13 February 2001

Movie Review

How did a Burmese opium poppy, picked by Richard Secord, end up writing and directing an award-winning Hollywood movie featuring Harvey Keitel? The answer, obtained through persistent Freedom of Information Act requests, is heavily didacted, but its subtext is unfortunate: as of July 14, 1943, advocating the use of recreational drugs can no longer be considered subversive. What is more troubling is that advocating abstinence has never been more rife with geopolitical contradiction, given that important foreign policy goals, such as toppling benevolent governments unsympathetic to American business interests, are achieved through collusion with murderous dealers. I oppose the use of imported drugs, until they are properly labeled with the working conditions that created them, including the middleman whose family car was confiscated through forfeiture laws so his employers could remain protected CIA assets, openly bragging about their "medical" cargo to the ground crew at Ilopango airport. It is embarrassing to all of us that the issue is nuanced beyond a simple stylized depiction of heroin and weaponry - perfectly summarized by John Travolta, Scientologist - and implicates everybody. The mental collapse of the drug tzar, whose daughter is shot up with a substance one can only suppose is devised by a prop department to be as good as the real thing but more expensive, by a racist stereotype, who then, given an actor but no writing, fucks her, in an image disturbing in precisely how contrived it is to be manipulative to the cross-section of the demographic this filmmaker is concerned with, who are secretly and terribly and deliciously aroused. The white woman has a name, the black man does not. A different cross section of the assumed audience either fell asleep next to me or left the theater halfway through the picture, clearly pissed, shouting "this is crap!" So the reviews dwell instead on the hand-held camera, and the four interlocking color schemes (or storylines). Did a fleet of Air American cargo planes, helicopters, and lear jets, relocated to Thailand for intermission, whisper in the actress' ear instructions on how to negotiate a cocaine deal, when a studious criticism of the prices of blouses and imported wine had heretofore been the scriptwriters' sole attempt at her character development? The drug Tzar, in this one, emerges a hero by virtue of acquiescence to a hypocrisy that eats all of us, even those who have never fought addiction or been witness to the evisceration of an entire community by smokable cocaine and AIDS.  But even movie stars who correct their hair when bending over a horizontal mirror are gripped with an entirely unjustifiable sense of being outlaws, when in fact they are an economic necessity having nothing to do with the soundtrack. As the fascists come to power in the central government, and attempts to exact compensation from tobacco companies dissolves in a quagmire of legal fees, can we still consider a pint of Guinness to be culturally superior to a can of Budweiser by virtue of its flavor, rather than its labor policy? I do not mean to deny that things are good, only that an approach to consumption in which products are divorced from the conditions of their production can only inevitably lead to the scene where the actress who has overdosed on the purest and most powerful drugs in the Western hemisphere is driven to the house of the connoisseur dealer who sold the drugs, who, in turn, must deny responsibility for their safe use, just as his supplier has waived responsibility for the dealer's safety, and so on in a broken chain of deniability, a trail of unjoined links stretching back to South Central Asia, Marseilles, Sicily. In other words, to paraphrase Wallace Shawn, whatever she took just dropped out of the sky with a pricetag attached, it has nothing to do with other people. Similarly, overthrowing communism in Nicaragua is presented to us as preventing, rather than causing, consequences in the United States. I would have liked to drink with Adler Berriman Seal, who didn't drink, but who could tell stories. It gets even more complicated when addiction is considered using the metaphor of disease. No doubt there is biology at play, but at another point in history getting the plague was socially excusable. If we draw a line-up of cultural outlaws whose poetry and prose and concept albums have, in the end, proven to be a valuable CIA asset, marketing the chic of addiction to intellectuals, the facts are embarrassing. My very bookshelf, when stripped of all titles which offer alcoholism as synonymous with exquisite turns of phrase, movies whose characters light up with such admirable precision that you crave cigarettes, and rock stars who make substance abuse seem romantic and adventurous, offers an entirely new perspective on literature I'm not sure anybody has done any decent scholarship on. Not that we should hold the poetry responsible for the poet, I am actually speaking of holding the poetry responsible for the reader. My own sins in this regard stretch upriver into a lush backwater of juvenilia, in which the necktie was my only clumsy signifier for free trade, a skewed metonymy, improperly mapped. Again, the problem being how to identify excellence when one is precisely overshadowed and challenged to take on that which it was never any secret was your responsibility. The perils of rejecting composition whose purpose is not to understand the consequences of structural constraints applied carefully, and instead to exalt in the fiction of unconstrained, "free" art, can be understood in the portion of Schizopolis that you slept through. Nothing reveals this to me more clearly than Jesse Ventura's role in Running Man. Can a professional macho charlatan, participating in a sport widely believed to be utterly inauthentic and staged, appearing in a Hollywood movie as a murderous henchman of a terrifying, but spectacularly entertaining, fascist regime, later be elected to a political office in a victory regarded by many as subversive and progressive? The answer will be revealed in due time, when the conflation of cinema and the means by which democracy is simulated is complete. Pulp Fiction, through its very title, shields itself from criticism of not offering us anything of value. Yes, art and politics are intertwined, a condition which may only be resolvable by disentangling art from entertainment. The problem is again one of metonymy, in which expensive steroid-assisted biceps are taken as a symbol of sympathy for the working class, the story of a murderous cop working with disregard for the principles of law is mistaken as enforcement, and a string of forgettable B-movies is taken to validate the sincerity of the actor. (Our president was, by vocation, a professional actor, but at least he wasn't a good actor). According to Traffic, government corruption happens only in Mexico. Nothing could redeem a Mexican cop like a ballpark: baseball is not a traditional Mexican sport. Of course this movie, while possibly enlightening to those who haven't ever seen drugs, by which the filmmaker means cocaine, fails in its pretense of a comprehensive analysis by excluding the contras. The white girl who did cocaine was the victim, the black guy who did coke was the villain. Breaking the law is no longer as subversive as obeying the law, if you have any hope invested in the idea of government, not that I blame you if you don't. The perilous deliciousness of a life lived out of balance with its biology, by Malcolm Lowry, notwithstanding. It's true that this is a subject I am unwilling to confront openly, after all the trouble to which the subject has gone to obfuscate itself from me. But if it makes you feel better, remind yourself that I write this way just because I am unable to write normal poetry. Which side are you on, the DEA's or the CIA's? I'll just tell you: the answer is neither. As for me, I pity both Kiki Camerena and cargo kicker Eugene Hasenfus - the former a DEA agent stationed in Mexico abducted outside the American embassy in broad daylight, tortured and killed, even while CIA agents listened in on the interrogation in a bloodless irony that would have made Tarantino envious of a reality capable of distorting his own fiction beyond recognition - the later a CIA pilot captured by the Sandinista government. Not even the automatic spell-checker on my proprietary text-editing tool recognizes the Sandinista government. We have a drug policy which makes a subtler distinction between marijuana and cocaine or heroin than it does between cocaine and crack, but cocaine and heroin are superior drugs, at least for the purposes of raising money for covert ops. Michael Levine & Celerino Castillo III, two of my favorite writers, have not gone there, although Terry Reed entertained it for a single sentence: loving or hating drugs or users is not enough. I'm sorry they found out the hard way.

Newspoetry at Spineless Books