Human Traffic and more
John Simm, Lorraine Pilkington, Shaun Parkes, Nicola Reynolds, Danny Dyer, Dean Davies, Carl Cox, Howard Marks
(Miramax; US theatrical: 2 May 2000 (General release); UK theatrical: 2 Jun 1999 (General release); 1999)
Ten years after its release, Human Traffic can be viewed as an autopsy of the Ecstasy Generation that came of age at the turn of the millennium. While the story, the characters, and the atmosphere explored by writer/director Justin Kerrigan focused directly on the British clubbing subculture, the film, as it did a decade ago, has a wider almost anthropological resonance because it taps into many of the tangible common denominators—along with the more intangible overall vibe—that unified the global rave subculture.
Human Traffic puts up on screen the music, the DJs, the dancefloors, and the drugs, all cultural signifiers that a party kid on the American side of the Atlantic could easily recognize and identify with as he or she stepped into the parallel community and lifestyle of the British club kid on the other side of the ocean. Despite the idiosyncrasies of the British take on raving (which, much like British punk, provides further insight into British culture at large) Americans, Asians, and Continental Europeans saw themselves within the onscreen wreckage portrayed in Human Traffic. This was important, especially on the American side of the Atlantic, because despite the underground subculture eventually going mainstream in a global way—everywhere but seemingly America, that is—at one time this was a subculture of opposition.
Kerrigan’s characters clearly play to the cultural dissidence that was such an integral psychological component for the many members of this global underground. As the six main characters partake in their pre-club ritual before “going off to never-never land with [their] chosen family”, they sit around a table having a pint, taking turns denouncing Hanson and the Spice Girls, and other elements of atrociously grotesque popular culture, as “cheese on toast bollocks”, all the while reaffirming their own peculiar, but shared, cultural ideology. It was an us-against-them attitude that drew them closer to one another as an organic unit, collectively stimulated by empathy-inducing drugs and bound together by a love for spiritually affirming music. Witnessing this on screen in America was a reaffirming, if not eerily familiar, experience. While the rest of the ever-provincial U.S. maybe didn’t get it, it was okay because the rest of the world apparently did. This undoubtedly fueled the fire of the American rave subculture, so much so that Human Traffic was necessary viewing for any party kid and became one of the subculture’s few cult films.
The film’s strength and its reason for maintaining relevance clearly resides in its role as a subcultural text. Aesthetically, the film has not aged all that well. A decade ago it meshed gracefully with other British Cinema, such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) or Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1999). Human Traffic utilizes similar off-beat techniques like the twisted use of voice over narration, fast-panning cameras, in your face soundtracks, and bitingly satirical monologues. But other than a few wickedly inventive scenes, such the fast-food eatery which has breakdancers working behind the counter using their robotic motions to simulate the life of a fast-food employee (which also eerily anticipates McDonald’s transparent use of hip-hop as a marketing tool today), Human Traffic doesn’t have an aesthetic leg to stand on next to some of the other great cinema that came out of Britain at this time.
And perhaps more disappointing than the film’s partial failure to stand the test of time is how the music within the film, such as Fatboy Slim, Death in Vegas, Carl Cox, and Armand Van Helden, is so utterly irrelevant today. Inadvertently, this points to a larger problem within the club/rave subculture—the inability for any of its music to last. With DJs constantly trying to stay ahead of an ever shortening curve, the growing accessibility of electronic music production equipment, and the ready-made dissemination network of the internet which caused an explosion in the availability of music, the turnover of music within this scene boggled the mind from the beginning. As a result, despite music being the binding thread of both the wider subculture and the individual crews as portrayed in Human Traffic, there was a wider lack of any sort of universal soundtrack or canon that ravers/clubbers could return to for ideological reinforcement as time went on. Sadly, the trance music that propelled this chemical culture elicits chuckles now by those who lost themselves in it a decade ago.
As Human Traffic perfectly conveys, the comedown was always in sight for the children of ecstasy. They were reminded of it on weekly basis when, at some point, the music would stop, the night would end, the group would disband. What the film doesn’t show, but only hints at, is that eventually, one by one, each member of the crew would drop out of the scene for good until what was an elite partying unit of cultural guerillas became nothing more than a broken family. Nevertheless, a decade after its release, Human Traffic is even more important than it was in 1999 because it serves as potent reminder to so many of their cherished Ecstasy Honeymoon. Louis J. Battaglia
David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson
(Sony Pictures; US theatrical: 4 Jun 1999 (General release); 1999)
Independent filmmaker John Sayles is well known for depicting little-seen communities and the interwoven connections between a large group of unique characters. One of his best films is Limbo, which presents the lives of small-town Alaskans dealing with troubling histories. Unlike Sayles’ more ambitious pictures like Lone Star and Silver City, this story narrows in on just a few major characters. This personal focus creates a subtle charm that remains with you for a long time. Adding a few sharp jabs at developers and shallow tourism, Sayles delivers one of his strongest pictures.
David Straitharn stars as Joe Gastineau, a worn-down fisherman trying to still make peace with a deadly mistake. His life changes with the appearance of nightclub singer Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), who’s struggling to raise her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) and make a living. Performing at weddings and small bars in Alaska, she’s far removed from the showbiz world. Once a rising star himself, Gastineau’s just trying to get by doing odd jobs around town. The local denizens, including “Smilin” Jack Johannson (Kris Kristofferson), remind him of his past and make escape nearly impossible. The burgeoning connection with Donna offers a possible outlet, but this is well beyond the typical Hollywood romance. Sayles complements the story well with music, with Mastrontonio performing classic tunes from Tom Waits and Richard Thompson. Mason Daring’s score builds the right atmosphere to match the beautiful, vicious landscape.
Sayles excels at crafting realistic characters living in an actual community. Few directors take the time to explore the social and economic connections that shape our lives. In past works, he’s presented baseball’s Black Sox scandal (Eight Men Out), union struggles in West Virginia mining country (Matewan), and the difficulties within modern cities (City of Hope), to name a few. Limbo‘s first half introduces us to a wide array of interesting people and promises a certain type of movie. Then Sayles pulls the rug out from under us and shifts to a struggle for survival for the three leads. Avoiding the pratfalls of a typical thriller, he focuses on the growing relationships while danger lurks in the background. It’s a surprisingly sweet venture that builds the tension because we’ve grown attached to Gastineau and the De Angelo women. Framing their time together around a diary discovered by Noelle, he develops a strong bond that differs from the expected formula.
Released in June 1999, Limbo received only minor recognition during awards season amidst the usual strong crop of winter contenders. Some viewers and critics disapproved of its open-ended conclusion, which left them feeling cheated. I believe the ending works perfectly and leaves just the right impression. The story’s key moments occur in the second-last scene, which solidifies the new family and their future. Their final destination doesn’t really matter and wouldn’t create the same impression as Sayles’ choice. As Bruce Springsteen’s “Lift Me Up” plays over the credits, we’re left with a sweet, upbeat feeling even while the mystery remains. A forgotten gem within the long-time director’s career, Limbo deserves a second look. Dan Heaton