Monday, January 24, 2011

"How High:" A Close Reading

Ever since Nick finished hooking his TV to his PC, we've had access to a broader selection of entertainment. Typically we were restrained to cable TV, which in practice meant a lot of Man vs. Food reruns and terrible long-dead sitcoms. Not only does Nick love That 70s Show, he's also partial to According to Jim. It was horrific. Anyway, we've taken advantage of this new set-up to have a couple late-night How High viewings. I've referenced this movie many times and talked about it at length once in this post, which on second reading I like a lot. My friend Drew once referenced "Casey's Razor" at work and I wanted to marry him as long as we didn't bang (I prefer blondes). You notice something new every time you watch How High, but these viewings occasioned a major revelation. I'd like to share it with you. "But Tony, I haven't seen that movie! The Comcast Guide gives it one star!" Well, then obviously you've learned nothing in all the goddamned writing I've done for I Drop Things (nearly 100k words!) and you're not gonna start learning now. C'MON WIT' IT!

First, I propose we examine this film not as a low-budget stoner comedy with "urban" pull, but as a work of philosophical fiction akin to Voltaire's "Candide" or that other they made us read in Winter IHUM. To begin with, this explains the truly lousy storytelling that permeates How High. The film takes what might be generously described as a casual approach to plot, characterization and continuity. Characters and plotlines enter and exit the story with a dreamlike serendipity not replicated until 2010's Avatar. Director Jesse Dylan is clearly unconcerned with the story itself; that story serves his philosophical ends.

What is that philosophy? I propose we view the film as a critique of capitalism, seen through the lens of a world where only marijuana (hereafter referred to as weed, pot, and bud) has value. To begin with, currency of any kind is largely absent. The primary characters never purchase anything, and what external objects they acquire are stolen. There are some references to money, but only in context-appropriate circumstances when interacting with outsiders. Silas (Method Man) accepts money for weed, but never buys any. When asked by the hookers, "Y'all gonna pay us, right?" Silas and Jamal state "We got dough, and if not our best friends got dough, and if not THEY best friends dot dough." They deflect the question, and never produce any cash of their own. Even when the hookers are banging Jeffrey and Tuan (the roommates), no money is exchanged on-camera.

By contrast, pot is pure value. The only cash we see exchanged is for pot. Silas goes to Harvard in order to further his pot-growing career, and Jamal ostenibly goes to appease his mother. But what's behind that? He doesn't care about her opinion or education; he just wants her off his back. All he really wants is to sustain his lifestyle, which consists of one thing: smoking pot. The character of Ivory is entirely worthless in life; he can't do anything right, he has his "Mark of Buddha," and he can't get a girl. He acquires value posthumously, and only after Silas uses his ashes to fertilize the "Ivory" pot plant. Silas and Jamal are only able to ace the THC exam and get into Harvard because they're smoking Ivory. Once there, they are able to stay in school and pass only because they're smoking Ivory. Once they lose the plant, they proceed to fail miserably and only Silas's truth-serum strain of weed saves him. Dean Cain becomes temporarily cool (adding value) because he ingests pot brownies. Finally, when Silas and Jamal make a desperate attempt to see the ghost of John Adams by smoking tissue from his exhumed body. It doesn't work; since they're not smoking weed, nothing works and no value is added.

Next, we examine the core characters: Silas and Jamal. The story is theirs; they cannot be separated from its telling. I propose we view them through this lens: in a world where only marijuana has value, Silas is defined by the creation of pot and Jamal by its consumption. They meet because Silas has lost his rolling papers, and Jamal has lost his weed. The first words they exchange define them in the film's larger context. Silas: "Got Blunt?" Jamal: "Got weed?" Silas, the producer, lacks only the blunt--a tool for consumption. Jamal, the consumer, has a blunt but needs weed--the resource only Silas can provide. No marijuana is smoked in the whole movie--and they smoke a LOT--that didn't come from Silas.

The two hammer home their identities when they introduce themselves to Bart. Silas: "Silas, entrepo-negro." Jamal: "I'm Jamal. A pothead." Silas explicitly characterizes himself as a producer in the business sense, and Jamal's one word to describe his motivations is accurate. Jamal joins the crew team to stick it to Bart, but he can only maintain the effort necessary to persist by smoking pot--as seen in the scene where he's pulling on a joint while on the rowing machine, or the scene where Silas uses a combination of a joint and Rammstein's "Du Hast" to wake him for early-morning crew practice. At one point, Volunteer Officer Picklestein steals the Ivory plant and both Silas and Jamal begin to flunk out of Harvard. They can't succeed without their magic weed. Jamal eventually flunks out (though he's set for life by virtue of his relationship with Jamie), but Silas is saved because of his ability to produce weed--rather than merely consume it. His truth serum weed enables him to pass Botany, though it's unclear whether the work ethic he developed in desperation will stick. Or maybe with Dean Cain gone, it's moot. Remember, the plot is ridiculous.

How, then, to regard the character of I Need Money? His name is the film's most explicit reference to actual currency. He's a caricature of the degenerate consumer; barely a character at all. In fact, I Need Money is best viewed as a manifestation of Jamal's Id. He behaves like an imaginary character, speaking only in mimery. Additionally, he's able to enter and leave scenes more or less at will, and has agency only as an extension of Jamal's will. Thus, a projection of the Id: I Need Money represents Jamal's most primal desires, which is why he compulsively steals. As Jamal himself says of their meeting, "He wrote down, 'I Need Money.' I said, 'shit, me too.' And we started makin' it together!" I Need Money's pure desire (Id) interfaces with Jamal's practical approach to life (Ego), and the combination is effective. It's why he destroys Officer Picklestein's bicycle. He's is the part of Jamal that most literally, primally NEEDS. In the real world, he needs money. In the framework of the film, where money has no value, he needs weed.

Mr. Dylan's ultimate aim is to highlight the vulnerability of the common man in times of economic turmoil. Though the film was released in 2001, it eerily presaged the "Great Recession" beginning in 2008 after the end of the housing bubble. When the demand spigot was shut off--when the Ivory was stolen--both producer and consumer were thrown into crisis. But the two had wholly different tools at their disposal. When Jamal ran out of Ivory, it became impossible for him to pass his classes; he was like an unemployed worker. Silas, on the other hand, is an ardent capitalist: though an avid consumer, his capacity to produce lets him metabolize what assets he had remaining. He finishes his truth serum and comes out on top--and I haven't been paying much attention, but I hear Wall Street is doing okay for themselves at the moment. Like Silas, they always will.

Which isn't to say that Silas is a negative figure, or that the film is even anti-capitalist. Silas is the hero of the movie; he's more likable and intelligent than the oafish Jamal. When hard times come, Silas doesn't cast Jamal to the wolves. He merely takes care of himself, accomplishing things Jamal doesn't. Jamal turns out all right because he happens to have Jamie and this is a Hollywood comedy. But what separates Silas from Jamal is precisely the capacity to produce. So what Mr. Dylan is proposing is essentially a small-scale fix to the Great Recession: a culture of personal entrepreneurship, finding ways to create value even in the absence of structure. This is the other side of unemployment: had I not been laid off from EA and dumped by my girlfriend and cast out of the apartment we shared, I wouldn't have started this blog. I wouldn't have tried to write a book proposal, or picked up the extra freelance work that makes my weird lifestyle function. Life isn't that simple, of course, which is why we need the sorts of complex allegories laid out by Messrs. Voltaire and Dylan.

Thanks ever for reading.

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