But before it was all over, cocaine cinema would also beget a hysterical brand of comedy. (So-called “cokey comedies” had been a staple of the Triangle-Keystone Studios in the midteens, best remembered for the antic Keystone Kops series.) The New Coke Comedies of the late ’70s and early ’80s, coming as they did on a cusp between eras, use headlong speed and a forced revelry to mask an increasing desperation. Many of these films hailed from Saturday Night Live alumni, of which John Belushi and writer Doug Kinney were two of the earliest high-profile casualties. There are moments — Belushi’s frat-house speech in Animal House, the Chevy Chase seduction scene in Caddyshack, the first 10 minutes of Stripes — that point to a humor not seen before, an effortlessly ceaseless firing of the synapses that manages to take flight with cerebral elegance.
Increasingly, though, as this trend wore on, the Belushi-Aykroyd vehicles The Blues Brothers, Neighbors and 1941, any number of Richard Pryor vehicles, George Lucas’ Howard the Duck, Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child, Bill Cosby in Leonard Part 6, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman all but in fisticuffs in Ishtar, the hysterically breathless Young Doctors in Love, Honky Tonk Freeway, Lookin’ To Get Out, Bonfire of the Vanities, and really too many more to chronicle here, carry with them too much of the burden of the age. The stars, the directors and the studios behind them all seemed at once bloated and enervated, wound up and ground down, and too long running on empty. To what extent this is directly attributable to chemistry is, for our purposes, between the films and their makers.
The New High Times
As these screaming behemoths increasingly rendered Hollywood at least creatively impotent throughout the remainder of the decade, a smaller, wilier, more cunning film practice emerged in its shadow. In much the way Hollywood had been driven by cocaine, many of the early lights of American independent film were just as resolutely guided by — or at least collectively constitute — a heroin aesthetic. A cross between the wiry, spiky downbeat jazz riffs of the Cassavetes oeuvre and the accidental comedies of the Morrissey-Warhol features, the indie cinema of the mid-’80s and ’90s was filled with modest ambitions, horror-show characters and pocket-size epiphanies. A brief survey of these Heroin Indies might include the Junkie Comedies of Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, with their goofball logic, pop-cult fetishism and fixed-camera stare), Alex Cox (not just the obvious Sid and Nancy, but also the loopy Spaghetti-O’s Western Straight to Hell) and Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy with patron saint William Burroughs, the narcoleptic fever-dream of My Own Private Idaho and the ragged anarchy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).
Elsewhere, Darren Aronofsky may be pioneering a Cinema of Ecstasy in this country, a kind of Trainspotting-lite, with his rave-derivative repetitions, fishbowl POV and frenetic clusters of images, even as Õ chronicles an apparent speed freak and Requiem for a Dream serves up a brisk cocktail of heroin and diet pills. Any further exploration of this indie-drug taxonomy would have to find room for the Kitchen Sink Crackpipe Dramas of Abel Ferrara, the Granulated Sugar Surrealism of David Lynch, the Anabolic Steroid Cinema of Bruckheimer/Bay, as well as the Gangster Rap Crack cycle, rooted as much in the urban crack-cocaine trade as it is in the ’70s Superfly blaxploitation era that prefigured it.
All art of any era, if the truth be known, is probably inspired by one drug or another — if not in practice, then in absence; if not in agency, then in context. Certainly the Romantics wouldn’t exist without absinthe or laudanum; bebop is unimaginable without heroin; and the Abstract Expressionists are probably inexplicable without the whiskey pit of the Cedar Tavern. Nor could any of them exist without an audience with which they could connect, at the deepest unspoken levels. With this point in time representing the most overmedicated one in our nation’s history, perhaps the current state of American film can best be understood as the Cinema of Prozac — an era in which audiences endlessly accept and forgive the film industry’s infinite contempt for them, and for itself. Better yet, if film itself is a drug, perhaps our era is best seen as one in which the drug is being stepped on, when less and less of it is reaching the market in a pure state. If so, the studios would do well to take note. Because history teaches us that all drug genres one day burn out — and withdrawal is a motherfucker.