The Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned
I’ve heard that the French call one’s late teens and early 20s the “age of moviegoing.” It certainly was mine; it was also, for me, the age of smoking pot—and for a period of seven or eight years, the two activities were not unrelated.
Little has been written about the phenomenology of watching movies under the influence of marijuana, although that would certainly be the kind of thing one might ponder while in stoned contemplation of the big screen. Not that I ever found grass conducive to analytical thinking.
To watch a movie truly stoned was not simply to enjoy more vivid color and oceanic sound; it was to experience a state of acute defamiliarization mixed with heightened idiocy. Time stood still and reverberated like a tuning fork or the BOOIIING! of a cartoon character hit by a falling safe. Everything was a non sequitur; it was impossible to distinguish between intentional and unintentional humor. Infuse your mind with sufficient cannabis and Gidget Goes Hawaiian turns into Last Year at Marienbad, while Last Year at Marienbad—which I first saw with a brain full of fumes in a Berkeley classroom—becomes a stone goof.
Marijuana made a movie more immersive, even as it guaranteed that in the absence of a second joint, the sensory bombardment of the first forty minutes were bound to be the most fun—before the pot wore off and the narrative brought you down. The Surrealists, early connoisseurs of cine derangement, used to solve the problem of such diminishing returns by entering a movie in the middle and exiting as soon as the plot became comprehensible. In effect, they changed the channel—something ridiculously easy to do now.
Getting high to watch TV is hardly worth mentioning in this context. (Really… how else could one possibly be expected to enjoy television in those pre-cable days?) And LSD was truly something else. Tripping at the movies was, in my experience, profoundly distracting—the screen melted into an Op Art vortex of stroboscopic mandalas or, overshadowing the film, the theater became a sideshow populated by orcs and hobbits and drooling salamander dwarfs. It was easy to get hung up on meaningless detail. Once, in a misguided attempt to make Gone With the Wind tolerable, I dropped acid and, one shot into the movie, become volubly obsessed with the sight of George (Superman) Reeves disguised as one of the cavaliers fawning on Vivien Leigh. So that was planet Krypton!
But returning to my point (what was my point?), movies lasted for hours, and a single joint of vintage 1970 grass was seldom enough. Smoking pot at the raucous 42nd Street movie houses where I then got my fix of spaghetti westerns, British horror films, biker flicks and blaxploitation was conducive to paranoia and generally imprudent. Downtown, however, there were a few large, decrepit venues—onetime movie palaces turned slum tenements of cinema—in which it was possible to toke freely on the premises: Loew’s Delancey, located blocks below the East Village (where I first saw the wondrous hippie cliché-fest Vanishing Point); the Academy of Music on seedy, garbage-strewn East 14th Street (memorable for boggling the mind with a double bill of Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls); and mainly the Elgin, the heymish home of the midnight movie, on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, a former Spanish-language theater in then-far-from-fashionable Chelsea.
I also remember smuggling some hash—as well as myself—into a press screening for the 1968 New York Film Festival. In those days, the movies were shown in the cavernous, rinky-tink elegance of Philharmonic Hall; one afternoon, I climbed up into the cheap seats, sprawled out over several and sat in splendid isolation, enjoyably befuddled, to contemplate the riotous wide-screen Pop Art spectacle of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner. I haven’t seen Partner since, but undoubtedly improved by dope, it remains my favorite Bertolucci film. (Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which I also saw at the ’68 festival, required no pharmaceutical enhancement to be my most powerful cinematic experience since my mother took me, age 3, to see The Greatest Show on Earth.)
Back in the day, there were designated head films. These should not be confused with movies that glorified drugs, like Easy Rider or the far superior Peter Fonda vehicle The Trip. Those were actually a form of camp—and as far as that goes, none of Dennis Hopper’s authentic stoned babbling in either movie approached the hilarity of the nihilist drive-in youthsploitation film Wild in the Streets, particularly the scene in which Diane Varsi’s acid-ripped hippie chick bangs her tambourine and laughingly informs the fogies of the United States Congress that “America’s greatest contribution… has been to teach the world that… getting o-o-old is such a dr-a-a-a-g.” (Recalling this manifesto, I’m reminded of the utter seriousness, stoned or not, with which some members of the New Left took Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch—let alone The Battle of Algiers—as programs for action. You can look it up.)
For my money, the most evocative head film was the Monkees movie Head, but I only saw that one years later (and straight) at the Museum of Modern Art, so perhaps it was nostalgia. No amount of pot improved El Topo for me—I went to see it a second time at the Elgin and still thought it was a fraud. More far-fucking-out was a campus screening of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, a movie that convinced the more impressionable members of the self-medicated baby boomers in attendance that, unbeknownst to Uncle Walt, there was a cabal of acid heads on his payroll.
Advertised as “the ultimate trip,” 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most famous head movie; I first saw it flat on my back and zonked in front of the screen at the Capitol Theater on Broadway and 51st Street. Andrew Sarris famously panned the movie in The Village Voice (“a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently”) and then, perhaps persuaded by his younger friends, returned to see it a few weeks later, consciousness altered by what he coyly reported was “a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano on a King Sano base.”
Head properly adjusted, Sarris now saw “a major work by a major artist.” This leads me to conclude not that marijuana necessarily improves movies, but rather that it facilitates the capacity to remake them in your mind. Filtered through a haze of grass, that which was simple is now complex, while that which was complex becomes unintelligible, and who really cares?
“How often in the history of any civilization does some alien substance come along that subtly modifies millions of people’s consciousness?” Albert Goldman asked in his New Journalese report Grass Roots: Marijuana in America Today (1979). As proof, the book’s very first paragraph includes a description of contemporary filmgoing:
Stand in line at the movies, some black dude comes jouncing by chanting: Loose joints? Loose joints?
If the film is Star Wars, the most colorful and engaging character is a space-age dope smuggler. He gets a big laugh when he explains why he had to dump his last load of “spice.” If the picture is a rock event, like The Last Waltz, you could get bombed just by inhaling the atmosphere of the theater.
Smoking at the movies had become universal; even before Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke opened in 1978, everything was a potential magical mystery tour. In my naïveté, I imagined that David Lynch’s Eraserhead—released at midnight in late 1977 and the first commercial movie I reviewed for the Voice—was an aspiring head film, albeit a bummer, and concluded my brief notice with the sneering kicker that while Eraserhead wasn’t “a movie I’d drop acid for,” it would be “a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of Star Wars.” By then, however, I was no longer smoking pot at the movies; soon after, I would stop smoking pot to write.