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Story of a Junkie

Troma // R // July 27, 2004
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 26, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Perhaps you've seen him somewhere and just can't remember his name. The face is about an enigmatic as they come: classic Roman features topped by a greasy dyed matt of slicked back blond hair, pirate-style patch covering his right eye and cigarette dangling from an ever-present smirk. He played a resident of the Chelsea Hotel in Sid and Nancy (he offers a reporter some inside information on the notorious couple in return for a couple of bucks for "cab fare"). He was also featured in Born to Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie. In this documentary about the life and death of New York Dolls' guitarist and infamous heroin addict Johnny Thunders, he had a memorable onstage brawl with the drug-addled axe man. Or maybe you've never really noticed him and could frankly care less who he is or was. To you, John Spacely is just another loser, a human being throwing their life away by indulging in the most shameless of self-satisfactions: drug abuse. The minute you learn he's a card-carrying member of the Riders of the White Horse, you're thoughts turn to how selfish and stupid he is, how addiction is for the weak and lazy. You now no longer wish to know anything about him, his life, or how he ended up strung out in New York City.

Instead, you sneer down your self-righteous nose and blame him (and his kind) for all the problems of the world. Maybe it would help you to learn a little about who John Spacely is. Perhaps your perceptions will change when you learn what drove him to drugs and what he has to do on a daily basis to survive. One thing's for sure, the minute you see the horrifying docudrama Story of a Junkie, you will think twice about ever attempting to use drugs. This film is as successful a PSA warning about the terrors of dependency that you will probably ever see. It makes the Hollywood glamorization of such struggling souls that much more laughable.

The DVD:
In the seedy side of New York, in and around the Lower East side, drugs are an every day way of life. If you're not shooting or snorting them, you're selling or supplying them. Existence revolves around the 'cop", the procurement of narcotics, and all issues influence this reality. From where you'll get the money to buy, to what you'll do once you've made the score, the life of a junkie is a vicious cycle of fix and withdrawal, with the ever-present need for more capital and even more dope - the disgraceful coal that fuels this endless rotation. Gringo (John Spacely) is a refugee from the 60s, a draft-dodging Haight-Ashbury bohemian who followed the curve in the culture all the way to the punk rock movement in NYC in the mid 70s. Filled with a past bursting with problems, he uses hardcore narcotics to chase away the demons. Only problem is, they create several sprites of their own, evil beings bent on destroying everything Gringo knows. As he aimlessly wanders the streets of Manhattan, bumming cigarettes and dreaming up ways to hustle cash, the downward spiral toward a kind of social oblivion continues unabated. We realize where this strung out soul will probably wind up (either jail...or dead) and watching him fulfill his doped up destiny is as scary as it is sad.

Story of a Junkie (originally filmed under the title Gringo) is about as close to pure European neo-realism as an American movie is ever likely to get. It is also a stunning example of the cinema vérité style of filmmaking, the capturing of events as they happen without concern about continuity or performance. Part documentary, part confessional, this occasionally brilliant but always brave movie is an incredibly searing indictment on the use and abuse of drugs. Whereas Tinsel Town tripe likes to romanticize the ritualistic intake of mind and or mood altering substances as a photogenic character flaw, Story of a Junkie tells it like it really is. Never once white washing or trivializing the life of a heroin addict, director Lech Kowalski (famous for helming the punk rock doc D.O.A.) and his cast of real life drug users draw us directly into the warped urban war zone where the vast majority of pusher and partakers exist. Never cringing from the sights, the sounds, the smells and the surreality of the real drug culture, the desperation is palpable and the danger, predominant. From how fixes are "cut" to the hierarchy in a shooting gallery, you'll be hard pressed to find another film that tackles this terrible subject with more authenticity. It is drug abuse as slasher film, a frightening, sometime funny and often fatalistic representation of people living a life with a maniacal monkey on their back.

Addiction is indeed a nightmare; a constant craving that is only quelled by the continued use of body-destroying chemicals. After a good while of use, the rest of the system starts to shut down; appetite disappears, the digestive system starts eating the muscles for fuel, and the brain begins to swell and smudge as memory and motor skills evaporate. Before long, a kind of zombie-like vegetation takes over, blank eyes staring off into an unknown universe of helplessness and despair. Eventually, the only need being experienced or answered is the desire for more dope. And as another snort goes up the nose, another wisp of smoke travels down the pipe and into battered lungs, or yet another vein collapses as a filth-encrusted needle searches for a pathway, the spirit finally dies. All that is left is a living landfill, a walking factory of poisons and partial functionality just waiting for the final failsafe device to malfunction. When it does, and the O.D. work whistle has blown its carrion call, karma has two choices as to what to do with the remains. It can let them finally rest in peace, no more to experience the pain of withdrawal or the torment of trying to cop. Or it can be mean and vengeful and release one back into the land of the barely alive, destined to start the precarious process all over again. This is the main message of Story of a Junkie, the dead-end trip and the repugnant road one must walk to live in the grip of drugs.

There are some words of warning that one must endure before heading into this harrowing and banefully bleak world of pimps, whores, pushers and panhandlers. Story of a Junkie is very, VERY graphic in it's depictions of drug use. We see dozens of scenes where individuals are shooting up: some skin pop, others mainline. Then there are those who've crafted a literal science out of the art of injecting smack. Gringo is one such example of this kind of professional needle jockey. As his hand or arm bleeds from a previously stuck wound, he is tying off another vein, infusing the blood with dope and visa versa, and slowly manipulating the plunger (called "booting" in the lingo) so that a little heroin goes in, a little blood fills the chamber. He pumps again. A little more drugs depart. Raw red hemoglobin follows in behind it. This goes on for many agonizing minutes and it is difficult to watch. Then director Kowalski even stages a kind of hypodermic ballet, as several scenes of Gringo's personal pincushion act are edited together in an ever-increasing set of jump cuts until a crescendo to the sickening is crafted. We are fully witness to the lower depths of life, the 'eating out of garbage cans' style sustenance that passes for food and the filthy living quarters for what is supposed to be home. There is also some violence in this film, but it is mostly "staged" to support the notion of crime being part and parcel of the drug scene. It is not handled in the most realistic of fashions (one gunshot victims looks like a bottle of catsup exploded all over his shirt). Anyone with a weak stomach or an aversion to injection is therefore advised: Story of a Junkie does not shy away from the hardcore pragmatics of addiction.

But there is much more to Story of a Junkie than the capturing of drug use on screen. Lech Kowalski's film is also a brilliant example of outsider cinema. One of the most amazing things he does here is simply let the participants speak for themselves. Instead of scripting some cliché filled claptrap about the perils of popping, Kowalski lets his cast of real-life junkies tell their own tales. Some of the stories are sobering (the upper crust gals from the suburbs discussing what they would and would NOT do for a fix) while a man who claims to love cocaine seems barely able to formulate full sentences, his brain is so fried from over-indulgence. The occasional ancillary figure will come along to explain some of the intricacies of the industry and the cult of copping, but for the most part, all we get are snippets of sadness, sound bites baring the essence of this existence of the street. If anything, the movie really belongs to John "Gringo" Spacely. We get several manic, moving monologues from this authentic character, and his rambling remembrances of things past give Story of a Junkie its heft and weight. We learn about his idyllic childhood, the mother whom he still dotes over, the 'older' prostitute that seduced him (and who he later lived with for over three years) when he was 15 and the woman he married and the miscarriage/abortion that drove him to drugs. In between the crackpot philosophy and real world insights into his beliefs and dreams, John paints the perfect portrait of a man in the clutches of deep psychological hurting. Problem is, he has chosen the completely inappropriate way of dealing with his dilemmas.

But this is far more of an inference than an actual sermon from Story of a Junkie. Indeed, this is one movie that never really preaches its "should say NO!' point. It allows images and pictures to do the chatting with the camera sitting back as a passive observer to all the dismay and misery that goes along with dependency. There is no positive side to the situations presented here, no pro-recreational use propositions or – as stated before – cleaned-up Hollywood semi-glorification. Intravenous drug use is shown to be a dirty, disgusting, painful and non-productive reality. And thanks to the ghetto-like quality of the Lower East Side, everything is given that extra element of grit and grime. Some could dismiss this film as being an amateurish exercise in performance and prostelytizing. While it's true that everyone here, except perhaps for Spacely, has the aura of just off the street thespianism to their "acting", the truth is that this is as close to a complete picture of human despair you will ever witness, and when the brain-addled junkie continuously pines for his next glorious fix, even in choppy "line readings" and less than memorable Methodology, you can't help but be moved.

With the futile War on Drugs driving situations and issues like those presented in Story of a Junkie further and further underground and out of the sight of the appalled suburbanite, there is a need for this type of movie now more than ever. In today's rehab to recidivism mindset, all the "colorful" characters in this stark and brutal narrative would merely require some counseling, a trip to a state-sponsored clinic or – more than likely – a "three strikes and your out" expedition to the Big House to make their message more palatable. It's impossible for us non-addicts to understand the struggles and the will to survive (if only for the next score) of the person hopelessly obsessed with using. But for some reason, we are no longer a society that accepts brutal honesty. Everything needs to be sugarcoated with a small fraction of hope inserted to keep us feeling safe and secure. Frankly, the plain truth is all that Story of a Junkie has to offer. Without its integrity, its desire to get to the very heart of this corrupt cosmos, all we'd have is a carnival sideshow, a scandalous showcase of pure exploitation. But because of the tales it tells and the people who tell them, Story of a Junkie transcends its trappings to become a work of astounding power.

The Video:
Sadly, one of the shortcomings of this otherwise sensational DVD presentation from Troma is the less than stellar transfer. Story of a Junkie could not have been an expensive movie to make and the film stock elements used for the print sure look cheap. The image has a dark, muddy quality and certain scenes are so underlit as to be oblivious to the camera. Some of this does add an element of mystery and danger (according to the commentary track, many of these moody choices were made on purpose), but when we really want to see what is going on, atmosphere and tone should take a backseat. Through the lack of saturated color and crisp contrasts, Story of a Junkie looks as disgusting and depressing in its 1.33:1 full screen presentation as the film's content.

The Audio:
Amazingly, the aural aspects of Story of a Junkie are quite good. Though the dialogue and conversations between the individuals can sometimes de-evolve into a cacophony of sonic chaos and distortion, the use of a late 70s – early 80s rap and quasi-electronica soundtrack (reminiscent of Suicide) really fills the channels of the Dolby Digital Stereo. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" has never sounded so sharp or sinister than on this excellent DVD mix.

The Extras:
Troma treats this treasure properly by offering two items crucial to understanding the context of this movie and its making. First up is a 10-minute interview with producer Ann Barish. Helmed by Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman, this Q&A addresses some of the pitfalls and fear that went into creating the film. While Barish is rather guarded and prosaic, she definitely comes alive when a recovering addict confronts her and Kaufman on the street. This bystander, living one clean day at a time, has some very fascinating things to say about drug dependency and getting straight.

Even better here is the full-length audio commentary by director Lech Kowalski (along with an unannounced individual who occasionally chimes in). Animated and filled with information, he really explains a great deal of the movie. He hung out with Spacely for three months prior to filming, hoping to understand the nuances (and nastiness) of living a horrible, homeless life. From discovering dead bodies while wandering around the "sets" to meeting up with one of the most dangerous drug addicts on the streets, the incidents that occurred while making the film were as harrowing as the footage shot. Kowalski strove for abject realism throughout the shoot and tells several stories of how dangerous that notion could become. He has a lot of good things to say about Spacely and laments that he couldn't do more to "help" him. But perhaps the most interesting tidbit is the information that Matt Dillon, then an up and coming star, made a cameo (as a shadow) to gain a little street credibility to his career (how being an unidentifiable silhouette did this is anyone's guess). Personable, engaging and filled with an amazing amount of data, Kowalski creates a spectacular narrative about guerilla filmmaking. This is one of the best alternate audio tracks ever.

The rest of the material here is basic Tromatic merchandising. There's some trailers, a music video, ads for movie-related products and a strange Featurette about an ex-Troma employee named Adam Jahnke. Apparently pissed about some incident that happened with interns at Sundance, this weird interview is typical of Troma's 'catch as catch can' approach to DVD packaging.

Final Thoughts:
John Spacely finally got his life together. He kicked dope, straightened out his life, moved back to California and pursued a career as an actor. It looked like his days as an addict were finally behind him. Then one day, his past caught up with him in a way that seemed singularly unfair but all too apropos. After years of sticking needles in his arm and sharing them with others in dirty shooting galleries, it was only a matter of time before HIV and AIDS reared its redolent head. Indeed, John had contracted the horrible illness and it slowly killed him. After finally battling his demons and surviving the Hell of addiction, there was still a final facet to dependency that conspired to destroy his life. Story of a Junkie is a movie that doesn't necessarily celebrate or chastise the way in which John Spacely lived. After all, it was he who was dodging all the bullets and taking all the chances (and consequences). It is up to us to decide whether he made something of his brief time on this planet, or if he merely wasted it with daily injections of self-delusion. Lech Kowalski has crafted a singular vision of New York City as a dying giant, a lumbering ghoul waiting for the rebirth that would come just a few years later. But more importantly, he has created the final word on the use of drugs. So take your Requiem for a Dreams and Trainspottings. This is the real world of what drug abuse looks like. And it's no glittering prize.

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