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sabato 27 dicembre 2014

Back with a bong: the return of stoner movies

The shot of the year comes early for UK audiences in 2015 – a tableau in Inherent Vice. Owen Wilson – lost boy astray in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Californian dream – settles for dinner at the centre of a 20-strong congress of dropouts, longhairs, freak-flag-flyers, patchouli princes and acid casualties. His eyes, freighted with infinite weariness, catch the camera as he bends and reaches for a slice of … pizza?!? The joke’s expertly bad. In the bosom of the Topanga renaissance, behold: the stoners’ Last Supper. Low culture has stumbled, dooby in hand, into high. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Pope Smokes Dope T-shirt.
That’s how Inherent Vice rolls. The zaniness quotient is strong. Doc Sportello, the pothead PI played by Joaquin Phoenix, scrawls: “Paranoia alert” instead of sensible notes; turtles up on the pavement to avoid his regular LAPD beating; body-swerves like Ace Ventura away from annoyingly secretive sanatorium attendants. There’s weightier stuff underneath, the post-second-world-war search for meaning of Anderson’s last film The Master washing up here in the flotsam of California’s alternative communities (the director adapted Pynchon’s 2009 novel during a hiatus in development on the earlier work). But, just as you’re scribbling “sunset of the American dream” in your notepad, you look back up at the screen, and there’s Josh Brolin fellating a chocolate banana. It’s been a while since we had such a heavy-duty concentration of stoner humour in a film by a serious artist.
The stoner movie’s not just the heavy-lidded kid of Cheech’n’Chong any more; it’s trying to go legit. Cinephiles reacted pretty much the same bug-eyed way as Doc Sportello re: the chocolate banana when serious artist David Gordon Green – once purveyor of sensitive rural dramas – released Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Wasn’t it unbecoming of the man dubbed the new Terrence Malick to direct scenes with genial tokers discussing pioneering methods of joint construction, or hookah-puffing sex-pest wizards? You’d be hard-pushed to claim there was anything profound going on in either work, but Green found a way of infusing his tryst with Mary-Jane with the auteurship of old in 2013’s more sombre Prince Avalanche: its tale of two road-marking painters retained the loopy conversation and spacey rhythms. There could be a little resinous wisdom in the air at the end of the stoner flick – hardly an unfamiliar idea to connoisseurs of The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers’ own rub of the green and the spiritual touchstone for the high-class smokers’ movie.
CEO over the new reputable empire of the stoner is Seth Rogen, who, before he sparked a major international incident, recently invited fans to come and smoke weed with him to celebrate the release of The Interview. He’s not only been candid about his intake down the years – claiming to be able to smoke 20 joints during a three-hour camera setup – but also deems it central to his creativity. “I don’t know if it helps me write,” he told MTV recently, “It makes me not mind that I’m writing. And I don’t know if it makes me work better, but it makes me not care that I’m working. Who wants to work? But if you’re stoned, it doesn’t seem like work.” Which solves the mystery of how someone masquerading as a Fozzie Bear-voiced man-child perpetually on the brink of the next whitey has written six successful feature-length films. Kevin Smith credits the Rogen “method” with revitalising his career.
The idea that the genre could have greater aspirations is only a surprise because we’ve become used to stoner characters as affable, harmless, bong-toting jesters awesomely out of kilter with the adult world: Cheech and Chong, Floyd from True Romance, Jay and Silent Bob, Harold and Kumar. But stoners weren’t comic characters originally: in films like Easy Rider, marijuana use is just part of the chivalric code for counter-culture knights-errant like Peter Fonda’s Wyatt. The body of work – also including films like The Trip, Skidoo and Head – that was the Hollywood contribution to the hippie era was a strange mix of moralistic censure and vicarious indulgence of the “lifestyle”. It mostly conceded, though, that there was a sincere social experiment at the heart of it, a pressing need to secede from the straight world. Jack Nicholson’s dope-dabbling lawyer, George Hanson, in Easy Rider might seem like a satire, a proto-stoner figure, but he meets a tragic end at the hands of people unable to handle non-conformism or a social revolution.
The stoner as we know him – depoliticised clown figure – really emerged in the 1970s. The brilliant film of Fritz the Cat – drawn from the Robert Crumb strips published in underground magazines Help! and Cavalier – picked at the scabs of the free-love movement, oozing cynicism about its narcissism and sense of privilege. The idealism of the 1960s had run aground, leaving the counter-culture without a purpose. The non-sequitur, surreal, anti-authoritarian stoner sense of humour is in full flow in mid-70s satirical anthologies like The Groove TubeTunnel Vision and Kentucky Fried Movie – but with relatively few political targets. Instead, we get skits about great literature in digestible capsule form, phoney industrial research, ridiculous kung-fu movies. If this is what 70s stoners were laughing at, it feels like they’ve already become acquiescent, passive parts of media-relayed consumer society; precursors of the cathode-ray-frazzled pop-culture exegetists of Tarantino and Kevin Smith in the 90s. In 1978, Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong released the highly successful Up in Smoke, the first true stoner comedy, built on routines honed as veterans of the post-hippie standup circuit. It was probably all over for the idea of being stoned as a portal to a higher consciousness after the release of a film in which the two perma-baked protagonists drive a car with the numberplate MUF DVR.
The puritanical climate of Reagan’s America deferred the absorption of the screen stoner into the mainstream until the 1990s. But my way and the high way were the same thing for Generation X slackers, with their keynote film of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused. Appropriately for the Clinton era, by that time you could be a stoner without inhaling. The digressive dialogue, the time-lapse delivery, the off-hours craving for random junk food: they were all familiar enough by the mid-90s to be the default scaffolding for comedies that hardly featured a single joint, such as Bill & Ted, Wayne’s World and, later, Dude, Where’s My Car? Not dissimilar to the hippie era, the studios have a conflicted stance towards promoting drug use – the script for Dude apparently featured plenty of overt smoking, but it was removed to secure a PG-13. Tamra Davis, director of Half-Baked – which, featuring Dave Chappelle as “Sir Smoke-A-Lot”, was more candid – admitted she couldn’t “believe they let you make a movie like this”. Once hip hop, whose leading lights have been known to like a smoke, entered the fray, contributing dubious classics like Friday and Half-Baked to the stoner oeuvre, the stage was set for the official coronation of the caner.
In 1998, The Big Lebowski raised the game for the genre. Its key maxim, of course, is that the Dude abides. That is what we love about cinema’s stoners; they are salt-of-the-earth naïfs preserved from the passage of time and real-world cares in a spicy fug, out of which floats the odd bit of mumbled genius. Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson and David Gordon Green, even the Coens, just wanted to hang out there for a while; a break from triple-handled auteur names and the responsibilities of profundity. I can believe it of Green’s sabbatical, especially. Anderson has long been an admirer of Robert Altman, another herbalist of renown, and Inherent Vice’s reeling tomfoolery is a bit reminiscent of MASH (from where The Last Supper pastiche is also pinched, if you can pinch a pastiche).
But Inherent Vice has a manic glint in its eye. It’s less relaxed than The Big Lebowski, which it superficially resembles on account of their midnight-toking gumshoes. Anderson told Screen International that it charts a watershed moment, narcotics-wise: “It’s that idea that when you’re smoking weed everything is OK, but as soon as heroin comes in everything is changed and everything is fucked, and that’s sad.” It’s more troubled and elegiac than Pynchon’s novel even, with less daffy musical interludes, more insistent harking-back to a lost Californian utopia – expressed through Doc’s search for his vanished “old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth. The director appears to be anointing the freakshow individualism that once flourished in America’s most maverick state, searching for (and not always locating) a more natural, almost improvisational register for the comedy emanating from it than the Day-Glo melodramatics of Boogie Nights.
At the centre of Inherent Vice is a shadowy cabal called the Golden Fang, which may or not involve dope-smuggling, property development, private sanitoria and dentistry. Anderson said recently that the whys and wherefores of the Golden Fang aren’t important; it’s a metaphor for the Man, the system, the evil empire, whatever anti-fun military-industrial complex rules the day. Perhaps what Inherent Vice really represents for the stoner film is a moment of lucidity, a rush of blood of the old non-conformism, political engagement, oblique strategies, shrewd cheer and human values with which 60s counterculture believed it could fight the good fight. And perhaps, in a time when the inequalities have widened, the jobs are getting worse, and the conspiracists hide in even plainer sight, peering at us 24/7 through our own screens, Anderson is saying we need our Doc Sportellos even more than then. The bums nailed Nixon, after all.

Back with a bong: why we need stoner movies more than ever Phil Hoad25 December 2014

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