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Cannabis Culture — marijuana in film, music and life

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Apr 19, 2004.

  1. Growth of pot in movies through the decades, from Hepburn to Spicolli, marijuana is on fire

    Neha Singh
    Associate Features Editor

    You haven't switched from liquor to dope by any chance, have you Dexter?” Katharine Hepburn said to Cary Grant in the 1940 film “The Philadelphia Story.”

    Believe it or not, marijuana has been portrayed in films for a long time. Over the years, filmmakers have tried to mirror society - the counterculture in particular - and marijuana has always been a favorite sticky issue. From its early days of scare tactics in the cult favorite “Reefer Madness,” to the late 1970s marijuana heroes Cheech and Chong in “Up In Smoke,” pot has come full circle.

    Nowadays, the majority of films that feature marijuana are somewhat neutral in their portrayal of this illicit substance. However, it has taken decades for popular media to evolve from portraying marijuana as “heathen devil weed” to a social drug. Whether it's a full-blown pot film, a quick shot of a bong on a table or a joint in a drawer, marijuana has become a common presence in movies.

    According to sociologist Jerome Himmelstein, marijuana was first brought to the United States as a psychotropic drug by Mexican migrant workers at the turn of the 20th century. It was available legally as an herbal remedy for headaches, nausea, insomnia and a host of other ailments until the late 1930s. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalizing the sale and use of the plant under federal law. At this time, the primary users of marijuana were Mexican migrant workers and black jazz musicians. The association of the drug with these marginal ethnic groups sealed its fate as a dangerous psychotropic drug.

    “Reefer Madness” (1938) is an important film because it shows the blatant misrepresentation of the effects of marijuana. The story opens with an official speaking to a hall filled with concerned parents and teachers. The speaker warns of the dramatic rise to almost “epic proportions” of the deadly addictive weed. The speaker claims that this new plague cannot be underestimated, and the effects of the “killer-weed” may even be more deadly than that of heroine and cocaine, and intones that this “deadly narcotic” is “The Real Public Enemy Number One!” The film portrays evil pushers who prey on unsuspecting teenagers. The effects are shown to be crazed dancing, violent sexual tendencies, hazardous driving and ultimately homicidal tendencies. In the final scene, the protagonist is sentenced to death after murdering two others.

    “High School Confidential” (1958) is an interesting cinematic example of the changing signification of the dangers of marijuana consumption. The increased use of marijuana by beatniks and other fringe countercultural groups forced filmmakers to portray the effects of the drug more realistically. In this film, the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer, infiltrates an upper-class secondary school to break an evil drug ring. While marijuana is still portrayed as highly addictive, it is shown more as a stepping stone to the harder drug, heroin. “Do I have to spell it out for you?” the protagonist said to one poor weed addict. “If you flake with the weed, you'll end up using the hard stuff.” Perhaps it is in this period that distinctions between “hard” and “soft” drugs started to materialize. This film also directly relates to the fact that more and more university students in this time period were beginning to experiment with marijuana.

    Films such as “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” (1968) and “Easy Rider” (1969) demonstrated the changing attitude toward drug culture during the 1960s and 1970s. Marijuana was commuted, as were the laws surrounding its possession, from “killer weed” to “drop-out weed.” As it became popular with middle-class white university students, its stigma was diminished greatly - so much that it was decriminalized in 11 U.S. states. It was during this period that marijuana was portrayed openly in films as a peaceful and even enlightening natural substance.

    “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” is a charming comedy focusing on the mid-life crisis of the main character, played by Peter Sellers. He meets a sweet flower child and is introduced to the hippie world. Marijuana is an entirely positive force in this film; everyone who uses it (even unwittingly, like Sellers' aging parents) emerges more thoughtful, aware, spontaneous and free. One is hard-pressed to find films in any of the other historical periods that portray pot in such a benevolent light. Even Cheech and Chong are shown to be, at best, dull-witted and slow.

    Interestingly, certain stereotypical companions of marijuana, such as sexuality, continued through this period. The correlation of marijuana to sexual promiscuity is best demonstrated in Russ Meyer's now infamous, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970). In the opening scene, we see the main characters smoke a joint and immediately begin having sex. Throughout the film, getting stoned is the excuse behind “deviant” sexual behavior.

    Looking at films in the 1980s, it is apparent that Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign seems to have been successful. Films during this period show that drug use of any kind leads to the inevitable decline of the character's moral stature. In films such as “Clean and Sober” (1988), the main character is given a choice, drugs or death. Hollywood returned to its pre-'60s attitude of showing drugs only in a negative light. The usual mainstay of marijuana representation, the teen flick, also seemed to be in a curious state of abstinence. Compare the heroes of 1982's “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to 1989's “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.” In “Fast Times,” Spicolli, played by a young Sean Penn, is the lovable if irresponsible surfer hero. Even in the epilogue, he is given the honor of saving Brooke Shields from drowning. Spicolli and his friends happily toke their way through high school with no ill effects. “Bill and Ted,” on the other hand, shows two portrayals of the “stoner” personality, but there is a conspicuous absence of any drug, alcohol or even cigarette use. Marijuana, having been an icon of youth rebellion for decades, was quickly snuffed out with a simple “no, thank you.”

    It was in the 1990s that pot really started being portrayed as a social drug in films. Gone were the days of “you're going to hell” if you smoked. Films stopped commenting on the ethics of marijuana use. They started showing it for what most of society really uses it for - a social drug. “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “True Romance” (1993) and “Reality Bites” (1994) are interesting because they all involve pot smoking, but did not simply focus on the morality of the drug. It was perhaps the first time since the 1960s that marijuana was portrayed so casually. None of the characters were addicted, harmed or led to harder drugs on account of their marijuana use. Instead, the smoking was portrayed in the same offhand manner as cigarette and alcohol consumption had been during the 1950s.

    These days, marijuana is everywhere in films. From Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal puffing it continually in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), to suggestions of it in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), it is hard to watch a movie that does not make some sort of reference to marijuana. The film industry realized that marijuana use can be like the new cocktail hour.

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