Let us sing a few words in praise of the stoner, for the stoner is the last of the American heroes. From the streets of Los Angeles to the streets of New Jersey, the stoners have traveled this great nation, and in those adventures we ride passenger with them into the heart of the American dream.
We should agree at the start the stoner is indeed a hero. Movies are populated with characters, stock characters and clichés. We may encounter jocks, or nerds, or preppies. Sometimes they share the same screen with our stoner, but that is only circumstance. Though the stoner may walk among them, she is not of them.
No. The stoner is something bigger. The stoner stands high above those schoolyard peers. The stoner may inhabit, thrive even, in an ensemble cast, but the stoner carries films. The stoner is versatile. The stoner endures. The stoner comedy genre has turned thirty, some might say forty, years old, yet has not tired out. In fact, the stoner comedy has spent the last baker’s dozen years living a second golden age, ever since the annus mirabilis of 1998 that brought life to both Big Lebowski and Half Baked. When is the half-life of American movie genres ever so long? The stoner evolves. The stoner survives. The stoner abides.
Better to call the stoner an icon. Through perseverance and positive attitude, the stoner has through the decades risen from the earthly confines of stock character to the theoretical structuralism of Type, or what the Joseph Campbell kids (that is, screenwriters) would call Archetype. Today, the stoner appears in many places, in many forms. The stoner is larger than life. The stoner is Myth.
We love America for her myths. Her myths stick because there were only ever a few.
The enduring mythical figures born from American cinema (and let’s not be too generous: when we’re talking about America, we’re talking about movies) form a pantheon that can be counted on fingers: the self-made millionaire, the outlaw, the detective, the cowboy.
Especially the cowboy. In the cowboy America found her idealized self, a conviction that has grown more ingrained as the cowboy film has matured from B-movie entertainment to high art. Self-identification with the cowboy spirit has even become prerequisite to presidential aspirations.
And maybe here is where we pause to make that important clarification: the stoner, she is a fictional beast. Just as the cowboy of film and the cowboy of the flesh would find no common cause, so must we emphasize that the stoner is a child of that single parent the movies. Real-life counterparts may do quite convincing imitations, but the true stoner lives in two places only: cinema, and our hearts.
Myths make sense of our universe. They draw meaning from the values they impart. We see ourselves inside them and we identify Our peak mythical figures—the Citizens Kane, the Sam Spades, the Bonnies and Clydes—all exhibit core characteristics that Americans claim fiercely as their own: individualism and a distrust of authority. Their moral compass is never the legal one. Rather, they follow an internal barometer. They are either antagonistic to the law, or they are above the law, or they are the law.
Does not our stoner embody all of these values and more? Primary to the stoner’s character is the desire to just be left alone; this in others we call self-reliance. The stoner overcomes challenges, obstacles, and lack of ready smoking implements. This we call resourcefulness, but it is more than that. It’s a quotidian expression of America’s entrepreneurial MacGyver spirit abstracted from its usual affiliation with profit. The stoner’s discomfort with authority needs little discussion; it is, as it is with many American films, a primary mover of the plot.
Still, the stoner exceeds all other types in her elevation of the most libertarian strain of American values: Live and let live. The stoner’s relentless pursuit of pleasure is a less materialistic spin on the Protestant ethic from the Benjamin Franklin era: to do good by doing well. If the stoner is honest and true in pursuit of getting high, all will be well. The stoner always maintains her integrity. Hence, we have stoner comedies; there are no stoner tragedies.
The stoner is an American hero as much as the cowboy, but the cowboy was a hero of the past. What makes the stoner’s heroism more urgent and contemporary?
There is the stoner’s role in the recent history of cinema to consider. The stoner first flourished at a time of great realignment in Hollywood, a period of transition over the sixties and seventies that settled into the blockbuster system that still dominates. During the heyday of this realignment, Hollywood equated authority and anti-authority with culture and counter-culture, and the image that resulted was so romantic they never could quite give it up. That’s your stoner right there. The stoner movie is the Hollywood movie. The stoner is the most direct apologist for the patented Hollywood Weltanschauung. The stoner is Hollywood’s spokesperson.
It has been claimed that stoner movies are more racially diverse than most studio fare. While this may be true, it is not exactly the point. Stoner movies are honestly observant and celebratory of America’s cultural diversity, not just racial diversity, without pushing identity to the fore at the expense of individuality. This is not to imply that other films ignore the many cultures of America; their genres just do not allow it. Stoner movies are truer to the America we live in today.
Though adaptable and ever changing, the stoner is heroic in her resistance to trends. We now see around us a culture that values only two currencies: fame and money. But the stoner has interest in neither. When we see the disastrous effects of the pursuit of wealth and recognition, should we not consider whether the stoner’s pursuit of pleasure is the better path? We should embrace the stoner as a role model, our alternative to a bereft value system. When the stoner was born in the tumult of mid-century, the imminent threat was conformity. Now conformity has been slain, but she must rise to the challenge of greater dangers.
Of course, there is a more practical reason why the stoner is the hero we need today, and the only hope we have of a hero for tomorrow. Though an ideal, the stoner is the most attainable. We citizens may never get the chance to make a million dollars, rob a bank, or sheriff a frontier town. But we can always get high.
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Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.