Homage to Catatonia

Whoa, daddy.

—Robert Mitchum’s paean to the joys of marijuana, moments before his 1948 arrest

Chemistry: the science of the composition and mutability of substances — say, how a silver nitrate emulsion can create images on a light-sensitive surface. The processes that govern an organism, such as the inner workings of the brain. The kismet and mutual charisma between two lovers — especially onscreen — that defies empirical measure. Taken together, this nexus of alchemy and desire may represent nothing less than a secret history of the century of film: As the solitary artist, in pursuit of the ineffable, is refracted through the chemical diversions of the day, such diversions may bypass the artist entirely to create their own brand of chemical auteurism, which in turn comes to dominate the age.

Or maybe that’s just the drugs talking.

Booting Up

There are movies about drugs, and then there are movies in which drugs are the unspoken focus, either as influence or as allegory — the elephant in the living room that no one talks about, even if it’s pink, polka-dotted or leering madly. In the early years of Hollywood’s golden age, there was Frankenstein’s monster driven mad by the (presumably morphine) solution he is being administered, and daily morphine user Bela Lugosi as both the blood-addicted Dracula and Chandu the Magician — chandu being the Indian word for opium. There were the many Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations, an extension of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s firsthand knowledge of cocaine psychosis and drug-induced schizophrenia. And there were the Busby Berkeley musicals, which, drug-inspired or not, certainly seem to be the earliest flowerings of psychedelic cinema, what with their endless cavalcades of showgirl kaleidoscopes and Freudian headdresses. (“Say, what’s he smoking?” asks Ruby Keeler in Gold Diggers of 1933.) It’s little wonder that The Wizard of Oz and its saturated Technicolor, fairy-tale cast and treacherous poppies (not to mention its amphetamine-addled star) connected three decades later with a generation inured to rifts in the space-time continuum.

The birth of the cinema and the rise of recreational drugs occurred more or less in tandem in the United States, and the way we still view both is largely descended from that initial interplay. The Civil War had produced both widespread public exposure to commercial photography and a perpetual class of morphine addicts, who translated an anodyne for battlefield surgery into a civilian lifestyle. The rise of opium dens, the patent-medicine industry, and the promotion of heroin as a substitute for morphine in 1898 could well have remained known only in certain urban pockets for decades, except for the invention of the Kinetoscope and Vitagraph at roughly the same time. And as the movies themselves became a national addiction, one of the things moviegoers became addicted to was the exploitation of drug excesses.

Vilified as “vice films” in trade journals and excoriated for sowing the seeds of forbidden knowledge, these morality plays came with a trap door of staunch condemnation built in to get them past the censors. Typical was For His Son, directed by D.W. Griffith in 1912, in which a Coca-Cola surrogate laced with cocaine, called “Dopokoke,” visits poetic justice on its inventor’s son. These “dope operas” — tales of hubris, abandon and affliction with titles like Slaves of Morphine and The Devil’s Needle — were, for many, the first gleanings of what soon came to be known as the “American problem.” Public moralism inspired the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and, eventually, the Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed recreational drugs and alcohol and ushered in Prohibition, but it was a moralism in part reproduced by the movies themselves. And, as the messenger of record, Hollywood itself quickly became emblematic of the problem, as each new celebrity scandal carried its own drug angle.

The Highball Film

Although the newly instated Hays Code ensured that Hollywood too gave up the drug habit, the booze poured freely for years. During the early ’30s, alcohol was primarily glimpsed through the gangsters populating the likes of Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). The hipster lingo and gangster patois, later seized upon by Billy Wilder and others, was largely the outgrowth of a bootlegger-and-speakeasy culture that initially led to the effervescent comedies of the mid- to late 1930s and early ’40s, redolent of champagne and superior dry martinis. In The Thin Man (1934), William Powell employs a line from the last page of the Dashiell Hammett novel — “This excitement has put us behind in our drinking” — to establish a gilded lifestyle of boozy raconteurism and unforced absurdity. As Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Myrna Loy drank virtually nonstop through six films and still remained paragons of wit and sophistication. “How did you like Grant’s tomb?” he inquires by phone. “Very nice, dear,” she replies. “I’m having a copy made for you.”


But after years of Depression and with the imminent onset of World War II, serial drunkenness wasn’t quite so charming. “Oh, fine, fine,” says Thomas Mitchell playing a Eugene O’Neill type deep in his cups in Ben Hecht’s Angels Over Broadway (1940), moments after an unseen waiter has brought him a fresh scotch. “I no longer have to order drinks, I just attract them. ‘He shall have liquor wherever he goes.’” Spurred by writers whose primary solace was the bottle, noir re-fashioned alcohol as a bottomless well of escape and cautionary tales, much as illicit drugs had been for a generation earlier.

Ray Milland’s alcoholic novelist in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), plagued by a disorienting theremin score and bleeding bat-rat creatures living in the wall, was loosely patterned after F. Scott Fitzgerald, America’s pre-eminent fallen writer (through source novelist Charles Jackson and especially Wilder’s co-scripter, Charles Brackett, who knew Fitzgerald socially). Gone suddenly were Nick Charles and the antic fops of screwball comedy, and in their place was Bogart, first glimpsed in Casablanca as a pair of hands around a rocks glass. As bartender Sheldon Leonard states in the darkest part of It’s a Wonderful Life, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.”

The Highball Film made a brief resurgence with the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack movies of the early ’60s, which almost always had their table reservations built into the title: Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas, Robin and the Seven Hoods, and especially Ocean’s Eleven. Filmed during the day while Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop performed their legendary nightly run at the Las Vegas Sands Hotel, the film — from its flimsy caper plot to its boozy swagger and mumbled dialogue that seems thought up before each take, to the uncredited cameos by Shirley MacLaine, Pinky Lee, restaurateur Nicky Blair, jazz great Red Norvo and a snake dancer named Shiva — is closer to a catered cocktail party or a floating craps game than to a real movie. It’s as if the actors can’t wait to get off-camera and back to the party taking place a cool 180 degrees behind the fourth wall.

Lysergic Expressionism

By the ’60s proper, Hollywood was split down the middle, with one half invested in increasingly superfluous extravaganzas, praying for another Sound of Music (1965), and the other half shin-deep in the phosphorescent surf, embracing the sea change around it. There is no other explanation on the part of the studios for such monstrosities as Casino Royale (1967) — filled with women in miniskirts, endless hedonism and calcified hipsters like John Huston — than that it tried to approximate the limitless sensorium and wandering spectacle that everyday bohemian life had become. Yet no amount of split screens, or rack focuses, or lazy-eye zooms, or hand-held jump cuts, or REM-speed editing could create a workable simulacrum of this new and, to many, mystifying point of view. You were either on the bus or you weren’t.

Although there was an audience for lysergic spectacles like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo or even Disney’s 30-year-old Fantasia, industry mandarins were powerless to explain why. The unspoken, unifying bond between these films and their audience was LSD, the first drug to which the new generation could lay exclusive claim, making it all the more imperative as subject matter. The inevitable wave of LSD films ranged from teens-in-peril warnings like The People Next Door (or, later, Go Ask Alice), to exploitation come-ons like Alice in Acidland and how-to manuals like Roger Corman’s The Trip, to fashion make-overs (both sartorial and sexual) like Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. Whatever else, they were all public-service announcements for a burgeoning lifestyle.

And, as always, it was the old guard who proved the most rigid in their conversions. As far back as 1955, Otto Preminger had broken the Production Code with The Man With the Golden Arm, releasing it without a Hays Office Seal of Approval. Based on a Nelson Algren novel, it featured Frank Sinatra, working overtime to prove that his From Here to Eternity comeback was no fluke, as musician-junkie Frankie Machine. Despite its status as the first of the ’50s heroin melodramas (followed by Monkey on My Back, about fighter Barney Ross, and A Hatful of Rain, about returning Korean War vets), The Man With the Golden Arm clearly remained a booze film, full of big moments, grandiose gestures and the exquisite pain of male masochism.


Given Preminger’s predilection for challenging authority (he had broken the color line with Carmen Jones and would help shatter the blacklist with Exodus), it makes sense that of all of Hollywood’s classical autocrats, Preminger should be the one to march into uncharted terrain once a freestanding drug culture existed in earnest. Still, Skidoo, or LSD I Love You (1968), released by Paramount, remains one of the most blinkered cultural documents of an already disintegrating age. Jackie Gleason plays a hit-man convict who is accidentally dosed with a tab of acid. In his final role, Groucho Marx plays a gangster named “God,” while Carol Channing, dressed in a sunshine-yellow Rudi Gernreich pantsuit, leads a phalanx of body-painted hippies across San Francisco Bay. Ostensibly a prison comedy, the film ends with everyone aloft in a hot-air balloon as the final credits are sung by composer Harry Nilsson — down to “Copyright M-C-M-L-X-V-I-I-I.” For those who missed the point, the trailer starred Timothy Leary.

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. (Scarface was 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.

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.

With special thanks to Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness by Michael Starks; Behind the Mask of Innocence by Kevin D. Brownlow; and Mark Rappaport.

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