valiant and doomed (valiant as an idea, doomed more or less from the first frame) to transfer to screen a book that is both literary and dated. It's partly that the countercultural politics of the Sixties and Seventies now look hugely self-indulgent, partly that Gilliam struggles to find a cinematic style that will match Hunter S Thompson's prose or Ralph Steadman's illustrations. Steadman subsequently devised the paranoid Polaroid technique of photo-caricature, which both renders reality and smears it, to produce distortions that are somehow revealing, but Gilliam's camera can't seem to get the knack. Oh sure, the hotel lobby carpet writhes on cue and the drinkers in a cocktail lounge dutifully mutate into lizards. But these special effects suggest the DTs as much as LSD, and otherwise, there's a worrying preponderance of Fellini-era carnival freaks, dwarves and circuses.

Drugs have always got a raw deal in the movies. That monumental piece of pre-emptive self-censorship, the Hays Code, put paid in the Twenties to any explicit representation of something that was already an indispensable part of the Hollywood lifestyle, though, with mischievous nonchalance, Alfred Hitchcock made a drug-fuelled nervous tic the climax of one of the most famous shots of his whole English period, when, in Young and Innocent (1937), the camera traverses the entire length of a dance hall before fastening on the drummer's twitching face.

Hollywood's attempt to be grown-up about drugs pretty much starts with Otto Preminger's 1957 The Man with the Golden Arm. The implicit defence of the choice of such unsavoury material as addiction is sociological, near-documentary: we should not turn away from these disturbing aspects of the modern world (a durable line of argument). When, a little later, Orson Welles released Touch of Evil he was much vaguer, whether for stylistic reasons or as a result of studio pressure, about what depravities, exactly, poor Janet Leigh was subjected to. Tableaux of an almost abstract viciousness, in which prohibited substances play some vague part, were all he offered his viewers.

These two approaches, one stridently neutral, one voyeuristic, basically map out the future of drugs as a subject in cinema. What is missing is any idea of what people might actually seek or find in chemical intoxication. For every attempt at getting behind the user's eyes, there are a hundred tour de force sequences of actors writhing their way through the hell of withdrawal - French Connection II being the classic instance, with the bonus that the cold turkey sufferer is entirely innocent, a policeman being tortured by vile criminals. Those films that did make some attempt to get inside the heads of drug users usually came up short. Easy Rider may have been a key film for a generation, but, even at the time, its rendering of acid experience - lurid filters, weird lenses, ugly montage - was plain embarrassing.

The archetypal drug narrative ends with punishment or a lucky escape from it, and this is true even of films that denounce moralising assumptions in their early sequences, as, for instance, Trainspotting does. The interest of Trainspotting lies more in the film language used to convey drug experience - and not so much the fantasy sequences as the scenes of people shooting up, which are simultaneously subjective and objective. Users don't so much slump when the drug hits the bloodstream as get slammed to the horizontal, as if they were abattoir animals and heroin the humane killer, or at least ninepins scattered by a bowling ball, yet the surface which the backs of their heads strike with such force, though seemingly hard, visibly yields to receive them.

Pulp Fiction was startlingly matter-of-fact for a quasi-mainstream American film in its treatment of drug use, but Tarantino made no comparably sophisticated attempt to devise an expressive film language, preferring to use fetishistic close-ups of drug paraphernalia and the processes of preparation. What can be done with a little imagination, and no budget, is shown by the early Almodovar film What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), where in at least one sequence the camera doesn't keep its customary distance. The heroine returns home after being raped, to be confronted by her Fascist husband and two deranged sons (one a drug dealer, the other a rent boy). Understandably she retreats to the bedroom and sniffs glue, and the camera catches a low-grade buzz, careering round the room with an almost audible whoosh.

Still, that's a near-underground European art film. What is occasionally possible, even in an American movie on the edges of mainstream distribution, is demonstrated by Drugstore Cowboy (1989), directed by Gus Van Sant before his tooth sweetened and he went hunting for that box-office goodwill. The story isn't distinctive, but Van Sant takes great care over his film vocabulary for the infrequent scenes of drug derangement. Typically he shows the user's face in the same shot as the rendering of his experience, and the visualisation of what is going on in (usually) Matt Dillon's head tends to be an assortment of small objects tumbling slowly against the sky - as if his mind was an almost empty kaleidoscope. It's an oddly beautiful effect, which manages to suggest that the drug experience, routinely presented as a search for intensity, can actually be cold and static rather than hot and dynamic.

Despite such scattered successes, it may be that the films that have rendered the experience of drugs most persuasively are the ones that have avoided taking drugs directly as their subject. Could anyone who has seen both Roger Corman's The Trip (1967), or indeed Easy Rider, and the final sequences of 2001 have any doubts about which came closer to a vision that can fairly be called hallucinogenic?

Terry Gilliam's closest predecessor in seeking to film an unfilmable drug-related text must be David Cronenberg, whose 1991 Naked Lunch was criminally underrated, perhaps less because of its subject matter or its infidelity to its source than because it offers film-goers a rare experience: being shown a series of bizarre events, some horrifying and some hilarious, without being told precisely which is which. What the laugh track is to sitcoms, the reaction shot is to Hollywood movies, but Cronenberg never provided the cues to which we have become addicted.

Naked Lunch was also unusual in featuring fictional drugs - various specialised body extracts and also humble bug powder, as used by exterminators (if the film had been seen by more people, it would no doubt have inspired raids on Rentokil vans and a craze for licking Roach Motels). The line between drug experience and non-drug experience kept being redrawn in this film, whereas in Fear and Loathing it's kept annoyingly clear for us. It's true that by imposing narrative coherence on William Burroughs's book, Cronenberg can't avoid imposing morality on something studiously amoral. So the fantasy in the story is explained as being Burroughs's denial of one specific real event: his accidental shooting of his wife. At one point the hero tells a friend that he's about to leave town. The friend asks him if he's got his ticket, but what he pulls from his pocket is not the travel documentation we saw him put there earlier but a vial of drugs. Drugs as a ticket to nowhere; the message may be fleeting, but it's hardly unclear. What makes Naked Lunch so different from almost all the competition is not its conclusions but its procedures. It's a rare film in this genre that doesn't tell its viewers first what to feel and then what to think.