Hollywood's High Focus of Documentary

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

  1. By Scott Galupo, The Washington Times
    Source: Washington Times

    ''Spun," released yesterday in area theaters, is the latest in a long line of Hollywood drug movies. It peers into the bugged-out eyes and up the flaring nostrils of methamphetamine addiction and never blinks. "Spun" is disgusting; it was meant to be.
    Love 'em or hate 'em, drug movies have become a Hollywood staple, like romantic comedies and monster flicks.

    Dating back to 1955's "The Man With the Golden Arm," the film in which Ol' Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, mainlines heroin and becomes Ol' Glassy Eyes, through to Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," illegal narcotics have fascinated Hollywood filmmakers nearly as much as lust and violence and death.

    What does that fascination say about the movie industry? More important, what does it say about us, our culture?

    If art imitates life, who's leading such squalid lives, right here in God's country, the United States?

    The increasingly hip American Movie Classics network tackles these questions in a riveting hourlong documentary, "Hollywood High," premiering Monday night at 8.

    Directed by Bruce Sinofsky, former protege of David and Albert Maysles, the filmmaking duo who captured the drug-fueled mayhem at the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont in 1969, "Hollywood High" canvasses a motley collection of directors, actors and writers.

    It traces the origin of drug movies back to 1936's "Reefer Madness," the alarmist anti-pot propaganda film that today seems touching - and amusing - in its naivete.

    By the time of the Vietnam generation, drugs had become a totem of liberation, reflected in the hippie-buddy-road picture "Easy Rider," released in 1969, when the darker side of drug-induced ecstasy was still largely confined to the realm of the unknown.

    The canary was sent into the coal mine, and it came back looking like Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, the perpetually high pair of comedians who made a series of lucrative marijuana cult films in the '70s, the "me decade," when the counterculture of the late '60s decayed into apolitical hedonism.

    Hence, "stoner" movies such as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" - who could forget Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli? - and Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke."

    Where "Easy Rider" showed drugs as vehicles for liberation and expanded consciousness, the stoner genre showed them as a recipe for basically harmless - but hardly inspiring - airheaded passivity.

    "Wayne's World" director Penelope Spheeris puts it this way: "The message was: Pot makes you stupid. And you don't want to be stupid."

    The 1980s finally copped to the destructive side of drugs, with movies such as "Scarface," the Al Pacino classic that chronicled the flashy and violent culture of cocaine traffickers in Southern Florida. Other '80s drug treatments included "Bright Lights, Big City" and, to a lesser extent, "St. Elmo's Fire," which, as director Jim Jarmusch observes, took a sermonizing "after-school special" tone regarding drug use.

    True to form, the movie industry's moral pendulum swung from one extreme to the other, from casual levity to stern moralizing.

    It wasn't until Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy" that Hollywood took off the kid gloves of the '70s and climbed down from the bully pulpit of the '80s. "Cowboy" was one of the first examples of a filmmaker injecting doses of irony, humor and nuance into a movie dealing with drug abuse.

    Movies such as Alison Maclean's "Jesus' Son" neither romanticized nor hysterically admonished against drug use, treating it as one of many regrettable threads in the fabric of modern life.

    The trend of calm, detached realism - blending the tragedy and comedy of addiction - continued apace throughout the '90s, with Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," Spike Lee's "Clockers" and, notably, "Permanent Midnight," a movie based on writer Jerry Stahl's autobiography.

    Mr. Stahl provides some of the most insightful commentary of "Hollywood High," noting, as only a recovering addict could, the not-so-obvious ways in which a good drug-related movie captures reality.

    An addict's trashed apartment in David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers," he says, shows not just the physicality of drug addiction, but its lifestyle manifestations as well.

    "It's not just what happens to your veins, your brain, your heart and your spirit," he says. "It's what happens to your environment. Gradually, what's infecting you infects the geography of where you happen to inhabit. Very few movies get that."

    "Hollywood High" mostly maintains an admirably objective stance about the broader social implications of mass entertainment and its impact on children.

    On the one hand, the proudly hedonistic director John Waters says, "I don't think movies' job is to make people better. I don't believe any movie can be a bad influence."

    Actor Gary Sinise weighs in more sensibly with his take on the movies' effect on young consumers. After the 1999 Columbine massacre, he says, "There were a lot of people who said movies have nothing to do with what kids go off and do. Well, come on. Movies affect the way people dress, the kind of hair they wear, the music they listen to. Why wouldn't they affect kids in negative ways as well?"

    The AMC documentary, however, trips up in its last quarter, allowing itself to become a megaphone for the self-assured Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for 2000's "Traffic," the critically acclaimed film that questions the efficacy of criminalizing drugs and the federal government's interdiction policy.

    Mr. Gaghan is quoted at interminable length, vehemently criticizing the war on drugs.

    Now, that policy of containment has its costs, and those costs are surely debatable, but, sadly, "Hollywood High" doesn't go there. Instead, it sneakily tilts toward legalization without explicitly saying so.

    Mr. Gaghan is more right than he realizes when he compares the war on drugs to that on terrorism. Drug traffickers and terrorists are both elusive and persistent enemies, but that doesn't necessarily mean those wars aren't worth fighting.

    "High" makes a more interesting, and subtly subversive, argument when it broaches the pet theory of novelist Hubert Selby Jr., whose "Requiem for a Dream" was adapted in 2000 by director Darren Aronofsky.

    The root of our drug problem, Mr. Selby says, is the American dream. Not the polite one - the good job, the education, the nice house in the suburbs - but the sinister one - the insatiable hunger for more, everything, now.

    We Americans do consume a lot of drugs - more than any other nation, in fact. Whatever your opinions about the staggering price of the drug war, all can agree that the human costs of drug abuse are incalculable.

    Hollywood would be remiss if it didn't try to weigh both those costs.

    WHAT: "Hollywood High"
    WHERE: American Movie Classics
    WHEN: Monday at 8 p.m.

    Source: Washington Times (DC)
    Author: Scott Galupo, The Washington Times
    Published: March 29, 2003
    Copyright: 2003 News World Communications, Inc.
    Website: http://www.washtimes.com/
    Contact: letters@washingtontimes.com

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