In Gus Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy we witness Matt Dillon as a troubled young junky, holding up pharmacies to feed his habit. I am a fan of Van Sant, particularly his later, more minimal work, but there is something wonderful that happens in Drugstore Cowboy that doesn’t occur in his more unconventional films.
Toward the end, we meet the character who aids Dillon’s to turn against the lifestyle he has been following, and helps to give him the strength he needs to straighten out, before he is ultimately killed at the hands of a previous minor character. It is this final incident that gives the narrative its moral message and completes the tragedy of this young man’s life, but, strangely, we no longer care for the ‘characters’ in this ‘story’. Our belief in the narrative has been shattered by the arrival of the ‘Priest’, played by William S. Burroughs.
As soon as Burroughs, a real life junky and notorious author, appears on the screen, the illusion of the movie is irreparably fractured. The power of this iconoclast’s presence immediately removes the suspension of disbelief essential to our enjoyment of such artificial narratives. We can only enjoy films because for the short duration of our immersion in them we allow ourselves to believe in them. How else could we watch some of the more outlandish fantasies on offer without constantly saying ‘but that’s impossible’? William Burroughs is such a(n) (in)famous cult figure (the world’s most famous queer junky) that it becomes impossible to see anyone else in the film as other than what they are, actors playing roles. The whole carefully constructed artifice built in the previous hour or so tumbles violently to reveal cameras, actors, stage sets: the naked truth. Matt Dillon, when he puts his arm around Burroughs’ shoulder, is nothing more than a star struck actor aware he is in the presence of a man with a talent greater than his, and his hope that by association with Burroughs his status has been raised is clearly visible.
Hollywood spends millions on convincing us of unconvincing stories. How could we believe the handsome, privileged Dillon, could possibly persuade us he is a poor, desperate drug addict? Members of the Hollywood set are ordinary people, and many do have their troubles, their addictions and perversions, yet we still want to believe they are superior to us. Like the ancient Greeks and their pantheon of gods we place them on a pedestal and, again like the ancient Greeks, we are aware of our gods inadequacies and we love nothing more than to watch them fail and fall. Witness the cult of celebrity that surrounds Hollywood and the huge media industry which follows the ‘stars’ in every aspect of their degenerate and salacious lives.
Gus Van Sant cuts through all this (not necessarily intentionally) simply by placing William Burroughs, a real life iconic junky, in front of a camera in a Hollywood film about junkies. This single act of nihilistic anarchism destroys in a moment the whole edifice of falsity that cinema rests on, ripping to shreds the rules composed over a century of filmmaking. The history of modernity in the twentieth century, of which cinema played a significant role, told us that it is from moments of negation such as this that new art forms can emerge, fresh ideas from the debris of the old. In Drugstore Cowboy Gus Van Sant takes a step away from familiar and classical linear cinema, towards the elliptical, minimal, more avant garde and esoteric style of his later works.