Five writers pick their five favorite drug movies.
The Lost Weekend
The gay part of the story (present in Charles Jackson’s novel, which is first rate in its own right) is left out in Billy Wilder’s adaptation, but the vital and energized language of Jackson’s excellent account of binge alcoholism remains in Wilder’s loose-limbed film interpretation. Wilder’s films are often funny and have a little bit of farce about them, despite serious themes. The Lost Weekend, however, is altogether darker, more wedded to the material than to the story required to deal with it. What’s different, here—because there have always been filmic drunks and filmic drunk tanks—is a genuine understanding of withdrawal and delirium tremens, the genuine symptoms of addiction and undeniable psychological ramifications of addictive illness. In a film like Unforgiven, to give a somewhat clumsy modern example, the protagonist, has to start drinking again, at the climax, because he has some vengeance to mete out, and some people to kill. Clint Eastwood’s alcoholism is a genre phenomenon. In The Lost Weekend, though, the story is secondary, because the drinking is wholly compulsive, often wordless, and there’s no reasoning with it. The story is simply that a certain guy makes one horrible decision after another, despite all his promise. With its heavy reliance on flashback (I can think of few films as devoted to the gesture), and its lovely stylized score (this is one of the first films to use a theremin liberally), and its expressionist drunk-tank passages, The Lost Weekend bends reality in the same way a bender would. The camera even goes down into the glass at one point. The Lost Weekend influenced both the horror genre, and all the addiction-related stories that followed. Reality would never seem quite so realistic again.
The Monkees probably couldn't risk actually doing drugs in their film without jeopardizing their very large audience, but that didn't mean that the movie isn't one of the great examples of the influence of drugs in the movie-making process. My favorite passage, perhaps because the linkage is most apparent, is the hookah sequence, where the band is playing “Can You Dig It?,” one of their very "psychedelic" tunes, while Mickey Dolenz is, of course, smoking a hookah. In one very brief moment, he appears to offer the pipe to the audience. The song in question follows a lot of typically abstracted bits: Dolenz, half-naked, alone in a Saharan expanse, coming upon a Coca-Cola machine, before being beset by tanks cresting a sand dune. This is the whole movie in microcosm. There is no particular story to Head, and that is the sign of its being composed in a stoned fit of inspiration: yes, a lack of causality and a tolerance for surreal effects is the sign that drugs are central to the aesthetics of the work. Jack Nicholson was apparently responsible for some of the "story,” and that seems to have meant that there wasn't a great deal of forethought involved in the construction thereof but, inductively, his presence might mean something more than that: Intoxicants! Credit has to be given to the Monkees for being willing to make this film. It wasn't going to provide a lot of material for the fan club. For a brief moment, it was possible to make films with this total absence of narrative, and the Monkees managed to capitalize on that moment, and to make the story theirs.
Sid & Nancy
Few films have done more both to glamorize and caution against opiate abuse, but it's the touches of surrealism that seem to get closest to the spirit of squalor and lost opportunity that is at the heart of the punk rock period. I remember seeing this, upon its first release, and feeling that no film had better expressed how I felt about the world. But what did I think it was expressing? And how to read the film’s irrealistic sections, beginning with Malcolm McLaren apparently shooting at some Texan yokels with his index finger, money falling out of the sky at Syd’s gig, the famous kissing by the dumpster sequence, in which garbage rains down on the principals in slow motion? I felt that Sid & Nancy told a truth that couldn't be told in any other way. If it increasingly resorted to fantasy in order to do so (and John Lydon did refer to it as, “All someone else’s fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era”), that just meant that the truth was complicated enough to require this hyperbole. Cox’s prior film, Repo Man, was more "realistic," in some ways, but arguably it wasn't quite as bent on depicting the experience of addiction and self-destruction. Having strode through the Maginot Line of realism in Sid & Nancy, Cox thereafter made a pretty inexplicable film, Walker, about the legacy of imperialism in Central America, but never regained the cultural sway he had during the filming of his punk rock opus. As if the drugs and despair of the film took something out of him as well.
In my recollection, the really druggy scene in Blue Velvet is the climax with Dean Stockwell, in which Stockwell lipsyncs along with Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," a song that itself could serve as a manifesto for much of David Lynch's work (and for the abuse of drugs in general). But the Stockwell scene, wherein Stockwell doses Hopper with some sort of pill (a hallucinogen, let's say), is made necessary by a prior scene: in which Dennis Hopper makes use of his translucent rubber amyl nitrate inhaler. You remember, right? Kyle MacLachlan is watching from inside the closet, as Hopper, breathing deep what was originally meant to be helium (according to rumor), sets about beating up and generally menacing Isabella Rossellini, saying really horrifying and ugly things like "Daddy wants to fuck." MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont is so scarred by witnessing this primal scene that he becomes willing to beat Rossellini himself, when she demands it of him. Still, it's the disjunctive horror of the amyl nitrate mask that Hopper uses to promote his psychopathology that makes possible the excesses of the film. Once you accept that the squeaky clean small-town vibe of Lumberton can house MacLachlan’s squeaky clean Beaumont and Stockwell and Hopper, you are ready for anything; you are ready for the irrealistic flourishes (the camera traveling into the black center of a severed human ear), without difficulty. Blue Velvet is probably the most obvious film Lynch ever made (if you accept that The Straight Story was work for hire), but the violence of its premise, and the way in which drugs make this violence possible, creates the post-traumatic and disturbed narrative surface the demands Lynch's later, and more hard-to-fathom stories. To put it a simpler way: no rubber inhaler, no Mulholland Drive.
The presence of William S. Burroughs in a climactic scene assures the serious drug-related pedigree of this film, as does the title, but it’s the loving attention to dreamy close-ups of the works floating in space, torrents of pills, and the paranoid, drug-addled logic of the hat on the bed (and related hexes), that demonstrate that this is a narrative made from the inside of the drug phenomenon, rather than some rather puritanical observation from without. The writing is great, the camera work is remarkable. The stylized acting (and hard-boiled voice over) only enhance the oneiric quality of the material, as if the feeling of the narcotics demimonde requires it. Later, Gus Van Sant proved himself occasionally out of control of his material (in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, or in his Psycho remake), but Drugstore Cowboy is a confident, faultless work that is harrowing, even as it’s stylish, funny, and moving. As a work of the “indie” movement, it was incredibly influential, and it’s hard to imagine much of what broke ground in the decade that followed without this curious, loving ode to the outlaw lifestyle.
Honorable Mentions: Ciao! Manhattan (1972, John Palmer and David Weisman), Requiem For a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky), Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle).