Truth and Lies
Creighton Vero: Part of this was true.
Jonas Åkerlund: People ask me about that and I always say that, because junkies lie, so we don’t really know if it’s true or not.
Creighton Vero: That’s partially true too.
Speaking on his commentary track for Columbia’s new DVD, screenwriter Will (or William, as he insists) De Los Santos calls Spun a “love story.” He notes right off that his ex-girlfriend and inspiration has still not seen it. “The screenplay,” he determines, “is like the shadow coming before the sun… It’s a love story of have and have not, loss and courage to turn around and go back.”
This is true, but it’s only partly what’s going on here. The film is packed with insights, terrors, and visual razz-matazz. It’s about loss and longing, desperation and need. Spun is also, De Los Santos offers (as he has been asked the question repeatedly), “an anti-drug movie,” then goes on to insist to his co-commentator, producer Tim Peternel he’s never done methamphetamines, wink wink, and really, he doesn’t know how to cook crank.
As the film’s opening epigraph has it, Spun is “based on the truth and lies.” That seems about right. But it doesn’t matter so much as the commentators (who, on a second track, include director Jonas Åkerlund and co-screenwriter Creighton Vero) suggest it does. The film’s truth is its own, and it is effective and grueling. Boasting that it includes more than 5000 edits, Åkerlund’s feature debut offers glimpses—very fast—into life on speed.
Spun is filtered though the crank-addled exploits of a kid named Ross (Jason Schwartzman), careening from scene to scene and moment to moment, not so much telling a story as conjuring an impossible-to-process experience. According to De Los Santos (who also wrote the novel on which his screenplay, co-written with, is based), Ross is only partly based on his own experience. In his commentary, De Los Santos says of Schwartzman that the plays Ross “very anonymously, very simply. At the end, we still don’t know much about him, except his basic passions of life, which [are] love and hunger, and desire is somewhere in between.” Such insights
Indeed, Ross seems beyond words, at least any that might comprise sentences in a novel. On screen, he speeds about with little concept of who he is or even that he might have effects on anyone else. He grasps at desires that he might imagine having, like the perfect relationship he might have had with an ex-girlfriend, Amy (Charlotte Ayana). During the three days of this movie, He calls her repeatedly, from pay phones and borrowed cells, as if leaving semi-affectionate and wholly incoherent messages (“I’m sorry, I know I fucked up”) will somehow change the facts that he’s an addict and she’s left him wholly deliberately. The only message she leaves for him is a request that he repay the money she lent him.
Ross first appears in mid-buy, hustled into the skuzzy living room of Spider Mike (John Leguizamo) and his jittery, mossy-mouthed girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari). While Spider Mike spazzes about the stash he’s just lost (again—this is a repeated performance), Frisbee (Patrick Fugit) sits in front of the tv, his thumbs frantic on a video game. Twitchy Ross and Nikki (Brittany Murphy, of whom Vero rightly observes, “She dances, sort of clumsily, through the whole thing”) look on, huddled together on the filthy sofa, their eyes popping and their limbs flapping. They can’t quite focus on one another. Ross gushes, “I just want to get off.” They’re jonesing. They’re always jonesing.
Nikki gets a phone call from her boyfriend, the Cook (Mickey Rourke), a.k.a. the local drug manufacturer. She giggles and sighs, the camera close on her still lush lips as she declares her undying love. He’s in a teeny motel room, windows closed, WWE wrestling roaring on the tv. He’s got on goggles and a kerchief tied up over his mouth and nose, as if to keep the meth fumes from penetrating. But it’s a show: the Cook is high as a matter of course. He sweats. He grumbles. He whispers, in that way that, along with his plastic surgery-ed face, has recently become Rourke’s signature.
Such sketchy behavior is the norm in Spun, which doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Everyone is routinely, even dully, self-absorbed, and the film’s general hyper-presentation—smash cuts, bump-and-zapping time-lapsing, skewed angles—is familiar from the skretchy speedfreak sessions in Requiem for a Dream. (And if you recall those sessions, you also recall their headachy effects.) The Swedish-born Åkerlund, well known for his smart, risky music videos (most infamously, Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” and most recently, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”) has assembled an incredible array of visual effects, all suggesting just how unrepresentable junkiedom must be.
As well, Spun‘s version of junkie ethos, such as it is, recalls previous junkie films, including Panic in Needle Park, Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting, even the Frank Sinatra surprise, The Man With The Golden Arm. One difference here is that there are few moral lessons to de drawn. Ross, perhaps the film’s most egregious asshole, never quite comes to terms with himself or the damage he’s done. He’s even rewarded, after a fashion, by the commendation he receives from darling Nikki, who thinks he’s cute, maybe.
That’s not to say that her opinion counts for much. Ambiguity and anxiety tend to dominate the addicts’ days. When it appears that Spider Mike won’t be locating that missing stash anytime soon, Nikki needs a ride home, to the Cook’s motel room, and so she enlists Ross’ help in getting around, as he has a car, something most folks she knows have long since sold for tweak money. Ross is vaguely impressed by her short shorts, bra-tops, and black-rimmed eyes, but he’s also appropriately nervous about upsetting the Cook. He wears slick cowboy boots and poses like he’ll beat you up so much as look at you.
It’s too bad for Ross that the Cook takes a liking to him, or his car, and calls him frequently during the movie’s three days in order to get him to take Nikki and her green-dyed poochie named Taco to the vet’s, or to take him shopping for meth-making materials and porn vids (the clerk at the video store is leather-vested Rob Halford, one of several “look how cool we are” cameos—Ron Jeremy as a bartender, Billy Corgan [who, with Zwan, also provides much of the film’s score] as a doctor, Debbie Harry as a “lesbian neighbor”). Ross may or may not be pondering this model of masculinity, but then again, it probably doesn’t matter.
Teamed with either Nikki or the Cook, Ross drags himself from high to high, dodging a couple of standard-issue corrupt narcotics cops (Peter Stormare and Alexis Arquette, both of whom, to be fair, inject remarkable malevolence into their performances) and cruising the streets in search of… nothing really. The Cook eventually decides, for his own reasons, to rescue a couple of convenience store clerks—L.A. Sadgirl (Julia Mendoza) and Giggles (Elisa Bocanegra), apparently named in homage to Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca—from the macho-strutting Angel (Nicholas Gonzalez).
The Cook’s exertion against “Mr. Señor el fucking Camino” is brutal—and meaningless. He beats and kicks him on the floor, gets the now-all-smiles girls to give him some Kools, and whoosh, he’s on his way. By now, 30 minutes or so into the film, the whole brutality-as-sign-of-apathy-and-decay is pretty much done. (And just why he’d rescue the film’s only of-color characters with lines is a question as well. In his commentary, Will de los Santos observes, on first seeing these girls at Spider Mike’s front door, “Next time Latinos are in my movie, I promise they will be a more prominent figure in the story. I felt bad about that after I reflected on it”). The girls think their white knight is grand, and lob a few well-chosen insults at the now-downed aggressor. Not exactly girl power. And really, for Ross, it’s all good, ‘cause he’s just scored.
Perhaps the most effectual wrench the film tosses into its own works is April (Chloe Hunter), a stripper and Ross’ sometimes sex partner, whom he ties up to his bed during the first day. (“These strip clubs are disgusting,” Observes Åkerlund when the film first takes us inside April’s place of employment. “I hate them.”) When the Cook calls, Ross is outta there, leaving April naked and spread-eagled, duct tape over her mouth and eyes, and a louder than loud cd playing on skip, so no one will heard her muffled screams (save for the “lesbian neighbor,” and you can guess what happens regarding this threeway). A couple of times during his adventures, Ross either comes by or calls (“I’m sorry. Just look, baby please, don’t be mad. Please don’t yell”), only to leave April as she is, terrified and furious.
The spectacle of April’s plight, in a most bizarre and disturbing way, grounds Spun. Where the other scenes manage a kind of spastic energy, despite or because of the bad teeth, bowel movements, and pimply faces the camera scrutinizes so assiduously, April’s captivity is just plain ugly—still, loud, and unnerving. Ross, for all his “cute” look and his amiable affect, is just like all the other self-indulgent and perpetually frightened liars who wander through the film. It’s a snapshot of a culture that, aside from its speed, rather resembles the broader one that, almost without fail, condemns it.
In providing such a weird and awful foundation (and, as De Los Santos says, in “real life,” the tweak-inspired, -enhanced, -driven situation “is a lot more dark than this”), April (the idea of her tied up and panicked) also generates disturbing other angles from which to view the film. It is, like most addict movies, a story of consumption and abuse, consumer culture and the industries that ferment it. And to this end, the commentaries are perhaps appropriately cryptic. De Los Santos, who talks very fast and has loads of stories to tell, observes of the movies (and his arguments with some folks on this set), “It’s not about the money… It’s really about the consideration that you must obtain to make another creation, hopefully of art and of word that’s important at the end of the day.”
Though the “uncensored director’s cut” includes extra sex scenes (some animated) and the DVD offers brief “deleted scenes” (with titles like “Trashed” or “Porn shop”), Åkerlund’s own commentary is surprisingly non-technical, considering his well-deserved reputation as a visual innovator. He does recall, early on, “We never did any rehearsals, we never met before the shoot… My technique was, I have all these great actors; the most important thing was to have them in character.” They are definitely that.
But the look of this film is so utterly crucial to conveying their chaotic, aching, frenzied lives. Still, it’s as if Åkerlund just doesn’t think to talk about mechanics. Consider that, when a terrific shot of powder zooming up a rolled dollar bill into Ross’ nose, he and Vero are distracted by a discussion of their first choice for Rourke’s viewing pleasure, golf, not wrestling. But they were somehow unable to secure golf tapes, so they went with wrestling tapes, lent to them by the Insane Clown Posse. “For free,” Åkerlund says. “They were very supportive.”