Smells Like Independent Spirit: the Ballad of DRUGSTORE COWBOY
Drug addiction was never so much fun!
The wider acceptance of art house films by mainstream American audiences was famously kick started in the late 80's by the success of somber, sedate fare like MY DINNER WITH ANDRE and SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE. The 1990's, however, would see the arrival of a new breed of independent director with a livelier and more visceral approach to their art. Few directors exemplified this amped up style better than Portland, Oregon's Gus Van Sant.
With his second movie, the poetic, hallucinatory DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989), Van Sant almost single handedly forged the template for the neo-noir, punk rock gangster flicks that dominated the Gen X decade. All the hallmarks that would soon become course de rigueur in the work of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Bryan Singer, and a multitude of imitators were blueprinted in Van Sant's seminal crime story.
DRUGSTORE COWBOY is the tale of four junkies chasing an increasingly elusive high. Bob, the group's smart but superstitious leader (Matt Dillon, unexpectedly soulful in a role that revived his career), guides his crew (Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, and Heather Graham) through a series of capers that sees them scamming and scheming their way in and out of pharmacies and hospitals, stealing an assortment of prescription drugs. These larcenous adventures are offset by glimpses into the gang's personal life where they play out a surreal psychodrama to tragic conclusions.
Van Sant uses the movie to address the dour issues of addiction, desperation, and family dysfunction but directs it with such verve, with such playful inventiveness, and with such a raucous, joyous abandon that the film ultimately feels something like SID & NANCY crossed with A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (or, at the very least, a real demented episode of THE MONKEES).
In the "Just Say No" era, it was near forbidden to romanticize a reckless rock 'n' roll lifestyle. The 90's saw a conscious effort by indie writers and directors to break free from those taboos and to accurately represent the allure of uninhibited decadence.
Van Sant takes us full on into the ramshackle world of junkies moving from score to score. While he goes to lengths to depict the depressing squalor that his characters are slowly drowning in, he never shies away from showing the thrill of pulling off a perfect crime, the rush of good drugs, or the appeal of the wild life.
Other directors would quickly follow suit, injecting their own stories with an oversize shot of adrenaline, exploring the dizzy heights and dangerous predicaments of people living on the outskirts of society. Scorsese would elaborate on the appeal of bad behavior in GOODFELLAS the following year while Tarantino would make a name for himself by conjuring a colorful rouges gallery of deviants and psychopaths.
Before long, the out of control addict and the quirky criminal were staples of movies both big and small, and directors reveled in showing every last detail of those characters' debaucheries. Much of that trend began with Van Sant's skeevy crew of pill popping robbers.
The Cobbled Together Family
Generation X was the first generation to experience rampant divorce rates and a new acceptance of blended families. As a result, their cinema teems with nontraditional relationships and castoffs from broken homes.
DRUGSTORE COWBOY'S four addicts are bound by the muck and the misery of their shared sickness. They cling to one another out of fear and desperation, each one ensnaring the others in an ever widening web of hopelessness and self-destruction.
LeGros' Rick and Graham's Nadine are
beautiful losers taking a stab at romance as their lives crumble around them. Lynch's Dianne likewise finds momentary affection (and an ongoing drug connection) in streetwise Bob.
Matt Dillon made the first of many career comebacks with Drugstore Cowboy.
Bob's ability to navigate a nightmarish maze dotted with doctors, detectives, drug addicts and other deadly adversaries makes him a kind of father figure to the group. His efforts in the end to save himself while leaving what's left of the group behind to fend for themselves (after being rejected by his own mother) could be seen as the ultimate comment on the absentee father phenomenon that became too familiar to kids of the 70's and 80's.
The film further explores the dynamic of the foursome as a unit, dissecting the ways in which a group of strangers can find familial structure even in the worst of conditions. Van Sant also goes on to show how these cobbled together tribes will find their members taking on familiar roles. In addition to Bob's cold but breadwinning father, there are Dianne's distracted, dissatisfied mother, Rick's overeager but emotionally unstable son, and Nadine's naïve little sister.
As Gen X came of creative age, family dysfunction became a recurring theme in its art. Some veteran directors took note of the trend, producing their own essays on the topic. It was examined both literally (CAPE FEAR, AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, THE ICE STORM) and figuratively (BOOGIE NIGHTS, Noah Baumbech's KICKING AND SCREAMING) as writers and directors attempted to speak from their own lives and upbringings. This phenomenon incidentally also became a mainstay of 90's television (FRIENDS, PARTY OF FIVE, MTV's REAL WORLD franchise) and music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and many, many more).
PULP FICTION unfolds like a freewheeling daydream, circling back on itself and overlapping. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS replicates the illogical sprawl of a seemingly never ending drug trip. Both SLACKER and BOTTLE ROCKET amble along on Texas charm and the enveloping weirdness of their lead characters.
Before those films and their respective screenplays marched to their own stream of consciousness cadences, Van Sant indulged in a major departure from the traditional Hollywood view that American audiences could not and would not follow a narrative that deviated from the usual Syd Field approved three-act format. Instead, DRUGSTORE COWBOY moves along in a manner more akin to real life (albeit a mighty surreal life).
There may have been some precedent for COWBOY'S rambling in the looser plots of movies like BADLANDS, SOMETHING WILD and AFTER HOURS, but Van Sant's vision is a quantum leap beyond those twists on the old road picture. He and cowriter Daniel Yost made little effort to mold their adaptation of James Fogle's novel into the usual Hollywood edit. They instead allowed the book's beats to determine the story and as a result achieved a more novelistic rhythm. That rhythm, and the freedom to craft a screenplay the way Elmore Leonard or William Burroughs might structure a book, caught on quickly with aspiring storytellers.
The lit-fic influence grew so strong that screenwriters began to enjoy a level of recognition and acclaim not previously afforded to members of the Writers Guild. Thanks to the work of Gus Van Sant and others, those who typically toiled in obscurity were able to enjoy a moment in time that saw them treated as stars in their own right.
"Why is it when men play, they always play at killing each other?"
-The Talented Mr. Ripley
While the female directors of the 90's
were intent on exploring issues of existentialism and empirical identity, their male counterparts were preoccupied with nihilism and the Way of the Gun. For a generation raised on STAR WARS, SUPER FRIENDS, and STARSKY & HUTCH, their own fiction came easily infused with a dangerous edge, a riotous peripheral that threatened constantly to spill over into even the most mundane of life's moments. And as they matured and aimed to tell more sophisticated stories and to make higher art, those boys never lost their love for action. They soon sought to tell stories that added critical integrity and depth to the cops and robbers genre. Baz Luhrmann eventually took this approach all the way to Shakespeare.
It's all in the dysfunctional family for Van Sant's pill popping thieves.
The addicts in DRUGSTORE COWBOY live in a world where violence lurks around every corner. It's a world where sudden bursts of brutality are common place and where death always looms large. The world these characters inhabit is so unpredictable, so explosive, and so volatile, the film itself feels as though it could fall apart at any moment.
That undercurrent of encroaching danger became intoxicating to filmmakers. For some directors, it was no longer enough to simply tell a tale that did not involve some level of mortal danger. For some directors, that old approach suddenly seemed downright boring. Novice and veteran directors alike grew obsessed with shoot outs, bank robberies and couples on the run.
Ed Norton once remarked that after FIGHT CLUB, other movies seemed "too ordinary" by comparison. After a decade of Rock 'N' Roll Romeos and Kung Fu Hamlets, other movies have seemed all too ordinary indeed.
Just as the 70's and 80's had hosted 50's and 60's revivals, the 90's indulged in the requisite 70's nostalgia. As Gen X-ers made their way through high school and college, the trash culture of their youths became a common ground and a common lingo between them (just as the boomers had bonded over their own shared upbringing as the first generation raised on TV).
The 70's influence quickly became ubiquitous at the movies. In movies that placed their stories twenty-some years in the past (DAZED & CONFUSED, CASINO, DONNIE BRASCO, DICK) and movies that merely evoked those days (BUFFALO '66, the QT canon), the iconography of the 70's and early 80's was recreated in scenes both sentimental and satirical.
Set in 1971, COWBOY was one of the first films to go back and explore the early days of the Me Decade, effectively reminding the audience that beneath the Brady Bunch façade they had grown used to seeing on TV, the 70's was an era of 60's burnout, political upheaval, and urban decay. These same themes would be examined again and again over the next several years as Gen X-ers and others sought to make both fun and sense of the Have A Nice Day years.
Slacker #1: Here comes that Cannonball Guy. HE'S cool.
Slacker #2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Slacker #1: ...I don't even know anymore.
-Homerpalooza, The Simpsons ( 1996)
"Irony," as defined by Ethan Hawke's smarmy slacker in REALITY BITES, is when an outcome falls opposite the intended result. Even as his character was spouting this by-the-book definition, a new movement in American Humor was already changing it.
The emergence of the Comedy of the Ironic was rooted in the 1980's alternative standup comedy scene as well as a number of late decade television shows (LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and THE SIMPSONS). In the hands of these talented writers and performers, Irony became a language, a strain of sarcasm where the spoken word itself became its own punch line.
This movement eventually made its way to the Cineplex.
Junkies make the best significant others!
Bob's voice over in DRUGSTORE COWBOY provides a humorous, wink-wink commentary to the harrowing narrative, an ironic counterpoint to what the audience is actually seeing happen. This same device would pop up again in movies like ELECTION and FIGHT CLUB.
There's also an ironic voice in the story itself, a tangible cynicism that oozes from Van Sant and Yost's screenplay. The movie makes fun of its characters simply by telling their story. This voice would continue to grow and expand in cinema until "Irony" itself became the target of its own humor (in twisted meta excursions like ED WOOD and WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER).
Like so much 90's culture, DRUGSTORE COWBOY, came roaring out of the dark landscapes and isolated corners of the Pacific Northwest. Based in Portland, Van Sant carried that city's idiosyncratic snap into the quirk and quips of his characters and into the surreal predicaments in which they find themselves struggling.
Bob's oddly old fashioned superstitions ("never leave a hat on a bed!"), Nadine's off kilter innocence, and the supporting cast's general weirdness are all quite specific to the Portland that Van Sant had come to know in his years residing there. That particular brand of Northwestern strangeness came to the fore of pop culture a few years later in the music that emanated from Seattle and Olympia, Washington.
There's also a self-aware clever-cleverness to the film that derives from the art school mentality of Portland's 1980's underground music and gallery scenes. Van Sant adds inspired touches of animation and photography that hint at the kaleidoscopic works of Terry Gilliam and Julie Taymor.
Seattle itself later became the subject of a number of movies looking to either explore or exploit the city's rainy day, coffee shop charms. And as the decade progressed, the quirks of other regional American cultures were also examined and exaggerated (most notably in THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN and FARGO).
In the end, many of the greatest independent films of the 90's were the result of a singular vision and the work of a writer-director pouring their unique dream onto the screen. It was a renaissance for the auteur where a director's name above the title promised creativity, not commodity.
It was no coincidence that the proudly self-conscious artiness of the French New Wave was such a clear influence on many of the films mentioned in this column. The New Wave's focus on the director as author gave a bevy of creative minds free reign to indulge their edgiest inclinations. Like the Personal Film trend of the early 70's, the Indie Film explosion in the 90's also gave the director the chance to step as far out on an artistic limb as they were willing to go. DRUGSTORE was perhaps the first great auteur movie of the grunge years.
By the end of the decade, many of the distinguishing traits of independent movies had been coopted and reprocessed by the major studios (in the same manner that the alternative rock sound had been absorbed and diluted by the day's major record labels). Independent film has soldiered on but has matured into an even more diverse array of voices and styles. The punk noir movement continues to occasionally rear its rebellious head but will never again have that same spark of newness, the bravado of youth or the attention of the world.
Gus Van Sant went on to success and acclaim as the director of films like GOOD WILL HUNTING, FINDING FORRESTER, and MILK. He continues as well to indulge his quirkier side with more Avant Garde works.
The 1990's saw a revolution in independent film, and DRUGSTORE COWBOY was the first adrenaline shot fired.
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Mar 20, 2012 9:44 AM
|I remember when the Bravo network was added to our cable as a kid...Drugstore Cowboy was the ONLY good thing about that channel for a couple of years...It was the only good movie that they would ever show.|
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The 90’s was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!|
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