The Reefer Western
Inevitably, a New Hollywood overtook the old, one that was at least comfortable with drugs or professed to be for ambition’s sake. The immediate onscreen changes comprised everything from casual dope smoking (Klute, Blume in Love) to investigations of the heroin demimonde (The French Connection, The Panic in Needle Park, Dusty and Sweets McGee — all 1971). But by the time the ’70s had become the ’60s on film and actual drug users were making drug movies, the ’70s themselves had moved on. Freak-outs and mindfucks were long passé. The newest drug culture had been percolating for a decade and already had its own music, magazines and arts; its appearance in mainstream movies was more of a validation than any sort of exposé.
In the ’30s, demon-weed movies such as Reefer Madness (1936) had effectively replaced the dope operas of the teens. The collapse of the Hays Code’s anti-drug militancy in the ’50s was accompanied by films like High School Confidential! (1958), but even that film’s dope-ring plot was merely a pretext to inject some unadulterated rock & roll into the mix, joining dope and rock for good in the minds of the young. By the late ’60s, marijuana was the new drug of choice, and it was Easy Rider (1969), whatever its muddled intentions, that was the shotgun blast heard (and inhaled) ’round the world.
A tale of cocaine smugglers headed for an acid orgy at Mardi Gras, Easy Rider is the first of the Reefer Westerns. From the characters’ names — Peter Fonda’s Wyatt, as in Earp, a role his father essayed in My Darling Clementine, and Dennis Hopper’s Billy, as in the Kid, with his buckskin jacket and Buffalo Bill mustache — to the pueblos, Indian burial grounds, idyllic ranches, agrarian dystopias and John Ford’s Monument Valley, everything in the film speaks to simple verities lost. The proto-X-Files “Venusian invasion” rant aside, the platitudes of Jack Nicholson’s sympathetic drunk (“What you represent to them is freedom”) could have come straight out of the Cliffs Notes for The Searchers. Drug outsiders were the new mythic heroes and their fate either self-imposed exile or roadside immolation.
Easy Rider provided the first glimpse of self- and popular recognition for a drug-savvy constituency that had fetishized its own marginalization. The ensuing box-office bonanza allowed for a spate of herbal-centric Westerns marked by communal asylum, lunatic humor and druggy fatalism. These included Zachariah, a Siddhartha-on-horseback co-scripted by drug-comic brain trust Firesign Theater; Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, with its rock-star-meets-Republic-serials cast; Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with its indelible final images of Julie Christie preparing an opium pipe while Warren Beatty sinks to his eyebrows in a snow bank; Greaser’s Palace, Robert Downey Sr.’s allegory of a zoot-suited Christ who parachutes into a small Western town; Stacy Keach in Doc, as a laudanum-dependent Doc Holliday; and the pacifist vigilantism of Billy Jack, all released between 1971 and 1973. Both Fonda and Hopper followed up Easy Rider with Westerns — Fonda with the eerily sadistic The Hired Hand and Hopper with The Last Movie, on which he managed to squander the global revolution he had inadvertently launched.
Cocaine Epics and the New Coke Comedies
Sometime after his physical survival was no longer in question, after his long stint in a wilderness that included both the incoherent photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979) and the ether-fueled Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986), Hopper claimed, “The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider, it was everywhere.” This memorable boast wound up as a promotional quotation on the back of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a chronicle of New Hollywood that is as much about the decimating effects of protracted cocaine abuse as anything else. By the mid-’70s, this secret history was finding its way into the film record. A specific post-Watergate hyperbolic paranoia began to show up in films like Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and especially Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with its Chemtone wash and kinetic street blur, and the imperceptible slide of its leading man from porn loner to political assassin — the inspiration for both Billy Idol’s mohawk and John Hinckley’s sacrifice of love.
By decade’s end, this cycle had culminated in a kind of bulletproof megalomania that endured into the early ’80s. Directors like William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich and Hal Ashby became literal or figurative victims of a boldness of vision that increasingly outdistanced their fragmenting abilities. Grandiose epics such as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Scorsese’s New York New York and Raging Bull, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, Steven Spielberg’s 1941, and, wearing its coke on its sleeve, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, all offered an expansive benediction of the age. (Scarfacewas scripted by Oliver Stone, whose entire style, from the biting-out-the-tongue scene in Midnight Express to the ADD armchair travelogue of Natural Born Killers, is a précis of the “cocaine aesthetic.”) Apocalypse Now famously emulated its subject matter of tribal abandon and limitless power; Raging Bull, as Scorsese alluded, was as much a cocaine allegory as anything else (self-inflicted punishment being the common thread). But it was Heaven’s Gate, with its obsessive attention to detail at the expense of a coherent storyline, brilliantly encapsulated in a 15-minute take of Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert ballroom dancing on roller skates, that brought the party to a close with the collapse of United Artists.