For as long as images have flickered across a screen, people have lit up on them. A general libertine attitude that lasted well into the 1920s embraced drugs as a recreational activity, with early filmmakers making the most of that freedom, especially in comedies. That changed in the 1930s with the establishment of the Hays Code, which censored everything from profanity to drugs. Opportunistic filmmakers circumvented it with “educational” (read: exploitive) movies depicting the “bad effects” of drugs. Originally titled Tell Your Children, Reefer Madness (1936) was intended to be a morality tale. Funded by a church group, it was to be the pulpit from which the dangers of pot smoking would be condemned. Immediately after it was completed, however, it was recut, its puritanical message blitzed into oblivion as suggestive scenes were added by shysters eager to make a buck from it. In the early 1970s, Reefer Madness re-entered popular culture, with audiences laughing themselves to tears over its unmitigated absurdity.
A few years before that revival, marijuana was again depicted as a recreational activity. In 1969, Easy Rider was a shot to the arm of '50s mores that began to buckle in the early '60s due to a counterculture marching out on the streets. On the screen, movies reveled in a newfound freedom as the Hays Code ended in 1968. With Easy Rider and its progeny, marijuana and other psychoactive drugs such as cocaine and LSD were portrayed as gateways to both higher consciousness and social liberation. In reality, this “turn on, tune in, drop out” hippie-dippy idealism was short-lived, as experimentation gave way to getting high and '60s counterculture eventually gave way to '70s hedonism. And in the '70s, the stoner movie was born.
Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (1978) set the framework for the stoner film. A couple of dopes find themselves on a trip of Odyssean proportions, clashing with fascists, freaks and the 5-0, circumventing work and adult responsibilities, and getting involved in some dubious and outlandish shenanigans — all for laughs, and all while completely baked. The complete Cheech & Chong oeuvre, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, the Friday trilogy, The Big Lebowski, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Pineapple Express follow the stoner blueprint to varying degrees and are generally regarded as masterworks of the genre.
As early as 1980, however, tweaks to that formula created some of the more interesting examples of cannabis consumption put on film.
A mere two years after Up in Smoke, an unlikely trio of ladies passed a joint around to great comedic effect. With its theme of sexual harassment in the workplace as timely now as it was in 1980, 9 to 5 features icons Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin dreaming up revenge fantasies as they puff, puff, pass: Fonda's big-game hunter, Parton's rodeo calf roper and Tomlin's fairy princess have it out for their sexist pig of a boss. The whole thing is an inspired sequence of stoner surrealism in line with the sort of hallucinations that came before and after 9 to 5. It's also the first instance of women getting baked in a big-name Hollywood movie. It wouldn't be until 2007, however, that women got a full-blown stoner movie.
Smiley Face perfectly casts Anna Faris as pothead actress Jane F. She eats a batch of cannabis cupcakes and spends the rest of the day trying to get to Hemp Fest in Venice Beach, in an attempt to pay off her dealer before he takes her only valuable possession, a Sleep Number bed. With her comedic dexterity, inherent sweetness and goofy charm, Faris maneuvers herself through a script that includes a scene with roommate Danny Masterson as potentially sexually depraved, Jane stoner-philosophizing with her dealer about Reagonomics and the trickle-down economics of selling pot, and a final act that literally rains down pages of Marx's Communist Manifesto, all of it bookended by a Dr. Seuss–like voice-over by Roscoe Lee Brown, because why the fuck not.
Perhaps not as rare as stoner films with a female protagonist, stoner films focusing on dealers or suppliers also are few and far between, because they don't generally provide the good vibes a pothead seeks at the end the day. If the hardcore drug film is preoccupied with depicting the epic rise and fall of a kingpin in the form of a crime saga (think Scarface or American Gangster), the stoner film is too high on its own trip to aspire to anything too serious. Unlike cocaine and heroin, weed is inherently funny; even if attention is given to the manufacture and distribution, it's still delivered in comedic tokes (see 2008's The Wackness and, for another female-driven story, 2000's Saving Grace).
Maybe that accounts for the indifference toward Oliver Stone's Savages (2012). In keeping with the stoner model, Savages features two protagonists (one of them named Chon!) taking occasional hits off a bong in between planning hits on the Mexican cartel that's kidnapped the girlfriend they share — none of it with comedic results. Watching Savages can result in a serious buzzkill, but for any stoner scholars looking to expand their list, the movie is an interesting retooling of the genre. Complete with the requisite “I love you, man!” at the end that underscores that the true romance is always between the guys, Savages is a stoner oddity that should be worth a look to any connoisseur.
A director who seems to be checking off vices to wrap around his expansive morality tales (hedonism in Boogie Nights, avarice in There Will Be Blood and apostasy in The Master), Paul Thomas Anderson may be responsible for the thinking stoner's film. Shot through a hazy shade of California sun, Inherent Vice stars Joaquin Phoenix as a private investigator in the '70s who stumbles his way through a byzantine missing-persons case while perpetually stoned. With its mellow yellow intensity, this stoner noir owes just as much to beachside noirs like Night Moves (1975) and Cutter's Way (1981) as it does to shadowy noirs of the '40s and brassy crime films of the '30, all of which traffic in some form of intoxication or another. Unfolding like a cross between Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye in its languidness and Roman Polanski's Chinatown in its elaborateness, Inherent Vice is a slow-burn, Russian doll of a movie where one investigation leads to another missing person, which leads to another investigation and so forth. Halfway through, I had to put my bong down to try to figure out what was going on. But wafting through all the smoke is half the fun and might be the whole point and end result of a package marked “inherent vice.”
Because of their ethereal and organic makeup, there's a fundamental instability to people and their stories, whether in real life or projected across the screen. And like that joint that will eventually burn itself out, you've only got so much time to enjoy the trip.