BOOKS & THE CULTURE Cowboy Junkies BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN DRUGSTORE COWBOY Directed by Gus Van Sant, Jr. WHEN ASKED by a methadone counselor why he takes drugs, 22-year-old Bob Hughes \(Matt pressures of everyday life “like having to tie shoes.” Loafers would be a safer alternative, but Drugstore Cowboy avoids prescriptions, not simply in the fact that its young junkies filch what they want without benefit of Rx but in the film’s refusal to moralize. “I was once a shameless full-time dope fiend,” declares Bob in the voiceover that begins a story told with neither swagger nor shame. their two younger cohorts Rick \(James Le drugstores. If they had wanted money, they would have robbed banks. An early scene establishes the gang’s methods. They enter a pharmacy separately and nonchalantly, and, while Nadine distracts the employees with a feigned epileptic seizure, Bob pilfers as many pills and powders as he can carry away with him. The four reunite at Bob’s, where they divide and consume the pharmaceutical loot. Drugstore Cowboy is based on an unpublished novel by James Fogle, an involuntary resident of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla who has spent 35 of his 53 years behind bars. He brings the measured voice of experience to a subject that has been glamorized, demonized or between 1934 and 1954, when the Motion Picture Production Code proscribed the depiction of drug trafficking ignored. Though it has the circular narrative structure of Wired, a needlepoint caricature of John Belushi, Drugstore Cowboy has more of the gritty authority of River’s Edge, a 1987 account of amoral adolescents in northern California. In 1989, it is hard to view extreme closeups of needles puncturing azurestreaked arms without thinking of AIDS. However, Drugstore Cowboy is set in 1971, in Portland, Oregon, before the immune deficiency syndrome acquired its first fatality and after the counter-culture’s pharmacotopia had become a bad trip; Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Haight-Ashbury, by 1971, was a paisley slum. But, though the film calculates the price of chemical thrills in violence, illness, lethal overdoses and blighted lives, it also captures the exuberance and rush of shooting up and driving on. It concludes with withdrawal, but not with contrition. Drugstore Cowboy begins and ends with the home-movie effects of hand-held camera shots on cheap, imperfectly developed stock. Yet the impression created is less authenticity than amateurish self-indulgence by novice director Gus Van Sant, Jr. He also intercuts occasional slow-motion and animated sequences to attempt to convey the altered states of his stoned outlaws, though all it does is undercut the film’s sober regard for truth. The work’s testimonial power comes from the integrity of four fine performances. Dillon’s Bob is thoroughly believable as a leader of felonious forays who is insecure about his hold on the other three desperadoes. “It’s hard being a dope fiend,” he admits, “but it’s even harder running a crew.” Bob is never more alive than when he is out on a job, matching his wits against pharmacists, hospital attendants, and avenging detectives. Compelled to plan ever bolder exploits in order to feed his habit and maintain his prestige, Bob is indifferent to his wife’s desperate sexual hunger and cruel toward Nadine, the teenager who wants to tag along. Rick is an obedient apprentice, submissive toward his master until Bob deconstructs. Drugstore Cowboy features moments of grim humor, such as when Bob finds himself disposing of a corpse under the eyes of a sheriffs’ association that suddenly convenes at his motel. Among the more ludicrous superstitions that dominate Bob is the belief that a hat on a mattress brings 15 years of bad luck, when life in the film is but a bed of hats. His human nemesis is Gentry \(James on catching the group violating narcotics laws as they are on violating them. “I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus,” states Father Tom, a prophetic soul Bob encounters on his return to Portland. An ancient junkie priest played by venerable junkie novelist William Burroughs, Father Tom is a deadpanning deadbeat. Burroughs’ cameo appearance late in the film offsets an earlier literary reference when, during the first drugstore robbery, Dianne walks off with a copy of Love Story. Erich Segal’s maudlin bestseller reinforces the setting as 1971, though its account of bittersweet romance among the beautiful and privileged is as far out for Dianne as the effect of anything she can shoot, snort, or swallow. Drugstore Cowboy is not about a bereaved Harvard hockey player, though it manages to be both icy and puckish. East Dallas Printing Company Full Service Union Printing 211 S. Peak Dallas, Tx 75226 “Best Lodging Location for Fishermen & Beachgoers” Group Discounts P.O. Box 8 Port Aransas, TX 78373 Send for Free Gulf & Bay Fishing Information THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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