A typical teenager from Middle America finds herself lost far from home, accompanied by her faithful dog and a few oddball friends.
They leave behind the marked road, attracted to the sight and smell of a field of flowers — unaware that they are about to fall into a dastardly trap.
“Poppies,” the villain cackles from the dark side of the moon, “Poppies will put them to sleep.”
You don’t need to be burning a Camberwell Carrot to realize we’re talking about “The Wizard of Oz.” The infamous “poppy scene” long has been interpreted as one of the first film depictions of the effects of drug use.
So, does that make “The Wizard of Oz” — a children’s classic with Munchiekins … err, Munchkins … trees that get angry when you pick their fruit, and those nightmare-inducing flying monkeys — the first stoner flick?
It’s enough to make even Bill & Ted realize that strange things are afoot at the Circle K.
There are, of course, different varietals of stoner films. “Oz” falls into a category with those seen through an entirely different lens when the audience is zonked, wiped out, potted or lit.
Attention must be paid, meanwhile, to the earliest of these films — a 1936 movie so ramrod straight it has become the trippiest unintentional high-comedy for generations of college students … right from the opening scroll:
“Marihuana is that drug … a violent narcotic … an unspeakable scourge … The Real Public Enemy Number One! Its first effect is sudden violent, uncontrollable laughter. Then come dangerous hallucinations — space expands, time slows down, almost stands still …
“Fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances — followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions — leading finally to acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity.”
“Reefer Madness” featured marauding marijuana-infused teenagers committing unspeakable crimes and LISTENING TO JAZZ MUSIC.
When the mores of the culture, counter- and otherwise, began to take that long, strange trip, the movies went along for the ride — on a pair of tricked-out motorcycles in search of America.
“You mean marijuana?” asks good-doobie ACLU lawyer George Hanson in 1969’s “Easy Rider” upon seeing his first joint. “Lord have mercy, is that what that is?”
Jack Nicholson, who portrayed George, later said that he, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda torched 155 joints while filming the famed campfire scene — during which their collective buzz leads to introspection about the hopelessness of their search for an existential truth.
“Easy Rider,” while filled with drug use, is a different take on the stoner ethos — a meditation on the road ahead, where pot is just one toke over the line.
Perhaps the next film that should be considered a landmark for rolling marijuana into the lives of its protagonists featured a character said to be “stoned since the third grade.” By the time he’d reached high school, Jeff Spicoli was ordering pizza delivered to his history class.
“Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing,” asks Mr. Hand, a teacher who would have fit easily into “Reefer Madness.”
Spicoli, the stoner savant of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” answers, “Learnin’ about Cuba … having some food.”
If George Hanson identified the question of where life was taking him, and Jeff Spicoli was lost in the haze of trying to avoid the answer, then the epitome of a stoner hero abiding by where that road has led him can be found in the laid-back duende of another Jeff — one who doesn’t surf, but lives to bowl, drive around and have the occasional acid flashback.
Just don’t pee on The Dude’s rug.
“The Big Lebowski” shares with “Easy Rider” and “Fast Times” the confidence that these characters and their journeys would exist even without the presence of marijuana. They might have no particular place to go, but they’ll get there.
Which leads us, inevitably, to Cheech & Chong.
The perpetually buzzed duo are on the Mount Rushmore of stoner classics. “Up in Smoke,” the first of their films, is the Acapulco Gold standard — with the boys on a road trip to Mexico aboard a van composed entirely of the strong-as-steel “fiberweed.”
“How am I driving, man?”
“I think we’re parked.”
The entire film is a master’s class in ganja rap — even when a Maui Wowie-Labrador Retriever blend is the best joint they can find at the moment.
The influence of Cheech & Chong is evident in the subsequent wave of contemporary films that put marijuana center stage. Whereas “Easy Rider” and “Fast Times” found marijuana in the fabric of the lives of characters looking for meaning, newer stoner films present pot as the driving force of the search.
“Pineapple Express,” the first stoner film to gross $100 million at the box office, sends a pot dealer and his nerdy client on the run from various types who want to get their hands on the titular blend that can make you “feel like a slice of butter … melting on top of a big ol’ pile of flapjacks.”
“This is like if that Blue Oyster (stuff) met that Afghan Kush I had — and they had a baby,” says James Franco’s Saul. “And then, meanwhile, that crazy Northern Light stuff I had and the Super Red Espresso Snowflake met and had a baby. And by some miracle, those two babies met and (had a baby) — this would be the stuff that they birthed.”
“Pineapple Express,” the marijuana MacGuffin, is a staple — the magical high. From fiberweed and the dog-feces strains in the Cheech & Chong films; to the mixture in “How High” that contains the ashes of a dead classmate; to “Withnail & I’s” Camberwell Carrot rolled into a dozen papers; to the bong in “Half-Baked” composed of an avocado, an ice pick and a snorkel, the search for magical high sends heroes and villains outside of their reality — even if the plots remain razor-thin.
Such is the case in “Dude, Where’s My Car?” If anything, the heroes of “Dude” are even less-equipped to deal with the real world than in the other films — as when they snap out of a bender to figure out where all that pudding came from, while dealing with equally challenged aliens searching for the mysterious Continuum Transfunctioner.
You could say the entire scenario leaves them dazed and confused … if it weren’t for “Dazed and Confused” — wherein one character believes George Washington was a pot-grower who was part of an alien cult and another is so burnt that he’s just “walkin’ down the hall, by myself, smokin’ a jay with 50 elves.”
“Dazed and Confused” is a direct descendant of “Fast Times,” high school students seeking one last mega-party before exploring the great unknown. Unlike the “Fast Times” crew, the near-adults in “Dazed” are decidedly focused on the here-and-now.
“If we are all gonna die anyway,” Cynthia says, “shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.”
That’s the kind of stoner logic that permeates the current evolution of the genre. Every so often a Lester Burnham or Grady Tripp will fire one up as their life decays in “American Beauty” and “Wonder Boys,” but the strength and conscience of movies focused on alcohol or hard drugs hasn’t found a home in films that focus on marijuana.
When presented in “Dude, Where’s My Car?” with the fate of the universe being in his hands, Jesse makes a succinct calculation: “Screw the universe.”
The exploration of an “Easy Rider” has given way to the more commercially profitable quick jokes and an attitude of “Who gives a —.” Today’s stoner films give ticket buyers something to laugh at while they chug Raisinets.
“What kind of hippie am I?” asks a dealer in “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.” “Man, I’m a business hippie, I understand the concept of supply and demand.”
Hey, no one ever went broke by knowing their audience.