Against all protocols of good judgment and good taste, I found myself propped up in front of the telly at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m., watching something called "Life of Crime" on HBO. Don’t ask why, but there it was in all its tawdry glory. The show fronts itself as a documentary about various characters as they shuttle from pen to street and often back to pen, complete with all the highs and lows one might expect in between.
It’s all rather depressing, like watching mangy zoo animals shambling about in filthy cages. The people on camera, like their brethren in "Cops," are pretty much fucked forever — no education, no money, no breaks. A toothless gent natters on about how he’s going to go straight peddling used cars, while his parole officer, who looks like a rummy gambler, warns him about staying off drugs. In the very next shot, a woman shoots up in front of a mound of fetid garbage and then starts rooting around in it looking for money. There’s no romance in poverty, at least for the poor.
But what about the rich? They know there’s money to be made from desperate living, as long as it is properly marketed. Despite all the hue and cry over the "heroin chic" favored by the fashion industry a couple of years ago, all things junkie are still very much in vogue. This past year, we had films such as Permanent Midnight and Another Day in Paradise seemingly coming out every month. Trainspotting (1995) was a smash, marrying a post-punk, highgloss aesthetic to cheeky working-class attitudinizing and sundry junkie misadventures.
I know, I know: Lighten up, killer. The whole point of showbiz is to entertain. So, of course, you need to have slow motion close-ups of syringes filling with blood as Lou Reed croons in the background. Melanie Griffith can look like a remarkably well-preserved, 40-something junkie as she shoots smack into her thigh, provocatively close to her "pussy," as the street lingo goes. Junk and junkies are shorthand for bona fide counterculture. In an age in which rock, rap and all other entertainments are forced to drench themselves in self-parodying irony to remain viable, the junkie is perhaps the last authentic symbol of sticking it to the straights and their numbing lives of banal consumption and reproduction. Certainly, that’s the message of both Trainspotting and its obvious inspiration, Sid & Nancy (1986).
William S. Burroughs made the point in his duet of addict novellas — the censored Junkie in 1953 (rereleased in an unexpurgated form in 1977 as Junky) and Queer (1985) — that smack or, more precisely, the attainment of smack, obliterates all moral and spiritual hang-ups. The quest for a score is the thing, the drama, the action, the adventure — no holds barred. The actual copping and using seem almost anti-climactic. Matt Dillon and his motley crew of addicts proved as much in Drugstore Cowboy (1989).
You can only waste so much screen time with photogenic youth nodding off to hip music before audiences start voting with their feet. Even more mind-numbing is watching junkies come off smack, although Trainspotting with a blue baby crawling across the ceiling tried its best to pretty things up. In stark contrast, the little-seen Canadian film, H (1990), puts us in the basement apartment of two lovebirds strung out on skag. They try to kick and the experience for the viewer is akin to watching a couple of galley slaves in a dungeon suffer an agonizing recovery after noshing on a dead rat they found in a bucket of swill. It’s a dark and ugly trip, far removed from the catwalks of New York.
Larry Clark, director of Kids (1995) and Another Day in Paradise, got his start doing thinly veiled homoerotic photodocumentaries of skid row life in Tulsa. The eyes say it all: "I have my youth and I’m squandering it, and in squandering, I’m tragic, beautifully so."
Looking at those photos now, with their blasé social realism, one realizes just how necessary it is for the cinema to dress up the junkie experience to make it palatable to middle-class audiences as something other than the peep show voyeurism peddled in "Cops" and "Life of Crime."
For hidden behind all the low-rent glamour is the fact that welfare reform, the decline of manufacturing and faulty education systems leave millions of people at the mercy of their meager circumstances, with no bootstraps available to lift themselves up. Drugs, outside of the suburbs, are an escape into a fantasy of nothingness, far better than a reality of nothingness.
But while junk has a long and white romantic history in Western literature and art, crack cocaine is particular to the black experience in the United States. Films about crack, what there are of them, conspicuously lack the sexiness of junkie cinema. Clockers (1995), despite all of Spike Lee’s homestyling, is a bit too real, a bit too close to home. Junk dealers are portrayed, by and large, as uptown cool cats. Crack dealers are either jittery deadbeats or vulgar new rich players, flashing gold for the ladies. Drugs may be color blind, but stories about drugs are definitely not.