Consider yourself warned: Justin Kerrigan’s Human Traffic is one of three new rave movies opening in the States in short succession, to be followed by Greg Harrison’s Groove and Jon Reiss’s Better Living Through Circuitry. Kerrigan’s is the British one (and it’s already available on video in the U.K.). Set in Cardiff, Wales, where it’s equally drudgy to be on a McJob or on the dole, and the weekend looks like salvation anew every time it comes around, Human Traffic is fast-cut and fueled by an dynamically pounding dance soundtrack (produced by DJ Pete Tong, and featuring Fatboy Slim, Lucid, Universal, Mulder, Quake, Felix Da Housecat, et. al.), wide-angle lensing and slow motion to indicate emotional intensity and drug-effects. Happy to be here, the film offers a glimpse of the life led by its five protagonists, as they await, prepare for, and cherish their Friday and Saturday nights.
Each of the five is introduced by a brief get-to-know-me moment, narrated by Jip (John Simm, of BBC’s The Lakes), who tells you a bit about himself first off, namely, that he works at a jeans store and worries over his “Mr. Floppy,” which hasn’t been in service for some time. Jip then goes on to tell you about his friends: there’s his “best of best mates” Koop (Shaun Parkes), an enthusiastic DJ, who’s working for the time being at an underground record store where he must humor his none-too-bright customers by playing the latest hiphop tracks (“That shit is real, man!”); Koop’s girlfriend Nina (Nicola Reynolds), who quits her fast food job and so inspires her friends to celebrate; Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington), Jip’s favorite clubbing partner, on whom he develops a sincere crush over the weekend, but who, at the start, is feeling like an “asshole magnet”; and Moff (Danny Dyer), a dealer who works out of his mum’s house and during his off hours, jerks off on his knees in front of a mirror. You can imagine the horror when his mum, arriving at his bedroom door with a snack on a tray, comes on him in mid-wank, but really, she’s not much more surprised by his endeavors than the dad in American Pie.
John Simm, Lorraine Pilkington, Shaun Parkes, Nicola Reynolds, Danny Dyer, Dean Davies, Carl Cox, Howard Marks
US theatrical: 2 May 2000 (General release)
UK theatrical: 2 Jun 1999 (General release)
Human Traffic is, as 26-year-old writer-director Justin Kerrigan has said repeatedly, based on his real life party experiences and those of his mates, which means that the film proceeds by way of episodes. It’s not a narrative per se, more of a travelogue through everyone’s minds, marked off by the hours-and-minutes ticked off to make clear that the weekend is coming and then, inevitably, going. The film makes no moral judgments about its protagonists, their choices, or their wild, recreationally-drugged-up life. Jip, the Kerrigan stand-in, introduces himself by calling out viewers’ complacency: “You lucky lucky people, yeah, you!” (said as he points his finger meaningfully at the camera lens, and don’t you feel busted?). Jip then relates the sad tale of his uncooperative penis, which has him “stressed to the max,” before he gets on with the business of laying out the personalities who will fill up his weekend. He offers a glimpse of his day job at the clothing store (where he’s weary of having to “brown-nose the customers”). Suddenly, he has to wait on one of his previously dissatisfied girlfriends, shopping with her virile-looking current beau, and immediately following, he imagines himself being butt-fucked by his weaselly “mini-fucking Hitler” of a boss. Yes, work can be truly unpleasant.
Jip’s the most “developed” character of the bunch, though this is a comparative observation only. Before his adventures begin and then again on Sunday afternoon, he goes to visit his mum, who works as a prostitute out of her home (there’s a pudgy business suit of a client calling for her from upstairs during Jip’s first visit). While it may be possible to see this scene as explanatory background for Jip’s sexual anxieties, the film makes no such point clearly. Rather, it presents Jip’s Mum as she is, a warm and slightly sad figure who loves her baby and does what she does to get on. Jip is a respectful son who wishes she had another way to make ends meet: “It kills me,” he confides to you, “to see how she gets used.” And yet, he also feels used; his mother’s situation is an extreme version of his own. Their fleeting tete-a-tete in the kitchen focuses on Jip’s efforts to make her feel better about herself, to take better care, and the relationship is left to hover, unexplored and intriguing, as he takes off for his otherworldly weekend.
What ensues probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know: ecstasy makes you chatty, affectionate, and thirsty, dance music is infectious, and young people like adults, but by different means fight boredom with emotional rollercoastering and philosophizing into the wee hours. The characters are charming, the dialogue is clever and the music choices are fine (with guest appearances by celebrity DJs like Carl Cox and Howard Marks). There’s not much attention paid to Moff’s admiration for Travis Bickle or his suicidal contemplations, or, on the other hand, to Nina’s young brother’s introduction to the scene (it’s a cheerful one). Though Koop suffers from some severe paranoia that every boy or man Nina talks to is a rival for her affections, it’s plain that she’s a pip and he has to get over himself.
Refreshing for its admittedly studied lack of affect, Human Traffic offers simple solutions for complex problems, which means that it probably reflects the ways that most people survive their lives. The British rave scene’s celebrated integrations of diverse classes, races, and ages, are visually available here, though not examined in any detail (Koop and Nina are black and white, but unlike a typical U.S. film, this one doesn’t even seem to notice their “interracial” status). The film’s most emphatic interest is in the desire to escape from the diurnal beat down, however transitory, which, Kerrigan’s movie suggests, is “universal.” This escape may come in various forms liquor, movies, video games, drugs, sex, and conversation but for the human traffickers, the feeling of much love offered by partying-dancing-drugging is not only an understandable, but also sensible, response to familiar and unavoidable pressures. And here’s the kicker: for all its formal wittiness and refusal to condemn behaviors that are usually moralized to the max, Human Traffic is a very conventional movie. Falling in love makes all the bad stuff less important.