Coming soon to the small screen of cable TV: Senate confirmation for U.S. drug czar nominee John P. Walters, a hard-line conservative apparently ready to ratchet up the war on drugs both abroad and at home.
But in recent months, more than 10 million Americans have watched a fictional drug czar in the film Traffic begin with a similar battle plan, only to wind up challenging the entire nightmarish war on drugs. Will the character played by Michael Douglas help Americans get a clear picture of what the Walters nomination portends? Can recent films such as Traffic help bring clarity to the drug-war debate?
Of course, getting high and its consequences have fascinated filmmakers and the folks who watch their stark images for the better part of the last century, from the camp warnings of Reefer Madness (1938) and the euphoric tragedy Easy Rider (1969) to such harrowing visions of addiction as The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Panic in Needle Park (1975), Naked Lunch (1991), The Basketball Diaries (1994) and Trainspotting (1995). Though Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) and the recent hit Half Baked (1998) reassured us that a little toke now and then (and then again) was all in good fun, Scarface (1983) and Drugstore Cowboy (1989) reminded would-be players of the old three D’s: drugs, dementia and death.
With the release this past year of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (an Oscar winner for Best Director), then Ted Demme’s Blow last month, the public discussion on drugs has intensified again. Soderbergh’s fiction film, inspired by a British TV series on the drug wars, in its turn inspired ABC’s “Nightline” to produce a weeklong, five-part documentary series, “Traffic,” covering the same territory. So the “Traffic” series seemed like the logical starting point for a discussion of our own, between MT film writer (and EMS paramedic) James Keith La Croix and arts editor George Tysh.
George Tysh: One of the strengths of Traffic is the way it rethinks the whole “war on drugs,” casting a shadow of doubt over the effectiveness of law enforcement, issues of supply and demand, and even our political responses to the problem.
James Keith La Croix: People think that they know what the war on drugs is about. There’s a popular idea based on what’s been washing over the culture … and then something like this revisionist film comes in and challenges that view.
Tysh: … which is essentially that we’re fighting the importation of this stuff ruining our country.
La Croix: And that it’s being effective, that we are actually (as the Michael Douglas character, the U.S. drug czar, says initially) stopping 70 percent of what’s trying to get in. But when you see that they’re stopping only 40 percent or probably even much less, that’s a revelation.
Another assumption that Traffic addresses is about police work. We see the cop played by Don Cheadle at the end as a kind of quixotic character. He’s doing this for him. This fight’s about him and his idea of what’s going on. By the time you see his last scene, you know it can no longer be about him thinking that he’s going to change anything.
Tysh: It’s just a personal victory, the way you might try to run up your own point total in a basketball game, even though your team’s losing. You want to look good when it’s over.
And then there’s the issue raised in the film — though the “Nightline” series might do a better job of this — of the problem of demand. How many different users do we see in the film? Basically three or four kids, and they’re all in a very upper-class scene … it’s the drug czar’s daughter and her friends.
La Croix: A recent National Public Radio program about drugs said that now the prevalent market for drugs in this country is actually middle-class-to-affluent white kids. Which brings up another idea that the movie challenged: If you say “young drug addict” to most people, the person they imagine has a brown face.
Tysh: And he lives in the inner city somewhere, he’s underprivileged and taking drugs ’cause he has no future.
La Croix: But the real deal is that inner-city black teenagers show almost no serious drug use whatsoever. If there is any use, it’s marijuana and it’s on a recreational level. Absolutely the picture is turned topsy-turvy from what everyone thinks it is.
If you’re talking in the context of our area, it’s not looking in the inner city of Detroit — it’s looking in Birmingham, in Bloomfield, in the Grosse Pointes, that’s where the use is really going on.
Tysh: Well, that’s where the money is for cocaine. And if poor black kids are going to get the cheap form of cocaine, which is crack, I think they already know what the results of that are. I don’t think they could be under too many illusions as to what crack does to you, considering what they’ve seen all these years.
La Croix: In the past, all of us had that one drunken uncle. There’s hardly any family that didn’t have this one guy … here goes Uncle Fred, he’s going to piss himself running into the barbecue … everyone had that. Well in the inner city, Uncle Fred might be a crackhead. He’s a buffoon, a figure of scorn. Nothing’s going to have you look at Uncle Fred and go, “Wow, you know I really want to get a pipe and some rocks” — so much the opposite.
I know just from working as an EMS paramedic in the city, I have never picked up a juvenile on any kind of crack-related thing.
Tysh: How old are the people you pick up?
La Croix: For crack? The youngest I think would be in their early 20s. And I’ve seen people using up until their 70s. There’s a curve, of course, that puts most of the users somewhere from 25 to around 35 or 40. And this is just crackheads that I see in an emergency, which means crackheads who’ve gone wrong.
Tysh: So somehow these kids who weren’t using it earlier, some of them eventually do get into it in their 20s, for other kinds of reasons. But when we’re talking about younger addicts, what we really mean is, probably, affluent white kids.
La Croix: I think that’s the reason for that focus in Traffic, since that is really the problem area. And again, this movie I guess you can say is just subversive.
Tysh: Absolutely. Then Ted Koppel in the ABC “Nightline” version says some pretty shocking things on television. In the fifth and last episode, when he talks about demand, what kind of conclusion can we come to?
La Croix: Koppel says that, yes, we should take away from the amount of resources that we’re spending at the border — not to scuttle that effort completely, but to put some of those resources into prevention and treatment.
I thought that Douglas’ last speech was one of the key moments in the film: Do you want to wage a war on your own family? But that was never addressed in the TV show.
Tysh: Right up until that point in the film, the war is being waged south of the border, at the borders, in the customs offices …
La Croix: With brown people …
Tysh: … with brown people. Do you want to wage a war, here at home, against your own population? What is this war about? If the demand is so high that it creates a multibillion-dollar industry for one family in Mexico (not to speak of the industries that it creates for Peru, Colombia, etc. — we’re talking about sums in the hundreds of billions of dollars), if the demand is so high from the United States, then what is it? How big is it? Why does it seem to be so inexhaustible?
La Croix: I remember when they had that warehouse scene on “Nightline,” and you reacted when you saw all those kilos upon kilos upon kilos … when you think of it, it’s one of those things like anything that involves numbers beyond any true human conception. When you hear 6 million people died in the Holocaust, you accept that as a bad thing, but when you see a mountain of shoes, it really starts to hit you what that means. I don’t know what a ton of coke looks like — but when you see these customs warehouses, you realize, “This is stuff that was all on its way to being consumed.”
Tysh: It was the relatively small portion that was confiscated. This doesn’t represent what we use. This represents what didn’t get through. That’s what blew me away, just seeing this immense pile of confiscated cocaine and realizing that it’s just a speck, only a portion of what was confiscated at any particular time.
So Traffic is saying that the war on drugs is futile. Mike Douglas’ speech at the end of the film suggests that one of the solutions to this whole problem lies in communication between parents and children.
La Croix: Yeah, and treatment. Years back, with the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, you finally had two people who said, “No, this is not just a problem of weak-willedness.”
Tysh: Or a problem of legality. Whether alcohol is legal or not, there are alcoholics.
La Croix: Yet we know, from a very recent history, that prohibition doesn’t work.
Tysh: OK, let’s say we give up on the war on drugs. We drop the prohibitions on the sale and distribution of marijuana and powder cocaine — what kind of society are we faced with then?
La Croix: That’s almost something that you’d have to talk about on a drug-by-drug basis. I have much less problem with dropping the prohibition on marijuana. I think that now, in all but the furthest right-leaning circles or among religious people who oppose it on moral grounds, people are almost ready for that to happen. I think that it would be a good thing … again from the emergency medical standpoint, you get people going to the hospital because they’re getting dope that’s no good, dope that’s soiled with other things … and they end up getting sick from it. That’s really the only reason that I’ve had, as an EMS paramedic, to respond to any kind of marijuana calls. It’s almost physically impossible to overdose on marijuana — you’d have to have a spliff the size of a drainpipe … But if you legalize it, just like we did with alcohol, it would take it out of the hands of organized crime; it would insure quality …
Tysh: It would decriminalize it and reduce the amount of police effort and funds being applied to that so-called problem. It would free a lot of people from jail or even being considered for jail.
La Croix: And of all the drugs going, I would think that marijuana is probably one of the least victimizing … even compared to alcohol … How many people flood the medical industry because they’re constant marijuana smokers? Alcoholics take all of their inner organs out with that “drug.”
Tysh: But the kids on “Nightline” talked about escalation from marijuana to other drugs. Do you believe that escalation actually occurs?
La Croix: I disagree with the idea that as soon as you put a joint in your mouth you can almost take a slide rule out and tell how long it’s going to be until you’re putting a needle in your arm. I think that’s a complete fallacy.
Tysh: Perhaps Koppel just simply had a very specific cross-section of the population in his interview — that is, the kids for whom marijuana was not going to do what they needed. Whereas, if you took a cross-section of the youth of America and then examined how much escalation there was, you’d probably get a very different outcome.
La Croix: The key is when you say, “Does it do what they need?” And then that gets you into a whole other area of discussion: “What do they need for it to do?” Evidently, the kids who are using harder stuff aren’t looking for a party. They’re not looking for a feel-good, relax, have a little buzz, get a little giggly, eat a lot of potato chips. It seems like the “Nightline” kids were implying that they’re leading these existential lives that just need to be obliterated chemically. That they cannot deal with … life.
Tysh: Now that brings us to Requiem for a Dream. What is that film telling us about these kids? Because “Nightline” and Traffic don’t spend a lot of time on them. They’re more concerned with the whole superstructure of the market, the industry, politics and law enforcement, etc. The kids are in there, significantly, but Requiem for a Dream is almost entirely focused on the user.
La Croix: The more I think about that movie, the more problems I have with it. We’re not clear about what they’re using — we just know that it’s a white powder that they inject … or snort. The pupil dilation in Requiem suggested cocaine, but heroin use causes pinpoint pupils, which is just the opposite of what was happening in the movie.
Tysh: Scientifically speaking, the film suggests that they were shooting cocaine.
La Croix: Or they could’ve been speedballing, which is a combination of cocaine and heroin. And then it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen, because it just depends on what hits your system in what amount.
Tysh: What are your other problems with the film?
La Croix: We kind of get into the kids when they’re already using pretty regularly, and then it just seems like their whole problem is just them not being able to get it anymore. You kind of have this idea that if everything went the way that it was going … they were making money selling it, they buy the dress shop, things are going great … their problem wasn’t with the drug. They don’t start to crash until they can’t get it anymore. It’s not available on the streets and that’s what forces the girl into basically becoming a cocaine whore. But that guy’s arm would have been amputated whether he had a supply or not.
Tysh: The overwhelming impression that you get from that film is of this insidious, lethal situation of addiction. It doesn’t look kindly on drug use in any way. And I think it’s meant to be one of those “scared straight” kind of movies: “Look at this — this is what you’re in for.” In fact, it underlines that message with the Ellen Burstyn character who’s taking another form of addictive drugs — her diet pills — and how quickly she becomes a junkie. And even before she takes the diet pills, she’s already a junkie to television. So the film is really about addiction in almost the broadest sense.
La Croix: And they drop it in at various points. When Burstyn’s character ends up in the mental facility, the guys who are strapping her down are talking about gambling. Then you have the whole issue of sexual addiction being raised by the black guy who isn’t interested in selling drugs — he just exchanges them for sex. And the young woman’s story culminates in this completely denigrating sexual performance which, the way that it was handled, I was wondering about the director’s choices and what he was doing there. I mean, why an ass-to-ass dildo show?
Tysh: To make it all as surreally disgusting and scary as possible. Although I resent its heavy-handedness, I can step back and notice the response that this film has gotten from kids. It’s cut MTV-style, fast-paced, almost in some weird way like a music video.
La Croix: When you think about the physiological effects that movies are supposed to have on you, then you read this film very much as a horror melodrama. It’s supposed to scare you and make you cry.
Comparing it to Trainspotting, — which is a horribly bleak story about addicts in Scotland, but with a breathless, free-spirited feel in the way it was shot — if Trainspotting took you on a roller coaster, Requiem for a Dream takes you through the house of horrors. But it’s still a ride. You’re strapped to these people and it may be a horrible ride, but it’s a ride nonetheless. It’s rather sensational.
The problem with Trainspotting was that it undercut some of the most horrible things with a kind of black comedy. There’s this famous scene where a guy goes into this horrible bathroom to fix and there’s a stall which is just overflowing with shit. And somehow he fumbles this little bag of dope and it falls into the toilet. It’s his last bag of dope, so he’s fishing around in all this shit and eventually he goes head-first into the shit and he disappears into the toilet. The film just breaks with reality at that point. And then we see him actually in this environment, swimming around for this bag of dope, and he finally gets the bag and fixes and everything is all right again. If it was handled on a straight level, that would’ve been one thing, but they completely undercut that and make it into this other thing.
Tysh: When I think of a user movie that I really respect as filmmaking and also for what it’s saying, I think of Drugstore Cowboy. There’s a film where the cinematic means are used sparingly, yet it’s very powerful, bleak, very much a story of a struggle to overcome addiction and how hard that is. The scene where that girl dies and turns all blue, and they hide her in the attic, is devastating.
La Croix: So the whole point of Requiem for a Dream is to say in big block red letters, don’t do drugs.
Tysh: It’s a film of desperation. And you certainly don’t see that in Blow. You don’t get any sense of what happens to anybody using drugs in Blow.
La Croix: No, not at all. At the end of Blow, I was left with a sense of “That was a bit harsh for the crime.” This guy ends up losing his daughter and his family, he’s in jail until 2015 and, gee … It’s not until you unzip yourself from that world that you go, “Hey, wait a minute. This guy was responsible for moving tons of cocaine into this country and the only effect, really, that you see of the drug is within the people who are moving it. His partner, you see him, he kind of gets into this paranoid little flaky thing in his own little armed regime on an island. And you see our dealer-hero George (Johnny Depp) and you see his wife (Penelope Cruz) and they’re strung out. ’Cause then it still looks almost victimless, “Yeah, but they did it to themselves.”
Tysh: As if they just messed up their own lives. When actually they were part of a machine that messed up the lives of millions of people.
La Croix: The film also doesn’t show the violence involved in the drug trade. These people have guns for a reason: They’re killing people. You see George get shot, which almost makes him a martyr … but they don’t show the body count, just completely irrelevant of the effect the actual drug has on people’s lives. Just the fact that there are people being killed on a daily basis.
Tysh: Traffic seems to deal with all those things in one way or another: summary executions, assassinations, people OD’ing. There’s definitely a body count in the movie and certainly the way Koppel’s crew dealt with it, there’s a big body count.
But what I felt about “Nightline,” which seemed a little strange until the very end, was that we started to spend more time in Mexico than in the United States. I started to think, “Wait a minute, I thought this was about an American problem. Why are we spending all of this time worrying about the Tijuana cartel, as if that’s the real source of the problem?”
La Croix: And then Koppel, in the very last episode out of five episodes, says it’s a problem of demand.
Tysh: But he never really gets very deeply into the problem of corruption in the United States. He says it’s a problem of demand, which sort of puts the whole weight of it on the shoulders of users. When actually there’s as much corruption in the States around the drug wars as there is in Mexico.
La Croix: And that’s something that, of all the films, Traffic still handles the best. Because we do have that merchant-level drug dealer who gets caught by Don Cheadle at the beginning. I guess you do have it in Blow, but it’s handled in such a way that it’s almost invisible. You have the guy who’s the hairdresser (Paul Reubens), you’ve got George in the beginning, you’ve got Tuna … but I had a difficult time reading them as dealers, since we’re so sewn up into their story. We’re following these guys and we don’t have enough distance to look at them as drug dealers.
Tysh: If I think of a contrast with another film, where something could have gone wrong in a similar way, I think of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. You see Henry throughout the whole film — it’s Henry’s story. But never would you say by the end of that film that you didn’t understand what Henry was really about, and what the effect of Henry’s actions really was. You understand vividly and terrifyingly who Henry is. So that if you really wanted to paint a portrait of a drug dealer, you could do it. It’s been done with a serial killer. Henry never becomes a sympathetic character, even though you’re with him all the time. Though you start to understand him a little bit, it doesn’t mean you think he’s a good guy. You might even start to have hopes for Henry that maybe somehow he can change, but the film underlines the fact that he can’t, that he won’t. It’s a devastating film, one of the most truthful that I’ve ever seen. And when I showed it to a class at Wayne State, I felt that students were shaken by it because of its truth, because of the level of truth that it talked. I wonder how much truth we can tell about drugs in America.
La Croix: It seems like in all of these films, we do really well in looking at the problem across some kind of border. The most explicit stuff, even in Blow, seemed to be dealing with Pablo Escobar, a summary execution, etc., and it seemed like the most graphic that it got was when there were brown people involved … and going into these Third World areas.
Even in Traffic, the only person you see dealing to the kids is this black guy in Washington, D.C. When I first saw the movie, I was wondering whether I should have a problem with that or not. And then I was thinking, in the experience that I’ve had being on the streets in my job, “Well, yeah, I really can’t sweat this issue, because that’s probably who they would be getting the stuff from, and what happened to that girl would probably be what would have happened to her.” So whether I liked it or not, I couldn’t say that it wasn’t …
Tysh: It seemed to have happened to that one white kid in the “Nightline” episode — he was talking about going downtown to D.C., hanging out where he shouldn’t be.
La Croix: So then the question becomes, to me, what happens between the border of Mexico — we’ve gotten the stuff over the border — and this black guy in this major urban community selling this dope to bourgeois white kids? And it seems like that’s the 18 minutes of the tape that was erased in Watergate or something. And it really makes me ask a question: “What’s in that space, and why is it that everyone’s missing it?”
Tysh: It’s the blind spot. What’s in that blind spot? Who are the all-important, major distributors of drugs in this country? How do they do business? How is it possible that no one is apprehending them?
La Croix: I’ve gone on a couple of drug raids because people have been shot on the scene or whatnot, and you walk into the place and wonder how big up was this guy that he’s living on the east side of Detroit in this hovel where the porch is broken? Yeah, he’s got a big-screen TV. But how high up was this guy where you’re going to send 15 narcotics officers to bust his door down? And maybe the other reason is because it’s embarrassing — the prisons are overburdened, the judicial system is overburdened, so these guys are back on the street in three days. This one house had been busted 15 times in three years — and they bust it and shut it down for a little while, and it comes back open, and they bust it. It’s a complete circle. Nothing happens.
Tysh: So what could “Nightline” have done?
La Croix: At least just show that.
Tysh: Show the futility of law enforcement efforts here in the States?
La Croix: Yeah. Maybe they chose not to because it’s not handled in the movie, and they were using the movie as their guideline for hitting those points. But one thing that they’re not showing in Traffic is the corruption. You know Koppel kind of socks the customs guy in the shoulder at the border and says, “You’re full of shit,” and the guy’s like, “Yes, I am.” And they have a little laugh.
Tysh: It’s a compelling story, but they spend all that time with the journalist in Tijuana — which basically could have been done in half the time — and they could have devoted some time to corruption in the United States. It’s almost like they’re complicit.
But the biggest impact of all of these films is in Traffic — outside of Soderbergh’s impressive use of four narrative tracks, outside of his vision at-all-levels of the problem — in the way drug czar Douglas changes his mind. Here’s the top drug authority in the U.S. government and he has a crisis of conscience regarding the drug wars. The film suggests a whole new attitude to a struggle that otherwise is going nowhere. Now that’s subversive.James Keith La Croix writes about film for the Metro Times and works as an EMS paramedic in Detroit. George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org