Hollywood is High on Getting High

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Mar 31, 2003.

  1. By George Haas, Pop Culture Writer
    Source: Daily Southtown

    In a scene near the end of "Scarface," the drug empire built by Al Pacino's crime lord is crumbling all around him. It doesn't stop the anti-hero, whose hands are clutching an automatic rifle, from burying his face in a table full of cocaine.
    It is one of those quintessential Hollywood moments, an over-the-top exercise in excess, like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

    Filmmakers have long been fascinated with drugs as an extension of the American experience. In "Hollywood High," a new one-hour documentary airing at 7 p.m. Monday on AMC, the full range of emotions surrounding drug use and the movies, from exhilaration to despair, is explored in fascinating detail.

    From campy classics such as "Reefer Madness," through light-hearted comedies such as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and cautionary tales such as "Goodfellas" and "Scarface," drugs and addiction have proven a wellspring of inspiration for writers and directors.

    But as many of the authors and filmmakers interviewed for the special note, the drug experience often extends beyond those movies featuring drug use.

    As director Jim Jarmusch says, "there are films that depict drugs, films that use drugs metaphorically, there are films that are made for a drug culture, films made by people on drugs and films that are like drugs themselves."

    Mirrors of their times

    When director Bruce Sinofsky was first approached about doing a documentary on Hollywood movies and drugs, he had no idea how prevalent they were.

    "I started with a list off the top of my head, and it just grew from there," Sinofsky says in a recent phone conversation. "Ultimately we had to whittle it down, because it would have been too unwieldy."

    What remains is an examination of select movies from different time periods and some of the more recurrent themes.

    One of the first areas explored is drugs as liberation.

    When it was released in 1936, "Reefer Madness" was a straightforward, if melodramatic, drama about the dangers of smoking marijuana.

    By the late 1960s, the notion that one puff of a marijuana cigarette would drive you instantly mad was so laughable the film became a midnight show favorite for the counter-culture crowd, most of whom were smoking pot while watching the movie.

    This was also about the time psychedelic movies such as "The Trip" and "Head" found their way into theaters.

    Tommy Chong, whose partnership with Cheech Marin produced a string of successful comedies in the '70s and '80s, says audiences embraced the lovable potheads "because there's a real truth to these characters that the audience could relate to and laugh at."

    Adds Marin: "We were the first middle-of-the road stoners. The majority of our friends got high."

    Besides eliciting laughs from their behavior, Marin says the obvious point to be taken from Cheech & Chong movies, as well as Sean Penn's Spicoli character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is that "pot makes you stupid."

    Payback time

    In the '80s and '90s, a string of movies began to appear with plot lines featuring cocaine or heroin abuse, including "Bright Lights, Big City," "Scarface," "Less Than Zero," Goodfellas" and "Trainspotting."

    In nearly all of these films, no one feels good about these choices, and somebody must pay.

    "There's always a climb up the hill, but there's always the fall and roll down the hill," Sinofsky says.

    "I think there's a huge pressure on filmmakers, and even studios, that you don't want to be glorifying drug addiction or usage in such a way that's unhealthy," Sinofsky says. "A lot of people smoke pot, a lot of people do recreational drugs, and their lives don't implode. But then again, nobody's making a film about them."

    "If you have attractive, young, sexy men and women doing drugs and nothing happens to them and it looks fun, that's incredibly irresponsible," Sinofsky says.

    Not everyone in the documentary shares that sentiment. John Waters, the writer and director of independent films such as "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray," says he loves watching feel-bad movies.

    "But when Hollywood does them, they tend to be so melodramatic," Waters says, singling out "St. Elmo's Fire" as particularly laughable. "You have to show everybody all strung out. That's usually when makeup people win awards."

    Adds Jarmusch: "As social commentary, some of these movies can be pretty lame. It's like some after-school special."

    Challenging the viewer

    Two of the more interesting "drug movies" to emerge in recent years are "Requiem for a Dream" and "Traffic." Released in 2001, both films challenge audiences by taking different approaches to their subject matters.

    On the surface, "Requiem" would seem to be another feel-bad movie about some teens looking for a better life who get hooked on heroin and suffer a particularly brutal fall down the hill.

    But there's another half to the story, with Ellen Burstyn as the mother of one of the teens, whose own addictions - to chocolate, TV and food - ultimately destroy her as completely as the young people.

    As directed by Darren Aronofsky, "Requiem" is a stunning visual achievement and perfectly captures the gnawing obsessions in Hubert Selby's source novel.

    The 73-year-old Selby, whose lengthy writing career goes back to 1964's "Last Exit to Brooklyn," says it's not just heroin that's destructive, but the pursuit of the American dream itself.

    "That's the real drug," Selby says in a recent phone conversation. "It's our obsession with acquiring things."

    "The basic problem as I perceive it is a belief in the lie of separation. When I believe I'm separate from you, that means we're competitive. I have to get it before you.

    "If I'm obsessed with something, all sense of morality goes out the window. I cannot live on a moral basis and feed my obsession, no matter whether it's chocolate or Enron. It takes over the whole basic moral structure. And the simple pursuit of the dream is going to destroy us all because we're chewing up the world's resources."

    In "Traffic," writer Stephen Gaghan focused on the huge disconnect he saw between the people doing drugs and the so-called war on drugs being fought around the globe.

    The Oscar winner for best picture, "Traffic" expertly wove multiple storylines into a fascinating look at middle-class drug users, distributors and the government's ineffectual methods at stemming the tide of narcotics trafficking.

    "I don't think you can declare war on a facet of human nature," Gaghan says in the documentary. "It's like declaring war on lust."

    Asked what they foresaw as topics for future drug movies, both Selby and Sinofsky said psychotropics, the huge class of prescription medicines prescribed by psychiatrists, seemed likely candidates.

    "There will be a generation, kids now 7, 8 and 9, who 15 and 20 years from now will have been hugely affected by these medicines handed out like candy by their parents," Sinofsky says. "The parents don't want to deal with some of the issues they need to deal with, so they just get a doctor's prescription for their children."

    Adds Selby, "How many tens of millions of people are addicted today to doctor-prescribed medications? If you listen to the commercials on TV, they're insidious. What they're saying in effect is 'Don't feel anything. If you have a feeling, for the love of God, get to a doctor and get this pill right now!' "

    "The doctors don't know anything about the effect of these drugs," Selby says. "All they know is what the salesman's told them and the little trip they get to Bermuda for pushing it."

    Note: Documentary analyzes Tinsel Town's tradition of uniting drugs and movies.

    Source: Daily Southtown (IL)
    Author: George Haas, Pop Culture Writer
    Published: Sunday, March 30, 2003
    Copyright: 2003 Daily Southtown
    Contact: dstedit@interaccess.com
    Website: http://www.dailysouthtown.com/

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