Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The History of Drug Films

In this essay, I take a look at films that have drugs as a central theme, and how the portrayal of drugs on film has changed throughout the decades. I have not included any drug related detective films, as that would make this text much too long.

In 1936 the "war on drugs" had just started to take off in America, and the movie Tell Your Children (aka Reefer Madness) was made. The film starts dramatically with a warning of "Strong, but true scenes." We get to see how the horrible drug marijuana, "more deadly than heroin," is the cause of several murders, attempted rapes as well as crappy baseball skills. Luckily the perpetrators are all caught, or take their own lives after feeling remorse. One of them is also confined to a mental institution after being reduced to a laughing piano player.

This involuntary comedy is the greatest example of over-the-top anti-propaganda in the history of drug movies. The rather mediocre documentary Grass (1999) talks more about both this film, as well as America's logic-lacking War on Drugs.

Gritty Realism
Many Europeans in their 20s might remember being shown the more realistic Christiane F (1981) as part of their high-school education. It belongs to a more modern form of anti-propaganda films, that is not afraid to show sickening reality, instead of fantastical monsters, to get its message across. As with the somewhat similar Basketball Diaries (1995) it is based on a true story, and together with the more artistic interpretation in Requiem for a Dream (2000) they are easily the three most effectively demoralizing drug movies you will ever see.

Drugstore Cowboy (1989) is another really good anti-drug movie that follow a poor addict on his way down to rock bottom. It differentiates from the aforementioned however, in that it has a few hysterical scenes which lightens the mood. Another treat in this film is a cameo junkie played by none other than William S. Burroughs, most known for the psychedelic novel Naked Lunch which he wrote during his 18 year heroin addiction (brilliantly filmed by director David Cronenberg in the 1991 movie of the same name).

Flower Power
These films would probably not have been made, had it not been for the hippy ages of the 60s and 70s, which opened up for a new film genre where drugs were no longer presented as people's enemy nr. 1, but instead were intoxicating and fun. A stream of entertaining titles like The Trip (1967), Wild in the Streets (1967) (where a bunch of teenagers take the power by pouring LSD into the senators drinking water) and the legendary biker movie Easy Rider (1969) all came in this period and achieved great success. It is also widely believed that the biggest reason for Stanley Kubrick's big breakthrough 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was that hippies would take LSD and go just to see the last 30 minutes of the film, as colors fly across the screen.

Drugs are Fun!
1978 marked the arrival of a proper drug comedy, when washed out anti-heroes Cheech & Chong did pretty much nothing else that smoke marijuana in Up in Smoke. The film paved the way for even more humorous interpretations, which has gotten hugely popular during the last 20 years. Many had to hold on to their cinema seats from laughing so hard at the screening of Fear of Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, but few are aware that there was an even funnier film about the writer Hunter S. Thomson in 1980 called Where the Buffalo Roam. Friday (1995) achieved great success when it made 10 times more money at the box office, than it cost to make it, and logically spawned of a set of sequels. Probably the most outrageous of all these comedies is How High (2001) and Half Baked (1998), the latter which many is hoping the announced sequel to, will still be made. The funniest drug related film clip you will ever see, is probably still a battalion of British troops, who try to maintain their sanity after being administrated LSD.

Mixed Sweets
Many film fanatics had to rearrange their list of all-time favorites in 1996 when Trainspotting hit the scene. The mixture of serious drama and humor really hit a nerve and a young Ewan McGregor in worn out jeans starred as the ultimate anti-hero who made young women's hearts beat faster all over the world. The subject was heroin and writer Irvine Welsh (who is seen shortly in the film, playing Michey Forrester, the man who sells suppositories to McGregor) seemed to really know what he was writing about. The same film formula has later been attempted in movies about other drugs, as with ecstasy in Human Traffic (1999) and amphetamine in Spun (2002), but none have yet reached the same level of excellence.

Sadly, the almost objective angle in the British miniseries Traffik (1989) is a very rare treat to find. The show was later Americanized in the film Traffic (2000) and again in an American miniseries in 2004. The original version from 1989 however is, in contrast to the American versions, realistically robbed of all glamor, romance, beautiful actors and does no attempt of simplification. Politicians, opium growers, rich drug tsars, dealers, junkies and their parents all get to tell their side of the events in the gripping story. It is so well made that the only thing missing for it to be a real documentary, is a narrating voice over. If you're neither out to be scared nor entertained, but actually want to learn more about the drug problem, this is a show you must have under your belt. It might even make you realize why declaring a meaningless war on drugs, does nothing to help the situation.

Notes: I originally wrote this article in Norwegian, and it was first published in the newspaper Baksetet in 2004. Since then, several interesting drug films and series have hit the scene. The show Breaking Bad is definitely the most notable of these, and is highly recommended viewing for both people who want to be entertained, those who want to be shocked and those looking for a more truthful dramatization of the world of drugs.

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