- Robert Zemeckis' Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century: In Pursuit of Happiness
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 1, March, 2000
- pp. 67-68
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Regular Feature | Film Reviews Jennifer L Tebbe Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences email@example.com Robert Zemeckis' Smoking, Drinking andDruggingin the 20th Century: In Pursuit ofHappiness. In an interview with Andy Meisler for the New York Times, Robert Zemeckis noted that he was "addicted to documentaries" on television and wasn't aware of any on the subject of the "history of addiction"1. Indeed, there are only a few relevant documentaries available that historians might use in the classroom and these relate mostly to alcohol, among them Demon Rum [The American Experience, PBS, 1989 ) and Prohibition: 13 Years That Changed America (Arts and Entertainment, 1997). Zemeckis' documentary, an entertaining, kaleidoscopic, comprehensive and complex analysis of Americans' addictive perceptions and behaviors, is a welcome addition to this paucity of material. Written by Susan Emerling, a development producer on the PBS series Cadillac Desert, Pursuit ofHappiness corresponds to historical perspectives found in recent museum exhibits which focus on telling the story of Americans ' addictions through the use of visual information, including the Valentine Museum's Smoke Signals: Cigarettes , Advertising and the American Way ofLife in Richmond , Virginia (1990) and the Strong Museum's Altered States: Alcohol and Other Drugs in America in Rochester, New York (1992). Emerling has extensive experience writing and researching historical subjects, including projects with noted documentarían Barbara Kopple. Zemeckis sets his tone by opening with a solemn recitation of the Declaration ofIndependence asserting every Americans' right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness followed by immediately plunging the viewer into a MTV- paced cartoon and film clip journey backed by a pop song soundtrack depicting Americans pursuing their inalienable right of happiness through smoking, drinking and drugging. Without slowing down, the viewer is then quickly treated to a sound-bite exegesis from an array of experts on why Americans are drawn to these addictive behaviors. This rapid introductory juxtaposition of experts and clips from films, archival footage, cartoons, television comedy and drama, and news broadcasts, characterizes the entire documentary. In Pursuit ofHappiness Zemeckis follows Americans' encounters with addictive substances, noting early in the documentary that the U.S. consumes 65 % of the world's illicit drugs. The film examines the introduction of smoking tobacco by Native Americans to European explorers; contrasts changing public perceptions from social acceptance to the temperance movement; surveys the nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-drug, anti-alcohol, and anti-cigarette legislative campaigns; and scrutinizes contemporary controversies of medicalization versus criminalization of the "drug problem," the legalization of drugs, the public service advertising campaigns, and "middle ground" public health treatment approaches. The documentary contrasts images of the glamorization of addictive substances, when cigarettes and alcohol were associated with freedom, modernity, and sophistication for middle and upper class white adult Americans, and the images of stigmatization and criminalization associated with such illicit drugs as cocaine, marijuana, and opiates for African American, Hispanic and Asian Americans. Interviewees note how in the past and present, moral formulations about individual responsibility for addiction conceal significant social and cultural forces that promote and prevent addressing the real life problems of those vulnerable to addiction. Zemeckis' compilation and crosscutting of examples from such diverse primary sources as silent film clips on the temperance movement in the early 20th century and public service commercials from the late 20th century supports the interviewee testimony. Vol. 30.1 (March, 2000) | 67 Various | In the 20th Century: A Look at the Millennium through the Eyes ofSome of Hollywood's Most Noted Directors Sarah Tracy, whose fields of study include the history of alcoholism, is credited as historical consultant for the documentary. She is a co-editor, with Caroline Acker, of the forthcoming text, Altering the American Consciousness: Essays on the History ofAlcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-1997. David Courtwright, author of the highly respected Dark Paradise : Opiate Addiction in America Before 1940 (1982), sets the stage at the documentary's opening by observing that the "impulse to alter what Aldous Huxley called Ordinary waking consciousness' is inborn." He also focuses on how patterns of opiate addiction changed in early 20th century America from prevalence among upper and middle class married women to young, lowerclass urban males...