Drugs have long been part of the poet’s social repertoire: the gaseous acid the Pythian oracle huffed to forecast the hexametric future, the bennies and junk of the hopped up/laid low beatniks, the proverbial drunken passengers on the drunken boat. If the “poetic” is the linguistic occasion for signifiers to overflow their signifieds, drugs have long been the surfboard on which poets and other social freaks have hung ten.
Indigenous to Central and Southern Asia, cannabis has been a feature of the artist’s neuropathy for millennia. Cannaboid seeds have been found in ashtrays next to Romanian mummies and Anatolian tombs. The Sanskrit word ganjika is the red-eyed ancestor of modern Indo-Aryan ganja, a word seamlessly loaned to English. Ancient Assyrians called weed qunubu (probably the etymological root of “cannabis”) and they not only loved to smoke it, they turned on the Scythians, Thracians and Dacians (the Hewey, Dewey, and Louie of ancient potheads.)
In American art, weed appears late, only in the 20th century. And ever since Dylan first passed a j to the Beatles backstage, pot in art has been simultaneously a little mystical (the catalyst for angelic inspiration and spontaneous insights) and vaguely political (as if weed smoking emphasized one’s sense of social injustice). Hardly ever was weed smoking in art intentionally risible.
But I guess that makes sense—after all, in the USAmerica, there exists a very mellow-harshing and quite unfunny juridical prohibition against weed, which in some states even now makes possession a felony. Smoking weed could only be privileged as a mainstream recreational activity in the most insipid of terms. I’m looking at you, Steve Miller’s The Joker.
While draconian jurisprudence continues to haunt determined tokers, there has also been a dramatic shift in pot’s cultural normalcy. When I was growing up, the only way one could sensibly connect the words “Super Bowl” and marijuana would be to imagine an enormously capacious pipe, stuffed to the brim with Garden of Eden kush. This year, however, the teams in the Super Bowl hailed from Washington and Colorado states, the two states in the US to legalize weed by voter referendum. The Weed Bowl, some called it, smirking or jealous. In any event, the hysterical paranoia of Reefer Madness (1936) seems now legitimately ridiculous.
The first symptom of this transition might very well be the emergence of artworks which explicitly connected smoking weed and comedy. The stoner comedy’s foundational film is Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke, which appeared in theaters in 1978. The importance of Cheech and Chong to the future development of the genre cannot be overrated. In fact, 7 of the 10 films released before 1993 which Wikipedia lists as “Stoner Films” are Cheech and/or Chong productions.
I was born in 1978, and thus in some sense my experience as a USAmerican subject maps onto the history of the contemporary stoner comedy. The dearth of stoner films in the 1980’s is corroborated by the loud silence produced by Reagans’ shamefully racist and misguided “war on drugs,” the iconic commercials with their deadbeat dads and sizzling eggs scared me straight until I was old enough to know better. Of course, the iconic drug of the 1980’s was cocaine, not weed. But the force of the official war against recreational pleasure was ostensibly a powerful enough bloc to postpone the genre’s flourishing for over a decade.
The shift towards wide cultural acceptance began in earnest with the end of the first Iraq War and the presidency of Bush the First. One now can be nostalgic about the 1992 presidential campaign, which saw Bush 1’s team attempt to lambast Clinton as a degenerate junkie for having experimented with pot. Bush 2 and Obama both publicly admitted to experimenting with cocaine—the occasional porch tokes on their resume didn’t even warrant refutation.
One of the major artworks of the Pax Clintonia is of course Dr. Dre’s 1992 classic The Chronic. As Joshua Clover has detailed in his book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About, the years 1988-1991 saw drastic transitions in hip hop, as radical politics and racial consciousness gave way to self-directed rage and nihilism. Dre, a key member of Compton’s N.W.A., had been one of the architects of that transition, which also saw the capital of rap music move from New York to Los Angeles. When The Chronic dropped, the coup was complete.
Listening to The Chronic two decades later, and especially in light of the massive, collective paean to smoking weed that rappers have been engaged in since its release, what’s striking is that weed smoking is not remotely the main subject of the album. Despite its cover, which replicates the Zig Zag rolling papers package with Dre’s face in the middle, most of The Chronic remains dedicated to the themes elaborated in mid to late NWA: gang violence, threats, and misogyny.
Just as The Chronic, despite its misleading title and cover, initiated an entire genre in rap music, Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater) reinvented the stoner comedy in American cinema. And just like The Chronic, weed smoking plays a rather minor role in Dazed and Confused, especially considering the films it would influence. One might instead read both film and LP as devotionals to 1970’s music, butt rock in the former and funk in the latter—but that is the subject of another blog post. Nonetheless, the kernel of many key elements of stoner comedies that I have seen can be found in Dazed and Confused.
Dazed and Confused is a roman a clef about a group of students in quasi-rural Texas. The film takes place over the course of 24 hours, the last day of Junior year for some of the characters, of middle school for others. The approaching sunset of high school, of course, lies on the cusp of an all-important summer vacation. The decisions they will make in this summer are existential. They will not merely bring about a temporary set of immanent experiences but rather constitute the meaning of one’s entire teenage years.
One of the major questions these characters is face is whether or not to buy tickets to see Aerosmith. There are several obstacles complicating this decision. Some are external. Authority figures, like the police and the football coach, constantly threaten to impinge on the scene, exerting juridical pressure to conform to the staid and sober letter of the law. But others are imposed from within the group rather than without. For one, these high schoolers in quasi-rural Texas are for the most part totally baked. It turns out that making basic life decisions turns out to be much more difficult than one might predict. Aerosmith rules, the audience thinks, what is there to deliberate? Dazed is the record of their deliberative journey to, well, nowhere really.
This spring on Drunken Boat, I’ll discuss the stoner comedies that I have seen. These films, of course, emphasize and sublimate the role of weed in their plots. But they also tend to incorporate some of the motifs developed in Dazed and Confused: their protagonists are trying to get from Point A to Point B. The obstacles they encounter and imposed from without and from within. In almost all cases, they set out to overcome these obstacles in pairs or groups, and they almost always have exclusively male protagonists. In this way, they also resemble the Odyssey by Homer, that classic, paradigmatic tale of spiritual and physical journey of Odysseus and Telemachus, the Cheech and Chong of the ancient world. Classicists sometimes make the nerdy joke that “Homer nodded” when a certain line doesn’t dazzle—but the question I want to ask Homer, and by extension all poets, is did he inhale?
Brandon Brown is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Flowering Mall. He writes about art and culture for Open Space, the magazine and blog of the SFMOMA and Bay Area journal Art Practical. He is an editor at Krupskaya, and occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! In 2014, Big Lucks will publish a new book, Shadow Lanka.
 The other three, two Fritz the Cat films and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are only debatably contributions to the genre.
 Although let us not forget—let us never forget—that Clinton apparently did not inhale. If that saved his bid for the presidency, it did not save him from the eternal halls of party fouldom.
 On the other hand, The Chronic marks the debut of Calvin Broadus, a/k/a Snoop Doggy Dogg, most recently Snoop Lion, probably America’s most beloved weed smoker.
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