I’m embarked on a Gus van Sant festival because we think “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” would be a good match for van Sant. Last night I began with “Drugstore Cowboy” which I’ve always known about but have never seen. It’s shot in Portland, supposedly in 1971, which is about the time I was on the streets there as an animal control officer, but actually in 1988 which is just before the time I went back to Portland for the last stint working for the City of Portland in the Bureau of Buildings -- later, “Environmental Services.” So this is a place that I know -- not in a tourist way.
In Portland, to interest tourists, they call the catacombs under the city “Shanghai tunnels” because of the 19th century practice of kidnaping drunk sailors and impressing them into service on ships headed for China. Theoretically that doesn’t happen now. But in the Seventies someone in the Mayor’s Office told me that the “white slave trade” was still a major problem: mostly girls at that time. No need to smuggle them out unconscious -- just give them a plane ticket and promise they’ll star in a movie shot overseas.
The world of the aimless drug-surfer, an expression of existentialism whether they know it or not since “knowing” anything at all becomes problematic for someone whose brain on drugs is less like a fried egg than a wildly twitching frog, anchored only by society’s determination to get everything under control through confrontation. Well, everything that makes trouble. If anyone wants to go off and slump in a corner and starve, that’s fine.
As an animal control officer I was in and out of their environments all the time. These were not meth people or even street drug people -- they were prescription drug people, the ones that Eric Newhouse is writing about in a series in the Great Falls Tribune as of major concern on Montana Indian reservations. On reservations this seems to have been triggered by the practice of delaying treatment for serious illness by simply providing palliative care: pain killers. The problem is, as usual, once hooked, one gets the substance of choice by stealing it or anything that can be sold to buy it. Since many of the patients are old or otherwise frail, it’s pretty easy to just take it away from them. A lot of people live in a world of hurt around here.
Back in the Seventies there was an explosion of uppers, downers, new pain killers, and other psychotropics and at the same time a cynical despair about life and authority figures that could be used to justify just taking pills and dropping out. It was evidently easy to knock over small pharmacies. The druggies in this film are not violent, just inventive. Deaths are a byproduct. Violence is enacted on them, not by them except that they're hard on property. Law enforcement doesn’t have a grip. But pretty soon the leader, who manages to think through the haze, realizes that they aren’t getting anyplace and that their angst is only growing. He decides to stop.
The counter-message, and one that makes this film far more interesting, is the presence of William Burroughs, who -- in a low key and dignified way -- defends the right to take drugs. He plays a priest, emaciated but coherent, who has been marginalized by his drug use His very survival is some kind of assurance. He would not be alive if he’d been taking meth. Still, he advises us to avoid “drug hysteria or any other kind of hysteria, for that matter.” Right. Good advice.
What makes life so hard to bear for young good-looking people with brains and a little “assembled” family? Why would they need drugs normally prescribed for those dying of cancer when their worst actual suffering is . . . what? Boredom. Fatique. They are “grayed out,” no goals, no excitement, flat-lined. So -- reservation life, life in low-income rainy Portland, life in the early 1970’s when there was another one of those “unpredicted” recessions, life on a planet that we were only beginning to understand was seriously corroding, and no countervaling forces of religion, patriotism, idealism, education or even aesthetics.
Actually, they had -- but the media hadn’t realized it yet. It was still sort of underground: hippies, granolas, gays, communes, all that experimental stuff. And they didn’t have anything against pills either, though they tended to use pot and LSD. They wanted bigger consciousnesses rather than oblivion, participation in the cosmos.
I guess. How do I know? I just read about it, mostly, but I DID know these parts of town and I did go into those kinds of households. “Panda,” the dear little dog, was not an anomaly.
Blacks are entirely excluded except for the social worker and the therapy group, which is a choice on the part of van Sant, since the Union Avenue motel where some of the action takes place is so Black that Union Ave is now MLK Jr. Drive. Race politics are pretty much excluded from the movie. Van Sant’s part of town is NW which is also where Ursula LeGuin lives and 23rd was about to become an extension of Rodeo Drive. This movie is not about greed or power, not about the big players, but about the aimless, the players of little scams and delusions trying to get by until they just, well, disappear.
But the story also makes a quiet pitch for an ordinary small life doing a repetitious job and living in a scruffy room, all alone. “It’s not so bad. It feels safe.” Simple existence.
To my mind this movie is probably more relevant now than it was then. At that time the little bunch of “cowboys” seemed sort of harmless deviants who did a lot of property damage but didn’t hurt much of anyone but themselves. The rage and craving that flame through this beginning century -- I wonder what Bill Burroughs would say about it. Now that the charred remains of so much is caving in on even the rich. It’s not the end of the world in any objective way, but we’re looking into a cratered dystopia that we knew was coming and couldn’t seem to oppose.
“Orpheus” doesn’t aim to save the world. It just suggests a pillow fight, some skate-boarding, and a community. Or, hey, let’s make a vid! But if you’re a boy dying of AIDS, you won’t die alone. And art is easier than crime.