On the evening that I returned from my long trip to the Greek Islands I drove straight to the Riverview Theater, a well-preserved 1950’s cinema in south Minneapolis, to keep myself awake with a movie. The latest Coen Brothers’ film was showing. While I watched “The Big Lebowski,” I mentally categorized it as “The Big Sleep” with Sean Penn’s stoner dude Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” now older, cast in the Humphrey Bogart role. Leaving the theater, I thought with sleepy amusement, “Wow, movies have changed a lot while I was travelling.” The 1990’s were, in fact, the decade in which the ‘post-modernist’ writer/directors of my generation reached their first maturity and introduced new mannerisms into mainstream narrative movies: Joel and Ethan Coen, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Baz Luhrmann, Steven Soderberg, Penelope Spheeris, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, to name a few that come to mind. The era of pastiche, cut and paste genre collage and fragmented, self-aware storytelling had begun.
In retrospect, “The Big Lebowski” is a fitting introduction to my mid-thirties, a period organized not by a primary relationship with a woman but more through rituals with my closest male friends. Having weathered the disillusionment of my divorce from Sayer, I now returned instinctively to the project-based social dynamics that I had enjoyed with my teenage Super 8 filmmaking group; with three friends whom I’d known since my early twenties, I recreated that sense of male bonding and belonging. None of us had children, we all had jobs that gave us reasonable disposable income and we shared an appetite for play that had survived our young adulthood. We named our ongoing project the Monkeyshow, a loosely structured, video collaboration inspired by the satirical sensibilities of “Mad Magazine” and the absurdist “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
The Monkeyshow originated in the subversive power that we felt while overdubbing television commercials on videotape and evolved into more inventive deconstruction when we learned the first software editing tools in the later 1990’s. We revised the pop culture that had socialized us as children, making the television show that we most wanted to see, producers and audience as one.
The spirit of Monkeyshow belonged to the ironic, sampling aesthetic of the early digital era. I recognize the impulse now as a developmental stage of what resulted in YouTube: the liberating, if somewhat narcissistic, release from a monolithic media culture mediated by television studios into multiple fragmented, grass root subcultures with the means to directly produce and distribute their own content. YouTube, in this regard, represents a partial realization of the Canyon Cinema collective’s ambitions in the late 1960’s: transforming media consumers into media producers of eccentrically individualistic work.
I consider Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” to be the first cathedral of contemporary cut and paste thinking. Filmmakers such as Bruce Conner and Alan Berliner had explored the formal possibilities in editing found footage, but Marclay aspired to a monumental scale. He began with the structural conceit of cataloguing every minute of the day as represented on clocks in movies. He hired a team of assistants to watch films with the sole intent of locating clocks in backgrounds of shots and then he personally edited, over the course of three years, a looping, twenty-four-hour film that effectively documents the duration of your watching it in real time; an arbitrary collage of cinematic history, the source material deprived of its original continuity and meaning.
Our ambitions with the Monkeyshow were much humbler; we simply wanted to entertain ourselves when we partied together. We all developed a taste for Belgian beer and Single Malt Scotch and, for the first time in my life, I understood the appeal of cannabis. I had grown up in the cultural milieu of Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” and, though I’d gotten high occasionally in my teens and twenties, I never developed much interest in weed. Now, in my thirties, my attitude loosened as cultural attitudes toward cannabis began to change. None of the Monkeyshow group got high very often, once a month perhaps, but the experience became ingrained in our much-anticipated quarterly gatherings. We took each other out to dinner on our birthdays as a prelude to competitively weird, thrift store gift-giving. On my thirty-sixth birthday, I received a bag of human hair with an eighty-nine-cent price tag still attached and a large photo of a unicorn-goat laminated onto a wooden plaque.
But the main attraction of the birthday evenings was the unveiling of our new Monkeyshow episodes. Over the course of a few years we remade the 1970’s “Poseidon Adventure,” created quasi-respectful visual treatments of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Bela Bartok’s “Fifth String Quartet” and produced a tribute to Patrick McGoohan, creator and star of “The Prisoner” television series. Because we were the only audience for our work, and we knew that our target demographic would be high, we all began to make content that would appeal to that particular state of subjectivity.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s obviously offered us many precedents for movies made by stoned producers specifically for a stoned audience. The ‘Venusians among us’ scene in “Easy Rider,” for example, the birthplace of the Jack Nicholson persona, is a famous touchstone of head cinema. The many self-conscious layers of performance in that sequence functioned as a code for the in-crowd of the late 1960’s, the ‘turned on.’ It’s especially entertaining to watch this scene high, knowing that the actor is high, portraying a straight character getting high for the first time, initially playing sober naivety mingled with curiosity, then slowly allowing himself to relax into exactly what he is, high, and exulting in the pleasure of arriving there, even breaking character briefly to draw us into the party occurring on the other side of the camera.
In a Rolling Stone interview from the early 1980’s Jack Nicholson described the experience of shooting “Easy Rider.” He recalled a night tripping on LSD with Dennis Hopper near Taos, New Mexico. At one point he glanced down at the ground and saw a plastic pork chop, a chew toy for dogs. When his character is first seen riding on the back of Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle, setting off with the hippies in his golden football helmet, Jack Nicholson is waving this plastic pork chop (2:30) with his signature grin. He claimed in the interview that, because “Easy Rider” was his breakthrough as an actor, he conceals this plastic pork chop somewhere in his clothing on every subsequent film for good luck. I now take a peculiar pleasure in picturing the plastic pork chop while he pursues Shelly Duval with an ax in “The Shining.”
Stoned subjectivity, to make a few generalizations from my experience, produces a heightened awareness of performance and theatricality. One becomes self-conscious of the roles one adopts to interact with another person. Not only do we realize that we are actors upon a stage performing, but the range of characters available to us expands in its variety. We are liberated to ‘swim in the whole lake’ of communication; we are not limited to the public beach as defined by the ropes of social habit. Ordinary conversation becomes improvisational theater, perhaps nonsensical to someone outside the performance, but entertaining to the participants nonetheless.
The act of watching a film already transforms my consciousness, so getting high to watch a film for me is redundant. But I have noticed that while watching a movie high, the opposite of what I’ve described in the previous paragraph occurs; the reality behind the illusion-making is revealed. I don’t see Ernest Borgnine’s irascible Rogo in the “Poseidon Adventure” reacting in close up to an explosion on the ship. I see Ernest Borgnine the man, sweaty and possibly a bit hungover, on his third take, well paid to shout in front of a plywood set, while all around him, just out of frame, a crew of union workers manages the physical apparatus of the shoot. This contrived hysteria is then juxtaposed in the movie with a comically disconnected special effects explosion that the character is purportedly observing, calling forth an image in my mind of an editor sitting at a flatbed Moviola. The artifice of assumed reality and the reality of artifice are inverted.
Halfway through Jafar Panahi’s “The Mirror,” the actual girl playing the fictional girl in the film removes the fake cast from her wrist, breaks the theatrical fourth wall and addresses the offscreen director. The crew is no longer outside of the drama, but absorbed into it. The 35mm camera shooting the film is documented by a 16mm camera, another step removed from the action. The viewer is forced to examine the conceptual relationship between the character and the actress, between the production and the story. Cannabis, for me, induces a similar awareness of the relationship between fiction and reality; from this meta-perspective, every film is a documentary.
As Woody Allen jokes in “Annie Hall,” when Diane Keaton gets high before sex, “That’s a cheat, like getting a laugh from a stoned audience.” He also quips earlier in the film that he doesn’t get high because he smoked pot at a party once and tried to take his pants off over his head; he may not, in that light, be the best judge of the virtues of weed . . . but he has a point. When I’m high at the movies, I am reduced to an open-mouthed, canine exuberance as incidental details of the production dominate my attention. In the late 1990’s I got stoned with a friend and went to see “From Here to Eternity.” One wouldn’t imagine this iconic black and white melodrama to be good head cinema, but it was surprisingly compelling to disengage from the story and to simply study Montgomery Clift’s conflicted face or Burt Lancaster’s unpredictable changes of physical and emotional direction. In the middle of the famous love scene on the beach with Deborah Kerr, Lancaster springs up athletically, inscrutably, charges the approaching waves and dives aggressively into the surf (a “glib, showy Tarzanism” as described by Manny Farber). My friend and I laughed out loud together and turned to each other, surprised that this scene had never played as funny before. The stoned viewer’s perspective shifts to these small inflections of location, tone or performance (“why are the characters opening so many doors?”) and a parallel path through the recognizable landscape of a known film presents itself.
On one such parallel path, I experienced the not-so-subtle eccentricities of the late, baroque Hitchcock in “The Birds.” The film seemed, while high, like a 1960’s staging of D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” as directed by Douglas Sirk; but the melodrama was so archly exaggerated that I thought Hitchcock may have been making a satire of a Sirk film. The shot making and storytelling were often reduced to an elliptical montage, Hitchcock challenging himself toward greater visual abstraction. Scenes frequently ended with the characters posed in portentous tableaus. Hitchcock also indulged his theatrical love of the provincial eccentric (as in “The Lady Vanishes” or “The Trouble with Harry”) by populating the diner with a half dozen brilliant character actors to compliment Jessica Tandy’s chewing of the scenery. And then, to heighten the strangeness of all these ingredients, the melodrama was interrupted periodically by bird attacks that resembled Stan Brakhage’s experimental short “Mothlight.” Finally, and perhaps most notably to my stoned sensitivities, there was no Bernard Hermann score manipulating my emotions; the only non-diegetic sound was a synthesizer track created by German electronic music pioneer Oskar Sala. I felt that I was witnessing a jaded practitioner of narrative cinema playing at the boundary of the formal characteristics that had defined his career, very nearly exploding into the modernist avant-garde.
“Car Wash” was especially rewarding when I saw it stoned at the Trylon Microcinema last year. The tiny theater was three-quarters full on a Saturday night when I arrived. The regulars were in attendance, The Congregation; I waved from a distance, not trusting myself to interact responsibly. There were also giggly (“Likely high too” I thought) young hipsters mingled with the larger percentage of middle-aged, 1970’s nostalgia-seekers. Everyone in the audience was white. In 1976, “Car Wash” would have been positioned on the boundary of the mainstream and blaxploitation, a film written and directed by an African American man for an insider audience. For the white audience at the Trylon in 2015, almost forty years after its original release, the film played like an ethnographic documentary. An early scene in the workers’ locker room, the cast riffing and making jokes at each other’s expense, could have been transplanted from one of Les Blank’s documentaries. The onscreen banter felt improvised and natural but also culturally distant to me; in the back of my mind I heard a man in a barbershop in Blank’s “Hot Pepper” say “Whatever you is, be that.” These were not rehearsed actors playing to the camera, words written into their mouths; on the contrary, it felt as if the camera were incidentally present, capturing a spontaneous event in an actual L.A. car wash location, the changing quality of light throughout the course of one day, the graphics of the period signage in the background and the playful give and take between actual people expressing their authentic vitality. A Los Angeles audience in 1976 must have enjoyed the film as a depiction of their place and a time and the people in it
My friend Leo grew up on the south side of Chicago. Shortly after we met in the early 1990’s, we were talking about movies in a bar and I mentioned Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool.” Leo, who is a few years older than me, grew visibly excited and said that he had watched the film over and over in the early 1970’s with the same obsessiveness that I had had for “Star Wars” in 1977. The scene in which Robert Forster’s cameraman visits the militants in the black south side ghetto had amazed Leo as a young man. He explained that it was the first time he had really seen his life and his neighborhood on a screen in a movie theater, not a superficial re-creation of that world, but the actual place. The documentary authenticity of those shots included him in the mainstream of cultural life; he felt represented.
“Car Wash” ultimately felt that night like a realization of James Agee’s hopes for a realistic American cinema in the 1940’s. Naturalism in acting:
And surely there are enough Mexican mothers in California to make unnecessary the use, for a Mexican mother, of a sexy young actress with flour all over her hair who can’t even make the accent convincing.
And shooting on location:
Also, it was shot in a real town . . . so a real town’s irreducible beauty and validity keep forcing the softly handled theme toward its proper dignity.
Agee was writing here in 1943 about a film called “Happy Land,” but he could just as well be writing about “Car Wash” thirty years later in all of its pluralistic glory in the bicentennial year. In my stoned enthusiasm, experiencing the film in 2015, he certainly was writing about the documentary that I saw.