Thursday, August 09, 2012

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #23--Blow (2001)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

I hope that people will be able to watch and learn from it. I hope kids will. We've all gone through the whole thing of thinking that drugs are just party time. You can sort of live that lie that it is recreational, but it's not. We're trying to hide from something, trying to mask something, trying to numb ourselves from something. Really, getting loaded to that extent is just postponing the inevitable, which is you are going to have to face the demon someday. You're gonna have to look him in the eye and go, "Okay, let's get through this." -- Johnny Depp 

Meet George Jung.
Blow chronicles the life of George Jung (Johnny Depp), a kid from Weymouth, Massachusetts, who wanted to break out of his father's working-class lifestyle. He began by dealing marijuana in California and eventually worked with Pablo Escobar, becoming one of the most wanted drug traffickers during the 1970s and '80s. Between 1977 and 1985, he smuggled 85% of all the cocaine available in the United States. Although in and out of jail and battling addiction and its warning signs, including illnesses and heart attacks, he continued to fall back on the only trade he learned in life: dealing drugs for profit. George Jung amassed $100 million but eventually learned his father's lasting lesson--that money means nothing--when he lost it all, including everything and everyone who mattered to him.

If I think about it too much, I get conflicted about this movie. The main character is a drug dealer, who introduced the majority of the United States' cocaine supply. Yet, by the end of this movie, I was rooting for him. Director Ted Demme felt the same way: "When I met George in prison, I went in not knowing what to expect because all my expectations of these kinds of guys were thug-like and kind of scary, and I met a guy who was really funny, really smart, really sad, really well-bred. I spent 4 to 5 hours with the guy and ended up really liking him and feeling sorry for him and--at the same time--being very judgmental about what he had done. For me, as a filmmaker, I thought it'd be a great challenge to present the classic antihero on the page as a sympathetic character. I always knew what the final frame of the film would be: a man in prison alone, no friends, going to be there for a long time, family estranged from him. And I find sadness in that, in any human being. I thought it was a great challenge, as a filmmaker, to tell this story." 

Based on the book Blow by Bruce Porter, the film Blow presents George Jung's story as a wild ride. I don't know how he has survived the amount of drugs he consumed and dealt or the dangerous situations in which he found himself. These days, he doesn't recommend it: "I think it boils down to a man bent on self-destruction. It's a guy who chose free will over the love of his daughter and his family. I can't say that he loved himself, but he loved free will and adventure more than he did the people around him. I mortgaged my whole life for several moments of freedom. Who the hell does that?"

It's all about the accent. 
I saw Blow with the whole family, and the only review I remember is from my dad: "Johnny was good in it. He did a good accent." This is high praise, considering my dad's side of the family all have heavy Bostonian accents. I was pleased. And, I agree. In some scenes, he sounds just like one of my uncles!

Johnny played his character with typical precision. "Johnny Depp blew my mind. It was me," George Jung said when he saw the film in prison. "He portrayed me and he literally became me--his voice, his mannerisms, his actions--everything, totally! It's almost frightening." Ted Demme concurred: "George was spooked by it because it was so right and perfect. Johnny is, amongst many things, a great mimic and he can really scare you with how good he is at being a mimic. When I finally got a script that I was happy with, I went and tracked Johnny down in Europe ('cause you kind of have to go find him). From my perspective, I wanted an actor to give me George Jung. I didn't want a movie star to come in and star in Blow. I really wanted the guy to be George. Johnny has done that on every film."

It's got that Ted Demme touch.
Ted Demme makes a cameo in Blow! (This isn't it.)
I don't know if it's because I'm aware that Ted Demme worked for MTV at the start of his career, but Blow reminds me of the same exciting style, pace, and fantastic music that MTV had in its golden years. I see so much potential, and so many exciting ideas in this movie too. Maybe that's heightened awareness again because I know it's his last piece of work. Ted Demme died of a heart attack at age 38, less than a year after Blow was released.

Despite that sad story and the seriousness of this movie's topic, Blow is a very entertaining! Aside from Johnny, the great cast includes Penelope Cruz, Franka Potente, Ray Liotta, Rachel Griffiths, and--most exciting to me--Paul Reubens! (It's a great, dramatic performance too!) Through George's eyes, I can see how the lifestyle would be enticing--having all that money and material possessions without the burden of much responsibility. But it's important to remember the lessons he learned. As Ted Demme explained, "I think George has a real clear idea of what drugs do to people because he's looked in the mirror and sees what its done to him. It's not only aged him and taken a huge chunk out of his life, but it's put him where he is right now--in isolation. He'd like to, right now, make a difference. That's one of the reasons he allowed me to make this film." George Jung wants people to see his story and hopefully have an impact on people who are thinking of getting into this business, are in this business and thinking about getting out, or have gotten out of the business already and are thinking about getting back in. His message is simple: It's just not worth it.

George and Tuna (Ethan Supree) decide to go into business.
Johnny had an experience similar to Ted Demme's when he met George Jung in prison. They became friends pretty instantly, having discovered many common interests and beliefs. Since making Blow, Johnny has been a strong supporter for George Jung's release. "I hope the audience is able to understand to some degree what George went through and why he made the decisions he made and why he became what he became. A lot has to do with the conditioning he went through as a kid. He became everything he didn't want to become," Johnny said. "George Jung is a lot of things. He's a complicated guy. But first and foremost--what I was really happy to find out--is he is just as human as can be. There is no evil. There is no malice in him. He's not greedy. He's just a good man who recognized his mistakes and has to live with his sort of devastation every day. I saw a strong guy when I met him. He's a very strong, kind of ironic, funny, broken man." 

Johnny visits the real George Jung.
"My opinion is that George Jung has served his time and paid his debt to society. He's not doing anyone any good rotting away in a prison cell," Johnny continued. "The guy is rehabilitated, and I'm not sure the system rehabilitated him. I think he rehabilitated himself based on the hideous thoughts he's had to live with and realities he has had to deal with. I think he could do much more good on the outside. He's doing work with the DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program right now. He could, potentially, go on the road with DARE and teach kids the dangers of drugs. And, he could also pay his debt to his daughter and try to give her a father."

George Jung is scheduled to be released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Anthony, Texas, in 2014. He'll be 72.

The Kitties say they've had no catnip.
Ted Demme conveyed various scenes in Blow through collages of Polaroids rather than play them out. Instead of showing parties on film, for example, photo after photo flashes on screen. Keeping with that idea, this month's tribute offers Polaroids spanning George Jung's life.
Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp--Film #22--Blow (2001) [April 2012]

  • As kids, George Jung and his best friend Tuna (Norman) found ways to pass the time, like roller-skating down the streets of their hometown.
  • George and Tuna moved to Manhattan Beach, Florida, in the late '60s. There, George met his first love Barbara (Franka Potente/Lily) and began dealing pot.
  • In the '70s, George started doing big business in Mexico. The whole gang [including Barbara, business partner Derek (Paul Reubens/Simon), and childhood friends Tuna and Dulli (Max Perlich/B.J.] was one big happy family. 
  • After George and Derek celebrated their first big job, clinking glasses amid piles of cash, business grew. 
  • With their drug distribution system smoothed down to a science, George felt ultra-cool. (This scene, in which Johnny walks through Miami International Airport wearing an all-white outfit and big shades to the tune of "Black Betty" by Ram Jam, is what Ted Demme called, "one of the greatest moments in film history" while Johnny referred to his outfit as, "the ultimate in bad taste." It's an awesome combination any way you look at it.)  
  • But these illegal activities landed George in prison for a few years in Danbury, Connecticut. While there, he learned from his cellmate Diego how to deal cocaine.
  • Once out of jail, George kicked off the '80s by getting in with Pablo Escobar. He became part of the family by marrying Mirtha (Penelope Cruz/Ashes). 
  • When their daughter Kristina was born, George stayed sober and enjoyed a normal life for a while--birthday parties and all.
  • But old habits die hard, and George got caught on what he said was his last job. He's still in jail for it today.

We're not getting any cheerier. 
Next up, Johnny turns detective again: This time, he's tracking down Jack the Ripper in From Hell.

Image credits: All film images © New Line Cinema; image of Ted Demme © Globe-Images; Illustration © Melissa Connolly; image of Johnny Depp with George Jung © unknown

No comments: