- Intoxicating Class: Cocaine at the Multiplex
Traffic. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid. USA Films, 2000.
Just as the intoxicating sensations of different drugs are incommensurable with one another, so films about different drugs tend to have radically different themes and effects. In American popular culture perhaps the illegal drug with the longest cinema history is marijuana. From propaganda films of the ‘30s to Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, or the more recent revisions such as Half-Baked, these films are, or have become, comedies. Further, almost all of them celebrate the subversively humorous effect of the drug for the preterite working classes. Even anti-marijuana propaganda films have become comedies as new generations receive them as pure camp. While films about marijuana are comedies, films about heroin are almost always tragedies, focusing on the way in which the drug is both a protest against an inhumane world and the immediate means of the hero’s self-destruction. While marijuana films revel in satire, heroin films explore the complexities of self and self-destruction. Distinct from both are films about cocaine, which are almost always evocations of and reflections on the American dream itself, that is to say, on politics in the most practical and quotidian sense of the word. Both Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Ted Demme’s Blow explore cocaine and its relationship to politics in the American imaginary. However, the reception of both these films is troubling. Traffic is lauded as the first honest look at the failure of the drug war, while Blow is either hailed or dismissed as yet another compelling but nonetheless vacuous celebration of the decadence of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The almost universal mainstream acclaim for Traffic indicates just how much the worst kinds of conservative ideologies continue to inform even purportedly liberal attitudes toward drugs, while the dismissal of Blow as anything more than a decadent fantasy or simplistic cautionary tale misses its much more accurate indictment of the American idealization of capitalist conquest.
That cocaine is the drug of the ruling class in America is undoubtedly more than a function of its high price in comparison to other drugs. After all, the effect of cocaine is much closer to the effects of the most popular of the legal drugs of choice: caffeine and nicotine. (Not surprisingly, caffeine and cocaine were once combined in Coca-Cola.) Like these other speedy substances, cocaine heightens the senses and gives the user a great deal of energy. However, unlike other forms of speed, cocaine also gives its user the sensation of mastery and invulnerability. Rather than the ego death of heroin or LSD, cocaine legitimates the preferred modality of capitalist subjectivity—radical and inviolate individuality. If there were any doubt about the relationship of cocaine to capitalism, the case is eloquently made by Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). Much like the original version of the film (1932), De Palma’s Scarface explores the ways in which the gangster is the ultimate representative of capitalism itself. However, in De Palma’s revision the connections between capitalism and cocaine are much more overt. In one of the strongest speeches of the film, the drug lord confronts the WASP establishment in an exclusive restaurant: “You’re not good. You just know how to hide,” he screams at them. In short, there is no difference between legal capitalism and the drug trade; both are exploitative and destructive. Quite clearly, in Scarface the villain is neither Cuba nor cocaine, but the multitude of injustices and contradictions that function as the conditions of possibility for capitalism itself, and its hero is punished in a grisly final scene only insofar as his drugs are themselves the worst kind of exploitative and alienated capital. The association of cocaine with the problems and politics of the ruling classes is also found in such films as Boost, Bright Lights Big City, and Less Than Zero, all ‘80s films that indict the decadence of the era. One might even...