Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Since seeing Blow one week and Traffic the next, I’ve been feeling like I’ve overdosed on drugs.

The Drug Problem in America definitely seems to be the serious topic du jour for Hollywood movies, and America’s War on Drugs is pretty high (excuse the term) in the consciousness with the recent appointment of a new drug czar and a the shooting down of a missionary plane in Peru that was mistaken for a drug-running craft.

But the truth is that drugs have always been prevalent in the movies, whether it has been their casual use in counter culture films (Easy Rider), their contribution to artists’ self-destruction (The Rose, Wired, Georgia), portraits of drug kingpins (Scarface), or heroic tales of hard-working cops working, often futilely, to stop the drug trade (The French Connection). These archetypes go a long way back in our popular entertainment and have probably shaped our thinking more than we suspect.

So, if movies are a yardstick of sorts for our current perception of drugs, what do these two recent movies tell us?

Blow takes the definitely narrower view. It tells a (based on) true story of a major cocaine dealer, so everything we see is basically from his point of view. Interestingly, from this perspective the War on Drugs looks surprisingly effective since Johnny Depp is regularly put in jail for long periods. Jailing drug dealers, though, tends to backfire since it only gives Depp a chance to make better connections and escalate his career into harder drugs once he gets out. In one courtroom scene, he makes a heartfelt, if somewhat goofy, speech about the laws against drugs being arbitrary and that no harm is being done. In fact, our drug dealing hero seems to be the real victim of the drug wars since his life is demonstrably ruined by the end—and especially since we get no scenes of other people’s lives being ruined or cut short prematurely by using the product that he so effectively supplies. But the fact is implicit that the demand was (is) huge and, therefore, if he hadn’t been supplying the blow, then someone else surely would have.

The same point is made in Traffic. In fact, the hapless Miguel Ferrer, who is stung by a couple of undercover cops, gives them a more serious lecture on the fact that most of the harm done in the name of the drug war is actually perpetrated by the police and the government, implying that if they would just stay out of things, everything would be hunky-dory. The movie itself isn’t nearly as simplistic, although it is eager to point out the futility of the war-metaphor/military-style approach. Unlike Blow, Traffic doesn’t confine itself to a single character’s point of view but paints a large canvas of the issue. Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay (and his own personal, relevant story) has been much touted, but less has been made of the fact that this is actually the adaptation of a BBC miniseries that attempted to look at the entire chain of the drug problem, following the commodity from its source to its ultimate destination. In addition to the futility of the war approach, the film likes to point out American hypocrisy on the issue, underlining (pregnant) Catherine Zeta-Jones’s penchant for one or two glasses of wine and Michael Douglas’s evening scotch ritual. But what the movie cannot finesse is the fact that those characters are completely functional in spite of their social drinking, whereas Douglas’s daughter’s life sinks into the gutter because of heroine. The suggestion is that she would be much better off receiving love instead of recrimination and treatment rather than discipline. The most provocative point made by the film, the fact the most users are white and the drug economy’s effect on the African-American community is alluded to but not explored very satisfactorily.

In both movies, the key point for most people may be that the high-level drug dealers are by far the most attractive, interesting and sexy characters in the movie. Johnny Depp’s dad is a nicer guy, but would you really want to spend the entire evening with him? (Don’t even get started on his mother.) Depp and Penélope Cruz are definitely the eye candy in this flick. As for Traffic, the undercover cops aren’t nearly as hip and cool as the duo on the 1980s series Miami Vice, but their targets, Zeta-Jones and Steven Bauer, not only look great but they have a fantastic house. Do the images (as opposed to the words) in these movies send the wrong message? Probably not. Audiences are used to non-virtuous fantasy figures. It has always been the villains in movies who usually provide the biggest turn-on.

One thing is for certain. Winning the drug war is hard enough in real life, but we’ll definitely never be rid of drugs in the movies. They provide too many plot lines. If we include alcohol along with illegal drugs, they are downright ubiquitous. Even more so, if we include yet another legal but substance, which we’ll deal with next time.

-S.L., 26 April 2001

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