"Candy" keeps up with the Joneses

Dennis Harvey December 14, 2006

Smack, horse, thunder, H, dope, Crop, China White, junk, scag, boy, shit. Or if you want to get really esoteric and precise, diacetylmorphine.

Whatever you call it, heroin has long had a hold on the popular imagination — as well as, needless to say, a Vulcan death grip on many individual lives. In the second half of the 20th century, it assumed a certain eminence as perhaps the most dramatic and certain “road to ruin” available amongst society’s myriad vices. It was every parent’s worst nightmare, with the attendant rebellious glamour of an Ultimate Taboo. Which made it, naturally, perfect fodder for the movies.

Drug-movie fashions come and go, just like recreational drugs themselves do: Marijuana, once good for heavy shock value (as in that all-time camp classic from 1936, “Reefer Madness”), is now considered so harmless — by practically everyone but the government — that it surfaces mostly as a jokey fact of life in teen comedies. Crack may still be the scourge of inner cities, but it’s already peaked as a film subject, perhaps because most audiences have limited interest in characters whose situations are fairly grim to begin with. Ecstasy? A spate of “Raver Madness”-type films (plus the genuinely sweet “Groove”) appeared a few years back, attracting very little notice. Meth is an ever-growing problem in the U.S., but few movies have approached it — maybe because lab producers and users (usually one and the same) are so unpleasant to be around. (Hence the generally repulsed reaction to two tweaker flicks, 2002’s “Spun” and the prior year’s “Cookers,” latter being a little-seen, underrated use of crankster paranoia as quasi-horror fodder.)

Yet heroin continues steadily on as a cinema subject, with a handful of films each year approaching it in one way or another. The latest, opening just in time to dampen your holiday spirit, is “Candy” — one of several Australian features to revolve around the needle in recent years. This particular H-pic has a higher profile than most, because it’s the latest in a longish line of ones affording A-list actors an opportunity to go slumming in the netherlands of fictive addictive behavior.

The dashing movie star adopting long stringy hair and full-body shivers here is none other than erstwhile “A Knight’s Tale” boytoy-turned-“Brokeback Mountain” serious actor Heath Ledger. He plays Dan, a “charming but reckless young poet” who enchants his way into the affections of middle-class art school student Candy (Abbie Cornish from this year’s “Somersault”), only to drag her down with him into a spiral of hardcore usage, attempts at kicking, relapses, habit-supporting crime, etc. Offering them the wrong kind of guidance is Casper (Geoffrey Wright, Oscar winner for “Shine”), a professor with his own secret smack jones. “Candy” is a love story, albeit a triangle — boy meets girl meets drug — that inevitably goes from hopeful to depressing to really, really depressing.

Reviews have been all over the map for “Candy,” with some finding the downward dramatic trajectory all too familiar, Neil Armfield’s direction too “pop.” Others have applauded its close-up emotionalism and frankness (“not for the faint-hearted” is a phrase that seems to pop up a lot). There’s been almost universal acclaim for the performances, with Ledger — able to use his native Aussie accent for the first time since, I believe, 1999’s “Two Hands” — burnishing the new talent-to-be-reckoned-with sheen last year’s “Brokeback” and “Lords of Dogtown” bestowed on him. (We’ll politely overlook “Casanova,” which was a throwback to mere pretty-boyhood.)

Of course, no matter how grimy and miserable the storyline gets, actors as gorgeous as he and the Botticelli-esque blonde Cornish still offer redemptive “candy” of the ocular sort. Beautiful people in horrible, self-destructive trouble — hey, that’s entertainment.

And so it has frequently gone in prior cinematic heroin treatments, which not infrequently place the most delicately ravishing thespians — Billy Crudup (“Jesus’ Son”), Tuesday Weld (“Who’ll Stop the Rain”), Joe Dallesandro (“Trash”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Basketball Diaries”), Jennifer Connelly (“Requiem for a Dream”) — in the pitiless lap of sweet Lady H. Even when brutally realistic in all other respects, such movies do inadvertently tend to sustain “heroin chic” notions of glam bohemian nihilism. Perhaps the apex of that school is Gus Van Sant’s 1989 “Drugstore Cowboy,” with Matt Dillon and Diane Lane as an über-cool, smacked-out 1970s Bonnie & Clyde, comedy edging out tragedy amidst the very hip directorial style. Even the difficulties of recovery are rendered ironically flippant and in-jokey, with no less than all-time literary junk god William S. Burroughs turning up as Dillon’s halfway-house bud. Lisa Cholodenko’s excellent 1998 “High Art” is even more explicitly about heroin-chic, with Ally Sheedy as a Nan Goldin-like photographer in stoned seclusion from the downtown NYC art scene.

Not all heroin movies are made alike, by any means. Offering high contrast to those last two features’ bemused, glazed-eye fatalism is the manic black-comedy horrorshow of Danny Boyle’s 1996 Brit classic “Trainspotting,” based on Irvine Welsh’s novel. Not to mention the dazzling, hurtling grand guignol “Requiem” (adapted from another poet-of-addiction author, Hubert Selby Jr.), three of whose four principal characters are on dope — but the movie’s style owes much more to the speed ingested by Ellen Burstyn’s dieting hausfrau.

One ex-user friend of mine thought that last film’s portrayal ridiculously off-target, while another found it reflected his own experience pretty well. Maybe heroin addiction is like experiencing combat: Everyone who’s gone through it thinks their observations are universal and definitive, but the more testimonies you hear, the greater the disparity in viewpoints.

Of course, the portrayal of drugs in films has also always reflected society’s general attitudes (and limited knowledge) at the time. Heroin — which, like cocaine, was considered harmless enough to be marketed over-the-counter (even as a children’s cough syrup ingredient!) in the 20th century’s earliest years — was criminalized in 1914. Still, movies of the Z-grade exploitation, “shocking expose” stripe seldom approached it, preferring instead to focus on the often wildly exaggerated perils of weed and coke. The mainstream studios, hidebound by a Production Code that forbade even reference to illegal drugs, avoided the topic entirely.

That changed in 1955 when producer-director Otto Preminger defied the censors and made “The Man With the Golden Arm,” a dated, if still effectively sleazy portrait of a cleaned-up parolee (Frank Sinatra) pulled back onto the horse by the various criminal and depressing elements of his squalid inner-city environment. The head-on treatment of this hitherto unmentionable subject made “Man” a big hit — the biggest popular success of any realistically heroin-themed movie then or since. (That’s not counting films in which heroin use or dealing is just a plot device, as in innumerable action-crime genre efforts from ’60s biker and ’70s blaxploitation flicks to this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” wherein grandpa Alan Arkin revealed a most surprising secret pasttime.)

Nevertheless, it took a few more years and more toppling censorship walls for the subject to become one frequently addressed in movies. In the ’60s, drug awareness skyrocketed, thanks in part to wave-making films like Shirley Clarke’s “experimental” features “The Connection” and “The Cool World,” Conrad Rooks’ outright psychedelic recovery fantasia “Chappaqua,” and even such very mainstream items as “Wait Until Dark,” in which 30-years-younger Alan Arkin terrorizes blind Audrey Hepburn, whose unaware the doll in her apartment is stuffed with H.

The early ’70s brought a virtual overdose of heroin treatments — a cycle that was intense but very brief, since it turned out almost nobody wanted to see these bleak movies. At least two of them (both from 1971), however, were exceptional, and remain worth seeking out: “Panic in Needle Park” is a devastating addict love story a la “Candy” that launched Al Pacino’s screen career, while “Dusty & Sweets McGee” was a harrowing drama/documentary blur featuring several real-life addicts (including, notoriously, grown-up former child star Billy Gray of the “Father Knows Best” sitcom). More flawed but still worthwhile, the even-lesser-known “Born to Win” has a memorable George Segal as a Manhattan junkie.

After these downbeat flops, heroin tended to surface as just one story element rather than the main event. A long, grueling withdrawal episode was often cited as the reason why “French Connection II” (1975) failed commercially; the surprise revelation of teenager Matthew Barry’s habit halfway through Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Luna” (1979) was thing that most offended reviewers turned off by that eccentric but often brilliant drama.

Since then, heroin movies have become a low-key but constant presence internationally. Among the more memorable ones (aside from those already mentioned) to come along in the last quarter century are Germany’s very grim “Christiane F.” (1981), based on the real-life memoirs of a onetime user and prostitute; the next year’s “Liquid Sky,” a contrastingly fantastical sci-fi-punk tale of heroin-seeking space aliens victimizing arty NYC hipsters; “Naked Lunch” (1991), the surreal spectacle David Cronenberg created a decade later from Burroughs’ legendary novel; “Permanent Midnight” (1998), another true story with Ben Stiller in a rare “straight” role as an addicted TV writer; and from the same year Larry Clark’s “Another Day in Paradise,” with middle-aged junkies James Woods and Melanie Griffith taking on “parental” roles for two young’uns.

The new wave of African-American drama-thrillers (“New Jack City,” “Menace II Society”) viewed heroin as drug-of-choice for the last generation, crack being for the current one. Myriad dramatized and documentary portraits-of-the-artist (“Ray,” “Pinero,” “Basquiat,” “Gia,” “Bird,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Nico: Icon,” “Let’s Get Lost,” et al.) affirmed the substance’s unfortunate eminence in the lives of many gifted creative types.

More recently, the British miniseries and subsequent U.S. feature “Traffic” analyzed the whole global black market, from farming to needle-stick. And on a strictly nonfiction plane, such docs as “Fix: Story of an Addicted City” (about Vancouver, which has long had a huge junkie population) and Steven Okazaki’s San Francisco youth survey “Black Tar Heroin” offer yea harsher reality checks.

“Candy” may be a downer, but you haven’t begun to suffer at the cinema yet until you’ve seen another slice of S.F. life: Eric Johnson and Gina Levy’s 2003 “Foo Foo Dust,” whose portrait of an ex-hippie UC Berkeley grad turned crack-addict Tenderloin prostitute and her hapless heroin-junkie son is about as punishing a voyeuristic experience as can be had in 37 minutes. ‘Candy’ it ain’t — celluloid rat poison is more like it.