4/20: That time of year where stoners around the world celebrate with bong hits and brownies. As marijuana slowly begins to get de-criminalized we’re seeing it go from being a “gateway” drug to a recreational drug. So let’s take a look at how film has portrayed marijuana over the past few decades.
Of course we’re going to start with the film that scared people in the mid 30’s and by the 60’s was a punchline of sensationalism. Reefer Madness was produced by a church group with the intent of being a tool to warn parents about the “dangers” of cannabis use. A few years later it was purchased by an exploitation filmmaker and peddled across the country. Ever since it’s been a cult film for it’s unintentional humor, atrocious acting, and melodramatic story. It’s hard to imagine people thinking of this film as reality, but they also thought cigarettes were good for your digestion back then.
-Counterculture and Comedy-
The times they were a changing. Towards the end of the 60’s we began to see films that portrayed the more realistic and humorous side of the drug use. With the release of Easy Rider a door was opened that couldn’t be ignored. From interactions with communal hippies to backwater rednecks we see two men (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) navigate what was left of the anti-establishment movement. It was an interesting, somber, and beautiful film that struck a nerve with critics and audiences. About a decade later stand-up duo Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made their cinematic debut with Up in Smoke. It was here that the birth of the stoner comedy took place. Earning over 44 million dollars at the box office people embraced this humor that would get replicated/knocked-off for years to come.
-Just Another Character-
Through the 80’s and 90’s many films started to contain mostly side characters and occasionally leads who were marijuana users. 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High may have been an ensemble comedy, but the breakout character was Jeff Spicoli portrayed by Sean Penn. While he was a character in a subplot he proved to be so popular with the studio that Spicoli is front and center on the film’s poster. Through the 90’s we got films like Dazed and Confused, most of Kevin Smith’s filmography, Friday, and Half Baked continuing the trend of characters who were frequent smokers. But it was the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski that gave us a major protagonist who was a stoner. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) after getting his rug peed on gets pulled into a comedic film noir. The funny thing, he’s not even an active character in his own story. The Dude goes from beat to beat just because the side characters force him deeper into plot.
-Active Stoner Characters-
Now we’re in the 2000’s and with that stoner characters began to actually be active in their own stories. Pineapple Express took two characters (Seth Rogen and James Franco) and made them progress the plot. They had to figure out who was chasing after them and how to get out of dodge. In the third act we see these two actually fight for their survival. In 2012 came the release of the horror/comedy The Cabin in the Woods. Writer/director Drew Goddard took the conventions of the average horror film and turned them on their head. Most notable was seeing Marty (Fran Kranz) the stoner of the film becoming the hero. Horror films traditionally make the stoner fodder for the killer, but this one made his habit an ace in the hole. He and his trusty bong fight through the rest of the film to protect his friend (Kristen Connolly) and uncover what the hell is going on.
So as you can see marijuana’s portrayal in film has come a long way. We feared it, we begrudgingly accepted it, we laughed at it, and now it’s kind of there. As usual, what are your thoughts? Do you think it’s fine that weed has become so common in film? Who’s your favorite stoner character?