Friday, February 22, 2008


Blow poster"Either one of you guys speak Spanish?" asks Johnny Depp's character, George Jung, near the beginning of Ted Demme's Blow. He and his friends have started up a smallscale drug-dealing operation, and they realize it's time to step up a gear, and so also go to the source. Which is necessarily to go to Latin America. So the next scene sees them South of the Border, in Puerto Vallarta, asking around all the bars and shops: "¿A cómo el marijuana?" "¿Dónde está pot?" "¿El weed?" To deal drugs efficiently and effectively, you have to become at least a little bit Latin.

And such is Jung's trajectory: at first his language skills are abysmal, and he is clearly a fish out of water when trying to negotiate with the locals. But drug runners soon learn how to blend in: how else do they make their way past customs and airport security barriers? A stand-out sequence shows Jung walking through a baggage hall in what is almost a trance, trying to keep calm by fixing his mind on other things: "a fun party, a moment of triumph, a sexual encounter." But there's always some revealing detail that indicates that the mule is not any other ordinary passenger; here, the fact that Jung has gone down to Colombia just for the day, and that his hollow-bottomed suitcase contains a random assortment of clothes, including a pair of women's underwear.

As Jung climbs the narcotraffic hierarchy, his Spanish improves and he even takes on a Latina wife. He becomes increasingly estranged from his all-American Massachusetts upbringing, and not merely because of the massive amounts of cash that he suddenly has to spend. This is a story about the distance that opens up between parents and children: the breach that separates George from his mother and father has much to do with his social and geographic mobility. (Ironically, by contrast he subsequently loses touch with his own daughter thanks to his own later immobility, as federal inmate number 19225004 doing time as a consequence of his border-breaching career.) At the same time, he also becomes increasingly flamboyant. What's the point of pulling in millions of ill-gotten dollars if you don't get a bigger house, a new car, loud clothes? This is the paradox of the drug trade: it's about both blending in and standing out.

The drug trade is in some ways capitalism at its purest: flows of an eminently disposable commodity criss-cross with tidal waves of cash, in both directions in defiance of any attempts at bureaucratic regulation or taxation. Indeed, the film opens with a depiction of the near-seamless chain of production, distribution, and consumption from coca harvest in Colombia to trans-Caribbean plane flight to guys doing a line in Miami. Latin America has the comparative advantage of millennia cultivating the raw product; North America has an almost limitless market for the finished goods. The laws of supply and demand dictate that nothing will get in the way of the transnational trade.

Blow still
But the film also portrays the cultural effects of these hemispheric exchanges. Jung claims essentially to have introduced the cocaine habit to the United States, implanting it first in California among the Hollywood set, from which it then spread irresistibly Eastwards. "It exploded on the American culture like an atomic bomb," we're told. The movie neglects to show the victims of this bomb. Indeed, practically the only victim is George himself, it seems, a smart businessman and loving father who is caught only with his final delivery, whose profits are destined to giving his child a better life. But it emphasizes the massive cultural changes that affect the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, transformations irredeemably connected to the fact that the country is awash with Latin stimulants and narcotics.

In the course of the United States' drug-driven metamorphosis, this movie suggests, it also becomes more cosmopolitan and more colourful, if not necessarily any happier. Blow ends with an image of painful nostalgia, of Jung the prisoner imagining that his now grown-up daughter might visit him in prison. But she doesn't and she won't. With the war on drugs, new enclosures have sprung up as the USA becomes the one of the world's most incarcerated societies. But again, the emphasis is on the barriers between generations: national cultural differences disappear, Americans become Latin which Latins are infused with the American spirit of pioneer capitalism, but implicitly the price to be paid is an unbridgeable chasm between past and present, old and young.

YouTube Link: movie trailer.

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