I’ve heard that the French call one’s late teens and early 20s the “age of moviegoing.” It certainly was mine; it was also, for me, the age of smoking pot—and for a period of seven or eight years, the two activities were not unrelated.
Little has been written about the phenomenology of watching movies under the influence of marijuana, although that would certainly be the kind of thing one might ponder while in stoned contemplation of the big screen. Not that I ever found grass conducive to analytical thinking.
To watch a movie truly stoned was not simply to enjoy more vivid color and oceanic sound; it was to experience a state of acute defamiliarization mixed with heightened idiocy. Time stood still and reverberated like a tuning fork or the BOOIIING! of a cartoon character hit by a falling safe. Everything was a non sequitur; it was impossible to distinguish between intentional and unintentional humor. Infuse your mind with sufficient cannabis and Gidget Goes Hawaiian turns into Last Year at Marienbad, while Last Year at Marienbad—which I first saw with a brain full of fumes in a Berkeley classroom—becomes a stone goof.
Marijuana made a movie more immersive, even as it guaranteed that in the absence of a second joint, the sensory bombardment of the first forty minutes were bound to be the most fun—before the pot wore off and the narrative brought you down. The Surrealists, early connoisseurs of cine derangement, used to solve the problem of such diminishing returns by entering a movie in the middle and exiting as soon as the plot became comprehensible. In effect, they changed the channel—something ridiculously easy to do now.
Getting high to watch TV is hardly worth mentioning in this context. (Really… how else could one possibly be expected to enjoy television in those pre-cable days?) And LSD was truly something else. Tripping at the movies was, in my experience, profoundly distracting—the screen melted into an Op Art vortex of stroboscopic mandalas or, overshadowing the film, the theater became a sideshow populated by orcs and hobbits and drooling salamander dwarfs. It was easy to get hung up on meaningless detail. Once, in a misguided attempt to make Gone With the Wind tolerable, I dropped acid and, one shot into the movie, become volubly obsessed with the sight of George (Superman) Reeves disguised as one of the cavaliers fawning on Vivien Leigh. So that was planet Krypton!
But returning to my point (what was my point?), movies lasted for hours, and a single joint of vintage 1970 grass was seldom enough. Smoking pot at the raucous 42nd Street movie houses where I then got my fix of spaghetti westerns, British horror films, biker flicks and blaxploitation was conducive to paranoia and generally imprudent. Downtown, however, there were a few large, decrepit venues—onetime movie palaces turned slum tenements of cinema—in which it was possible to toke freely on the premises: Loew’s Delancey, located blocks below the East Village (where I first saw the wondrous hippie cliché-fest Vanishing Point); the Academy of Music on seedy, garbage-strewn East 14th Street (memorable for boggling the mind with a double bill of Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls); and mainly the Elgin, the heymish home of the midnight movie, on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, a former Spanish-language theater in then-far-from-fashionable Chelsea.