Smokin’ Cinema: Marijuana’s movie road from “Reefer Madness” to the mainstream

Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke

Google “pot movies” and the resulting list is long, with each (relatively recent) suggested title a rompin’ stompin’ glorification of the good herb. But at the end of that Google list is the granddaddy of all weed films: the 1936 unintentional larf-fest Reefer Madness.

You know Reefer Madness, right? It’s the original smoke-this-joint-and-you’ll-go-fucking-bananas propaganda flick. Funded by a church group, this anti-weed story (originally titled Tell Your Children) features typical teenagers—played by actors who look older than Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club—getting sucked into an underworld of speakeasies, joints, madness and murder. Apparently, if you smoke a joint (or to use the 1930s vernacular, “marijuana cigarette”), you’ll end up a basket case…or you’ll kill someone. The devil’s weed is dangerous stuff!

So what happened between Reefer Madness and Harold and Kumar’s epically comic and weed-soaked trip to White Castle 68 years later? It wasn’t all madness and mayhem for decades, followed by an easy switch to acceptable cannabis consumption. Charting the switch isn’t an exact science, but there’s a rough timeline if you look hard enough.

There was a second 1936 anti-marijuana film—simply titled Marihuana—in which smoking pot leads inevitably to skinny dipping, drowning, unintended pregnancy, becoming a drug kingpin, heroin use and, finally, kidnapping your own child (no shit). In fact, Marihuana‘s plot makes Reefer Madness seem downright tame. There are contemporary soap operas less outrageous than Marihuana (though its camera work makes Reefer Madness look like it was shot by Gordon Willis).

Flash forward to 1949, and the moralizing takes a new tack: She Shoulda Said No! features Lila Leeds, an actress arrested in a 1948 marijuana bust along with Robert Mitchum. Leeds is Anne Lester, a woman drawn into the world of weed and its accompanying wickedness. What makes She Shoulda Said No! more than a footnote in history is the fact that Leeds’ career never recovered. Mitchum’s career, on the other hand, flourishedbecause sexism.

The pivot to softer marijuana depictions can be seen tangentially with the release of and acclaim for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955. Frank Sinatra stars as a cleaned-up junkie who struggles to stay straight after being released from prison. He gets strung out again, but finally overcomes his addiction. The drug is never named, but it’s clearly heroin. Compared to heroin, marijuana is as dangerous as whole milk.

By the 1960s, marijuana as a hoot is practically de rigeur, if discreet. For each Sonny Bono irony-free educational film such as 1968’s Marijuana, in which Sonny has all the energy of a somnambulist, there are movies like Bob Rafelson’s Head and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, also from 1968, that don’t mention marijuana specifically but definitely feed into pot’s mainstream acceptance. The 2001 one-sheet even had the line “The ultimate trip” written right across the top.

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Reefer Madness

Arguably, the big weed coup de grâce came in 1969 with Easy Rider, the ultimate counterculture flick. Directed by Dennis Hopper—loosely—it features a star-making performance by Jack Nicholson as a drunk attorney reluctant to smoke pot—because it’s a gateway drug—until Peter Fonda tells him it’s really no big deal, man. (Fonda and Hopper smoke up throughout the film after selling cocaine to finance their road trip.)

For all of Easy Rider‘s freedom-pushing ideas, it plays a darker hand throughout; as the trio travels deeper into the American South, their lifestyle is questioned and ridiculed until ultimately, Nicholson is beaten to death by rednecks during a campfire raid. Fonda and Hopper are later shot to death by guys who have about three teeth between them. But fuck the movie’s politics.It made an ass-ton of money, made a star of Nicholson (whose performance is really just OK) and ushered in New Hollywood, which meant Robert Altman could make M*A*S*H, an anti-Vietnam movie disguised as a Korean War movie, in which a bunch of Army officers smoke pot on the sidelines of an illegal football game.

Open and acceptable marijuana use becomes frequent in movies of the 1970s. There’s Ralph Bakshi’s godawful Fritz the Cat, the X-rated animated movie featuring a bastardized version of Robert Crumb’s creation; Taking Off, Miloš Forman’s English-language debut, featuring a hilarious scene in which Vincent Schiavelli instructs parents of runaway teens how to blaze up in order to better understand their kids; National Lampoon’s Animal House, in which Prof. Donald Sutherland gets the bulk of the cast stoned; and Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, a movie in which marijuana might as well be listed third in the credits after Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong.

But I’d argue the moment marijuana became completely mainstream was December 1980, when 9 to 5 became a box office smash. Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton are sexually-harassed office workers who decide to give their rapey boss Dabney Coleman the what-for. In a scene for the ages, the three women smoke a joint procured from Tomlin’s son and fantasize different ways to get even with the big cheese. They’re all variously funny, but when Parton ties Coleman up like a show calf, you just know weed is no longer taboo. After all, if Dolly’s cup of ambition has a little weed in it, does it really matter if yours does, too?

This story first appeared in Salt Lake City Weekly.

“The Equalizer 2” review

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When we last left Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), he had killed the shit out of the entire Boston-based Russian mafia in order to save teen prostitute Chloë Grace Moretz and his co-workers at a Home Depot knock-off. It was an update of the 1980s TV show that would have done Edward Woodward—the original McCall, himself a bad-ass, just with an English accent—proud. Washington, director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk return for the sequel, and despite the similar cool gadgetry and Denzel’s blend of humor and cat-toying-with-doomed-mouse energy—there’s even a wayward youth he has to protect, well played by Ashton Sanders—nothing here seems quite as dangerous. Perhaps that’s because his enemies this go-around are a bunch of old CIA buddies and not the Russian mob. In this day and age I’d be more worried about the Russian mob. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some fun and some good killin’, with McCall dispatching more than one person with knives (yeesh). But there’s something too predictable about McCall wasting a bunch of people who’ve crossed him. Don’t they know he’s smarter and better-trained than they are?

This review first appeared in Salt Lake City Weekly.

“The First Purge” review

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The Purge series has a simple premise: A fascistic American government allows all crime to be legal for 12 continuous hours once a year. It’s also a small miracle, in that the dumb original—a been-there done-that home invasion story—has been followed by better movies, including the two direct sequels that increasingly painted Purge Night as class war in which the rich live and the poor die. Smart. This prequel finds the government paying Staten Islanders to participate in what they call “the experiment.” When the experiment results in few deaths, the government sends in militias. A drug dealer named Dmitri (thoughtfully played by Y’lan Noel) sits out the purge until it becomes clear the government is using the experiment as an excuse to kill welfare recipients. There’s some sloppy filmmaking—windows break and doors open without explanation—but once the action gets rolling, it rolls, man. The jump scares are effective, the action is fierce and the costume design leaves no doubt as to what kinds of people would hunt the poor for pleasure. I don’t know where this franchise is headed next, but I’m in.

This review first appeared in Salt Lake City Weekly.

None More Bleak: Movies to remind you that, hey, it could always be worse

Idiocracy - 20TH CENTURY FOX FILMS
Idiocracy

It’s bad out there. Sometimes, it’s so bad it feels dystopian. I work in news, and there have been days, even weeks, when I avoid reading headlines, much less full articles.

But thankfully, there are movies that make me realize someone always has it worse, whether it’s a colonial American family struggling in the wilderness or a person who is bred for one specific purpose. It’s as soothing as a Calgon commercial, but without the casual racism.

The following films depict characters who are living lives that are (likely) worse than anything we’ve experienced. Watch and sigh with relief. (Note: I pitched and wrote the bulk of this piece before news broke that children and parents were being separated at the southern U.S. border. For some, reality will always be worse than anything on the movie screen, and in no way do I intend to make light of that.)

IDIOCRACY—Sure, living in a future when everyone is so dumb they water crops with sports drinks would be terrible. What might be even more terrible is that director and co-writer Mike Judge seems to be tacitly supporting eugenics, the idea that selective human breeding ensures more desirable traits in future generations. You might remember eugenics from when you studied Nazism.

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The Purge

THE PURGE SERIES—The First Purge is upon us, and—spoiler!—as of this writing I haven’t seen it. The Purge presents us with a United States in which a political party called the New Founding Fathers has won a landslide election and made all crime legal for a 12-hour period once a year. Murder, rape, nun-beating, you name it. The first movie is a dumb home-invasion story, but its sequels up the ante by featuring a protagonist (Frank Grillo) out for vengeance inAnarchy,then fighting alongside a senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) in Election Year to end Purge Night. These movies are better than they should be. Aside: I used to think The Purge series was too fantastical—rich people murdering poor people for sport—to ever be possible. These days, I’m not so sure.

CRITERION
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

SALÒ OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM—Taking inspiration from the Marquis de Sade (that’s your first warning), director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is an indictment of fascism without thesatisfaction of any of the fascists getting his comeuppance. Perhaps that’s the point. But be warned: This movie contains, in no particular order of awfulness, graphic coprophilia, scalping, eyes being gouged out, tongues being sliced off (not larks’ tongues) and two soldiers waltzing among the horror.

A24 FILMS
The Witch

THE WITCH—In 17th-century New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family build a homestead in a wilderness that, unfortunately for them, is populated with witches. And perhaps the devil in the form of a goat called Black Philip. Writer-director Robert Eggers makes the wise decision to keep things that go bump in the night limited to a colonial settler’s fears; it’s sinister and creepy.

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Never Let Me Go

NEVER LET ME GO—The most heartbreaking movie of this bunch,this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novelis a romantic drama about people who are bred specifically for the purpose of donating their organs to the rich, and thus die early deaths. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield sell it. Take Kleenex.

JANUS FILMS
Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES—Any movie so rigid in its direction, cinematography and pacing isn’t exactly “minimalist,” but that word is thrown around a lot for Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece. Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is a widow who fills her days completely so there’s no variation to them (and therefore no time for her to spend thinking about her life’s emptiness). But then something happens that throws Jeanne’s schedule and routine off track and results in a horrifying ending. It all makes sense; imagine living in her shoes. You’ll have three hours and 15 minutes to do it.

INVINCIBLE PICTURES
A Serbian Film

A SERBIAN FILM—This film ties with Salò for any award that begins with the phrase “Most Depraved.” Here, a retired porn star is hired by shady investors to act in an art film that turns out to be a series of snuff films. There are images in this movie so shocking—think necrophilia, but worse (or don’t)—that it took me several days to wade through its 100 minutes. Making the film feel yuckier is that it’s crafted with considerable skill. I wonder what else director/co-writer Sran Spasojevi could have made instead of this fuggin’ thing.

LIONSGATE FILMS
Dredd

DREDD—This Alex Garland-written dystopian nightmare features Dredd (Karl Urban), a one-man judge and executioner, who ventures into a 200-story apartment building to find a drug kingpin named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Dredd kills a lot of people, nastily, while avoiding being killed himself by Ma-Ma’s many, many henchmen (or the mutants living outside the city in a radioactive wasteland).

20TH CENTURY FOX
Solaris (2002)

SOLARIS (1972) and SOLARIS (2002)—These two movies adapted from the same novel have wildly different takes on the material. The first, made in the Soviet Union by master Andrei Tarkovsky, is a meditation on what makes us human. The second, made by Steven Soderbergh, explores similar themes, but with a bucket of ice cooling everything along the way. In both, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis/George Clooney) journeys to a space station orbiting planet Solaris, which can make visions of dead loved ones appear. One could argue the movies have happy endings. They don’t.

Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” (review)

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With First Reformed, there’s finally a movie that lives up to the hype that has surrounded Paul Schrader since roughly 1976, when Taxi Driver—which he wrote and Martin Scorsese directed—put him on the list of writers to watch. Since then, for each objectively good or even great movie he’s written—Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction, Raging Bull, American Gigolo—he’s pumped out dog shit at more regular intervals.

Maybe his spotty track record is a result of studio interference. Schrader’s previous gig as both writer and director on 2014’s Dying of the Light was taken from him by the studio. 2016’s Dog Eat Dog, which he directed but didn’t write, received the most limited of limited releases, and it’s easy to see why: Most film studios don’t want to see some guy’s head blasted off with a shotgun, especially when that exploding head is in the same room as a sleeping baby. (Maybe these studio execs never saw the last 10 minutes of Taxi Driver.)

But you should know what you’re getting with Schrader. This is a filmmaker who fires on all thrusters whether the material is wretched or sublime. Take First Reformed, which tackles one of Schrader’s favorite recurring themes: faith taken to such obsessive extremes that it nearly turns his characters mad. It, too, has an exploding head. Fortunately, the head in question is removed from its body off-screen, and is appropriately played for horror and sadness, unlike in Dog Eat Dog, where it’s supposed to be high-sterical.

In First Reformed, the head in question belongs to Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young husband consumed with despair over the possibility of cataclysmic global climate change. When he learns his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant, he takes his own life rather than bring a child into a decaying and dying world. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) has counseled Michael to no avail, but their conversation has renewed Toller’s faith. Toller, a bit of an emotional wreck himself—son who died in Iraq, failed marriage, cancer diagnosis—decides to pour his energies into Michael’s cause, studying climate change websites and taking back to his church the suicide vest that Michael was building in his garage.

Click here to read the rest of this review at Salt Lake City Weekly.

“American Gigolo” short review

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I don’t think this pic is from American Gigolo, but it’s certainly from the era. Goddamn, Richard Gere was pretty.

Not-bad story about the seamy side of power dynamics in Los Angeles. Really peters out at the end as Julian (Richard Gere) becomes more desperate and pathetic. Bill Duke is a plus as a pimp with his sights on Julian. Michelle’s (Lauren Hutton) near obsession with Julian doesn’t make much sense. Beautiful to look at, great Giorgio Morodor score.

Atypical happy-ish ending for writer/director Schrader. It’s just too bad you can see the ending coming long before Julian. Also shows evidence of not knowing where it was going. To wit: Scenes start suddenly fading to black in the last 30 minutes. Never a good sign.

“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” short review

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Fascinating pastiche weaving together Yukio Mishima’s work with dramatizations of his life and, most importantly, his last day on earth. The segment with the mother/son/loan shark doesn’t work, and the movie doesn’t really get at what made Mishima tick, but it’s quite a journey nonetheless. Philip Glass’ score lends the film a sort of otherworldly feeling, and ends up being his least irritating since Koyaanisqatsi.