The drug cinema
Drug films of the last ten years
Cannabis in films
LSD in films
The implications of the drug cinema
A partial listing of recent Western films with some thematic treatment of drug usage
Author: S. TAQI
Pages: 19 to 28
Creation Date: 1972/01/01
The films discussed in this article are for the most part only films which achieved international release and some degree of popular or critical recognition (the only " unknown " films I discuss are Chappaqua and The Connection, which I feel are important enough to deserve inclusion). The reasons for this selectivity are twofold: partly because of the questionable value of discussing films which never saw popular or critical daylight, and partly because of the difficulties and dangers involved in accurately documenting little known drug films of the past. It cannot be excluded that some notable drug films of yester-year may for the time being be " submerged " in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Italy and France, though it is improbable that there have been many of them. In spite of possible omissions, I hope and believe there are no glaring ones.
As for films from other parts of the world, there may have been some interesting contributions to the drug cinema from countries such as Mexico, Japan, Brazil, India, which would be worth noting, if only there were some means of accurately cataloguing and researching the topic.
The critical opinions expressed in this article are, unless otherwise stated, of course my own. An alphabetical listing of some seventy-five contemporary films with major or incidental drug themes can be found at the end of the article.
Anyone familiar with the contemporary American and European cinema has probably noticed a recent tendency toward what have come to be called " drug movies " - feature-length motion pictures whose plot and thematic content focus on drug use and abuse in modem Western society. These drug films must be considered a recent phenomenon: in America and Europe they are now coming out in clusters whereas fifteen years ago they were virtually non-existent. What kind of films are these? Why are they being produced and what is their significance? This article attempts to explore the current drug film trend, to describe some important films, the points of view they reflect, the receptions given to them by audiences, and the degree to which the films may influence or reflect attitudes of the general public towards drug use.
The first modern film, the grandparent of today's drug movies, was probably Otto Preminger's American classic The Man With the Golden Arm. Made in 1955, this study of heroin addiction provides an invaluable frame of reference from which we can trace the development of the later drug films of the 1960s and 1970s ....
If we glance at a list of the films of producer/director Preminger we grasp quickly that since the early 1950s he has usually preferred to make films of premeditated cultural and social significance: among his best-known works are The Moon Is Blue, Saint Joan, Exodus, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal and Anatomy of a Murder. Thus being aware of Preminger's social and artistic convictions, we can assume that The Man With The Golden Arm was a serious 1955 statement on drug abuse and not simply a commercial enterprise exploiting the box-office appeal of drug traffic and addiction. And this is where the film's problem lies. Because despite its earnestness , The Man With the Golden Arm is a good example of the simplistic and outdated cinematic approach towards drug abuse which marked the films of the 1950s and early 1960s.
The story of The Man With the Golden Arm (based on Nelson Algren's novel of the same title) can be recapitulated as follows: a young musician from the Chicago slums has just been cured of heroin addiction; he returns home and tries unsuccessfully to stay away from the drug. Finally, innocently involved in a murder and knowing the police will give him little credence if they discover he is an addict, he decides to quit drugs abruptly before giving himself up for questioning. He does this in the film's famous 10 minute " withdrawal scene ", and as the picture closes we are given the impression that the hero, Frankie Machine, has " kicked the habit " once and for all.
When Golden Arm was first released it was felt by many to be among the most intense and powerful films because of its " realistic " treatment of drug addiction. But while it retains much of its emotional impact when seen today, it must be said at the same time that what was considered heavyweight realism by 1955 audiences might today be considered paperweight pap. In the first place, Frankie Machine seems to get his habit back in record time - after only two or three heroin doses, and at the picture's end he cures himself literally overnight, by locking himself up and rolling about in pain for several hours. Beyond these oversimplifications of detail, the characterizations in the film are unhappily stereotyped: Frankie Machine is not portrayed as a victim of his own emotional inadequacies and environmental circumstances, but as the pawn of a depraved and prosperous " pusher " who coaxes and entices him back into addiction. By 1970, clearly, these pat and cliché-laden attitudes would no longer be acceptable to general audiences only too aware of the manifold complexities of drug abuse. The viewing public would be demanding and receiving greater honesty and depth in the presentation of drug use on the screen.
Until about 1964 new drug films were as a rule not considered good box-office ventures - presumably because The Man With the Golden Arm was the " definitive " film on heroin addiction, and other types of drug abuse were not yet in the public eye. What few drug pictures there were (among them: Hatful of Rain, 1957, by Fred Zinnemann ; Monkey On My Back, 1957, by André de Toth; Paris Blues, 1961, by Martin Ritt) seemed to be reiterations of Preminger's over-simplified statements in Golden Arm. In 1965, however, a new trend was emerging: youth culture seemed to be slowly stressing the use of drugs like marijuana, hashish and LSD - and by the late 1960s drug experimentation among young people from the middle classes increased. And because the film industry has always been nimble when it comes to exploiting crazes among the young - witness rock'n'roll films during the mid-1950s, twist dance films during the early 1960s, and surfing films during the mid-1960s - there was a swift increase in the production of drug films. By the 1970s drug films appeared to have become altogether commonplace: while in all of the 1950s there were probably no more than half a dozen major drug films produced in the West (and most of these about heroin addiction), in the first two years of this decade over a score have been released - films dealing with all types of drugs: opiates, cannabis, hallucinogens, stimulants, etc. But before examining some of these modern films in detail, it may be useful to consider a few preliminary questions about them, and also to become acquainted with one or two background facts about the drug film phenomenon.
First of all, why do most drug films seem to be coming from the United States in particular, and to a lesser degree from Great Britain? The answers are threefold: to begin with, drug abuse among young people is a fashion which since the early 1960s has been primarily identified with the youth of " hip " America and " mod " England - therefore many American and British film creators feel that drug use as a movie theme has a legitimate timeliness and a definite social relevance. Directors from countries such as Italy or France, however, may well feel that drug abuse is not familiar enough to a broad cross-section of their local public to warrant a filmed exploration of the problem. This idea is underscored by the fact that several non-English speaking directors who have made films touching on modern drug use - the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, French directors André Cayatte and Barbet Schroeder, and Czech directors Milos Forman and Ivan Passer - have chosen to use English and American characters or settings for these films. A second reason why many drug pictures seem to be produced in the United States is that while in most other countries persons of every age group are counted among regular cinema-goers, in America this is definitely not the case: older and middle-aged Americans appear to prefer television and other activities and it has been estimated that 50% to 75 % of all U.S. cinema admissions are chalked up by under thirty year olds. Thus it is clear that in order to survive, American producers must serve up films with themes that youthful audiences are interested in and can identify with - i.e., drugs, social revolution and of the generation-gap. Finally, the third reason for the greater number of English-speaking drug films is that while American and British film-makers have an almost entirely free hand in deciding what subjects to explore in their work, film producers in countries such as Italy, France and Spain must take into account the problem of official government stances against films which might glorify drugs, glorify bloodshed, create dangerous political and social unrest etc. Some producers attempt to solve this problem by initiating their projects outside of their own countries, thus technically making them " foreign " films and perhaps less vulnerable to home censorship. Barbet Schroeder did this with his film More.
Are modern drug films popular in general? Not significantly more or less than other types of movies, if we judge by box-office receipts. One drug movie ( Easy Rider) has been a legendary financial success, several others have done very well ( Joe, More, Zabriskie Point, Taking Off), and a large number of them - particularly independently produced and distributed films (those made without the backing of a major film company) have been box-office disappointments. Many drug pictures, however, seem to end up showing profits, if only because they are usually shot with unknown casts and below-average budgets Easy Rider, for example, was made with a reputed $340,000 when by current American standards a film costing five times as much is considered inexpensive.
As for particular points of view and treatments of subject matter, the only factor most drug films have in common is that their makers are comparatively young and inexperienced: while a forty-five year old director is today considered young, most drug films are made by men in their thirties and even twenties, and several of these films happen to be the director's debut picture. But apart from this age factor, there seems to be no single element common to all modern drug films - they range from comedies to melodramas, from semi-documentaries to fantasies - as an examination of a few of them reveals.
Blow-up. Until the mid-1960s cannabis was rarely mentioned or seen in feature films - indeed it is difficult to think of a single major pre-1965 movie in which cannabis appeared. Of course, this is not too surprising when we remember that cannabis abuse was not a significant social problem in the West until the late 1960s.
The first major film to make a statement on cannabis use was probably Blow-up (1966) by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. In Blow-up Antonioni studies how an indecisive but successful professional man involved in a murder deals with his conscience when all the people surrounding him are capricious and indifferent. This happy-go-lucky social circle is represented in the film by the fashion-conscious London pop crowd of 1966 - a glittering cluster of young people who have achieved success in the fashion and arts world. The climax of Blow-upoccurs when the hero, at his wit's end over what to do now that he has discovered a murder, rushes to a party to seek out his best friend for advice. At this particular party, however, everyone has been smoking cannabis: the hero's friend is intoxicated and unresponsive, and couldn't care less about the newly-found corpse. Angered and frustrated, the hero starts to leave but unexpectedly bumps into a dreamy-eyed girl friend: he reminds her that she was supposed to be in Paris for the week-end. She calmly replies, " I am in Paris ".
Antonioni, now 60, seems to have been one of the first film-makers to point out that for the new generation, inner travel may well be more important than conventional travel, that self-awareness may be more important than social awareness. By the end of Blow-up the hero has apparently accepted the indifference around him, and he makes a final decision to mind his own business and let the murder go unreported.
Easy Rider. While Blow-up was not a film overly-occupied with drugs, Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider certainly was, and its enormous financial success (over $16,000,000 grossed in the U.S. alone) 1 encouraged a wave of other drug films - in fact, in terms of influence and impact Easy Rider could well be the most important drug picture ever made.
1. To better comprehend this film's box-office achievement it is worthwhile to note that according to the American trade journal Variety, Easy Rider has outgrossed such spectacular successes as Lawrence of Arabia ($15,000,000) and A Man For All Seasons ($12,750,000).
Released in 1969, Hopper's film is about two hippy type men motorcycling around America without aiming for any goal except personal freedom. They not only use drugs but sell them as well: the movie opens with their delivering a cachet of cocaine to a wealthy " connexion ".
The two heroes, while not hippies by self-definition seem to be infinitely closer to hippy society than to " straight " society: whenever they travel in Establishment channels they are insulted, bullied and laughed at. Apart from dealing in cocaine (and sniffing it in their spare time) they use LSD and smoke plenty of marijuana. Marijuana, in fact, is the key to the film- it is " pot " which symbolizes the difference between their moral code and the Establishment code, ant director Hopper, 35, goes to some pains to establish the idea that, to the heroes, marijuana smoking is not an evil act, but, in fact, the reverse. In one peaceful campfire scene the two drifters gently teach a friend (an alcoholic lawyer, their sole Establishment ally the correct technique for marijuana smoking, continually imploring him to forget all the nonsense he has heard about the drug in the past.
But society-at-large still seems unable to accept these modern day pilgrims and by the end of the film they have been wantonly destroyed.
Easy Rider achieved considerable critical success both in America and Europe, and immediately after its release many other films with similar generation-gap themes began bubbling up. In the long run, however the essentially contrived impact of Easy Rider could well wear off, just as much of The Man With the Golden Arm has. The film's true significance lies in its success young 1969 audiences identified themselves with these drug-taking wayfarers to the extent that they made Easy Rider, perhaps the first serious pro-marijuana film, one of the greatest box-office successes of all time.
Cannabis in Other Films. Since Easy Rider there have been several other successful films using pot-smoking as a symbol of the conflict between the generations and among the most important of these have been Taking Off, Zabriskie Point, and Joe.
Taking Off (1971) is a generation-gap comedy by the highly praised Czech director Milos Forman and it is in effect, a European's vision of modern American life. The picture's plot concerns the tribulations of a well to-do American couple whose teen-age daughter shows signs of becoming a hippy. The parents are honestly confused about their child's changing values, her use of marijuana, and her strange assortment of friends but they try to be open-minded to the extent of taking formal marijuana-smoking lessons (along with many other similarly perplexed couples) from a painstakingly sincere hippy teacher. Forman, however, in this pointed though perhaps simplistic commentary on America, seems to suggest that the only true difference between American youth and their elders is that the oldsters drink cocktails and sing along at the piano while the " revolutionary " young crowd smokes pot and strums guitars.
Joe (1971) is also a film about an American parent whose daughter has " dropped out ", allied herself with the hippy movement and begun using drugs. But though director John Avildsen infuses Joe with many moments of humour, it is essentially a tragic picture: the film breaks up U.S. society into two segments - the drug-taking easy-going young and the frustrated money-conscious proletariat. The conflict between these two factions is resolved only by the slaughter of a hippy commune by two infuriated members of Establishment society. One of the murdered hippies is the runaway girl, and her unknowing killer is her father.
In the film Zabriskie Point (1971), Michelangelo Antonioni's follow-up to Blow-up, the Italian director explores the " youth revolution " in modern America. Though this film was widely branded as Antonioni's poorest, it nevertheless represents a logical progression of the points of view he expressed in Blow-up. In that film he showed modern British adults acting indifferently to conventional society and using the cannabis drug for the purpose of inner travel; in Zabriskie Point, four years later, he describes how U.S. adolescents have now caught on to the drug - using it freely at almost any hour of the day or night. Pot-smoking seems to come full circle, in fact, when the teen-age hero of Zabriskie Point refuses a marijuana joint by saying, " No thanks - I'm on a reality trip ". In Antonioni's eyes, being " stoned " has become the norm for much of American youth while being " straight " has become a deviation.
While many other recent films have given glimpses of the new generation's fondness for cannabis - among them The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1971; Director: Leonard Horn), I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968; Hy Averback), Dealing (1972; Paul Williams), Three In the Attic (1970; R. Wilson) - it is interesting to note the difficulty there is in finding cannabis films of a cautionary nature. While most heroin films seem to be, to some degree, warnings against addiction, cannabis films almost invariably show the drug in either a sympathetic or a non-committal light - no doubt because they are usually made by young directors for young audiences, and any exaggerated anti-cannabis stands might seem hollow and didactic, and might be bad for the box-office as well.
The Trip. LSD is often mentioned in drug films, and several of the films I have already discussed contain
LSD sequences: the heroes of Easy Rider have a meaningful communal trip with two girls; one of the hippies in Joe peddles acid for a living; and in More, a French film on heroin addiction which I shall discuss later, the heroes use LSD in an attempt to discover their spiritual roots. The definitive LSD film, however, must certainly be American producer/director Roger Corman's colour extravaganza The Trip.
Made in 1967 in California, just as LSD experimentation was apparently increasing among Western youth, The Trip was widely condemned as a cheap attempt to exploit the LSD phenomenon - partly because director Corman achieved his first success with low-budget science-fiction and horror films ( Attack of the Crab Monsters, X - The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, etc.) and thus has been treated as a " non-serious " director by many American and British film critics; in several European countries, however, Corman is greatly respected and is something of a hero to many young filmmakers.
The Trip is a serious film, and also an entertaining one... and it lives up to its promising title in that the final hour of the film is a study of a young man during his first LSD experience. Corman, now 45, has revealed in interviews that he himself took the drug under a doctor's supervision in order to prepare himself for the making of the film. He called his own LSD adventure " fantastic ".
The hero of The Trip (played by Peter Fonda - who two years later would star in Easy Rider) is a young director of television advertisements who is worried about the shallowness of his life: he is merely a peg in the American commercial merry-go-round, his marriage has been a failure, and he has no idea of what his life means or implies. Consequently he feels compelled to take LSD in an effort to discover himself and his relationship to the universe. His " guide " for the trip is a medically knowledgeable young man who assures the hero that in the event of a bad experience an immediate injection of chlorpromazine will quickly sedate him. Thus put at ease, the hero swallows an LSD dose and the trip commences: Corman lets us observe the user's behaviour, and at rapid intervals gives us " subjective " glimpses of what the hero is seeing, hearing and feeling.
At first the trip is altogether smooth - Fonda is delighted as he scrutinizes an orange and seems to see the whole cosmos within it. Several minutes later, however, he has a vision of immediate death and is in near-panic until his guide soothingly talks him out of the crisis. After a couple of hours - still under the drug's effects and obviously in an uncommonly gentle mood - Fonda wanders off into night-time Los Angeles, but although his child-like wonder and friendliness frighten many passers-by, he himself sees nothing peculiar about walking into a strange house at two a.m., helping himself to a glass of milk and then settling down in the living room to watch television.
Corman attempts to recreate LSD-type visions through the use of varied cinematic and soundtrack effects such as multi-coloured lighting, super-magnified images, split-second images, amplified breathing and drumbeats, electronic music and studio-created sound distortions.
Towards the end of his trip Fonda picks up a young woman in a dance club and spends the early morning making love to her in her bungalow near the ocean-side. He then falls into a long, restful sleep and wakes up the next day fully relaxed and refreshed. He walks into the sunshine and his companion asks him, " Was it worth it? " The hero hesitates and then says, " I suppose so ", as the film ends.
This final bit of dialogue, this apparent " endorsement " of LSD experimentation is what stung many critics when they wrote about The Trip in 1967: although it opens with a strong warning to the audience about the dangers of hallucinogenic drugs, the film goes on to show a man who uses LSD and, far from suffering any ill-effects, seems actually to gain some insight from the experience. On close inspection, however, it becomes quite clear that The Trip is neither a pro-LSD picture nor an anti-LSD picture. It is simply Roger Corman telling the story of one man taking a single LSD trip. The main character is not an adolescent seeking thrills, but a troubled adult seeking help. Any statement on the " goodness " or " badness " of drugs is made by Corman in those scenes in which characters appear who are obviously on a steady diet of drugs: Corman makes it clear that they have not gained instant wisdom from them. Finally, the hero (as well as the audience) is far from convinced of the beneficial effects of the trip. He " supposes " that it was worthwhile as an experience, but he has no delusions about having become a changed man because of his solitary encounter with LSD.
LSD in other films. A few other recent movies (among them The Chelsea Girls, 1967, Andy Warhol; and Performance, 1970, Donald Camell and Nicholas Roeg) have tried to suggest how LSD experiences appear to the beholder, and a few futuristic films ( Wild in the Streets, 1970, Barry Shear; THX 1138, 1972, George Lukas) have forwarded the idea that in decades to come LSD-type hallucinogens and other drugs may be used to keep the masses under psychological control, as in Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. Very few films aside from The Trip, however, have attempted to go deeply into the spiritual or quasi-spiritual implications of LSD use.
It is also worthwhile noting that the audio-visual " LSD effects " in films like The Trip, Performance and The Chelsea Girls are not especially highly rated or appreciated by habitual LSD users and cannabis devotees: the all-time favourite " head picture " (film which " acidheads " and " potheads " enjoy viewing because it enhances the drug experience) is probably Stanley Kubrick's non-drug science-fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This particular film contains many exquisite images of spaceships in the star-filled galaxy, and it ends with an extraordinary quarter-hour sequence of spectacularly vivid, exploding, abstract colour images which many LSD-users have called the closest thing to an artificial LSD-experience currently available. Other movies popular with LSD and cannabis users are the animated cartoon Yellow Submarine (1968), the rock music films Monterrey Pop (1968) and Wood-stock (1970), and the science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage (1966).
While narcotics addiction in the United States was rarely treated honestly in films until the late 1960s, two low-budget independent films by Shirley Clarke - The Connection (1961) and The Cool World (1963) - are worthy of a passing mention. These films, effectively probed the New York City ghetto world of addiction and squalor. The Connection (based on Jack Gelber's stage-play of the same title) was with its discomfiting realism a particular forerunner of the series of heroin pictures of the late 1960s and early 1970s: Chappaqua, The Panic in Needle Park, Dusty and Sweets McGee, More, Believe in Me, Les Chemins de Katmandou, Born to Win, Trash, and others. Before examining some of these films, however, it is important to point out that while Miss Clarke's two films dealt mainly with the American black as addict and outcast, most other heroin films have had whites as their main characters - perhaps because of the commercial importance of " audience-identification " with the players.
Chappaqua. Apart from Synanon, which was a semi-documentary film made in 1966, by Richard Quine about the well-known Synanon centre, an addict-rehabilitation organization in America, the only innovational heroin film of the late 1960s was Chappaqua (accent the first syllable), an independently-made movie by the American Conrad Rooks.
Filmed for the most part in France in 1966, the picture concerns an American alcoholic narcotics addict, Russel (played by Rooks), who decides to go to a Paris clinic for a cure. After arriving, however, Russel appears to escape from the clinic at intervals, and he receives many heavy dope doses from friends. He often suffers from dream-like narcotic hallucinations, continually returns to the clinic, and is finally - if temporarily - cured of his sickness.
Of all the addiction films, Chappaqua can easily be rated as the most personal: director Rooks, now 37, has called it his autobiography - the son of a rich business-man in real life, he married unsuccessfully, drifted from job to job, and was finally given a three year suspended sentence for narcotics possession. Eventually cured of drug dependence and psychologically rehabilitated at a Swiss sanatorium, he spent four and a half years and $500,000 of an inheritance in making Chappaqua.
Chappaqua was one of the first films to eschew normal movie technique in order to get to the crux of the addict's problem of self-realization: the narration is often confused, colour film is interspersed at appropriate moments to demonstrate the hero's mood and hallucinatory point of view, the actors' make-up and costuming change ridiculously within single scenes, and at times the film technicians are shown in order to underline the point that this is a film about a drug addict being made by an ex-drug addict. To add immediacy to Chappaqua's drugged atmosphere Rooks uses in his cast the famous ex-addict drug novelist William Burroughs, and also the drug-oriented poet Allen Ginsberg. The film's music track, which enhances the hallucinatory atmosphere, was composed and played by the Indian classical sitarist Ravi Shankar (who also appears in the film as a mystical "Sun God").
Because Chappaqua is an absurdly difficult film to follow, and because it has no "star" names to light up the marquee, it has never reached a large-scale audience - playing exclusively in art cinemas for just days at a time, and even then only in major cultural centres such as New York, Paris and London. It is nevertheless a unique moment in the chronology of drug films in that it is an ex-addict's autobiography on film - produced, written, acted and directed by the ex-addict himself. It is perhaps the addict's ultimate explanation of why he is what he is (Rooks hints that in his own case atrocious parental relationships were at the roots of his addiction), of the ecstasy and despair he feels when using drugs, and the psychological and physical pain he suffers when undergoing rehabilitation.
More. Photographed in France and the Balearic Islands and released in 1969, More was a very popular movie on heroin addiction made by the young French director Barbet Schroeder. Filmed without sound, the picture was post-dubbed and sub-titled into several languages and distributed successfully in many parts of Europe, and with lesser success in America (its relative box-office potency, however, inspired several American film firms to invest in their own heroin films).
On the whole, More was unsympathetically received by film critics because of its shallow characterizations, silly plot, poor acting and appalling technical quality - what was often overlooked, however, was the film's one saving virtue: its successful depiction of an international sort of aimlessness among many young people in Europe, and the general wide-eyed fascination with drug use among them.
More is about a vacationing German student without any drug experience who falls in love with an American girl with a surfeit of drug experience. She teaches him how to use marijuana, trips with him on LSD, and eventually introduces him to heroin. He becomes addicted and eventually dies of an overdose while she obliviously moves on to another companion.
While strong on showing modern youth's desire to be in the "right" places at the right times (the characters drift out of the Parisian Latin Quarter and eventually turn up in fashionable Ibiza), and accurate in pointing out modern youth's eagerness to absorb knowledge of the mechanics of drug use, More was considered by many critics to be weak in offering insight into the psychologies of its rather unconvincing addicts. As a peek into the addict's mind, this film must almost certainly be counted as a disappointment.
Needle Park. The most publicized heroin film of recent years has probably been Jerry Schatzberg's 1971 movie about the New York City addict world, The Panic in Needle Park. Schatzberg, now in his thirties and formerly a fashion photographer ( Panic was his second film), went to great pains to give an authentic and detailed picture of the city addict's world, and his efforts have given the film a much-applauded gritty, documentary quality.
"Needle Park" is the vernacular term for Sherman Square in Manhattan, a small congested area where city addicts gather for social and business purposes, and most of Panic was shot on-the-spot in and around this specific area.
The plot of the film is as follows: A Midwestern girl, Helen, who has just had an unhappy love affair and abortion, meets Bobby, a small-time drug dealer (and addict) who has lived in Needle Park all his life. The two fall in love and begin living together. Though Bobby professes to be able to control his use of heroin, it is obvious that he is emotionally dependent on the drug, and in an effort to understand him Helen begins to mingle with addicts and to use heroin herself. After a time she is also addicted and becomes a prostitute in order to support her habit. Finally, when confronted with the choice of either going to prison herself or informing on Bobby, she chooses the latter course and sends him to prison.
Needle Park is one of the few films to treat addiction not as a social problem but as a life-style: while most previous heroin films have treated the addict as a loner, Needle Park reveals him to be a member of a certain type of society - we see gossiping circles of close addict friends, hotel rooms full of jolly "junkies" shooting-up together, planning thefts together, eating hamburgers together. Beyond these unusual touches, the film is meticulously realistic in small details: the characters are multi-racial, both police and addicts use the same slang and vulgarisms, none of the actors have traditional "Hollywood" good-looks, the camera does not pull away when the addicts are about to pierce their skins with hypodermics but stays calmly in place to record the entire messy and sad spectacle.
Besides shedding light on the surface of New York's heroin subculture, Needle Park does a fair job in examining the why's of the main character's addiction: although Bobby is white, he appears to have much in common with the black ghetto addict - he comes from a lower class background, his elder brother is a professional thief, he subsists mainly on fried potatoes, and above all he has lived in Needle Park all his life. When Helen suggests that they leave and move into a " better " neighbourhood, Bobby is mystified and a trifle hurt: to Helen, Needle Park is a freak show, to him it is home. Schatzberg makes it clear that to cure Bobby of his addiction would serve little purpose, as the chances are overwhelming that he would eventually wander back home to what he considers his normal life. To emphasize Bobby's normalcy Schatzberg shows that in many ways he is an average American - he wants to be successful - he dreams of being a big man in dope selling circles, of marrying Helen and settling down with enough heroin to last a lifetime. On top of this, he is honestly mortified when his intended bride becomes a streetwalker and a heavy addict. If we subtract the heroin factor from Bobby's existence we perceive that he is otherwise a run-of-the-mill American boy.
Dusty and Sweets McGee. While Needle Park explored New York's heroin subculture, Floyd Mutrux's Dusty and Sweets McGee examines the very different world of the West Coast American addict in semi-documentary style: the actors are authentic addicts and dealers, and while the film has a loose story to tell it also contains direct camera interviews with users, much footage of heroin, needles and eyedroppers, and close-up views of different techniques of injecting the drug.
The plot of Dusty and Sweets concentrates simply on what happens among a group of young Los Angeles addicts during a single three-day weekend in 1970. What happens is this: the young title characters, very much in love, spend most of their time in a motel room talking about drugs and shooting them into their veins. They meet various addict friends, trade dope, and wander through the city looking for more, going through games of hide and seek with wary dealers who have concealed packets of heroin in empty telephone booths. By the end of the weekend one of the addicts has died of an overdose, a big-time dealer has been murdered, and Dusty and Sweets are arrested because one of their connections has informed on them.
While the New York City addicts of Needle Park were viewed as products of local environment, the West Coast addicts of Dusty and Sweets are shown to be startlingly different: most of them appear to be young runaways from middle-class homes, and most of them also seem to be entirely self-centered seekers of self-destruction. While the New York addicts seem to feel that they are leading normal existences, the Los Angeles addicts seem to take a certain pride in their rootless, pointedly abnormal existence, repeatedly boasting to each other of their extraordinary drug exploits. But though Dusty and Sweets is a sharp, often discomfiting portrait of the teen-age runaway/drop-out as addict, it is nevertheless somewhat disappointing in that it seems to choose merely to display the intricacies of the addict's lifestyle without adequately exploring the reasons why.
Other Heroin Films. There have been several other recent international films probing the question of narcotics addiction - among them Believe in Me, Les Chemins de Katmandou, The Way Out, Born To Win, and Narco-but most of these have been poorly received and few achieved any popularity.
Believe In Me (1971; Stuart Hagmann) is another American heroin romance in which the lovers drag each other into the dregs of addiction. Although it is a sincere anti-hard drugs picture, most critics have agreed that the foolishness of its plot (the addict heroes are a brilliant New York intern and an intelligent, ravishing editress of children's literature) makes it impossible to sympathize with.
The French picture Les Chemins de Katmandou (1970), made by the prestigious director André Cayatte, also treats narcotics addiction in an unrealistic and romantic light, with the British heroine of the film eventually committing suicide.
The Way Out (1967; Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr.) was about a group of addicts who found " the way out " of their addictions through praying to Jesus Christ, while Born To Win (1972; Ivan Passer) and Narco (1971; Claus Oersted) explored the worlds of New York City and Copenhagen drug addicts respectively.
There have also been many recent police adventure films which have had the heroin trade as the cornerstones of their plots: La Horse, The French Connection, Kill, The Hired Killer, The Secret File of Sol Madrid, The Organization, and Puppet on a Chain have been among the best-known of these. The hugely popular The French Connection was in addition very highly regarded by many film critics; it was touted by the producers as being a meticulously accurate fictionalization of an actual 1960s narcotics case which involved the smuggling of a shipment of heroin into New York City via Marseilles.
Another interesting effort was The Poppy is also a Flower (1967) by Terence Young. This film, an adventure story which tried to underscore the international and human complexities of the heroin trade, was based on an original story by Ian Fleming, the British author of the famous James Bond spy novel series. It was made as a part of a series of " all-star " films underwritten by the American Xerox Corporation in order to help the public understand the responsibilities of the United Nations and the scope of the UN system. The films were made for broadcasting on American television and for presentation in cinemas in other parts of the world.
Finally, no discussion of modern heroin films would be complete without a passing mention of the " underground " feature films currently being produced in America by film-maker Andy Warhol and his associate Paul Morrissey. These are humorous, often satirical, sex/drug films of the absurd in which the main characters are usually homosexuals, male prostitutes and transvestites who are heavy and constant drug users. Among the better-known Warhol-Morrissey titles have been Lonesome Cowboys (1969), Flesh (1970) and Trash (1971). The films appear to be semi-improvised, and, according to the rumours which accompany them, the actors are very often authentically " stoned " on drugs during filming, and sometimes down actual drugs on screen. These pictures, made very cheaply (though their technical quality is rapidly improving), do quite respectably at the box-office in the larger American cities, but they cannot as of yet be considered to be in the mainstream of the film business. Ironically, however, the treatment of addiction and drug usage in the Warhol-Morrissey films often strikes viewers as more authentic than the treatment given the subject in more serious and expensive films: it seems quite clear that desire for realistic detail together with artistic honesty are the two most important factors in making a film about drugs successful both in critical and financial terms.
Drug films became commonplace in the late 1960s and early 1970s because drug use among white middle-class young people in America and England became commonplace. Young people were interested in drugs, and older people had a seemingly unquenchable curiosity about the lives of younger people - so the Western film industry strove to satisfy both groups by providing films such as Easy Rider, Joe and More, - films showing the new generation " realistically ", complete with drugs, sex and revolution. The pictures varied greatly in quality-many were serious, even over serious, undertakings such as Easy Rider, The Panic in Needle Park, Believe in Me and The Trip.
There was also an adult animated cartoon which had a variety of humanized animals smoking marijuana and hashish ( Fritz the Cat). Though many of these films were unsuccessful, a few like Easy Rider, More and Joe reached huge international audiences.
As of this date it seems that the Western film-going public has not yet reached the point where it has been satiated with drug films, but experience has shown that most film trends come to a peak after about three years of life, and then take two or three more years to burn themselves out. This is what happened with the screwball comedy craze of 1935-42 and more recently with the spy thriller film craze of 1962-68.
The Drug Film Controversy. There is, of course, a definite amount of dissent over the social value of today's drug films, and, predictably, one charge in particular is often levelled against the producers of drug-oriented pictures-namely the charge that they are glamorizing a social sickness, giving a distortedly romantic view of the drug-user's world, and may well be stimulating the young viewer's appetite for drug experimentation. Similar charges, however, are constantly hurled at almost all commercial film producers: makers of adventure films glorify killing and violence, makers of realistic romances glamorize promiscuity, makers of horror films promote perversion etc.
In the end, the film-maker usually uses two arguments against these types of attacks: firstly, his freedom as an artist to create what he desires, and, secondly, the audience's freedom to see what it chooses. Most film producers argue that while society may have a right to prevent minors from seeing pictures which may be judged as unsuitable for them, no one has the right to keep an adult from seeing a film he is interested in. In America, consequently, most drug films are recommended by a film industry association to be shown only to " mature " audiences - which may mean 16 year-olds and above, 17 year-olds and above, or in some cases it may mean that minors are admitted if accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. England and most European nations have much stricter across-the-board age regulations, and many drug films are forbidden by law to be shown to under-18 year-olds. Though in 1967 The Trip was banned outright in several European countries, including England, and in 1969 Easy Rider encountered some initial European censorship problems, nowadays few major, serious drug films are even scissored in censor board cutting rooms, much less banned completely. European government film offices, however, as a rule frown on locally produced films which might tend to " glorify " drug use.
In fact, though, most drug films are not mere glorification ventures but serious projects undertaken by serious directors. Most of the directors of drug pictures seem to be in their thirties, while some of them are still in their twenties - and several of them have gone on the record about having personally experimented with drugs: Roger Corman has tried LSD; Dennis Hopper has said that real marijuana was used in the smoking scenes in Easy Rider; writer-actor-director Jack Nicholson has often stated that he has taken " all the drugs ". Many film creators like Corman, Hopper, Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Paul Morrissey, Paul Williams and Jeff Young have committed themselves on celluloid to more tolerant general attitudes towards drug use - particularly when it comes to the question of the so-called soft drug usage.
So thus taking into account the progressive attitudes of young film-makers like these towards the drug phenomenon we come to the inevitable question: Are young people stirred to experimenting with cannabis, hallucinogens, pills and other substances by these modern-day drug films?
In effect, the only realistic answer seems to be that young people follow the fashions of their times, and one of today's fashions seems to be drug-taking. Drug films - pro-drug films, anti-drug films, exploitation drug films - reflect that fashion and to some extent keep it alive and in the public eye. But at the same time, one can't help but think that in a left-handed way this may be a useful trend, because through over-publicizing the drug experience - dope episodes are currently so common that they appear gratuitously even in Wild West pictures ( Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Hunting Party) the film medium itself may unwittingly lead to a subsiding of the seemingly universal drug fascination of the 1970s. And this, of course, is what many authorities would wish to happen in the first place.
Films are listed alphabetically according to title, followed by date of release, director, and country of origin.
* Denotes film has major drug theme.
Alice's Restaurant, 1970, Arthur Penn, USA.
Been Down so Long it Looks Like Up to Me, 1971, Jeff Young, USA.
* Believe in Me, 1971, Stuart Hagmann, USA.
* Blow-up, 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni, USA/Italy.
* Born to Win, 1972, Ivan Passer, USA.
* Cannabis, 1970, Pierre Koralnik, France.
* Chappaqua, 1967, Conrad Rooks, USA.
* The Chelsea Girls, 1967, Andy Warhol, USA.
* Les Chemins de Katmandou, 1970, André Cayatte, France.
* Cisco Pike, 1972, Bill Norton, USA.
Confessions of an Opium Eater, 1962, H. Jackson, USA.
* The Connection, 1961, Shirley Clarke, USA.
* Dealing: Or the Berkeley-To-Boston Forty Buck Lost-Bag Blues, 1972, Paul Williams, USA.
The Detective, 1968, Gordon Douglas, USA.
* Detective Belli, 1969, Romolo Guerrieri, Italy.
* Dusty and Sweets McGee, 1971, Floyd Mutrux, USA.
* Easy Rider, 1969, Dennis Hopper, USA.
Il était une fois un flic, 1972, Michel Soutter, France.
Flesh, 1970, Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, USA.
Fragment of Fear, 1970, Richard Sarafian, England.
* The French Connection, 1971, William Friedkin, USA.
Fritz the Cat, 1972, Ralph Bakshi, USA.
Happy Ending, 1970, Richard Brooks, USA.
Haschich, 1967, Michel Soutter, France.
* Hatful of Rain, 1958, Fred Zinnemann, USA.
* Hellcats, 1968, Robert F. Slatzer, USA.
High, 1967, Larry Kent, Canada.
* Hired Killer, 1966, Franco Prosperi (also known as Frank Shannon), Italy.
* The Hooked Generation, 1969, William Grefe, USA.
* La Horse, 1969, Roger Korber, France.
Hysteria, 1965, Jimmy Sangster, England.
* I Love You Alice B. Toklas, 1968, Hy Averback, USA.
* Joe, 1971, John Avildsen, USA.
* Kill, 1971, Roman Gary, France.
Legend of Lylah Clare, 1969, Robert Aldrich, USA.
Lions Love, 1970, Agnes Varda, France/USA.
* Lonesome Cowboys, 1969, Andy Warhol, USA.
* LSD, $5 Paradise, 1967, Giusseppe Scottese, Italy.
* The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, 1971, Leonard Horn, USA.
* The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955, Otto Preminger, USA.
Maryjane, 1968, M. Dexter, USA.
Me, Natalie, 1970, Fred Coe, USA.
* Mendiants et orgueilleux, 1972, Jacques Poitrenaud, France.
* Monkey On My Back, 1957, Andre de Toth, USA.
* More, 1969, Barbet Schroeder, France/Luxembourg.
Morire Gratis, 1968, Sandro Francine, Italy.
* Narco, 1971, Claus Oersted, Denmark.
* Obsessions, 1970, Pim de la Parra, Holland.
* The Organization, 1972, Don Medford, USA.
* The Panic In Needle Park, 1971, Jerry Schatzberg, USA.
* Paris Blues, 1961, Martin Ritt, USA.
* Performance, 1970, Nicholas Roeg/Donald Camell, England.
Pieces of Dreams, 1970, Daniel Hailer, USA.
Play it again Sam, 1972, Woody Allen, USA.
* The Poppy is Also A Flower, 1967, Terence Young, USA.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970, Billy Wilder, USA.
* Puppet on a Chain, 1971, G. Reeve, England.
* The Secret File of Sol Madrid, 1967, Boris Sagal, USA.
The Strawberry Statement, 1970, Stuart Hagmann, USA.
* Synanon, 1966, Richard Quine, USA.
* Taking Off, 1971, Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia.
* Trash, 1971, Paul Morrissey, USA.
Three in the Attic, 1970, R. Wilson, USA.
* The Trip, 1967, Roger Corman, USA.
Two Hundred Motels, 1971, Frank Zappa/Tony Palmer, England.
Two Lane Blacktop, 1971, Monte Hellman, USA.
* THX 1138, 1972, George Lukas, USA.
* Valley of the Dolls, 1968, Mark Robson, USA.
Vivre à la folie, 1967, Jan Halldorf, Sweden.
* The Way Out, 1967, Irwin Yeaworth, Jr., USA.
* Wild in the Streets, 1970, Barrey Shear, USA.
* Zabriskie Point, 1971, Michelangelo Antonioni, USA/Italy.