(Lawyer’s note: This entire article is based on hearsay and no behind-the-scenes facts have been verified by any of the subjects.)
No, not everything from the past is available on DVD or streaming, and maybe that’s a good thing. But the big studio films of a previous era, regardless of how well they are regarded, continue to be reissued on blu-ray and dumped onto Netflix. I’m still catching up on all the films I’ve missed over the years, ones I’d been warned and never saw and others I accidentally stumble upon.
I’m finding my enjoyment is greater for the ones far from the top of the canon.
You know exactly what I mean, former cable-fodder addicts. The broken anti-classics, the films so specifically of the ’70s but outside the beloved cult items. Not Roller Boogie or Lipstick. I’m much more drawn to the ones that exude an otherworldly quality that goes beyond mere ineptitude or fad-chasing or an inadequate budget.
Doing research into what went on during the productions uncovers a not-so-surprising trend. It’s what went on behind the scenes that make the actual document of the film itself more interesting, involving inappropriate use of drugs, inappropriate sexual couplings, or inappropriate financial dealings. This subcategory explains how certain films end up the way they are. Films that apparently had all the resources at their disposal but seem to have been made by people who’d never seen a film before.
I’m talking about the ’70s, in which drugs played an important part in the creation. (I’ll leave those other two vices that are often committed in the name of art to another time.) This used to be standard operating procedure back in the day (before they figured out that drugs were, I don’t know, maybe bad for you). And by drug movies I don’t mean the likes of Easy Rider, although that certainly fits in with this discussion. The Cheech and Chong films also no doubt had cast and crew at least partially fueled by mind-altering substances, but ultimately their very countenance can’t be entirely attributed to the crew and production being steeped in a cannabis haze—the lackadaisical plotting and production values really reflect the typical penny-pinching in a genre in which high standards (to coin a phrase) simply aren’t required.
I’m talking about actual “coke movies,” the ones where it’s clear everyone on set—or at least the ones in charge—seem to be making decisions in a cocaine-induced frenzy. Marked by intensely committed but slightly skewed editing, writing, and camera placement and movement, a coke movie feels obsessively personal yet constantly distracted. You can imagine everyone sitting around in their trailers being serviced by starlets, telling each other how fucking brilliant that new idea is, and busy enjoying a fast Hollywood lifestyle, the champagne and cocaine flowing freely, and every sycophant is telling them their limo’s ready. They couldn’t be bothered by loftier concerns, like the filmed legacy that they’d be leaving behind to the ages.
The best, and first “coke movie” I recently caught up with was Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, his amped-up, trying-too-hard, out-of-balance ode to ’40s musicals. Scorsese has admitted (as well as outing Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro) being coked to the gills on set, and it shows in every decision made, from vanity casting (he was dating Minnelli at the time), to each overly baroque swishpan or push-in of of the camera, to the half-assed kitchen-sink dialogue. Each little element just seems ever so slightly wrong, and in total has a cumulative effect of a bad amphetamine trip. (It’s instructive to read the novelization of the film, by the original screenwriter Earl MacRauch, who wrote it to right the record when he saw what had happened to his screenplay.)
Usually when the talent’s flying behind the scenes, there are calmer and saner heads that prevail somewhere else, before or after on the food chain, ensuring something more measured and releasable hits the screens. The problem’s amplified when someone like Scorsese is in charge, and is at the point of his career, after Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, when he can (apparently) do no wrong, can demand a unique vision and not be second-guessed, may not be completely happy about his personal life, has stupid money, and is young enough to submit his body to such abuse. And get paid for it.
Sam Peckinpah’s another director who let his career get sabotaged making substance-fueled films that made little sense when cut together (especially when Peckinpah was barred from the editing room to do so properly), although all that’s specifically part of many of his films’ charms. Around the time of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, his films—in spite of all the danger and acclaim—didn’t translate to the butts in seats that would have made his path easier in Hollywood. His people skills didn’t improve things either. Reports of Peckinpah’s epic binges on the set of PGABTK were known by the press and public before the film was even done shooting, yet probably contributed to its intensely nuanced yet boozy mise en scène. The film is unconventional, and I’m sure the executives cut it up to spite Peckinpah as much as repair it to some shape closer to anything they, or any of us, might have ever seen before.
I might even prefer the flawed chronological version over the restored cut. Which is its own kind of Hollywood careful-what-you-wish-for portent.
His strategy of working continued, and certainly didn’t help, his subsequent Convoy. But that’s not really a coke movie; it would better be described as a scotch movie.
Robert Altman is notorious for liking a little smoke between him and the world, but it was around the time of Popeye that cocaine became prevalent, both on the set and permeating the evidence left on the screen. Hurting from a string of box office failures after the early promise of M.A.S.H. and Nashville, and attempting to prove these weren’t flukes (turns out Popeye would be the fluke) he took on this high-budget orphan and managed to bungle every possible decision he could, including bitching up the frankly brilliant-in-retrospect casting of Robin Williams (as the unflappable sailor) by keeping him on cocaine the entire shoot, and then off-mike so his lines had to be re-dubbed later. Never has so much clearly obsessive research and writing (by Jules Ffeiffer, no less!), spot-on casting (Ray Walston and Shelly Long as Pappy and Olive, respectively) and fully-realized set design been put to such little effect. At least not until Michael Bay.
(And while Simpson and Bruckheimer might also be mentioned in this article, their off-screen antics didn’t really translate to the screen in the same drug-fueled way—they at least had the common sense to hire craftsmen that didn’t let their bad habits run away with them through the productions. Just their questionable taste.)
The phenomenon of the “coke movie” seemed to sputter out eventually, but made one glorious and spectacular re-appearance in 2003 with the two Matrix sequels. The geniuses behind the first The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers (back when they were brothers), clearly are on drugs. Probably still are. And don’t get me wrong—I love them for it and I’m looking forward to catching up with Jupiter Ascending soon (I have a feeling I’ll eat those words)—but the over-the-top, half-baked and over-cooked aspect of Reloaded and Revolutions screams nothing more than Rehab.
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I just saw a showing of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie from 1971 this week and must add it to this list. Directed by Mr. Hopper after the success of Easy Rider, it was shot in Peru to save money, to keep away from studio interference (hey, he did it once, why not let them try again), and no doubt for the easy access to the Peruvian flake that clearly informs every performance in the film (particularly Don Gordon’s). And probably explains the befuddled directing and editing.
Mr. Hopper would not be allowed to direct another film for 10 years.