Friday, May 9, 2008

The Side Effects Of The Cocaine

(Note that this entire post is based on hearsay and has not been verified by any of the subjects.)

As I catch up on all the films I've missed over the years, ones I've read about but never saw or the ones I accidentally stumble upon, I'm finding my enjoyment is greater for the ones lost to the history books. You know, the often broken anti-classics, that exude some otherworldly badness that goes beyond mere ineptitude or inadequate budgets. When I do a little research into what went on during the productions, I see why.

Some of these behind-the-scene stories are more interesting than the actual document of the film itself, involving inappropriate use of drugs, inappropriate sexual couplings, or inappropriate financial dealings. This goes a long way towards explaining how some films end up the way they are. Films that apparently had all the resources at their disposal but seem to have been made by people who have never seen a film before.

I'm talking here about the movies of the '70s in which drugs played an important part in the creation. (I'll leave the other vices that are often committed in the name of art to another posting.) And by drug movies I don't mean the likes of “Easy Rider,” although that probably fits in with this discussion. The Cheech and Chong films, for example, clearly have a cast and crew that were at least partially fueled by mind-altering substances, but their ultimate very countenance isn't entirely due to the crew and production being seeped in a cannabis haze - the lackadasical plotting and production values ultimately are attributable to penny-pinching in a genre in which high standards (to coin a phrase) simply aren't required.

I call them “coke movies, ” and they're the ones where it's clear everyone on set - or at least the ones in charge - seem to be making decision in a cocaine-induced frenzy. Intensely committed but slightly skewed editing, writing, and camera placement and movement, a coke movie feels obsessively personal, yet constantly distracted. You can imagine everyone sitting around in their trailers being serviced by starlets, telling each other how fucking brilliant that new idea is, and busy enjoying a fast Hollywood lifestyle, the champagne and cocaine is flowing freely, and every sycophant is telling them their limo's ready. They couldn't be bothered by loftier concerns, like the filmed legacy that they would leave behind to the ages.

The best, and first “coke movie” I identified, was Martin Scorsese's “New York, New York,” his amped-up, trying-too-hard, out-of-balance ode to '40s musicals. Scorsese has admitted (as well as outing Liza Minnelli and reportedly Robert DeNiro as well) being coked to the gills on the film, and it shows in every decision made, from vanity casting (he was dating Minnelli at the time), to each overly baroque movement of the camera, to the half-assed kitchen-sink dialogue. Each little element just seems ever so slightly wrong, and in total has a cumulative effect of a bad amphetamine trip. (It's helpful to read the novelization of the film, by the original screenwriter Earl MacRauch, who based it on his screenplay when he saw what had happened to his screenplay.)

Usually, when the talent's flying behind the scenes, there's calmer and saner heads that prevail somewhere else before or after on the food chain, ensuring something more measured and releasable hits the screens - the problem is amplified when someone like Scorsese is in charge, and is at the point of his career (after “Taxi Driver” and “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore”) in which he can (apparently) do no wrong, can demand a unique vision and not be second-guessed, may not be completely happy about his career or personal life, has money, and is young enough to submit his body to such abuse - at work no less!

Sam Peckinpah's another director who sabotaged his career with substance-fueled films that made little sense when cut together (especially when Peckinpah was barred from the editing room to do it properly), although all that's specifically part of his films' charms. Around the time of “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid,” his films - in spite of all the danger and acclaim - didn't translate to butts in seats to make his path easier in Hollywood (his people skills didn't improve things either). Reports of Peckinpah's epic binges on the set of PGABTK were known by the press and public before the film was even done shooting, yet probably contributes to its intensely nuanced yet boozy mise' en scene. (I direct you to the restored director's cut on DVD.) The film is unconventional, and I'm sure the executives cut it up to spite Peckinpah as much as repair it to some shape more familiar with anything they might have ever seen before.

This strategy of working continued, and certainly didn't help Peckinpah's later “Convoy.” That's not really a “coke movie;” it would better be described as a “Scotch movie.”

Robert Altman is notorious for liking a little smoke between him and the world, but it was around the time of “Popeye” that cocaine became prevalent, both on the set and permeating the evidence left on the screen. Hurting from a string of box office failures after the early promise of “M.A.S.H.” and “Nashville,” and attempting to prove these weren't flukes (turns out “Popeye” would be the fluke) he took on this high-budget orphan and managed to bungle every possible decision he could, including bitching up the frankly brilliant-in-retrospect casting of Robin Williams (as a level-headed unflappable sailor) by keeping him on cocaine the entire shoot, and then off-mike so his lines had to be re-dubbed later. Never has so much clearly obsessive research and writing (by Jules Ffeiffer, no less!), spot-on casting (Ray Walston and Shelly Long as Pappy and Olive, respectively) and fully-realized set design been put to such little effect. At least not until Michael Bay.

(And while Simpson and Bruckheimer might also be mentioned in this post, their off-screen antics don't really translate to the screen in the same drug-fueled way - they at least had the common sense to hire craftsmen that don't let their bad habits run away with them through the productions. Just their bad taste.)

The “coke movie” lives on, gloriously and spectacularly in the 2 recent “Matrix” sequels. The geniuses behind the first “The Matrix,” the Wachowski brothers, clearly are on drugs. Probably still are. And don't get me wrong - I love them for it (and I'm looking forward to “Speed Racer” this week (I have a feeling I'll eat those words)) - but the over-the-top, half-baked and over-cooked aspect of “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” screams nothing more than “Rehab.”

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Addendum - 06/05/08:

I just saw Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie" from 1971 this week and must add it to the list. Directed by Mr. Hopper after the success of "Easy Rider," it was shot in Peru to save money, to keep away from studio interference (hey, he did it once, why not let them try again), and no doubt for the easy access to the Peruvian flake that clearly informs every performance in the film (particularly Don Gordon's), and no doubt the befuddled directing and editing.

Mr. Hopper would not be allowed to direct another film for 10 years.


garv said...

I think you may have a book in the "coke" movie concept. Maybe we can do some tandem book signings when I sell my Booze Movies Film Guide.

I've seen most of the "coke" movies discussed, and god help me, I've enjoyed all of them... sober.

Roger Leatherwood said...

Sometimes sober isn't the best way to enjoy these.

I know after some of these, I _need_ a drink!


garv said...

I have a real genuine affection for PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID and POPEYE. I often find GARRETT more emotionally stirring than THE WILD BUNCH (which I also love). My affection for POPEYE probably has more to do with my love of Segar's THIMBLE THEATRE than the film itself.

Baron said...

Popeye is one of the few films I was unable to sit through, and the fact that I somehow managed to sit through Battlefield Earth says volumes about my intestinal fortitude when it comes to bad movies.

It may be the "coke" movie in it that turned me off I cant recall.

Roger L. said...

Hi, Baron,

Popeye indeed isn't really a "movie" so much as some kind of extended performance-art experiment, which all involved were doing anyway (Williams is on the record as so).

Battlefield Earth, for all the things wrong with it, has a go-for-broke gooniness that is not deadened by a pompous coke-stained need to impress.

I prefer Popeye because there is, truly, nothing like it.