The James Clayton Column: Abandon Limitless drug crazed abandon!

In the wake of Limitless and its IQ-boosting wonder drug, James looks back at the uneasy relationship between controlled substances and the movies…

Remember, kids, stay away from drugs. If your hep cat beatnik friends ever ask you to try one of those fancy cigarettes, daddio, just say no. When they cajole you say “no!” again and add an exclamation mark for emphasis.

When they call you a square, say “No!” again and visualise it in a big comic book speech bubble that smothers the devil juju smoke clouds spewing out the magic dragon they’re puffing. You don’t need friends like that anyway. If you get lonely, just draw a smiley face on a volleyball and talk to that.

Alternatively, why not take action like the proactive pal you are and take them to the pictures, so they can fill their head with bright spark ideas and some good ol’ clean common sense. Show them the edifying reel that is Reefer Madness and they’ll see that they’ll get nowhere in life with illicit substances.

Sadly, it’s likely that the hysterical melodrama of a 30s PSA will only make them laugh and fail to persuade them to forego ‘drug crazed abandon’. The stoners of later generations who revived Reefer Madness as a cult flick certainly didn’t heed its warnings about the drug menace and the consequent horrors the tagline declaimed: “Sin! Degradation! Vice! Insanity!”

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You can only really take the shock doc as a wack, unintentionally comic relic, which is why we’re fortunate to have so many other films outlining the actual devastating impact of drugs. Browse around the cinematic scenery a bit and soon you’ll be stumbling over screen depictions of villainous pushers, dumb deadbeats and desperate addicts.

Time is of the essence, so I won’t list an exhaustive filmography of drug-themed features. It may also be the case that your wayward friends end up encouraged to form Tony Montana drug baron dreams after watching movies that ‘glamourise’ the gangster lifestyle, rather than going straight edge. Gangsta rappers regard Scarface as the ‘living large’ textbook and they’re backed up by an armed entourage of ghetto soldiers, so I won’t diss their interpretation.

Instead, I’ll just recommend Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream as required viewing. A chronicle of addiction across three seasons, culminating symbolically in ‘fall’, it’s an unsettling thing to sit through and offers disturbed viewers an unambiguous portrait of spiralling descent brought about by drug abuse.

Once upon a time, a local policeman came into my school’s morning assembly to tell the innocent children about a boy who sniffed glue and ended up with rock hard bogeys. I got the message, but I’m concerned that it wasn’t strong enough to scare my glue-nosed classmates who, for all I know, could be stuck in hell (literally). If they’d treated the kids to a screening of Requiem For A Dream instead, none of them would have grown up to become acid eaters, speed freaks or crackheads. Future amphetamine overdoses averted and dope slinger dreams killed off, they’d be mortified, but would have learned the lesson.

Regardless, I decided that I’d like to be a writer, but that brought in doubt. I’d absorbed the warnings from movies and school lectures about monster snot, bad trips and brain damage. In reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, though, I had a life-changing cultural experience that made me question my straight edge ethos.

If drugs are so awful, how come they fuelled this absolute masterpiece of a book? Similarly, in a range of cultural texts, from Aldous Huxley passing through the Doors of Perception to rock musicians transcending boundaries to reach sublime sonic heights, artists have repeatedly gone under the influence and created magic. Should I really be so rigid in my ‘no daddio!’ stance?

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Extra confusion comes if I try and craft a drug policy off the back of the recently released Limitless. The main character, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), is a writer and, true to type, he’s got chronic writer’s block and the unkempt hair thing that authors are required to have in films (see also The Shining and Barton Fink).

The creative breakthrough comes when he starts popping NZT-48 pills and discovers that the secret new drug unlocks the subconscious and allows full access to memory. With brain functioning at optimum, Eddie finds incredible new motivation, his eyes sparkle bright blue and he achieves instant metamorphosis from slacker garbage to winning genius.

Suddenly, Morra is a super smart, stylish charmer with a completed novel and limitless possibilities, thanks to the exceptional abilities NZT offers. He applies his accentuated mind power to the stock market and next thing he’s hanging around with Robert De Niro.

Eddie’s got to avoid sinister criminal types and has a few fuzzy memory lapses but, for the most part, NZT’s a wonder drug without nasty side effects. Quitting the pills brings a massive decline in health, but as long as you’ve got a supply, and sustain yourself, you’ll be fine. In fact, you’ll be more than fine. You’ll have unlimited power and will be able to achieve anything, all with a shiny blue sparkle in your eye.

It’s a stark contrast to the visceral brutality and crippling bleakness of Requiem For A Dream. Passive acceptance of Limitless as a ‘drug habit bible’ produces a value system that looks like this: Do the right drugs and your mind will open and your life will be improved, becoming one of self-fulfilment and unlimited potential.

What easily swayed audiences jonesing for a fix need to realise, though, is that Eddie’s NZT is a rare, primo commodity that’s been carefully tuned in a lab, unlike common drugs. You will never be able to access those miracle mind pills, because they are fictional. These superpowers are only the preserve of a select few and, to be honest, these special people don’t have much in the way of a real life anyway, what with them being figments of silver screen imagination and all.

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I leave you with a warning and urge you, in the timeless words of Reefer Madness, to “tell your children!” The only drugs that are good for you are fictional drugs, and trying to score made up highs is a frustrating endeavour. Simultaneously, real drugs have a bad or, indeed, lethal impact upon your health and only serve to enrich dealers, smuggling conspiracies and war criminals.

What’s more, Eddie Morra ultimately becomes a bland businessman who spends his time talking numbers with Wall Street hacks. No thanks. I’ll stay clean and remain a deadbeat writer with unkempt hair and naturally brown eyes. (They sparkle without the aid of illicit substances.)

James’ previous column can be found here.

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