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A quick cheap high: Drugs at the movies

From ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ to ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ dig in and enjoy the ride. By Dave White
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“Candy,” the new movie starring Heath Ledger as a drug addict, opens this week. It’s quite serious. Also gritty and hard. And next week, “Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny” rings in Thanksgiving. It’s not quite serious at all. And technically, it’s not about drug addicts, either. But any movie that opens with a fake THX trailer that says, “THC: The audience is baking,” is a movie about people who are high, for people who are high.

I have never done any of that stuff. I was always too afraid. I just assumed I’d be the guy who had a heart attack and died from one snort or inhalation of whatever it was. In fact, until I was in my late teens I was completely ignorant of just about everything drug-related. There’s an old Smiths song where Morrissey croons, about his childhood, “I swear to God, I swear I never even knew what drugs were.” That was me.

Then I saw “Christiane F.” And from then on I was hooked on high people who were safely on the other side of the movie screen.

Cautionary tale with glamorous soundtrackIf you’ve never seen “Christiane F.,” it should be on your to-do list. It’s a bummer about a 12-year-old girl who gets hooked on heroin. And it has awesome music. David Bowie.

In “Trainspotting” the Scottish junkies descend into death and madness but there are incredible Iggy Pop, New Order and Digweed tracks to remind you that you still want to be just like them!

See also: “Superfly,” “Easy Rider,” “Kids,” “24 Hour Party People,” “Less Than Zero”

Cautionary tale that would inject liquid Academy Award into its own veins if only everyone would see it for the genius artistic statement it isI have a morbid fascination with this ultra-serious sister category of the “Cautionary tale with glamorous soundtrack.” Although it has a long category name, I know. Anyway, the morbid part comes from laughing myself near-to-death.

“Requiem for A Dream” comes to mind. So do lots of genuinely good films that deserve recognition even if they never got any. But “Requiem” is the most glaring example. And I know it’s wrong to sit in a theater and go, “HAW HAW HAW” when Jennifer Connelly hits bottom and is forced to perform… um… certain excessively degrading burlesque-related acts for a group of Japanese businessmen, but I couldn’t help myself. It just looked like something Divine would have done in a John Waters’ movie with a grin on her face, you know? And it trumps any of that Ellen Burstyn-being-attacked-by-the-refrigerator stuff that movie has to offer.

Earlier in the century, Frank Sinatra got himself nominated for an Oscar for 1955’s “The Man With The Golden Arm.” He was a heroin addict in that one. And with Frankie in front you’d think it might end up a real drag, but it spares you most of the bugged-out histrionics modern filmmakers have decided they need to “keep it real.”

See also: “Easy Rider,” “Lady Sings The Blues,” “Half-Nelson,” “Panic In Needle Park,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” “Down to the Bone”

Drug movies to throw in grandma’s face when she tries to fake not knowing about this sort of thingBack in the day, there simply weren’t tons of movies about the chemically dependent. Well post-Hays Code anyway. Drunk people, yes. But hard-working, all-American druggies just didn’t get a lot of screen time. And if they did, it was in something like 1936’s “Reefer Madness” and they all died or were strictly punished for going one toke over the line. Kind of like “Requiem for a Dream,” now that I think about it.

“Reefer” doesn’t disappoint one bit, even now, it’s still so wild-eyed and rabid, the Rosetta Stone of vintage high-ness.  Meanwhile, James Mason as a cortisone addict in 1956’s “Bigger Than Life” is actually really affecting in a Not Insane way, in spite of you sitting there, thinking, “Cortisone?!”

See also: “The Man With the Golden Arm”

Holy cow! Kids are using drugs!
These movies really built up steam in the 1960s. One of my favorites is 1967’s “Riot on the Sunset Strip.” It’s about teen pill-poppers and their rock-and-roll and how it ruins them. Sadly, it’s not on DVD but it pops up on cable sometimes. That’s how I saw it. You kind of owe it to yourself to put it in your TiVo list.

Then there’s “Skidoo,” an LSD comedy starring Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing. And Frankie Avalon and Groucho Marx. When Gleason “turns on,” he sees a chorus line of singing and dancing garbage cans. And then Carol Channing does a striptease. It’s my all-time favorite drug movie because it accomplishes the task of making you feel like you, too, have recently taken something illicit even when you haven’t. It’s kind of hard to find but when you do you’ll need a hoist to pick your jaw up off the floor.

The “Holy cow!” movies faced stiff competition from the “You’re damn right we’re using drugs, man” movies that started sprouting wings at around the same time, “Easy Rider” becoming sort of the new, inverse “Reefer Madness.” The hippies and baby-boomers loved the latter and shunned the former. But watching them today, the “Holy Cow!” movies are way more enjoyable. And trippier.

See also: “The Trip,” “Psych-Out,” “The Big Cube,” “The Cross and The Switchblade”

You’re damn right we’re using drugs, manYou can thank these films for the contemporary genre of “Whoo-hooo! We’re high!” comedies. They have no moral, they just want to score without consequences. These movies live in a happy singing-flowers and magical mushrooms meadow where addiction doesn’t exist. They’re a rebuke to movies that spin themselves into a hysterical cry of anguish, to those that can’t just maintain.

And why not enjoy Cheech & Chong classics like “Up In Smoke” or “Dazed and Confused” where the goal is just recreational fun? They imagine a world where Amsterdam is everywhere. And they’re not hurting anybody except themselves.

See also: “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Groove,” “Friday,” “Half-Baked,” “How High”

In a category all their own
Finally, there’s “Valley of the Dolls” and “Scarface.” The former stars Patty Duke, Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins in the sleazy Hollywood Grande Dame of pill popping soap operas and the latter, starring Al Pacino at his most quotable, is the wildest, most out-of-control, blood-soaked, f-bomb-throwing dealer epic ever made. That movie practically invented hip-hop.

They don’t share billing with any other movie in any clever little category name. They’re beyond categorization. They each belong in their own category, one called “Valley of the Dolls” and one called “Scarface.” Other drug movies bow down to these two, the King and Queen of Druggachusetts. Start with them and then hit the rest. But take it easy because they’re strong. Knock you on your butt.

Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville” and the film critic for Movies.com. Find more of him at .