The wages of junk

I don’t think it was a coincidence that two of the most interesting films of this past year, Jesus’ Son and Requiem for a Dream, were about junkies. Drug addiction is an inherently apt topic for dramatization — it’s both mysterious and simple, as well as a good backdrop for tales of metaphysical suffering in an age of diminished faith. Addiction is a tragic flaw that can be appreciated by modern sensibilities, an up-to-date version of the random cruelty of the gods, and junkie dramas serve as religious allegories for skeptics and nonbelievers, as their protagonists struggle not to lose their souls.

Of course, the two films are very different. Jesus’ Son has its intense moments, but its overall mood is comic and close to pastoral, its druggy antihero being a sort of holy fool who wanders among the damned but never comes to serious harm. There’s almost no desperation to his addiction and he floats through the world in a hazy state of grace. By contrast, Requiem’s users are all doomed to some horrible fate, each of which seems wildly out of proportion to their sins. They’re debased, mutilated and driven insane — heavy punishments for being weak.

Neither of these films could be called realistic. With Jesus’ Son it’s a matter of tonal coherence — its protagonist must remain a vaporish presence floating through the harsh world of peeling paint and scuzzy Laundromats in order to maintain the movie’s whimsical mood. It’s like a ghost story, told from the ghost’s point of view. And Requiem is true to the vision of Hubert Selby Jr., who’s about as realistic as Hieronymus Bosch. Selby’s characters live in a recognizably cold and indifferent world, but he has a sadistic zeal when it comes to dishing out downfalls. Any impulse he has toward social commentary is overwhelmed by his taste for Grand Guignol, and when the ax falls he makes sure that some of the blood spurts into the audience. But it’s a world which has its own logic and one can believe, at least for the film’s duration, that a woman would actually be given electroshock therapy as a cure for addiction to diet pills.

But even if they’re skewed away from naturalism, the two films deal with drug addiction with an explicitness that was a long time coming. Drug addicts could occasionally be spotted on the fringes of noir (though, as with homosexuals, you had to be able to interpret the signs), but they didn’t begin to take center stage in American movies until the ’50s, the landmark film being Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). This was a sanitized version of Nelson Algren’s novel (Algren hated the film), but it did have an effective sequence with Frank Sinatra as a strung-out jazz musician going cold turkey. Getting high couldn’t be shown, but paying for it could be spelled out plainly. The movie outraged all the usual suspects, but when the sky didn’t fall in it was clear that heroin addiction could be a viable subgenre of the sort of melodramatic realism so popular in post-Marty Hollywood — hence two small gems, Andre de Toth’s Monkey on My Back and Fred Zimmerman’s A Hatful of Rain (both 1957).

Those two movies were based on the then startling premise that drug addiction could happen to anybody. After that revelation, one had to wait until 1971’s Panic in Needle Park for a decent heroin flick. By then attitudes had changed to the point where Panic’s nonjudgmental sadness seemed an appropriate approach. But the film was little seen and stories of heroin were soon out of fashion, though addicts would occasionally appear in blaxploitation film, grim losers in stark contrast to the snorters of the benign coke.

So Jesus and Requiem represent a kind of heroin movie renaissance (with Traffic waiting in the wings), the attitude toward junkies now being a bit more varied. There’s a greater realization now that anybody can fall off the face of the Earth, though some people’s falls are more frightening than others — shameful and weird but somehow close to home. Everybody has a taste for transcendence, but only an unlucky minority get involved with a sacrament that will almost certainly kill them.

The rest of us, we like to watch.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts unlimited for the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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