Editor’s Note: Hooked in Film: Substance Abuse on the Big Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2013), by John Markert, is due out in June. Below, author Markert kindly offers his responses to the Points interview’s palatte of probing questions.
Few people have every used heroin or cocaine, yet just about everyone knows that you “shoot” heroin and roll a dollar bill to snort “a line” of powdered cocaine. These images linger in the mind’s eye because we’ve seen people do this in the movies, even if the images are inaccurate — shooting heroin is rare today, though it continues to be the dominate route of administration depicted in contemporary film.
Movies in contemporary society are a primary way of imparting information about our social world. We may rely more heavily on film to tell us about drugs than about other social topics since few people have first-hand knowledge about illegal drugs. Movies, then, become a primacy source of information about who uses what kind of drug, the effect of the drug on the individual, how problematic the drug might (or might not) be in society, and what should be done about the problem, if, in fact, film frames it as a problem.
Heroin, for example, is clearly depicted in film as a deadly drug. In film, you stick a needle in your arm and you’re as good as dead. Film ignores the fact that many regular heroin users “chip” at their use and moderate their use depending on heroin’s availability. Film also ignores the fact that while 1.5 percent have played with heroin at some point in their lives, only 0.2 percent can be considered “regular” (past year) users, which means that many people who have experimented with heroin do not become addicts. The deadly consequences of heroin use depicted in film, though not quite accurate, may not necessarily be a bad thing because it could discourage the casual experimenter from even considering trying heroin.
Marijuana is another matter. In contemporary (1990-present) mainstream fictive features, marijuana is inevitable portrayed as innocuous. This is accomplished by conveniently sidestepping concerns within the professional community that marijuana may have some negative social and cognitive consequences. Documentary films go even further. They beat one over the head with the beneficial aspects of marijuana. Documentary filmmakers suggest that just about everyone has used marijuana and it hasn’t caused them any harm, which is not exactly accurate: marijuana might be the most prevalently used illegal drug in the United States, with 41 percent having used it at some point in their lives, but the flip side of this statistic is that the majority of people have never used marijuana. This (and many other) “facts” about marijuana’s downside are skirted in film. The positive, or at least innocuous, portrait of marijuana in contemporary film can only serve to fuel the legalization movement, which has been gaining momentum over the past two decades but is still shy of the 50 percent mark, even if legalization for medical (versus recreational) reasons is widely supported by the American public.
2. What do you think a bunch of alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about this book?
Most films are strongly influenced by social exigencies existing at the time the film was made. The influence of societal attitudes in shaping the content of film is clearly seen when one drug is tracked from decade to decade.
The depiction of marijuana from evil weed to harmless plant, for example, does not follow a neat linear pattern that is only revealed when films about marijuana films are traced from one decade to the next. The strong anti-drug crusade that was an earmark of the Reagan’s Administration—prompted, in part, by sharp increases in drug use during the late 1970s/early 1980s—saw a sharp decrease in the use of drugs during his two-terms in office. The growing concern about drug use that swept across the United States during the 1980s was also reflected in film and the depiction of marijuana all but disappeared. It only slowly started worming its way back into film during the 1990s, before catapulting to record a high during the first decade of the new millennium: there were over 100 films that assessed marijuana in some form between 2000 and 2010, which is almost as many films that depicted marijuana during the whole second half of the century (1950-1999).
It is also historically interesting to note that many drugs—cocaine, LSD, and Ecstasy—were initially positively portrayed, at least before the harm the drug caused gained wider social approbation. Some drugs, however, crack and methamphetamines, for example, were defined as problematic from the get-go. The wide social concern about crack, which hit the streets in the mid 1980s, had a spillover affect and tainted the heretofore “harmless” depiction of powdered cocaine, so much so that the two are cinematically similarly treated today. Methamphetamine, on the other hand, is only now, some twenty years after its introduction, starting to gain social and cinematic attention. The social concerns about meth were ignored at the national level, primarily because meth was geographically isolated to rural areas in the West for much of the 1990s. Meth started to gain more national attention after it crossed the Mississippi and made inroads into urban areas during the first decade of the new millennium. Films depicting meth followed suit and increased some, though not substantially, after 2000.
3. What is the thing you find most interesting about the book?
There are a number of interesting aspects of the book to me, largely because I was unaware of them until I started to watch these films as a block — I would never have observed these dynamics had I just watched a film here, a film there. Among the more interesting points about drugs on the big screen:
- Many drugs were positively embraced at early points in time, and this is seen in early films that assess the drug. Films reveal this forgotten historical fact.
- One would never know from watching films how popular LSD continues to be — it remains, after marijuana and cocaine, among the most frequently used illegal drugs. It is largely “tainted” both socially and cinematically, though, at least cinematically, natural hallucinogens today are treated rather benignly outside the horror genre.
- Meth has gained some justifiable attention by documentarians for the harm it causes within the gay community, but the problems of meth—burn victims and its environmental toxicity — still escape cinematic attention, though they gave garnered some social attention. The “new” shake-and-bake method, however, has largely escaped cinematic notice.
- There are only a handful of films about the widespread abuse of pharmaceutical drugs for recreational purposes.
- Most drug categories reflect social values. Contemporary films about marijuana go beyond the merely reflective and tend to promote its recreational use. In this case, films can promote changes in social values by making the phenomena appear much more widespread than it actually is.
- Curt Hersey found that the portrait of alcohol addiction in contemporary Hollywood films in which the plotline revolved around a treatment center were surprisingly univocal in promoting an AA ideology over any other form of treatment.* This is also found in my study. I would go a step further and add that the distinction been AA and NA is not clear in cinematic depictions of drug treatment, which is a bit surprising because, while there are philosophical overlaps between the two programs, they deal with different addiction issues: in most films featuring a drug treatment program, the individuals are involved with AA, not NA.
4. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Before we can ascertain how viewers are affected by what they see in film, we first have to know what is depicted and how it is portrayed. I hope that I have achieved that in this book and that others can now address a facet of the film-society nexus that is infrequently made.
More attention need to be paid as to just how the viewer is affected by what they see. One of the few studies that actually looks at this link is Philip Lalander’s study of heroin users in Sweden.† Lalander found that the “disgusting” view of heroin depicted in Trainspotting was so off-putting to heroin users that it actually slowed down their development as drug users. The effect of film on promoting or discouraging experimentation, suggested in my book, needs to be empirically analyzed I have also suggested that filmgoers get much of their information about drugs from movies. This too needs to be experimentally studied. It would be illustrative, for example, to test pre- and post-drug knowledge of filmgoers and see how the exposure to the film’s message changes attitudes. Hummm! I feel an article coming on!
* Hersey, Curt. “Script(ing) Treatment: Representations of Recovery from Addiction in Hollywood Film.” Contemporary Drug Problems 32, no. 3 (2005): 467-93.
† Lalander, Philip. “Who Directs Whom? Films and Reality for Young Heroin Users in a SwedishTown.” Contemporary Drug Problems 29 (Spring 2002): 65-90.