Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Necessary Evil' launch

Hello good friends of the Interweb,

For all your moving and talking image needs in the illicit drug realm, check out new web-show, Necessary Evil, over at the Tube:

Episode #01's guest is none other than Greg Denham from the newly-formed LEAP Australia. Don't know who they are? Well get on over there then!!!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Neil Burger's 'Limitless'

For anyone who might be thinking that this blog has descended into a cheap version of John-Michael Howson's greatest hits, it might be worthwhile taking note of what everyone's favourite Italian dictator, Mussolini, displayed at the entrance of the famous Cinecitta studio in Rome: "Cinematography is the most powerful weapon" (a quote from Lenin). Regardless of one's political persuasion, it is a nugget of truth in a world where the local multiplex has become a proxy educational institution. Here's betting that whilst your little cousin might not know who the Prime Minister is, he/she can probably tell you what TV show Bradley Cooper was in.

Cooper's new vehicle, Limitless, also stars Robert De Niro and I can't help but wonder about the views of both De Niro and long-time friend/collaborator Martin Scorsese, as the latter is an Executive Producer for HBO's current hit, Boardwalk Empire. My pondering comes about because of the potential subtext in Limitless and the tagline for Scorsese's HBO debut that has been plastered all over Melbourne's artsy walkways - "Alcohol was outlawed and outlaws became kings".

Limitless may have been made with Hollywood coin, but its content seems removed from the usual fare that is churned out under such duress. In a nutshell, the film relays the rise of a struggling writer into the role of senate candidate via the highest echelon of the corporate world. How? Using, as Cooper's character Eddie Morra states openly, "medication". Without being a 'spoiler', it is fair to say that director Neil Burger delivers the audience a drug dependent hero who fights 'baddies' that take the form of Mafia types and business moguls. Unbelievable, huh? As you can imagine, with sugar, fat and sugar in hand, I sat expecting the usual morality tale to unfold before me, with Cooper resplendently repentant following a path of selfish, drug-fuelled destruction. But no; as the pieces of chocolate fell to the floor between my knees and the couple behind me insisted on being excessively annoying, Burger and Co. conveyed a narrative that shows how drugs can be managed in terms of their harms.

The film's first substantial statement on drugs, conscious or not, arrives in a scene where Morra unexpectedly returns to his ex-brother-in-law after experiencing the powerful effects of the drug ('NZT-48') passed on to him as a launch pad for his yet-to-be-started book - a way to unleash creative power. Desperate to commence writing, Morra had popped the pill and subsequently discovered that NZT allows him to tap into memories and knowledge that had previously been 'locked away' in the hidden recesses of his mind. In the dealer's apartment Morra's running narration questions whether he should obtain more of a drug from a person he doesn't trust, made in illicit conditions and not legitimised by the FDA. His prompt answer? - "Yes. Definitely!" And this is from a person who has only taken a drug once. A response to the frequently-asked question of "why do they do it?!" or "why do they keep doing it?!" is partially illuminated, as the viewer is introduced to the basic equation of 'something is proven to make a significant difference, it works and more is available = so people seek that something out again and again'. And it works in a profound, unrivalled manner in spite of its origins. This is not alien behaviour - it is essentially human and Limitless seems to comprehend this.

Matters just seem to only get better as the film covers several more important points in a fresh, non-hackneyed way (I know, one has to ask, "What drugs were they on?!"). The pervasiveness of drug use, where class distinctions are inconsequential, is dealt with in a story where all kinds of people are taken by the drug's power. Then, the notion of tapering use when withdrawing from a drug is introduced in a scene where Morra seeks assistance from the dealer's partner who warns Morra not to immediately cease using the drug to avoid death. And then the whole dependence/withdrawal thing is looked at and the film's protagonist really does look incredibly unwell, to the point where I completely believed that he was unable to physically move for the purpose of obtaining the remaining drugs that he had stashed at his girlfriend's apartment. I momentarily hated on Morra for sending his lady out to do his dirty work, but not only was he being followed, he was also in a state comparable to day three or four of opiate withdrawal - with Burger and Cooper doing it justice.

However, it is the next scene in the film that most impressed me. After Morra's supportive girlfriend returns with his stash, he recommences taking the drug as part of a pre-meditated plan and relays to the audience what he learns to do different the second time around to ameliorate the drug's harms, including avoiding alcohol. Hang on, hang on, I better go over that again slowly. Morra... recommences... using... the drug... thereby... maintaining his... dependence... but... teaches himself... how to best... reduce... the harms. Did you catch that? Sorry to anyone who got it the first time, but I had to do that for my own good also. That's not where it ends though. Morra then goes on to not only continue use and build his own $2 million laboratory to maintain his supply, but also gets to stay in a relationship with the non-drug using partner!

Tool front-man, Maynard James Keenan, was once quoted as saying something along the lines of "The point of using drugs is to try and then replicate those experiences without the drugs". Regardless of what you think of this statement, Limitless probably owes a thing or two to Keenan and, without giving away too much, the ending is further evidence of this.

Now it may be worth noting that I might be getting a little too carried away with this film, as Morra's journey is not all smooth sailing and it would be valid to question the values that drive his trajectory (the sole injecting scene is also questionable and aside from any 'demonising' purpose, seems to get the whole 'duration of effect' thing wrong). But what is so refreshing and wonderful about Limitless is that it isn't clear cut and life is not portrayed as a sickeningly trite picture of 'good and evil'. And, for once, we are not asked to despise the drug dependent and the drug itself is not Satan incarnate. I also believe that the questions that it prompts us to ask - such as what is the role of pharmaceutical companies in the future and the inherent dangers when drugs are in the hands of the illegal market - are worthwhile ones. At the very least, the film comes from a different angle. Hopefully for this over-excited blogger, Neil Burger won't be the next spokesperson for 'Hollywood hates heroin' or 'Tinseltown talks tough', or some other poorly-titled campaign.

The drug in Limitless purports to provide consumers access to the entire human brain (apparently, though, humans have access to the entire brain and the '20 percent' claim is a myth - but then again, since when have we been experts on our own brains?). Psychedelic drugs have also been discussed in relation to 'mind expansion', 'awareness enhancement' and 'consciousness elevation'. Whilst I have to say that I think it is still too early for us to make empirical, fact-based statements about the validity of such claims, I have observed people, in both personal and public domains, who seem to have flourished creatively and developed keen insight following experimentation with drugs like LSD. What seems to have been the greatest difficulty for such people, and others who haven't fared so well, was the lack of guidance - the absence of substantial support from experienced 'teachers' or legitimate information sources that can facilitate learning.

In the end, like many other areas of life, people learn to make do and use whatever is available to them at the time. Unfortunately, without such guidance people can become isolated and despairing as the misunderstanding of others makes an incomprehensible experience much worse than it needs to be - what is commonly referred to as a 'bad trip', for example, is catastrophised and mistakenly distorted. When Humphrey Osmond wrote to Aldous Huxley, "To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic" I believe that he was making sense of the variability of the LSD experience. The ignorance that the 'War on Drugs' has nurtured has distorted the 'bad trip' into merely an indication of a person's mental instability or the drug's poisonous nature. Instead of attempting to understand the factors that influence drug experiences or the learning that can arise from 'negative' drug experiences, drug hysteria often makes matters worse by patronising or misunderstanding people.

Interestingly, such a challenge also emerges in Limitless, and it becomes readily apparent that Morra's primary problem is his confinement within an illicit arena with no regulatory assistance or scientifically-tested information and the odd shady character to negotiate. Consequently, and with the assistance of the drug itself, Morra puts into motion an idea that many drug dependent people can only dream of - he creates his own supply, enlisting the help of a qualified professional.

Following the discovery of Morra's drug use by his partner, Limitless has the standard relationship tussle in which the matter of the 'real Eddie' and the 'other Eddie' is discussed. Cooper's character earnestly asserts to his girlfriend that the drug doesn't change who he essentially is. And even though Lindy doesn't accept this because she had recently used the drug herself, the film's ending makes it clear that the drug simply enhanced what was already there - it is still Edward Morra who is running for senate and having dinner with his loved one. From cradle to grave, all kinds of things in our lives change who we are and influence us throughout each day. We now have a greater understanding of the continually developing 'self', as our genes continually and dynamically interact with our behaviour and external environment - humans are not 'set in stone' at any one point in time (even though some people might use this as an excuse for why they can't change). Drugs are just one part of this influential landscape, with both benefits and drawbacks, and can be managed as a legal product just like everything else. However, what cannot change is the human drive for drug experiences.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Already Been Done: Rick McCrank Interview

Could you be as open-minded and selfless as Rick McCrank when it comes to other people's drug use? Answering a question about being a non-drinker, McCrank puts a different spin on the whole 'selfish' thing that drug users often get lumped with:

"I also get bummed when it affects people’s skating and they’re too hung over to skate, I wish that didn’t happen. But it’s not too bad. I know they’re having a great time and that’s just me being selfish about it."

Again, skateboarding pushes matters to another level...