One of the great debates amongst the talking heads of modern culture is whether or not movies can influence people to do horrible things like kill people with chainsaws, stand around saying "You talkin' to me? I don't see anybody else, you talkin' to me?" or worst of all, take drugs. Some pundits line up on the side of personal responsibility and say that just because someone watches a film, they still have control over their lives and any crimes they commit are due to a deeper character deficiency than just staying up late and watching Joe Bob Briggs. Some contest this view and say that movies go so far out of their way to glamorize acts of sin that impressionable folk (especially our brain-dead youth) can't resist the hypnotic swirl of debauchery and drugs. It's an argument that crosses the lines of the political map of America. Christian fundamentalists team up with thinly mustached feminists to denounce Hollywood while conservative libertarians align with millionaire rock stars to defend to Tinseltown's right to free speech. As might be predicted, I side with the latter. Movies can influence (it's part of what makes them so fantastic) but they cannot control our minds. (That can be only accomplished via the radio waves aliens have been broadcasting from the North Pole ever since they assassinated John Lennon.) Man can resist the magician's lure of cinema.
On the other hand, I REALLY wanted to become a junkie when I first saw Alex Cox's "Sid and Nancy" some fifteen odd years ago. As I sat back in the theater and let Cox's ethereal,* cinematic masterpiece of romance and tragedy permeate my brain, I couldn't help but think that heroin looked like a hell of a lot of fun. To some who've seen the film, this might seem a curious reaction. After all, aside from some "high" points in the beginning, there's not a lot of fun to be had by the characters in "Sid and Nancy." They meet, fuck, then fall into a downhill descent towards the mother of all heroin addictions, one that eventually claims both their lives.
*I'd swear you can get a little high just watching the film.
So why, when I first saw "Sid and Nancy," did I to want run outside and score myself 20 bucks worth of vein candy? Part of it was simply timing. I was a teenager; at that time in my life when looking for "Bigger than Jesus" icons who spent every moment living life to its fullest. (I guess back then, repeated vomiting and dry heaves seemed like "the fullest.") Sid Vicious, degenerate archetype and bass player for the legendary Sex Pistols was a cultural legend. If it's good enough for Sid, my thinking went, THEN IT'S GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME!!
Except, that's really a disingenuous analysis. Even back then, I thought punk rock was pretty gay. I can't claim that I ever wanted to be Sid. But on some level that I don't want to cop to, Alex Cox succeeded in making the ecstasy of drug use look pretty appealing. (Of course, it would be years before I'd ever even see hard drugs, so it was definitely a love affair from afar.)
Some of you are giving me confused looks but I figger if you don't know the story of "Sid and Nancy," you've spent the past 30 years locked up in the same bunker Saddam Hussein kept his WMDs in. (They DO exist, dammit!) In the late seventies, Sid Vicious replaced Glen Matlock, who was the only talented member of the legendary punk group, the Sex Pistols. Sid met Nancy Spungen, an American expatriate in London, and the two fell madly in love. They became junkies, the Sex Pistols broke up (in no small part due to Sid), Sid killed Nancy while the two were living in New York's notorious Chelsea motel, then he overdosed while waiting to go to trial. It's a regular Dean Koontz page-turner.
"Sid and Nancy," the film, is pretty faithful to Sid and Nancy, the life, with a few justifiable excursions towards artistic license. Cox makes the argument that Sid only accidentally stabbed Nancy once, while in reality Sid inflicted multiple knife wounds. (Of course, numerous "Sid was framed" conspiracy theories have popped up arguing that Nancy was in fact killed by Courtney Love or some jive. (In fact, Love has a small role in the film as a junkie whore. Hmmph. Art imitates life.)) Sid is often shown in the film wearing a hammer and sickle T shirt, while in reality he sported one with the more un-p.c. visage of a swastika. (It's possible Cox was making a political statement equating Stalin's purges to Hitler's holocaust, but I'm probably thinking too hard.) The film's ending, in which Sid reunites with Nancy in a yellow taxi cab is of course, total fantasy, and one that has lead numerous armchair Ebert's to read a variety of alternate interpretations into the movie.
But "Sid and Nancy" gets a lot right. If you happen to see Julien Temple' Pistols documentary, "The Filth and the Fury" you'll notice that Cox models a lot of his scenes off existing footage of the band. And there's no denying that the two actors, Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are fuggin' SPOT ON in their roles. Oldman IS Sid (though while watching the aforementioned Temple film, I realized Sid in real life was a lot better looking. When his face wasn't twisted into a belligerent sneer he had the pretty boy heroin chic look of a Calvin Klein model.) And Chloe Webb does a formidable job as Nancy Spungen. Even I'll concede that it's the movie industry's sexism that let Gary go on to a spectacular film career while Chloe dropped out of site after denigrating herself as Danny Devito's girlfriend in "Twins."
Aside from the feeling of historical accuracy, what Cox really captures in "Sid and Nancy" is the feeling of drugs. You'd think a movie about the bass player from one of the fastest, loudest, most obnoxious bands in history would try and capture the feel of the musicl with jerky cutaways and a jarring music score. But Cox takes the film in a completely different direction. The film is shot in "sleepy" colors like blue and green, accenting the heroin haze. The soundtrack, far from being a "best of" collection of London Punk, features a number a transcendental synthesizer compositions with an ache of melancholy to them. Towards the end of the film, Cox isn't afraid to show what is essentially the same scene over and over (Sid and Nancy high on drugs) to show the monotony of the junkie's decline.
But capturing the heroin addict's experience isn't nearly the same as glamorizing the drug. In general, I think "Sid and Nancy" gives a pretty honest presentation of both the ecstasy and agony of smack. When Sid first shoots up, he has the typical experience of a first timer: repeated vomiting. But once the bliss of the drug hits, he and Nancy make fog-like love while rain patters rhythmically on the window. Fast forward several scenes and they pair walk off the boat in the infamous Sex Pistols, River Thames boat party incident, completely incognizant of the baton-waving policemen that surround them. Much later in the film, the couple illustrate their complete detachment from reality when they light the floor of their Chelsea hotel room on fire. So totally out of it, they simply stare as the flames get higher and higher.
Of course, such scenes might have a certain attraction for the nihilistic teenagers in the audience, but they should be dissuaded by Cox's take on the all out physical damage caused by heroin. If the numerous scenes of Sid vomiting don't get you, how about Sid walking though a glass door? Or Sid overdosing on a transatlantic flight? Or Sid kicking it cold turkey, sweating and shaking on the concrete floor of the prison cell that holds him after he's been arrested for killing Nancy. There are, the film clearly states, downsides to drugs.
Downsides so prominent that I'm not sure how I missed them the first time I saw the "Sid and Nancy." As a teenager, I remember being genuinely excited by the chaos of a life like Sid and Nancy's, the wealth of unsuppressed experiences that heroin appeared to offer. But upon re-watching the film several months ago I was only struck but just how depressing their lives seemed. (Indeed, I spent the last 30 minutes of the film yearning for it to end.) Whatever exhilaration Sid may have garnered from being a rock star and feeling the rapture of an opiate seemed clearly outweighed by the anguish of withdrawals and the fact that he died at 21. (Of course, considering the likelihood that Sid would have otherwise gone to prison and spent several years as the girlfriend for a 350 pound black man, he probably got off easy.) A movie that had originally seemed colorful and exciting became cheerless and grim the second time around, as if it too had aged.
So did I ever do heroin? Once, but I smoked it and really didn't get much of a response. (I think you have to shoot up to really feel something and I share the same needlephobia as 90% of mankind.) I've known people who swore by the drug, but to me, heroin hardly seemed worth taking over and over until your finances dwindle, you friends desert you and your life is destroyed. And at the end of the day, I think that was Cox's point with the film - it's all fun and games until you stab your girlfriend to death.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!