Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Drug Movies, Part II

Postscript: If we are to take individual movies as signposts of where the culture is heading, then I would definitely say Maria Full of Grace represents progress over past drug movies. When Traffic came out, I wrote up a memo on how the movie might affect public perception of the drug war and the office of the national drug control policy. In case you care:

"There seem to be two groups of people who take the drug policy very seriously: people interested in criminal policy and people interested in drugs. In the first group, you have liberals and conservatives duking it out over the usual issues, from whether to imprison or treat individuals who are guilty of possession to how America should address supplier countries like Colombia. In the second group, you have users, from pot enthusiasts to junkies, and their friends and family who do not see drugs, primarily, as a policy issue. The vast majority of people, while they may have opinions (even electorally consequential ones) on the subject of drugs, do not consider the issue a national priority.

"Most likely, Traffic’s intellectual influence is negligible. Members of the above first group were probably unmoved by the movie, though those who found its politics agreeable were likely to champion its cinematic importance and may continue applauding it as an important piece of social criticism. As far as position papers go, Traffic isn’t a very good one. But Hollywood isn’t in the business of writing position papers. It is in the business of engaging vast numbers of people. And Hollywood is definitely capable of propaganda. Because of this, Traffic, though it may be irrelevant to how intellectuals and policy people think about drugs, should be thought of as a major cultural point of reference, the biggest, most important piece of dramatic fiction concerning drugs in years.

"Which means that, while Traffic may have almost no influence over the members of the first group, it may have influence over the second group and everyone else. What message exactly has Traffic sent to members of the second group and all other Americans? That drugs have brought to our lives only moral ambiguity and tragedy. The drug traffickers aren’t necessarily bad: Witness Catherine Zeta-Jones’s role as an expecting mother who is compelled to become involved in her husband’s drug business in order to support herself and her children. And the cops aren’t necessarily good: The drug czar played by Michael Douglas is a heavy drinker and a negligent father. Indeed, the dealers have family values, while the czar’s an outrageous hypocrite who doesn’t realize how the drug problem is tearing apart his own household. Such storylines may be laughable, but they take up a significant portion of the only two hours many Americans have recently spent thinking about drugs.

"To see the movie’s message most clearly, we should compare it to the last major movie about drugs. If Traffic is a panorama encompassing everything from international drug trafficking to the families torn apart by drug abuse, then Scarface is a movie about one very bad man. In a world where the problem of drugs is traceable back to a bad guy like Tony Montana, there is a need for a good guy, a sheriff. This is a world in which the idea of a "drug czar" is welcome and makes sense. In Traffic, where drugs do not simply trace backwards to a single villain, the idea of a "drug czar," a sheriff above all sheriffs, is offensive. Incidentally, Traffic is not politically unusual, as drug movies go. Trainspotting, the Basketball Diaries, the recent critically acclaimed Requiem for a Dream all focus on the abuser’s side of the story. Scarface, along with the recent unheralded Blow, are actually the standouts for telling drug stories as crime stories. Traffic and the others tell drug stories as tales of moral haziness and individual human weakness. And weakness, unlike criminality, requires tenderness and compassion, a federal nurse as opposed to a federal narc."

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