On the evening I returned from my trip to the Greek Islands, I went straight to the Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis to fight my jet-lag with a movie. The latest Coen Brothers’ film was showing. While I watched The Big Lebowski, I thought of it as Howard Hawks' 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 said with sleepy amusement, “Wow, movies have changed a lot while I was traveling.” The 1990’s were, in retrospect, the decade during which the writers and directors of my generation introduced new mannerisms into mainstream movies: Joel and Ethan Coen, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Baz Luhrmann, Steven Soderberg, Penelope Spheeris, Quentin Tarantino, 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.
The Big Lebowski was a fitting entry into my mid-thirties. 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; I recreated that sense of bonding with my three closest male friends. None of us had children and we shared an appetite for play that had survived our twenties. We named our ongoing project Monkeyshow, a loosely structured video collaboration inspired by the absurdist satire of “Mad Magazine” and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
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 reconstituted the pop culture that had socialized us as children, making the television show that we most wanted to see. The spirit of Monkeyshow belonged to the ironic sampling aesthetic of the early digital era that later found wide expression on YouTube: a liberating, if somewhat narcissistic, release from a monolithic media culture mediated by television studios into multiple grass root subcultures with the means to produce and distribute their own content. YouTube, in this regard, represents a partial realization of Canyon Cinema's ideals in the late 1960’s: transforming media consumers into media producers of uniquely individualistic work (although I don't think Bruce Baillie or Stan Breakage envisioned the number of cat videos that would result).
Christian Marclay’s The Clock is the first cathedral of contemporary cut-and-paste thinking. Bruce Conner and Alan Berliner had explored the formal possibilities of editing found footage, but Marclay built at a monumental scale on their foundation. He began with the structural idea of cataloguing every minute of the day as seen on clocks in movies. He hired a team of assistants to watch films with the sole intent of locating clocks and then for three years he edited a looping twenty-four-hour film that documents the duration of your watching it in real time; an arbitrary collage of cinematic history as a clock, 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 developed a taste for Belgian beer and Single Malt Scotch and, for the first time in my life, I enjoyed cannabis. Although I had grown up in the cultural milieu of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, I had never developed much interest in weed. None of the Monkeyshow members got high very often, once or twice a month perhaps, but the experience became ingrained in our 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 laminated wooden plaque of a unicorn-goat. But the main attraction of the birthday evenings was the premiere of our new Monkeyshow episodes. Over the course of a few years we remade the 1970’s Poseidon Adventure, created quasi-respectful treatments of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Bela Bartok’s “Fifth String Quartet” and paid 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 this target demographic would be high, we began to make content for that particular state of subjectivity.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s offered many precedents for movies made by stoned producers specifically for a stoned audience. The ‘Venusians among us’ scene in Easy Rider, for example, the origin of the Jack Nicholson persona, is a famous touchstone of head cinema. The many self-conscious layers of performance functioned as a code for the turned-on crowd of the era. 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; Nicholson initially plays sober naivety mingled with curiosity, then relaxes into his true documentary state of mind, high, even breaking character briefly to invite us into the party on the other side of the camera.
In a Rolling Stone interview from the early 1980’s, Jack Nicholson described shooting Easy Rider. He recalled a night tripping on LSD with Dennis Hopper near Taos, New Mexico. 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 football helmet, Nicholson is waving this plastic pork chop (2:30), wearing his signature grin. He claimed in the interview that, because Easy Rider was his breakthrough as an actor, he concealed this plastic pork chop somewhere in his clothing on every subsequent film for good luck. The last time I saw The Shining, I pictured the pork chop while he chased Shelley Duvall with an ax.
Stoned subjectivity, to make a few generalizations from my experience, produces a heightened awareness of performance and theatricality. I become self-conscious of the roles I adopt to interact socially. Not only are we are actors upon a stage performing, but the range of characters available to us expands in its variety. I am liberated to swim in the whole lake of improvisational theater, not limited to the public beach defined by the ropes of habit.
While watching a movie high, the opposite occurs; the reality behind the illusion-making is revealed. I don’t see the irascible Rogo in the Poseidon Adventure reacting to an explosion on the ship. I see Ernest Borgnine the man, sweaty and possibly a bit hungover, on his third take in close-up, well paid to shout in front of a plywood set, while all around him a crew of union workers manages the physical apparatus of the shoot just out of frame. His captured reaction 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. Every movie becomes a documentary.
At the midpoint of Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, the actual girl playing the fictional girl in the story removes the fake cast from her wrist, breaks the theatrical fourth wall and addresses the offscreen director. The crew is then absorbed into the drama as a 16mm camera documents the 35mm camera that was previously shooting the film. The viewer confronts the conceptual relationship between the character and the actress, between the production and the story. Cannabis, for me, creates a similar awareness of the fluid relationship between fiction and reality in any movie.
Woody Allen jokes in Annie Hall, when Diane Keaton's character 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 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. In the late 1990’s I went to see From Here to Eternity stoned with a friend. One wouldn’t immediately think of this iconic black and white melodrama as the best head cinema, but Montgomery Clift’s conflicted face or Burt Lancaster’s unpredictable changes of physical and emotional direction were more intriguing than usual. 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 (Manny Farber described his performance as a “glib, showy Tarzanism”). My friend and I laughed out loud spontaneously and turned to each other, surprised that this scene had never played as funny before. The stoned viewer’s perspective shifts to these eccentric inflections of location, tone or performance (“why are the characters opening so many doors?”) and an unexplored path opens through the recognizable landscape of a known film.
I followed one such parallel path through the late, baroque Hitchcock in The Birds. Watching high, the film felt like a 1960’s staging of D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” directed by Douglas Sirk; the melodrama was so exaggerated that I thought Hitchcock may even have been making a satire of a Sirk film. The shot-making and storytelling were often reduced to an elliptical montage, Hitchcock pushing himself toward greater visual abstraction. Scenes frequently ended with the characters posed in portentous tableaus, like illustrations in a Victorian novel. Hitchcock also indulged his theatrical love of the provincial eccentric (as in The Lady Vanishes or The Trouble with Harry) by filling the diner with a half dozen brilliant character actors as counterpoint to Jessica Tandy’s chewing of the scenery elsewhere. And then, to heighten the strangeness of all these ingredients further, the melodrama was interrupted periodically by bird attacks that resembled Stan Brakhage’s experimental short Mothlight. Finally, there was no Bernard Hermann score manipulating my emotions; the only non-diegetic sound design was a synthesizer track created by German electronic music pioneer Oskar Sala. In The Birds that evening, I witnessed an old master of narrative cinema playing at the boundary of the formal characteristics that had defined his career, flirting with the modernist avant-garde.
Car Wash rewarded me as abundantly when I saw it stoned at the Trylon Microcinema last year. The tiny theater was three-quarters full on a Saturday night. Some of the regulars were present; I waved from a distance, not trusting myself to interact responsibly. Giggly young hipsters mingled with the middle-aged, 1970’s nostalgia-seekers. Everyone in the audience was white. In 1976, Car Wash would have stood on the boundary of the mainstream and blaxploitation, a film written and directed by an African American man for an insider audience. With 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 cut directly from one of Les Blank’s shorts. The onscreen banter flowed as organically as a musical improvisation; in my memory a man in a barbershop in Blank’s Hot Pepper said “Whatever you is, be that.” These were not rehearsed actors playing to the camera, words written into their mouths; it felt rather as if the camera were incidentally present, capturing a spontaneous event in an actual L.A. car wash location, the quality of light changing throughout the course of one day, the period graphics of the signs in the background and the playful give and take between people expressing their authentic vitality. A Los Angeles audience in 1976 must have enjoyed the film as a depiction of their actual time and place.
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 as a great on-location Chicago film. 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 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. It was the first time he had seen 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.
I recalled Leo's enthusiasm for Medium Cool while I watched Car Wash at the Trylon and also 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 describing Car Wash thirty years later in all of its pluralistic glory in the bicentennial year. He certainly was writing about the documentary that I saw at the Trylon Microcinema that night.