Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Pariah among Pariahs: Images of the IV Drug User in the Context of AIDS

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Pariah among Pariahs: Images of the IV Drug User in the Context of AIDS

Article excerpt

The instant the camera cuts to a close-up of a spoon, we know what's coming. A dash of powder, white (usually) or brown, a spray of water, a match-head bursting into flame. Powder dissolves in boiling water. Water is soaked up in a tiny wad of cotton. Cotton is sucked dry by a needle. We wince as the needle finds the vein and blood blossoms into the barrel of the syringe. Down goes the plunger, and the camera relents, pulling back to show our antihero's eyes roll back into his (rarely her) head, blissfully, as if to confirm Brian Johnson's assertion that "[s]imulating substance abuse has become a kind of pornography" (par. 7). As a recurring and familiar landmark on the protagonist's journey into addiction, the eroticized image of use stands in stark counterpoint to the dehumanized image of user.

"The Ritual," as many films refer to it, is presented so compulsively and uniformly in filmic depictions of addiction's woes that images of the IV drug user's paraphernalia and the process of fixing have become staples of the drug-movie genre; the art of "works" has entered the age of mechanical reproduction. The Ritual sequence appears, for example, in Sid & Nancy (1986), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Rush (1991), The Basketball Diaries (1995), Trainspotting (1996), and Requiem for a Dream (2000), just a few of the numerous addiction films of the past three decades. All participate to a greater or lesser degree in what Jonathan White has called "the Addiction Narrative," in which the protagonist "falls" into poverty and desperation as a result of addiction. The story is told over and over; indeed, so common and popular is this particular narrative that we might be tempted now to agree with a commentator in a 1916 edition of Variety when The Devil's Needle was released: "The drug story has been so often sheeted [screened] that there's nothing left to it" (qtd. in von Busack par. 1). Of course, nearly a century has passed since that weary proclamation, and drug use, like everything else, has changed much over the decades. Since the 1960s, the variety of pharmaceuticals available for injection has exploded, as has the range of pleasurable sensations and ill effects they can cause. Perhaps most notably, today's IV drug user (IVDU) has, on top of addiction, withdrawal sickness, impurities, and overdose, the threat of HIV transmission to worry about. In light of this, one of the most remarkable aspects of recent movies featuring IV drug use is the almost complete absence of mention of HIV and AIDS, as though to focus on the addict means necessarily to forget about the person with AIDS.

Of course, many of these films are set in the decades just prior to the AIDS epidemic. However, even those which could address the dangers of HIV avoid mention of the virus. In Requiem for a Dream, for example, almost everything imaginable happens to the four characters as a result of drug use except AIDS: Harry's (Jared Leto) arm is infected and amputated, his mother (Ellen Burstyn) becomes psychotic and undergoes electroshock therapy, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is imprisoned, and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) becomes a sex worker to support her coke habit. In a movie obsessed with addiction, abjection, and loss, the absence of HIV is remarkable. In fact, of all recent mainstream drug films, only Trainspotting mentions AIDS at all, and then only in a simplistic manner, in reference to a rather minor character. While Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Allison (Susan Vidler) all shoot up heroin on a regular basis, and without much visible attention to precautions, they all manage to avoid HIV. Their straight-laced friend Tommy (Kevin McKidd), however, contracts HIV almost immediately upon trying heroin when his engagement falls apart; he proceeds to full-blown AIDS and death with remarkable speed, almost entirely offscreen. In effect, his story serves as a cautionary tale that "good boys" should not dabble; "real users," like the main characters, need not worry - not, at least, about AIDS. …

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