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Friday, April 8th, 2011

Watching Stoner Movies as a Lifelong Non-Smoker

Never have I found myself defenseless against the undead, or an ex-pat African prince, a thirty-something careerist shopping for surrogates, in limbo, the possessor of superhuman senses or abilities, or with an aptitude for science if it’s not being explained to me by Bill Nye or Michio Kaku. Despite that, I love zombie movies, Coming to America, Baby Mama, Defending Your Life, and comic book and sci-fi films. It follows, then, that I, a person who’s never lit up, could count a few stoner flicks among movies I like, right? That said, watching certain stoner movies leaves me feeling like a sociologist.

I harbor no religious or ideological objections to drug use, but know that I don’t have the mental or emotional leeway to take that kind of risk. The occasional social drink is all the alteration I’ll allow my (long suspected, now medically confirmed!) only tenuously stable mind. Even something as benign as weed is off limits until I feel I’ve tipped the scales heavily enough in favor of sanity. And I’ve been told that, at the age of twenty-mumble, it’s never too late to start.



Still, I’ve watched plenty of stoner comedies with the diaphanous haze of pot smoke overhead. Whether or not I’ve had a second hand buzz is debatable; I’m sure I have, while others chalk it up to the placebo affect or mob mentality. Hive-minded highness or not, it can be tough being the only one not indulging in a room full of stoners watching movies made for them. They laugh at things that are beyond me. I laugh at things they’re too impaired to notice. The viewing experiences, while parallel, could not be more perpendicular. So it’s odd that I can tolerate most of the stoner comedies I’ve seen. Some I even enjoy, if you can believe it!  



Long before he began writing for Conan, Deon Cole gave me my first education in stoner humor when on a late 90s episode of Comic View (that I had to sneak to watch at 11 years old), he described himself as “high as a mink coat.” At the time, it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. I looked in a TV Guide to see when his episode was next airing, taped it on VHS, and watched his set so many times the ribbon started to fade. Reciting his jokes to my friends, who were as ignorant of his subject matter as I, got me into trouble in 5th grade — to which my response was another line of Cole’s from later in the same set: “The devil’s been taking over my soul all week.” Teachers were less than amused — but I loved it, though I doubt Cole intended for his stand up to be interpreted didactically by a tween. My comedic tastes have evolved since, but I’ve grown no more acquainted with pot.



This all came rushing back the first time I saw Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. I can argue the universality of a lot of things, but this movie was clearly not made for people like me. My only assumption is that you’d have to be “high as a mink coat” to enjoy it. If I were a sociologist, taking any cues from this movie would probably be equivalent to citing Wikipedia in an academic paper. The quality alone makes me wary of its merits as accurate representation.



Perhaps Cheech and Chong realized that people would be stoned while watching Up in Smoke and so decided to skip the expense of a script supervisor. Why would stoners notice the movie’s many glaring continuity issues? Arrests and court appearances that are played for non-sequitur laughs with no stakes, relationships that develop in the course of one groovy star swipe edit, munchies that manifest IMMEDIATELY after the first toke: those are just some of the issues I have with the film. And storyboards are clearly for narcs, because Up in Smoke could have been at least four separate films. Oh — and there are no jokes, though sight gags, low level farce, and literal toilet humor abound.



Because I’ve never smoked, I’ve relied on movie and television portrayals and tropes of stoners — along with the possibly unreliable accounts of people I know (can you accurately describe the experience WHILE you’re stoned? And once sober, are you too removed from the influence of marijuana to be precise about how it felt?) — to get a feel for what being stoned may be like. Then, I remembered that as a black, female, not-quite-straight movie and tv viewer, I wouldn’t want anyone to glean an impression of me from media portrayals and stereotypes. I’ve yet to see a character like myself on screen.



More baffling still is the fact that stoners are portrayed disparately from film to film. As they should be. Of course, I understand they’re not a homogeneous group. So I’m hesitant to defer to portrayals of silver-screen lady-stoners like Anna Faris in Smiley Face or Charlyne Yi in Knocked Up. (Tidbit: Yi has never smoked weed in real life!)



Reinforcing every stoner archetype I’ve ever encountered, Smiley Face opens with Faris on a ferris wheel with no recollection of how she got there, a reddened face (she seriously looks like a Kris Knight portrait or a Puffs Plus claymation character), puffy eyes, and a craving for Tostitos and orange juice—- the latter confirmed by her subconscious, voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne. For a stoner flick, it employs a very linear story telling device — the alphabet — which it quickly abandons (getting to the letter C no less than 5 minutes into the movie), mimicking the nature of being stoned and the main character’s short term memory deficit. This movie gives people the stoner they know and love and is bolstered by a pretty awesome cast: Anna Faris, John Krasinski, Danny Masterson, Brian Posehn, Dean Pelton from Community, Danny Trejo, John Cho, and the guy from Office Space who got paralyzed and invented that horrible Jump to Conclusions mat.



Unlike in Up in Smoke, the farce here is well-done. Anna Faris’ Jane imagines her Sleep Number bed (that she bought online while high with the last of her money) being taken as collateral by her dealer because she used money meant for her electricity bill to buy more weed and that very bed. O. Henry never wrote a fate so cruel. Making it clear that weed robs its users of any sense of the increments of subtlety, there’s a hilarious audition scene with Jane Lynch during which Anna Faris’ character alternates between speaking too loudly and dialing it back and talking like a robot. And if you can’t think of the degrees of entanglement by which a framed picture of President Garfield would indicate the photo’s owner’s love of lasagna, there’s a nice stream of consciousness scene in the movie to explain it. Pro-tip: as far as proselytization goes, the prospect of weed as a quick catalyst for increased facility of thought is a good selling point.



Jane’s paranoia is highlighted by spurts of possibly diegetic Latin chanting (because who can tell what the character is really hearing?) at the most innocuous events: if you say hello to Faris’ character, she WILL freak out. Unremarkable noises at a dentist’s office (a baby, a vent, a pencil sharpener) are an unbearable cacophony to her. And the sleepy, washed out Sophia Coppola-like coloring of the movie is just right. Smiley Face accomplishes the feat of somehow making pot seem familiar to me, like something I recognize.



While some stoner flicks are reassuring (hey, maybe one day you could do this) others redouble my apprehensions. Smiley Face begins predictably, but delves into the fantastic, which I — a non-stoner — can only attribute to the fact that weed is more potent when ingested than when smoked. (Faris’ character eats a batch of her roommate’s cupcakes without knowing they were full or pot). Maybe it’s because I’ve never been high, but surely the film took liberties recreating the effects: hallucinations, the inability to drive because you’ve imagined being heckled by the devil, and the eponymous smiley face talking to you in the clouds. And in Friday, Chris Tucker’s Smokey is given weed laced with angel dust, which has a hilarious but frightening effect.



The idea of the stoner as a slacker is as prevalent as it ever was — and is the stoner trope with which I, someone who can only be considered selectively ambitious and knows what it’s like to willingly act contradictory to my best interests, most identify. In fact, I struggle to think of a movie prominently featuring a more than barely functional pothead. Weed obviously forces smokers to eschew their obligations in favor of meeting its demands. In Pineapple Express, even when their lives are in jeopardy, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s characters take time out to grab slushies and chips. Munchies, with the help of pot, herniates its way ahead of self-preservation. Now I’ve worked fairly hard in service of laziness — biking three miles out of my way to avoid a steep hill, for example — but have never even approached the wrong-headed inefficiency of most screen stoners. In Smiley Face, Anna Faris was a burn-out economics major turned failed actress, and in Up in Smoke, we’re to believe Chong is a disinherited trust fund baby, though the attempts at characterization the movie swatted at in its introduction were never again addressed. Grandma’s Boy’s transient Alex, a thirty-something videogame tester who lives with his grandmother, was no big success story either.



So I guess we’re not that different, stoners and non-stoners. I’ll end with this, from the often puzzling, but in this case, profound Katt Williams:



“Some of y'all just need to smoke some weed and see if it don't help the quality of your motherfucking life. … If you ain't smoking weed 'cause you got a good job, then by all means, make your paper, boo-boo. … But if you ain't got no job, and you’re not smoking weed, I don't know what the fuck you are doing with your life.”







Perhaps with the proper comedic goading, I’ll light up yet! Or even better, I’ll find a good job and leave it to the rest of you.

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Is Becca O'Neal a Chicago-based freelance writer? Because her mom is kind of worried.

  • Megh Wright

    Becca, did you just try to convince me that biking for three miles, no matter what the reason, is lazy?

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      I was thinking the same thing. Riding on the steep hill seems lazier than biking three extra miles. Great article, Becca! I think non-smokers can definitely find something to enjoy in most stoner movies.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    My decision making process is clearly just AIR-TIGHT.

  • Katie Punsly@twitter

    Smiley Face is quite possibly the worst stoner movie ever made. All it does is abuse stereotypes with virtually no correlation to what the actual experience is like. It's borderline insulting.

    • Megh Wright

      So glad you said that. I tried watching Smiley Face once but had to turn it off not long into the movie, I just couldn't get on board with it and yeah, it is borderline insulting. It kind of sucks to have these kind of uptight-grandma perspective stoner scenes that really do no justice to the experience and keep recycling the stupid stereotypes, and probably do nothing but push non-smokers away and keep Obama laughing at the topic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Hall/1605914261 Daniel Hall

    @Katie, spot on! All this movie did was go for cheap pops from the viewers by employing stoner stereotypes beaten to death in every hack property that deals with weed. Up In Smoke was actually somewhat written and it's disjointedness wasn't because of the assumption that stoners would be the audience, it's because it was transposed from Cheech Marin's and Tommy Chong's touring stage show in the 70's to the screen where a lot of the scenes were from already written stage bits and gags.

    • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

      SCHOOLED!

  • David Alvarez@facebook

    Nice article, like what u said about Cheech and Chong :)
    Check out more stoner films at http://www.stonermovies420.com/
    Peeeace