“Toke, toke it up man! Kinda grabs you by the boo-boo, don’t it?”
Tommy Chong, Up in Smoke
The stoned protagonist is a proud cinematic tradition. Red-eyed and confused, these baked heroes give the audience a pleasing contact high while generally lacking the self-destructive impulses of their heavy drinking counterparts. Their love of marijuana is rarely a fatal flaw, more a charming quirk, one that sees them wandering through the film’s plot like a confused child lost in a foreign city. From The Big Lebowski’s The Dude to the eponymous dudes in Dude, Where’s My Car?, they are descended from the theatrical tradition of The Fool. Well meaning but chemically impaired, they are usually involved in something way more complicated than they are neurologically capable of dealing with. “Stoner” films generally fall into one of four categories.
Cheech and Chong are generally acknowledged to have invented the stoner film in 1978 with Up in Smoke. The focus from the start was on the interpersonal chemistry of its stars (along with their internal neurochemistry) and less on the shaggy plot, which involved a van made of marijuana and a drug fueled Battle of the Bands. There have been countless successors, including Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Smiley Face and half of Judd Apatow’s filmography. These films are also heavy in incident and light on plot, with story generally playing second fiddle to gags.
Like placing a monkey at the wheel of a moving car, replacing your standard hero with a heavily stoned one can lead to thrilling, if unpredictable results. Action/stoner film Pineapple Express had the narrative propulsion of a Schwarzenegger movie and a running gag about a joint designed by M. M. O’Shaughnessy, the civil engineer behind the Golden Gate Bridge. The stoner/detective genre had a compelling recent addition with P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, along with what might be the greatest stoner film ever made, The Big Lebowski. The mix of the Coen’s densely plotted mystery and the perpetually stoned Dude’s almost heroic laziness generates a friction that has helped make the movie an all time comedy classic.
Just because you never see a character puff on a joint, it’s not always safe to assume they’re not stoned. From his proclaiming that Mary Jane is “like, my favorite name” or explaining why he and his dog (who both suffer from sudden waves of immense paranoia) avoid anything with the word hydroponic, it’s pretty clear that the Shaggy of 2002’s Scooby Doo is stoned the vast majority of the time. Similarly Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’s PG rating might prohibit onscreen drug use, but it seems pretty safe to assume there’s a nonstop bacchanal offscreen. Why else would Bill react to the apparent death of his friend with an overly chill, “Bogus. Heinous. Most non-triumphant. Ah Ted, don’t be dead, dude.”
It’s a well worn cliche, usually sprouted around 2am by high teenagers, that strange films must be made by people who are high. In general, this appears unlikely. To write, perform, shoot and edit a film requires a level of intellectual continuity and hand-eye coordination that’s hard to muster when your bloodstream is chock full of THC. But there are films that while not about being stoned, are thoroughly embraced by the stoned community. From the hysterical existentialism of Being John Malkovich to the psychedelic visuals of Enter the Void, it’s not hard to see how some films are enhanced by sensory assistance. The myth goes that the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey was initially flopping at cinemas, till a certain demographic discovered that the star gate sequence provided the perfect visual accompaniment.
It’s one thing to see a clear-eyed, well spoken protagonist with shining white teeth swing into a scene with perfect hand-eye coordination and succeed. But there is a distinct human pleasure in watching a thoroughly confused pothead stumble through a film and triumph against all odds. But if you disagree… well that’s just your opinion, man.
Stoner/Action film American Ultra is playing in 2K with Adventureland.
When: Friday the 18th of December