Last year, the New York Times reported that a new heroin epidemic was raging in New York City. Evidence indicated a dramatic surge in sales and seizures around the five boroughs, and the numbers were higher than they had been in over 20 years. As the Big Apple has been long known as a cultural and economic epicenter for the heroin trade in the mid-to-late 20th century, it seemed like a recycling of headlines past. Arielle Holmes, a 19-year-old junkie who was sleeping rough on the streets of the Upper West Side, could be said to have been one small part of that ongoing and unwanted revival.
After a chance encounter with independent filmmaking brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (Daddy Longlegs), Holmes became an artistic collaborator with the twosome. And now she serves as the source author and lead actress of this month’s release of the Safdies’ Heaven Knows What—a film based on her experiences. An immersive, rough-hewn depiction of heroin-addicted street kids and the relationships Harley (Holmes) encounters within the community, the film elicits memories of Jerry Schatzberg’s gritty 1971 feature The Panic in Needle Park, but Heaven takes place on the more admittedly tidy streets of contemporary Manhattan.
For filmmakers like the Safdie brothers, and many who came before them, dealing with a social-issue-cum-subculture creates potential concerns of representation. How does one take an ethical approach to a subject like heroin reliance without dull moral certitudes or didacticism? There are, of course, interpretations and formal displays of drug-centric narratives as varied as there are experiences of addiction. Some filmmakers fall into pseudo-documentary realism of the grim sort, as with Nil by Mouth or Alan Clarke’s Christine. Others, like Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), adopt a stylistic sleight-of-hand and embellish the more surreal and psychotropic effects of substance abuse.
For artists and filmmakers, heroin use has always laid claim to a certain bohemian pedigree. From the 19th-century opium den to the Harlem jazz club, the drug has remained an emblem for the marginalized. The fascination was culturally bronzed by what might be one of the first famous odes to addiction—Thomas De Quincey’s floridly-titled 18th century novel Confessions of an English Opium Eater. A tattered history of artistic relevance and rock star casualties followed, making the drug such an ample progenitor of clichés that its cinematic representation has been equally dogged by it. The specter of so-called ‘heroin chic’ is evoked by many films of the 90s, but rarely is the depiction unequivocally glamorous.
From Vincent Vega’s casual use in Pulp Fiction to the darkly funny squalor of Trainspotting, some of the pop culture cornerstones of the decade featured scenes of ironic, hip, and wonderfully soundtracked drug abuse. But neither film shies from the ugliness at hand, and both offer audaciously unpreachy views of addiction. Many independent directors of the nineties also found themselves handling the subject matter, from Gus Van Sant in his dreamlike My Own Private Idaho to Abel Ferrara, no stranger to addiction himself. Ferrara wrote his New-York-set Bad Lieutenant with the help of model and screenwriter Zoe Lund, who herself died of an overdose in 1999. Even Leonardo DiCaprio, the teen heartthrob of the decade, had his turn as an aspiring athlete who ruins his career in 1995’s unnerving The Basketball Diaries. These are disparate visions, to be sure, but all display the troubled interior struggle of their junkie protagonists; they attempt to understand the attractions of the drug and the psychology it generates in its users.
Many of these films share certain visual elements—a fetishistic interest in the rituals of shooting up, hazy listlessness that lends itself to lost time via narrative ellipses, and a contrast between moments of thrill and despondency. There are certain traditionally dramatic scenes, too—for instance, the woozy pleasure of initiation, going ‘cold turkey’, or the horror of overdose, typically. Nonetheless, it’d be difficult to say that these movies belong to any kind of sub-genre so much as particular eras. And, more importantly, moments.
A fascination with heroin was widespread in the media at the time, aided and abetted by increasingly alarming headlines — including the drug-related death of River Phoenix in 1993. Given that heroin abuse has once again been on the rise across the U.S. since the mid-2000s, it may be that Heaven Knows What will become part of something more widespread in the cinematic landscape. And, above all, its unflinching authenticity is its most striking quality. A concurrent revival of the nineties obsession with the junkie might not be a desired trend, but for as long as heroin ravages cities and lives, writers like Arielle Holmes will seek to share their stories. If cinema can reflect the experiences of intravenous drug users, it is a necessary tool in shedding light on a stigmatized group. As the Safdie brothers know well, as the characters in Heaven Knows What stumble around everyday New Yorkers ostensibly ignored, it’s a world too often hidden in plain sight. What one requires is a drug detox before it’s too late.
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