There are words and phrases that you think you have a true understanding of, but you don’t. And I would submit that one of those phrases is “gritty urban realism.” You might think you know all about it because you’ve read some books, or seen some films, that were gritty, urban, and realistic. But you don’t have any clue what “gritty urban realism” means unless or until you see Lech Kowalski’s “Story of a Junkie.” Then you become an expert on the subject in my book. And isn’t that what you’re absolutely dying to be?
No? Well, who asked you, anyway? Oh yeah. I did. Time to get this circular imaginary conversation out of the way and move into the review phase of this — uhhmmmm — review, which is, I guess, sort of where I started, before I got sidetracked by — myself. “Story of a Junkie,” Christ — I sound like a junkie right about now.
Let’s get one thing straight right from the outset : “Story of a Junkie” is NOT a documentary. It’s far too realistic to be.
Shot in 1984 on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side (a.k.a. “Alphabet City”), this film follows the life of Gringo, a desperate heroin addict, and those in his immediate orbit. Gringo is portrayed by John Spacely, who is not an actor. He’s a real-life junkie. The stories he relates to the camera are not scripted, they’re real. The supporting cast are also real junkies, and the activities they undertake — scoring, shooting up, the whole works — are not staged, they’re real.
But I repeat, this is NOT a documentary film.
Oh, sure — the movie’s director, Lech Kowalski, is best known for punk rock documentaries like “D.O.A.,” “Born To Lose” and “Hey! Is Dee Dee Home?,” but “Story of a Junkie” is more like cinema verite, in that it combines actual interviews and footage of actual drug addicts with re-enactments of stories from Spacely’s life, not unlike what you find on all the true crime shows that litter the cable TV lineup, with the crucial difference here being that these re-enacted scenes do not feature (semi-) professional actors, but real Lower East Siders involved in the drug culture.
As such, it’s much more immediate, visceral, and powerful than any straight-ahead documentary could possibly be.
To be sure, the film has no “plot” per se, it’s entirely ad-libbed. And again, all the scenes depicted are real, as are the people and the locations. When a room full of junkies are shown injecting themselves in a shooting gallery, that’s EXACTLY what’s happening — a room full of junkies are injecting themselves in a shooting gallery. But when a dealer is gunned down in the streets, it’s obviously not a real murder that’s being filmed — but the raw and unvarnished nature of the film’s surroundings certainly gives it the air of absolute authenticity.
So “Story of a Junkie” isn’t just a REPRESENTATION of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s, it’s a RECORD of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s. Even if it’s not a documentary. Which is the last I’ll say about that, I promise.
Forget “Trainspotting” — Kowalski’s film is, without question, the most jaw-dropping, gut-punching, absolutely spot-on account of the addicted life ever committed to film, because it IS the addicted life committed to film.
Some of the shit that comes from Spacely’s mouth will have you hitting the rewind button just to make sure you heard it right. He talks about how he was raised by a normal, loving family in Southern California, but lost his way in life when his steady girlfriend was hit by a truck and killed. She was pregnant once, and when she miscarried he threw the fetus in the trash because it was “nothing but a big period anyway.” He lost his eye in a fight with some drag queens. After another fight, he had to have a large slice of meat amputated from his body, When the doctors wouldn’t give it back to him, he stole it and snuck out of the hospital. He’s a nonviolent anarchist who years for another war in order to “awaken the consciousness of the youth.”
In short, he’s a mass of contradictions, but I don’t know what else you’d really expect from a guy in his condition.
There’s no comfortable distance between viewer and subject in this film. You’re plunged headfirst into Gringo’s world and there’s no “narrative” per se to follow — you’re as lost as he is. To the extent that any sort of linear “storytelling” is involved here, it comes pretty late in the game : through a set of circumstances typical, I’m sure, to junkie life, Gringo is separated from his beloved skateboard, and at the very end he gets it back. That’s about as close to a “storyline” as you’re going to find here. Mostly we just follow Gringo around, with plenty of interview asides with those he comes into contact with or even just people who happen to be around.
Given that this part of New York has now been gentrified beyond all recognition (along with, sadly, Times Square and other former shitholes), this flick is truly a historical record, not just of a time that no longer exists, but of a place that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t either.
“Story of a Junkie” took some time to cobble into shape once all the footage was shot, and played some festival screenings and the like before finally getting picked up for proper (albeit limited) release by Troma, of all people, in 1987, and along with the similarly (mostly) harrowingly realistic “Combat Shock,” it remains one of the absolute best films ever to go out under their moniker. They’ve put out a great DVD release for it featuring a digitally remastered (but still appropriately grungy) print presented in full-frame, a terrific commentary track by Kowalski (this film is actually even more interesting with the commentary on than without), an interview with executive producer Ann Barish (wife of the founder of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain) that’s genuinely both interesting and informative, and the usual Troma-centric extras including and introduction from Lloyd Kaufman and a Kaufman-directed music video for the death metal band Entombed.
Plenty of films (most notably the aforementioned “Trainspotting”) show you what a junkie’s life is LIKE — this one shows you what a junkie’s life IS. Not to be missed under any circumstances.
John Spacely died of AIDS at some point in the early 90s. The times, the places, the people depicted here are all gone. But heroin’s still around, and still doing ( in concert with its evil twin, the “War on Drugs”) exactly what it did to the people in this film. The problem’s moved from the inner city shooting galleries to suburban schools and bedrooms. Everyone seems to be resting easier with it safely out of sight, but the fact that it’s now largely out of mind, too — well, that’s something that ought to concern us all. The locales and the people involved may have changed, but the problem remains, and whether viewed as cautionary tale, historical record, or some combination of both, “Story of a Junkie” is the most no-bullshit account of it you’re ever going to come across. Even if it’s still not a documentary.
Whoops, I said I wouldn’t bring that up again, didn’t I?