Pin It
Still from "Dazed and Confused"
Still from "Dazed and Confused"

Why are stoners always portrayed the same in film?

Weed has been the subject of many flicks – but why are all stoners painted with the same brush?

You guys, entrenched perceptions around weed are changing. Via seven short films and one feature-length documentary, The New York City Cannabis Film Festival aimed to showcase “entertaining and educational films about cannabis that further transform, stimulate, change, and share the expanding horizons of cannabis culture in the city of New York.”

Weed and movies have always been inextricably linked. From bombastically OTT anti-drug propaganda films like Reefer Madness (1938) and Assassin of Youth (1937)  through to modern day rehashes (geddit?) of stoner comedies like Pineapple Express (2008) and the Friday films – Hollywood has proven its fascination with getting high. And as American attitudes towards weed have fluctuated from shrieking negativity to shoulder-shrugging acceptance, so too has Hollywood, the lightning rod of America’s preoccupations and anxieties.

For many, the bond between film watching and smoking is strong. Were it not for my university years (the majority of which were spent getting stoned in grim suburban houses exercising my library card by renting every DVD they had) I would not have ended up writing about films. During this time, the heightened emotional and physical awareness of being stoned meant watching The Godfather (1972) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) could feel like an almost religious experience. Weed may have made me lazy but if I was watching Coppola, Lynch and Scorsese, getting stoned had a purpose.

Still, enjoying smoking didn’t necessarily make films about weed interesting. Most of them tended to be inferior stoner comedies, reinforcing the stereotype of spaced-out surfer dudes or red-eyed hood guys, always involved in some crazy caper and – like all blunt tokers in these films – shown to be fools. The message seemed to be: useless idiots smoke pot, so films about weed will involve equally hapless morons. The films lacked quality, which suggested weed smokers will happily watch any old shit because they’re high. It became depressingly clear how often films failed to represent the varying identities of smokers by bundling anyone who’s ever enjoyed a joint into the same patronising pile.

“It became depressingly clear how often films failed to represent the varying identities of smokers by bundling anyone who’s ever enjoyed a joint into the same patronising pile”

Throughout film history, particularly within Hollywood, weed films have tended to be reactionary or unrealistic. Reefer Madness, an unintentionally hilarious exploitation morality tale, neurotically screamed at audiences that cannabis was a ‘killer weed’ where smokers would suffer hallucinations and madness and be involved in rapes and murders. The poster for Marihuana (1936) described the film as a ‘daring drug exposé’ where weed was to blame for ‘weird orgies, wild parties, unleashed passions.’

As the century wore on, America’s attitude towards weed relaxed and so did its cinematic portrayals. Starting the stoner comedy cycle in the 1970s with Cheech and Chong’s dull misadventures and bringing the genre into the present with equally brainless duos like Harold and Kumar, or Method Man and Redman, the template usually involved a pair of hapless buddies attempting to buy a stash or keep hold of what they had while avoiding authority figures from cops to strict parents.

Aside from films like Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) being childish and unfunny, stoner comedies seemed irresponsibly imbalanced in showing weed smoking. Where was the paranoia and malevolence? Yes, these films were comedies but they weren’t speaking to anyone to who had felt anxiety or landed themselves in bad situations due to weed. Stoner comedy characters may face adversity but no real danger where panic, pain or even death was on the cards.

Films involving both weed and characters facing darkness and uncertainty do exist, but are in the minority. These films can be comedies too, albeit pretty black ones. In Jackie Brown (1997), De Niro’s character Louis enjoys a spliff but ends up dead; while The Big Lebowski (1998) is one of the funniest films ever made, let us never forget that Donny dies of a heart attack in the bowling alley’s parking lot.

Unsurprisingly, these films are more memorable and critically acclaimed than those that present an imbalanced picture of the drug, whether pro- or anti-weed. These films don’t suggest weed directly causes problems or leads to madness and murder but, like in American Beauty (1999), smoking weed often takes place within an overall context of uncertainty, where a happy ending is not guaranteed. These films present a far more accurate interpretation of real life.

In a key scene of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Alice and Bill get stoned after returning home from a Christmas party. Alice reveals her jealousy that Bill flirted with two models earlier that evening. She then speaks of her own lust for a young naval officer she saw at a hotel the previous summer. With the marriage already on rocky ground, weed brings out Alice’s jealousy and paranoia. Kubrick’s film showed the negative side of being high without preaching. He simply showed it could have adverse effects on those within already troubled environments. Alice’s anxiety-ridden confession nearly leads to the destruction of her marriage as Bill embarks on a nocturnal odyssey through New York in order to sate his own lust and nurse his wounded pride.

Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) showed a new approach to audiences. With A Tribe Called Quest and Crooklyn Dodgers playing in the background while teenagers skateboard around New York, it is little wonder people were seduced by the film. But another reason it endures is down to its documentary-like realism. With scenes involving a blunt rolling tutorial and a deal with a Rasta at a park, Kids paints a balanced and realistic portrayal of weed, retaining an effortless cool while also reminding us that it forms part of the lifestyle of these teenagers that also encompasses hopelessness, violence and tragedy.

The New York City Cannabis Film Festival may sound gimmicky, but events that educate and dismantle stereotypes within society, not just within weed, are vital. For too long, films have shown weed and weed smokers in two dimensional cliches, which let down the film going public and only reinforce the lazy views that many already hold. I no longer smoke weed but I respect people’s decisions to smoke or otherwise. Films that involve weed should avoid patronising or being naively negative or positive on the subject of getting high. They can be funny, alarming and tragic all at once. This would better represent the complexities and contradictions of life and allow these films to linger in the memory of audiences for all the right reasons.