We’re living in an extremely permissive era of film. You see drug use in film and tv more now than you did in the supposedly more permissive age of the 1960s and 70s. Not only that, but violence and sex are up there too. Talk to most devoutly religious people and they’ll point to this permissive culture as a sign of the end. But whatever it’s a sign of, many audiences are clamoring for more. Just look at the popularity of shows like Breaking Bad and Narcos. Many point to the 80’s war on drugs as to the reason recreational drugs have held a taboo in our society. But an honest look at the last 100 years or so will reveal that drugs used in a recreational sense have always been pushed into fringe societal cultures. And yet, the mystique of drugs has held sway over film audiences in film. Whether it’s a morbid attraction to the destructive addict or the party lifestyle of the elite, people get their kicks by watching others get high. But what about the films that impacted audience’s perceptions of drugs. There are a few milestones in history and you can read about them below.
1. Reefer Madness
Exploitation films have always been popular in a sense. They often live up to their name by showing the audience things they would rather not or playing on current fears within a culture. Reefer Madness (1936) is credited with single-handedly striking fear in the hearts of audiences. Reefer, of course, refers to cannabis. And polite society saw this drug as a “menace.” They conjured up false ideas about how cannabis affects the brain, turning people into violent fools. They claimed the drug eventually turned people mad. The film was originally funded by a church group, but an exploitation film circuit producer bought it and recut the film for public consumption. While it certainly demonized cannabis, it is now touted as one of the worst films in history.
2. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
Taking a few steps back to the beginnings of cinema, we see a very different approach to drugs in film. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is a 1916 parody of Sherlock Holmes. Coke Ennyday uses cocaine like we use coffee, to extend his scientific powers of course! This goofy film made light of cocaine use. One of the first things we notice in Detective Ennyday’s office is his clock which reads “sleep, eat, dope, drink.” He uses over-the-top gadgets you would normally find at a steampunk festival and gets himself into absurd situations, not unlike the Pink Panther.
Throughout the film, he is constantly snorting or shooting cocaine in a cavalier manner. Each time looking more wired than the last. And it helps him solve his mysteries. This is a much more permissive treatment of drugs, cocaine mostly, than what we see only twenty years later. Cocaine use was rapidly becoming a problem as in the 1910’s the government recorded over five thousand cocaine-related deaths a year. But society, in general, was fairly accepting at the time.
3. Requiem for a Dream
Aronofsky is well known for his dream-like narratives full of metaphor and irony. His style is perfect for a realistic and fairly frightening portrayal of drug addiction. Which is why Requiem for a Dream is such an uncomfortable and strange film to watch. The film follows four people through their varied experiences with drugs, not all of them recreational. Specifically, a woman who wants to lose weight begins to experience hallucinations of grandeur after overdosing on her diet pills (amphetamines). Her son, his girlfriend and their good friend begin selling heroin to support their own addictions. Each person creates a utopian ending in their head while reality quickly unravels around them. It’s not a pretty picture and while Aronofsky certainly never intended his film to be warning on the ills of drug addiction, it certainly could be used as such. Most likely more effective than D.A.R.E.