Follow That Dream: Generation X and Addiction Cinema

This Generation X essay contains spoilers for Drugstore Cowboy, The Basketball Diaries, Gridlock’d, Another Day in Paradise, Permanent Midnight and Jesus’ Son. Check out VV reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


There is a scene in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women (2016) in which the characters gather around a TV to watch U.S. President Jimmy Carter speak to the nation — the address, which has come to be known as the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, was broadcast on July 15, 1979. Carter speaks of a “crisis of the American spirit,” a disaffection with the country’s institutions that is being exacerbated by the upheavals of the Energy Crisis. The president warns of “an invisible threat” that is striking at “the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” and rails against the “self-indulgence and consumption” that is breeding a climate of “fragmentation and self-interest.” It is the sternest and most explicit rebuke to the notion that America’s post-war plenty is economically, or even morally, tenable. Carter implores the country to look in the mirror and ask itself what its values really are, what it really dreams of. At the resumption of the speech in 20th Century Women, there is stunned silence, until one character says, “He is so screwed.”

That proved to be the case at the 1980 election, when Americans rejected Carter’s call to patriotic restraint and tough-love pragmatism in favor of Ronald Reagan’s rose-tinted vision of a country that could reject material constraints and dare to dream itself back to its mythical greatness. America wanted to prolong its post-war high, and Reagan promised the nation that he could sustain the sensation. Americans were addicted to everything Carter had condemned in his address; addiction underpins the Western way of life for which the USA is the beacon; to know no satiety is to be truly free. Led by a cinematic Leader of the Free World, the 1980s became a decade of sacred illusions; soft power became ascendant; tough choices were deferred and America found cultural avatars for its new condition of projected power, seeing in John Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Top Gun, 1986) an articulation of the strength and confidence it presented to the world.

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Generation X Essay - First Blood Movie Film

Generation X emerged from the Reagan wonderland of mirrors blinking in the bright lights and looking for a way to dull its pain and discomfort. Inflated by a sense of invincibility at the end of history, a comedown was inevitable. The hubris of coke fed into the oblivion of crack, and while the victims of the crack epidemic were largely ignored in popular culture, the addict became a sacred outcast for many in the media. In a climate of secular uncertainty, the addict’s commitment to something larger took on an almost religious significance; the user was transformed into an intrepid traveler. In an era where everything has been mapped, the addict’s journey into the depths of self-obliteration came to be considered the height of adventurism; when there is nothing left to conquer, you can subjugate yourself to the absolute negation that addiction represents. One of the first “grown up” novels I read as an adolescent was William S. Burroughs’ Junkie (1953), largely on the strength of the author’s place as the patron saint of 1990s “alternative” culture — which set out to retrieve many of the ideas that the Reagan Revolution had banished to the margins of American life and kept alive in subcultures that were ready to be mined by the mainstream, injecting a darker hue into the shimmering surfaces of 80s excess.

Burroughs makes a cameo in Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which Gus Van Sant transforms James Fogle’s gang of junkie hustlers into an unlikely family — outcasts banding together to form a unity of mutual need. The home movies that open the film are almost a parody of the ones in Mean Streets (1973), suggesting a fixed sense of place and belonging, but shot in grim liminal spaces like train tracks and deserted factories. Bob (Matt Dillon) is “a shameless, full-time dope fiend,” but he is equally the patriarch and the breadwinner, carrying his outfit on his back “like it was my own newborn son.” Bob and his old lady, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), guide Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham) through a series of choreographed raids on drugstores and hospitals, keeping the kids in line as they perform their roles in the set pieces Bob has devised. Bob laments that this younger generation are “TV babies,” bred on formulaic stories, a three-act reality with clear moral boundaries, and the incongruity with actual life is too much for them to bear. But Bob is no less under the spell of his illusions; the man’s mother (Grace Zabriskie) tells him and Dianne that “you wanna do nothing but run and play” — everyday life has become little more than a backdrop for the eternal craps game in which the “gentle explosion” of dope with its “rosy hue of unlimited success” is beautiful for as long as it lasts.

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Generation X Essay - Drugstore Cowboy Movie Film

Bob says that “we played a game we couldn’t win, to the utmost,” and it is this knowledge of the long odds against them that creates heady mythology and deep superstition — hats left on beds and the backs of mirrors portend imminent doom and cast a “30-day hex” on their activities. The game of obliterating the structures of reality generates a quest for signs, the outfit navigate their life raft through tides of scarcity and hostility, finding islands of sustenance and entertainment. In the end, when the necessity of securing a fix is removed, the emotional ties evaporate — Bob goes into a withdrawal program, and Dianne becomes Rick’s old lady, the dramatis personae switching roles in line with shifting priorities. Bob meets Tom the Priest (Burroughs), “the most notorious dope fiend on the coast,” who says “I have nowhere else to go” as they sit in the shabby lobby of the fleabag hotel where they are both staying. Tom offers Bob a window into a possible future, and he resolves to become subservient to the clock, to try and shake off the hex that hangs over him, to recast himself as “a regular guy” living “a virtuous life.” Bob tries to hoodwink “the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface,” but the hex lies in wait and no manner of penance can appease it, the life has a way of finding you.

The Basketball Diaries (1995), Jim Carroll’s account of his descent into heroin addiction, finds Jim (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to make friends with God, and failing. He bristles against the discipline of his Catholic school and the license for sadism it affords while finding meaning in his high school’s basketball team and the possibility of going to college. In the face of so many predatory institutions, Jim struggles to reconcile the inner and exterior versions of himself, the demands of the body and the imperatives of the soul that find their expression in his writing. Jim must assert his masculinity on the street and the court, to retain a speck of sensitivity and self-possession while avoiding being branded a “punk” by his peers. Choosing junk is a decision to be held in abeyance, to float in the indeterminate space between possibilities, to dwell in junk time, to exist permanently on the threshold. Gravitating inwards becomes a means of holding frailty and failure at bay; junk is a decisive “no,” and Jim’s writing is an uneasy compromise with mortality. He seeks comfort in the basement, the subterranean security of “a long heatwave” that permeates his body. But something fundamental is muted in the process; it is a flight from the training drill and the confessional, a self-exclusion that is “like a dream” in which all prohibitions are lifted and everything adheres to the dreamer’s logic.

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Generation X Essay - The Basketball Diaries Movie Film

Like Bob in Drugstore Cowboy, Jim realizes that he needs to build an outfit, and he welcomes his teammates into a shadow world where they are powerful, potent and invulnerable to reality’s brickbats. As the material dream of academic and athletic success gets further out of reach, the narcotic dream assumes primacy; the limits of the game no longer have any meaning, the dream is now in control, reality becomes a temporary impediment to be remedied. Jim and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) are now denizens of the underworld, the shell of a dwelling populated by an “all-star team” of renunciants, those deepest in the dream. These Catholic boys are in love with the ritual of the fix, the sacred ceremony of escaping the body, buoyed by the possibility of tapping once again into the sacred, the ineffable truth imprinted in the virgin hit. There are visions from the old world, flashes of clarity, but Jim concludes that “we’re alone, alone forever” as he peers across the lines in search of succor. The junkie’s struggle between “terrible numbness” and “beautiful fragments” is a solitary one, and it never ends. The addict is the ultimate atomized subject; they become a stranger to themselves and everyone else. Like Bob, Jim concludes that junk is “another nine-to-five gig.” The junkie must expend as much energy as any working stiff; the freedom they chase is as rigid as the drudgery they set out to eschew.

It’s New Year’s Eve in Gridlock’d (1997) when Cookie (Thandiwe Newton), the singer in a jazz trio, suffers an overdose. Her fellow bandmates Spoon (Tupac Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth) rush Cookie to the hospital and resolve to kick their habits. The two men set off on a Kafkaesque journey through a maze of government bureaucracy in an attempt obtain rehab services, pulling small-scale hustles that bring them into conflict with local hood D-Reper (Vondie Curtis Hall). Gridlock’d underlines the ways in which the addict ceases to be a fully realized member of the human race — Spoon and Stretch do not have the necessary credentials to pass as citizens worthy of help. Once again, Gridlock’d posits a kind of junkie consciousness; Spoon has a sense that whatever force is guiding affairs is growing weary of his struggle, and he asks Stretch, “You ever get the feeling your luck’s running out?” For Shakur’s character, the signs are there that the universe no longer has his back — the little grace he was afforded has been rescinded. Gridlock’d is as much about the solipsism of the junkie disposition as the hostile environment the average addict faces without the means to get help — the junkie is convinced that they are the central character of their drama, and Stretch is berated by a welfare supervisor (James Pickens Jr.) for expecting the earth to move just because he has decided that day to get clean.

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Generation X Essay - Gridlock’d Movie Film

Like Jim in The Basketball Diaries, Spoon and Stretch come to the realization that nobody is coming to save them, that no big other has the remedy for their pain, that getting high has become a grim obligation — fellow junkie Koolaid (Tom Wright) muses that “when getting high turns into a job, what’s the point?” Spoon clings to the possibility of human goodness and salvation in this well of human misery, while Stretch allows its vicissitudes to confirm his pessimism and despair. When Stretch insults their gun-wielding dealer, Mud (Bokeem Woodbine), he nuzzles up to the muzzle, willing the man to end his pain. This dichotomy is ironic, as Gridlock’d grapples with the way in which race factors into the perception of the addict — while the white junkie has been leant an existential patina by their portrayal in popular culture, the Black junkie is largely characterized as a blight: dehumanized, undifferentiated, doubly othered. Good intentions dissolve in the face of official indifference, and death stalks at every turn. But there is always the recollection of the first hit, resonant enough to erase all subsequent pain — Spoon describes it lovingly as “going back to the womb,” and was certain that “I was home.” It is only when the character acknowledges the faulty foundations upon which this home rests that he must adjust to his expulsion and face the streets, the terrain of his failure and desperation. In trying to find a route out, Spoon and Stretch look back on everything that led up to Cookie’s OD, clues as to where they took the fatal turn. But it’s never that simple. Addiction is a slow slide into the mire rather than a dramatic collapse.

Larry Clark’s follow-up to the incendiary Kids (1995) presents another ersatz family unit brought together by shared habits. In Another Day in Paradise (1998), veteran junkies Mel (James Woods) and Sid (Melanie Griffiths) take fledgling addicts Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) under their wing and initiate them into the ways of “the life” — a ruthless pursuit of valuable morsels to rip from the rump of the straight world. Mel tells Bobbie that being “a junkie and real good thief… kind of go together,” that those who distinguish themselves in the life are the ones with business savvy. The industrious junkie must have the necessary smarts, a light touch and an eye for detail to succeed. Bobbie is tasked with robbing a pharmacy, sent like an aboriginal male into the bush to prove his manhood, and returns a fully-formed thief in the eyes of his elders. The junk time in which Mel and Sid exist is a means of keeping the clock at bay; Sid tells Rosie that “I never want to get old,” and there is a sense that the older junkies are siphoning off the youthful energy from their new “kids,” coddling the “poor babies” to better consume their spirit. Like all such outfits, this improvised family cannot bear the weight of divergent goals — Mel, the affable Henry Higgins guiding his charge, becomes a martinet who demands, “I lead, you follow.” Bobbie rebels against this parental authority, and Rosie sinks into a junk-infused morass, overcoming her fear of needles and dying from an overdose. Junk turns the family into a remorseless machine calibrated for survival, holding back a wave of agony by stalking the surface of ordinary life.

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Generation X Essay - Another Day in Paradise Movie Film

While other junkies are defiantly on the outside, Jerry Stahl (Ben Stiller) struggles to retain his place on the inside while maintaining a habit in Permanent Midnight (1998). He first appears fresh out of rehab and paying his penance by working in fast food — he had previously worked in another branch of the fast food industry, writing for a puppet-based sitcom called “Mr. Chompers” (the real Stahl wrote for the show ALF). Jerry meets Kitty (Maria Bello), a fellow addict who functions as his interlocutor, pinning him as the “angsty, arty Hemingway type who sold out to Hollywood” and puncturing his delicately constructed pretense. In L.A., everyone has a pretense — even Jerry’s marriage to Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley) is an arrangement to secure a green card; deals are struck and compromises are reached in the interest of personal advancement. Jerry cannot countenance confronting this world clean, quoting Burroughs’ assertion that he shot heroin “so he could get up in the morning and shave.” Using junk becomes a matter of negotiating base-level existence in a space where one is encouraged to lean in to one’s conceit, to perfect one’s personal architecture. The pitch-black cynicism of Jerry’s east coast sensibility finds itself at odds with the west coast’s feeling of expanse. Being a junkie in a coke town requires a certain level of discipline, and Jerry is a fully actualized “L.A. junkie.” Smack is incorporated into his regimen of health food and jogging; the character is perfectly at ease with the contradiction of shooting black tar heroin while lecturing Kitty on consuming MSG.

Productivity for Jerry rests on the capacity to spin bullshit to the right people in the right room, and this requires chemical assistance — the negation that junk represents mirrors the cultural void of Mr. Chompers; the writer is asked to leave behind all compunction, to spill their guts into the machine and have it refined into product. The illusion can only sustain itself for so long — the bluster only gets one so far. The combinations of toxins and the pursuit of perfection cancel each other out, and Jerry falls into a pit of self-loathing. The charade becomes the only reality; the walls of the sitcom set start to feel solid, he is caught in the lights and waits for the laugh track to kick in; he operates according to the constraints of the format. Standing cadaverous amongst a sea of tanned bodies, Jerry is forced to face the fourth wall when the star of his new sitcom gig, Pamela (Cheryl Ladd), tells him, “If you fuck up, you won’t exist” and the doctor at his rehab clinic (played by Stahl himself) informs him that “Some people make it, some people end up dead. Good luck.” With junk at the helm, the landscape no longer has space to admit the dreams Jerry has cultivated; the expanse starts to contract and possibilities shrink to necessities. Returning to L.A., Jerry only has room for his own renewal, securing a fixed spot in a different configuration of reality — he admits that “I feel like an alien” when he sees L.A. straight for the first time; the city is squalid and overcast as he stumbles into a day job and starts writing again. Permanent Midnight outlines the price of survival, the maladies that linger.

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Generation X Essay - Permanent Midnight Movie Film

In contrast to the driven junkies of Another Day in Paradise and Permanent Midnight, the adaptation of Denis Johnson’s cult novel, Jesus’ Son (1999), offers God’s perfect fuck-up in the form of FH (Billy Crudup) — a directionless, garrulous, malleable soul who earns himself the nickname “fuckhead.” And not without reason, as FH blunders into emotional bear traps at every turn, stranded on a long, hostile road he is ill-equipped to traverse. FH meets Michelle (Samantha Morton), who brings heroin into his life. FH finds Michelle shooting up at his kitchen table one morning, and slips effortlessly into using with her; junk becomes a condition of spending time with Michelle, a foible he is willing to overlook, complimenting her ass while she pukes violently in the bathroom. FH finds a way of existing at the center of the whirlwind Michelle whips up, disregarding the distress and disapproval of those observing from the outside. Junk is an extension of FH’s aimlessness, he is passed between those with the will to act decisively, primed to be an addict, an accomplice or a convert under the right conditions. To FH, everything is equally plausible as a mode of being, grasping at whatever passes across his ontological field of vision. FH comments that he feels as though he has wandered into someone else’s dream. But he is not distressed by this prospect, content to be a resident there.

Junk is merely the force making the most compelling claim on FH’s existence; when Michelle falls pregnant, the prospect of becoming a father briefly becomes his new mission. But this is followed by a moment of clarity in which FH concludes that “there was nothing stopping us from having a baby, except ourselves,” and an abortion is sought. Junk doesn’t destroy FH’s life, it merely clarifies what is already lacking; he chooses junk in the absence of anything more solid to cling to. In a milieu where behavior is off, individual motives are unclear and the usual guarantees of human interaction have been abandoned. The dream has clarity but equally ambiguity.

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Generation X Essay - Jesus' Son Movie Film

FH meets Bill (Dennis Hopper) in a rehab facility, who reminds him of the Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream (1962), while a resident at the nursing home where he works after getting clean grabs Crudup’s character one day and tells him, “There’s a price to be paid for dreaming.” The active dreamer exists at the mercy of an ephemeral, ethereal thing; the dream rarely survives to be recollected with any accuracy, shaped into a comprehensible fable. For a person — or a nation — to pin their hopes on the promise of a dream is to tempt the tumultuous forces that preside over dreams into our waking lives, to allow a narrator as confused and chaotic as FH to recount the story. People become addicts for a variety of reasons, but boredom proves particularly perilous. In the preface to Junkie, Burroughs explains: “You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.” Yet once enlisted, the addict fights doggedly to uphold the integrity of the dream.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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