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The perennial appeal of movie addicts

By Richard von Busack

'THE DRUG STORY has been so often sheeted [screened] that there's nothing left to it." So said Variety in 1916, on the release of a movie called The Devil's Needle. Movies about junk have been either hard-hitting and barely watchable or disturbingly comic; the good ones blend the two approaches. I remember screenwriter John Patrick Shanley telling me that Sid and Nancy was his idea of the worst horror movie ever, and yet, the burst of comic liveliness that propels Trainspotting out of the gate draws from Sid and Nancy's opening shot of a boot smashing through the windshield of a Mercedes. Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy is a funny junk movie, and so too, in spots, is Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), the first American movie of the post-sound era to deal explicitly with drug addiction.

As outlined by Kevin Brownlow in Behind the Mask of Innocence, silent film was full of tales of the woes of addiction. The war on drugs began in America with the 1909 opium exclusion act, and the first antidrug movie was, according to Brownlow, For His Son, a 1912 protest against cocaine-laced soft drinks. By 1916, there had been so many similar films that Variety complained, and drugs were parodied in the bizarre Douglas Fairbanks/Tod Browning/D.W. Griffith two-reeler The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, frequently screened on the same cult circuit with more legitimately antidrug movies like Reefer Madness and Cocaine Fiends.

The Motion Picture Production Code, adopted in the early '30s, dealt with drugs by prohibiting any mention of addiction on screen, even clipping Basil Rathbone's request for the needle in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In the wake of the taboo-breaking Man With the Golden Arm came inspirational movies about junk like A Hatful of Rain and Synanon, but it was in 1971 that movies about heroin started arriving in strength. Jennifer on My Mind came out that year; written by "Execrable Erich" Segal of Love Story infamy, it was supposedly as bad as its title. Also released in 1971 was Ivan Passer's Born to Win, a.k.a. Addict, starring the lovable slacker George Segal.

Floyd Mutrux's 1971 cinema verité Dusty and Sweets McGee was recently revived for a well-deserved run at San Francisco's Roxie Theater. The only familiar name in a cast of nonprofessionals was Billy Gray of TV's Father Knows Best, himself the real-life victim of a hungry arm. Gray plays a narc with a hot rod, but Mutrux's story is so impressionistic that you never really find out who Dusty or Sweets McGee are. Still, the film is both knowledgeable about the ways of hustlers and convicts, and deeply poetic. The cityscapes of L.A.'s urban beaches affect me so nostalgically that I probably shouldn't be writing about the movie, but I can attest to the fact that Mutrux does capture the tropical forlornness of a bruised but not yet battered city. Dusty and Sweets McGee is so elegant that it easily encompasses this beauty with a sequence of someone getting a fix under his tongue. Mutrux also contrasts the adventures of a very dedicated jailbird and junkie (the type has not changed, from barbell-teased muscles to navy watch cap, in 20 years) with the freshness of an almost-mute nightgown-clad young girl out of a Vermeer painting.

Unfortunately, Dusty and Sweets McGee originally opened on the same week as Panic in Needle Park, featuring a young Al Pacino, and the critics decided that they had heard quite enough about junkies. And Mutrux's film, despite the needle under the tongue, was also considered not judgmental enough. At the time, this was a litmus test of the director's attitude toward the social problem--whether some authority figure would come on screen to sum up the needle and the damage done. Today, this is a hallmark of the worst heroin movies, like the recent adaptation of The Basketball Diaries. In contrast, a movie like Abel Ferrara's The Addiction sounds out the more metaphysical questions of needle culture. Whether Trainspotting changes the aesthetic of the drug-addict movie will be seen, but with the numerous overdoses and self-confessed junk problems of countless rock musicians and actors, expect plenty of movies on the subject in the near future, expiating their sins, in exquisite detail.

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