The criminalisation of narcotics is a complex issue. Decades of prohibition have not resulted in a decline in drug use and whilst this is not the victimless crime many imagine, the spiral of social problems associated with the drugs trade does flow from its illegality. However, in one area at least, I can see no alternative except a total ban. In the strongest possible terms I hereby call on all filmmakers to pledge to never include a sequence where characters take drugs and “things go weird”, because this is, without doubt, the most criminally boring thing you can watch.
I’ve recently been required to watch a lot of first and second feature films and time and again an interesting premise and building narrative has been completely sidetracked by the characters taking some drugs. At this point everything in the story stops whilst the DP scrabbles for a fish-eye lens.
I’ll admit, in real life, the only truly compelling reason I’ve found for drug use has been to make life bearable when hanging out with intoxicated people. Being the only stone cold sober person in the room is easily the worst position in which to find yourself. From the outside, someone else’s high is never more interesting than a trip to an old people’s home, consisting mainly of regularly thanking people for how much they love you and occasionally mopping their face. Of course the magic of cinema should be in its ability to transport the audience into the very heart of the character’s experience. However cinema’s bag of narcotic tricks is horribly limited. Jumpy edits, different frame rates, messed up focal planes, saturated colours – I’ve seen them all and they rapidly become just as boring as listening to your mate chat up an empty coat on the chair beside him.
The only time that this situation is bearable, both in life and in cinema, is when the intoxicated person is attempting to do something. For instance Leonard Di Caprio in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” attempting to drive home. This sequence is delightful because his intoxication is not the point but the complication to his task. Also it’s remarkable how restrained the sequence is and how the real kicker comes not in the distorted section at the start but at the end of the second clip with the simple compare and contrast between how he thought the drive went and how it actually panned out.
Subtlety and story telling like this are rare. On the whole when the drugs come out the story goes away and instead I just have to watch someone doing “editing” and “camerawork” at me or being “weird” or “confusing” or worst of all “surreal”.
In truth, the power of the narcotic experience lies in the way the drug rewires the brain. By changing the connection between input and understanding, drugs alter your experience of sensation, creating feelings that are often more intense or surprisingly distant. Drugs make life more interesting. Which is precisely what the massively heightened perspective of cinema does anyway. Film cannot, of course, mirror the physical effects of a narcotic but the ability to focus on extreme details, or swing suddenly to a perspective vast and outside your body, the strange significance of colours, the intense emotional connection to people you’ve only just met, the way virtual strangers can leave an imprint on you for life – the true cinematic equivalent of the narcotic experience is just cinema, neat from the bottle. Those blurry, bouncy, boring sequences of intoxication are far closer to a recreation of what it feels like to be sober around drunks.
So the next time your main character is about to take a hit from the bong… do us all a favour. Just say no.