For every entry that looks at sweatshirts too closely, this blog has to have the entries that alienate everyone, reduce traffic and reek of sheer self-indulgence. This is one of them. It goes without saying that the clips linked here aren’t for all tastes either – especially if needle use makes you gag, or if you’re at work and garbled obscenities from your computer could get you in hot water.
I really like drug documentaries. Not the ones about conspiracies or all that hippie hash forum nonsense – street level cinéma vérité style is more my thing. I don’t get a vicarious thrill out of the subjects’ misfortunes, nor do the documentaries make me feel better about myself, though ‘ll admit to the occasional chuckle at the chaos that accompanies single-minded lifestyle of the addict. There’s no room to get pious here – we all know an unfortunate character who managed to render their life a cautionary tale, as experimentation twists into a nihilistic existence, but it makes the subjects fascinating.
The very best mix shocking scenes with tenderness, carrying a certain humanity at the core. Leo Leigh and Andy Capper’s ‘Swansea Love Story’ is an instant classic. Grim, moving and haunting, the level of access is remarkable, and further proof that Vice’s VBS are the masters of the online TV realm. Whereas previous masterpieces of the genre are set on America’s east and west coasts (though middle America’s spawned some truly chilling meth-abuse footage as seen in ‘Crank: Made In America’ ), parts of Swansea in 2009 seems to match that hard-to-shake hopelessness that the Bronx and L.E.S. of old carried when the camera followed some of their desperate denizens on their daily routines.
That an increasing number still exist in this cycle is a tragedy, and that Cornelius and Amy prove so likable, surrounded by an eclectic bunch of drug buddies, makes ‘Swansea Love Story’ a masterpiece. The flatulent “Old Famous” Clinty’s introduction might be the funniest of any documentation to date, before the scale of his plight manifests itself. “P.M.A. P.M.A. – positive mental attitude…”
Other classics of the genre have come courtesy of broadcasters like HBO in their prolific ‘America Undercover’ series. Definitive drug documentaries from the US include ‘Junkie Junior’ – full of South Bronxed-out footage from 1981 as it charts the miserable existence of Junior Rios, whose addiction continues up to the film’s 1986 broadcast. It was the brilliant ‘Streetwise’ from 1984, about Seattle’s runaways that had me hooked on the narcotic side of the subject matter, and 1989’s ‘One Year In A Life Of Crime’ depicts some significantly less likeable characters robbing for drug money – followed up with an equally unsettling sequel nearly a decade later, it’s one of the very best from Jon Alpert (co-founder of the Downtown Community Television Center), and you can see part one right here.
Like ‘Junkie Junior’ it’s worth your time as a portrait of the era as much as it is a powerful depiction of an illegal lifestyle. On the smalltown subject, 1995’s ‘High On Crack Street: Lost Lives In Lowell’ co-directed by Alpert, draws parallels between a decline in industry and a growth in drug use – a topic revisited in ‘Swansea Love Story.’
1999’s ‘Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street’ exposes just how nightmarish San Francisco’s Tenderloin district can be, stripping the heroin lifestyle of any glamour, and 2007’s ‘Dope Sick Love’ isn’t too far from Capper and Leigh’s approach, sticking with the couples, but it’s astonishingly candid. Matt, one of the film’s key characters really does reach rock bottom; and it’s captured on camera. You’ve been warned. HBO’s whole ‘Addiction’ season from 2007, containing a full-length film made by a variety of filmmakers, including D.A. Pennebaker covered all bases of addiction, and led to the related screening of ‘Cracked Not Broken’ about a middle-class girl who hit the rock in a major way, and 2006’s oddball and brilliant ‘TV Junkie,’ culled from 1000s of hours of self-filmed footage capturing TV presenter Rick Kirkham’s “functioning” and spiralling crack habit.
Curiously, my favourite drug-related depiction is hardly even a documentary – 1987’s ‘Story of a Junkie’ aka. ‘Gringo’ a semi-fictionalized account of ‘Punk’ magazine affiliate John Spaceley’s everyday antics. Directed by Lech Kowalski, the man behind the brilliant ‘DOA,’ ‘…Junkie’ was distributed by masters of schlock, Troma with an appropriately lurid poster, but it’s a hugely effective piece of filmmaking. John, playing ‘Gringo’ scores, shoots up with his associates (no special effects necessary), skates down the street, and gets robbed (faked) while wandering around 1984’s Lower East Side like a man on a mission.
Full of the kind of atmosphere money can’t buy, it’s squalid, edgy and brilliant, and for fellow fans of depictions of NYC pre-cleanup, it’s highly recommended. Spaceley reputedly cleaned up, but succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Kowalski includes a cameo by a sickly John in his hard-to-find 1999 Johnny Thunders doc, ‘Born To Lose’ which someone’s kindly uploaded here. Notably, Kowalski’s 1984 16mm short ‘Breakdance Test’ was a primer for a proposed full-length on the topic, but Lech found the subject “annoying” and passed on it.