Dirk’s Five – High Faces

Dom-Dirk expressed surprise at the selection of TRAFFIC for my list. It was a conversation by text (its the only sober form of conversation that we have, and even that is questionable) so it only amounted to a brief exchange of words. He suggested that OUT OF SIGHT (1998) was a more worthy representation of Steven Soderbergh.

There was a fashion for Elmore Leonard adaptations in the mid-nineties and this was the first of many fruitful collaborations between the director and the actor George Clooney. It is an efficiently produced film, extremely entertaining in an old-fashioned way and has Soderbergh’s usual generosity towards his characters. However, I stand by my decision to include TRAFFIC as I think it represents something interesting in the movement of Hollywood cinema and provokes interesting reflections on the so-called drugs war.

That said, there is a significant weakness in the film when it comes to the depiction of drug-taking.  The whole episode with Michael Douglas’ daughter getting caught up in a sudden escalation from weed to crack to heroin is a bit torturous, but its not helped by a couple of flakey scenes. The high-flying kids who want to fly-high have an unconvincing habit. They seem to indulge in taking drugs in that manner that people who don’t really smoke; puff at a cigarette and blow it out quickly. Erika Jane Christensen rolls her eyes, flicks her head and looks a bit sweaty like a low-rent Ophelia: Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, thanks to a pile of sherbet dap up her hooter.

Being drunk brings its difficulties, being high seems to up the ante for actors trying to give a convincing performance. In the early days it was inhibited by the censors taking a dim view of any portrayal that endorsed drug-taking by making it look pleasurable. If you look at the Wikipedia entry ‘Drugs on Film’ there is a plethora of examples, however there are fewer that actually feature characters getting high.

These are some of the best examples of drug-induced gurning according to Dirk:



Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION (1994) – This film caused a problem for the film censors as it broke new ground in the depiction of drugs and drug taking. The close up of a syringe becoming cloudy with blood in particular was a scene they felt uncomfortable about. Drugs and drug culture is handled as part of the daily fabric and rituals of the characters and is integral to the plot. Uma Thurman’s adrenaline resurrection is rightly celebrated but my pick is John Travolta: He has one of the best high-faces in cinema, because it is understated. No eye-rolling, because it looks like he has no eyes: whoosy, slightly out of joint from what’s happening around him and a secret, inner smile.


Renton in TRAINSPOTTING (1996) – I have a problem with this film, that I’ll share when I have more space, but there is no doubt that this is one of the most imaginative depictions of taking a hit in cinema history. The visit to the Mother Superior results in Ewan Mcgregor slipping into the carpet and into an intense reverie to such an extent that it is possible to appreciate why they put themselves through the all the hassle of the habit in the first place.

Frankie Machine in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955) – This was the first film to take illicit drugs seriously. It is most famous nowadays for its remarkable titles and poster art by Saul Bass, but it is worth revisiting (the full film is available on You Tube if you look in the right places). Otto Preminger treats the subject of addiction with conviction and integrity that he manages to draw an utterly convincing performance from Frank Sinatra. He gets his arm filled with Jazz trumpets and O’l Blue Eyes don’t need to wobble, they just stare out with a burning intensity.

Turner in PERFORMANCE (1968) – Mick Jagger in the first and best of his screen performances as a reclusive former-rock star who as lost his ‘demon’. He uses magic mushrooms to unlock the secrets of James Fox with a crazy psychedelic, kaleidoscope of sex in mucky water. Nic Roeg uses Jagger’s ‘interesting’ face to brilliant effect. (Selected by Dom Dirk).



Jip in HUMAN TRAFFIC (1999) – The 90s produced an explosion in druggy culture. While some of us were experimenting with reassuringly expensive lager others were off their tits on surprisingly cheap pills. This film is set in the Cardiff club scene and feels like a cash-in, among its crimes is launching the ‘career’ of cartoon misogynist Danny Dyer. John Simm’s drug face is more eye-swiveling than the most dyed-in-the-wool home-county Tory. In a week where he has insulted Dr Who fans (don’t worry, they seem very forgiving) he wins Dirk’s Daft Drug Face Award. His ‘sex-face’ is exactly the same, apparently.

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