Like Dazed and Confused and The Chronic, the title of the epic poem known as Odyssey slightly misguides readers as to its theme. Of course, the meaning of our word “odyssey” as an “epic voyage” is an allusion to Homer’s poem, which is called in Greek Odusseia, or “stuff about Odysseus.” But even Odusseia is overly general, as the poem is only mostly about the voyage and exploits of Odysseus. To focus solely on the dude of many wiles is to subordinate the roman a clef starring his son Telemachus, the dire situation his wife Penelope finds herself in (aggravated by a band of violent suitors), and the telling and retelling of the Achaean adventure in Troy, all key parts of the poem overall.
But the voyage Odysseus makes from Troy to Ithaca is a key part of the narrative of the poem’s first half. And in some ways, too, Odysseus’s journey was paradigmatic for ancient authors as an archetypally difficult journey. Unlike the relatively painless voyage to Troy, the return fare is rather complicated. The several books of Odyssey which narrate this trip describe the numerous struggles Odysseus has to overcome in order to make his way back home. What should have been a simple journey, from point A to point B, is repeatedly foiled by difficulties both external and internal.
Odysseus is constantly beset by those authority figures of the ancient world, the Gods. Poseidon, god of the sea, hates his guts—not an ideal enemy to have when your return voyage necessarily includes travel by boat. The semidivine nymphs Circe and Calypso, on the other hand, like him a little too much and make every effort to prevent his leaving their respective island estates. But it’s not only the importunate deities and hungry monsters that repeatedly impede on the journey. Odysseus and his clique retard their own trip home with frequent displays of love for the good life.
No passage of Odyssey is more stoney than in Book 9, when Odysseus and his crew reach the land of the l?tophagoi, or the “eaters of lotos.” When Odysseus sends a few of his men to fraternize among the inhabitants of the island, it was a chill meeting. A very chill meeting. In fact it was so chill that the eaters of lotos decided to share a little bit of their stash with the Acheans. No need to wonder if they found it delicious. Suddenly they no longer thought of the voyage home to craggy Ithaca. They preferred to stay right there, munching lotus for all time, while their comrades went on, soberly smiting the grey sea with their oars.
This structure, narrating a trip from point A to point B, a trip upset by external and internal difficulties, is also the core structure of many stoner comedies that I have seen. The internal difficulty sine qua non is, of course, how high the protagonists get and are. Now, the presence of weed does not necessarily a stoner comedy make. Without the transformation of weed into a viable obstacle to an otherwise straightforward plot resolution, I hesitate to call any film a bona fide stoner comedy. Take Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982, dir. Amy Heckerling), a good film, a funny film that stands the test of time, a film in which there is plenty of weed smoking courtesy of a young and still tender Sean Penn. But I’d argue that Fast Times is primarily about the sociosexual hijinks perpetrated by high schoolers facing a crisis of temporality, desperate to deliberate when the urgent velocity of their various scenarios demands rapid decision.
The stoner comedies I have seen, on the other hand, while they often include sexual hijinks and important social decisions, emphasize the fact that these decisions are made, as a rule, by people too high to solve them adequately. As such they must contend with unique sets of problems and problem-solving techniques. Just as the warm fog of island lotus restrain Odysseus’s men in Odyssey, the charms of cannabis sativa impede countless characters in stoner comedies from achieving their otherwise straightforward goals. Many films come to mind, but for starters, consider Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000, dir. Danny Leiner).
In Dude, Where’s My Car? Jesse and Chester are two stoners who wake up with no memory of the previous day and night. Clearly something extraordinary has happened—the refrigerator is completely filled with chocolate pudding, there’s a vitriolic answering machine message left by their twin girlfriends Wanda and Wilma, and finally, Jesse’s car has disappeared. “Dude, where’s my car?” Jesse asks Chester. Chester is unable to transition this conversation into the realm of the declarative. “Where’s your car, dude?” he asks back, futilely smiling.
Dude begins in the morning and narrates the exhilarating events of one long day. In order to achieve their ostensibly straightforward goal, finding Jesse’s car, Jesse and Chester engage with UFO cultists, strippers, stoner dogs, violent jocks, the police, an ostrich farmer, actual aliens, more actual aliens, and ultimately the “super hot giant alien,” the final obstacle between the dudes and their car. Along the way, Jesse and Chester offer each other assistance and, just as often, act as obstacles to each other’s flourishing. The object of finding the car becomes their sole occupation. Their other social and personal obligations fall by the wayside, as they quit their jobs and jeopardize their relationships.
I won’t reveal the specifics of how the plot of Dude, Where’s My Car? concludes, as there may be a few Drunken Boat readers not yet familiar with the film. But ultimately, the narrative contains several key illustrations of how to negotiate a crisis under considerable duress. It’s worth offering here too that Dude is a relentlessly racist and misogynist artwork, and if it offers advice on how to solve one mysterious problem, it should not be relied on as an ethical or political model in any way.
In his book Preface to Plato, Eric Havelock infamously characterized the Homeric poems as a “tribal encyclopedia.” His suggestion was that the memorizability of the poems gave the verse a didactic function. Can’t recall the right way to sacrifice the fat thighs of a lamb? Just remember when Agamemnon did it in Iliad book one. Trapped by a bloodthirsty Cyclops in a cave of gore? Do as Odysseus did, and perhaps you’ll survive. Like the Homeric poems, then, the stoner comedies that I have seen can be read as guides for us as we contend with the obstacles of daily life. Especially if we intend to contend with those obstacles baked. They tell us what to do, when the feds knock, when crazy violent jocks crowd and taunt, when a cult leader ties up your lover, when your car is nowhere to be found.
In next month’s post, we’ll look at one particular trope in this contemporary set of how-to’s: the (almost always male) buddy.
– BRANDON BROWN
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.
 Actually, for some, the passage to Troy was quite fraught, especially for Agamemnon (who ritually sacrifices his own daughter in order to aid and abet his colonial aspirations abroad.) But it doesn’t seem to have been especially troublesome for Odysseus to get to Troy from Ithaca.
 The site of ancient Ithaca is in dispute, but returning there should not have been more arduous for Odysseus than any other returning Hellene.
 Many stoner films begin in the morning of what turns out to be a very long day. Like the “long twentieth century” of Giovanni Arrighi, we might refer to the “long day of stoner comedies.”
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