Getting lit at the movies
(Author’s Note: This piece originally was commissioned at the Boston Globe. They killed it at the last minute.)
I saw James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” in IMAX, sitting in a folding chair (don’t ask), eating contraband roast pork buns, and feeling blissed out on a 10 mg edible. Arguably, being stoned is the only way to see an “Avatar” movie.
In my experience, watching a movie high grants the pleasure of toggling back and forth between spaced-out immersion in a film and hyper-awareness of its many flaws and oddities. In the case of Cameron’s sequel to his 2009 blockbuster, I was attuned to its redundant and thin characterizations OF Sam Worthington’s human and former hired gun-in-Na’vi-body protagonist Jake, his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their family; the shallow depiction of the Na’vi AS A PEOPLE with history and tradition, and completely unhinged racial politics. Watching big blue people on a gargantuan screen while on a substance amplified both my sensory experience of the movie and my sensitivity to its insensitivity or dubious racial politics. “Wait,” I found myself wondering, the gooey center of the pork bun unable to distract me, “are these white people basically in Indigenous-face?”
Had I seen the movie sober, I would have only paid attention to the movies’ shortcomings. At least on an edible, with its power to make your thoughts and feelings race, I could also submit myself to Cameron’s arduously constructed world, PANDORA, with its photo realistic water, blossoming foliage, and intricately cultivated visual details. “The Way of Water” is a screensaver movie, a deep blue sea backdrop to zone out to, and therefore perfect for an edible arrangement.
This state of submission to the movies is something that, as a film lover and writer, I’m always seeking. And while I’m perfectly capable of finding that feeling without the aid of a narcotic, weed allows me to to be more aware of artifice and presentation and more alert in noticing certain motifs or ideas. It also makes me feel more. And wasn’t it titan of film criticism Andrew Sarris who saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” after smoking a joint and felt the film had unlocked itself to him?
The recent theatrical re-release of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) gave me an opportunity to revisit a movie I’ve long felt lukewarm about and not only reevaluate it, but lose myself to it. Watching it in placeTK, the flying fight choreography no longer seemed kind of silly to me as it did when I was an adolescent who didn’t consume a ton of wuxia cinema; now it seemed transportative, elegiac, its roots in Buddhist thought more plain to me. As Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi glided atop bamboo trees, I could feel the soft air swirling around them, one more sensory detail to lose myself to. “Crouching Tiger” became a tactile experience.
I didn’t start taking marijuana with any kind of regularity until the COVID-19 lockdown when I had little to do and a dwindling attention span. The crazy chocolate bars I would get from my service had the effect of basically forcing me to stop multitasking and start paying attention to whatever I was watching, like discarding my phone, even if it meant tumbling down a bizarre cinematic rabbit hole.
It was on one of these (25 mg, by accident) trips that I revisited the 2004 adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” directed by Joel Schumacher. The general consensus about the film version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s smash-hit musical is that it’s . . . not very good. There’s a cheesiness that doesn’t quite translate, and it’s either too gay or not gay enough, depending on whom you ask. (If you’re asking me, it is not gay enough.) But surrounded by junk food and blazed out of my mind, “The Phantom of the Opera” betrayed its brilliance to me. Its cheesiness is bold and brash; it has a gaudy sense of the theatrical; and every musical sequence swings for the fences in a visual style — lots of slow motion movement through incredibly gaudy sets — that shouldn’t make sense for a period musical, but somehow does here. In my drug-fueled haze, “Phantom” spoke its truth to me: It’s a movie obsessed with how melodrama has become an integral part of popular storytelling throughout history, especially as a primary form of spectacle in 1980s music videos. And what is “Phantom” if not a weird hodgepodge of ’80s rock, showtunes, and crossover opera? It is spectacle in its tackiest form.
My “Phantom” viewing is one I’m certain I wouldn’t have experienced in quite the same way without the benefit of an edible. If anything, that particular example is instructive in how weed has become a tool in my critical arsenal. My personal relationship with marijuana over the years has evolved dramatically — I used to be extremely prudish about it — but I don’t mind admitting that it has become a compelling additive to my filmgoing practices.
Over a recent weekend, I saw “Titanic” in 3D, and it was the first time I’d seen this James Cameron film in theaters. I was acutely keyed into the actors’ performances — and on some deeper level or plane of perception, I understood the crucial difference between a great actor and a great movie star. Leonardo DiCaprio’s line readings as Jack Dawson throughout the film aren’t especially convincing in conventional terms; they don’t have a ton of dynamism or nuance. His whole monologue about “being involved” when Kate is about to (not) jump belies a slight amateurishness. And yet, there’s something ineffably gigantic about him, a glowing impish quality that, especially if you’re watching him under the influence, makes it easy to fall in love with him. He shimmers off the screen, his light so powerful you hope some of that fairy dust lands on you.
Weed fuels my hunger for more — more feeling, more ideas, more hedonism, more snacks. While AT HOME watching Warren Beatty’s 1981 historical drama “Reds,” about American journalist and Communist John Reed’s involvement in the October Revolution, I felt compelled to make myself a pan pizza. Nothing says revolution like a spicy tomato sauce and a crunchy crust! HAHA
I don’t see every movie stoned, and I’ve made the mistake of seeing movies high that really are not fun to see that way (I don’t recommend watching “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” stoned!), but the practice has enhanced my appreciation of particular works and helped me connect the dots between certain galaxy-brain concepts. (The 2003 romantic comedy “Down with Love,” starring Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger, is a prophecy of our Girlboss Era of Corporate Feminism!) It has also aided me in allowing my emotions take over. I’ve spent much of my life intellectualizing entertainment — letting go just a little so a movie can wash over me is a nice change of pace.