It Was Mother

It Was Open

It Was Open
Wayras Olivier
MAY 2017

OPEN TO DISCUSSING the addicts in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy? They are gifted with unreasonably favorable grooming and hygiene, are spared the shame and agony of a withdrawal scene, are readers of cloying bestsellers like Erich Segal's Love Story, and are receptive to the apotropaic signs that jar their willpower voluntarily—upon realizing that the habit of crumbling is not a victimless crime—into the methadone program to face their taste for cooked goods.

That agreeable drug, the one hinted at (at the end of the first act) is also the most addictive, and makes for the most memorable—and, to suspend disbelief, the most necessary—scene in the film, if we are to take seriously Bob's (Matt Dillon) repentant decision to willingly go clean after examining his ‘karma.' His unconscious reaction, "hot dog," to a stereo commercial on TV reruns a memory that he'd rather forget, which galvanizes Nadine (Heather Graham), a member of his crew, to break a taboo.

"Speaking of dogs," says Nadine, "can we get one?"

We smirk, well aware that TV programming is scheduled weeks, sometimes even months, in advance when Bob arrives at a metaphysical false positive. He holds Nadine, because she brought up the topic of dogs, and now a succession of dog commercials appears on TV, culpable for placing, on his crew of robbers, a thirty–day hex.

What's more, cops apprehending robbers is unheard of so Bob's ensuing narrative—he once had a dog that was put down after it led the cops back to his hideout—must be true. Unless Bob has been slouched in front of the boob for so long that his mind can no longer milk a plausible alternative other than the melodrama of: Old Yeller meets The Rockford Files.

Rick, another one of Bob's crew members inquires, "Anything else that can affect our future?"

An insurmountable amount of bad luck is mentioned. To place a hat on a bed, invites it, as does incorrectly engaging with a mirror—which is my favorite, for no reason other than it's pure nonsense. Almost making it up as he speaks, Bob attempts to simultaneously counsel while making sense of his drivel and it is, nonetheless, rather endearing:

"Mirrors. Never look at the backside of a mirror. Because when you do it'll affect your future because you're looking at yourself backwards. [Pause] No. You're looking at your inner self and you don't recognize it because you've never seen it before. [Pause] Anyway, you can freeze into motion your future and that can be either good or bad in any case we don't want to take any chances."

Intrigued more by the second commandment, Nadine asks "Why a hat?"

"Because," Bob explains, "that's just the way it is."

We see, with that last line, how Hume's ‘is–ought problem' is, for serious drug addicts, a serious workout. Of all the faux pas a serious rational philosopher can make, the most toxic is the one that the addicts continuously make: extrapolating one's values and modes of conduct based on observations of how things are, to justify how things should continue to be. Of course they can't sweat it out—there would be no movie if they could. Besides, the drug addict/philosopher is a trope, put in place to prevent a preachy towel down scene that must follow when a movie turns too gritty or realistic. But because it is so seriously absurd (even more so than Jules reexamining his habits after he survives a spray of bullets in Pulp Fiction), it is one of the more realistic scenes about the fervent attempt made by those who live on the fringe to justify how the ‘indescribable' forces that keep them from the center continue to affect their future.

Willpower is a force. Apparently a describable one that can affect one's future, according to the countless studies over the last half-century that tested young kids against a plate of sweetly cooked product. Some do and some don't. Actually, it's some can and some can't delay gratification. Face to face with a cookie it's hard to interrupt that loop: trigger—routine—reward, once it's formed.

It wasn't until 2012 that in his useful little yellow/red book The Power of Habit, that Charles Duhigg set aside a few pages for Mark Muraven's idea of willpower. A PhD candidate from Case Western, Muravan, thought it strange that if willpower were a skill, (as previously thought) how come it lacked the attributes of a skill (solid, engrained, easy to retrieve), rather than the crutch, required for an action, that always seems to break.

High time, Muraven thought, to revisit and reinvent the cookie experiment.

Revisit the experiment, (initially done with marshmallows at Stanford in the late sixties), in which researchers behind a two–way mirror (to prevent anyone from looking at its backside!?!) observed kids who were confronted with a difficult choice: "You can have just one marshmallow now or wait fifteen minutes and have two." The researchers tabulated their results, and some fifteen years later followed up with their subjects (the kids, not the marshmallows). The young adults who, as kids, chose to delay their gratification and wait, on average had higher grades in school; had healthier relationships; and had, over their marshmallow–me–‘now' counterparts, a generally more ‘positive' expectation for their future.

To reinvent the experiment, Muravan used undergraduates at Case Western, not kids. Using both a bowl of cookies and a bowl of radishes, while not letting on to the undergraduates that he was testing their willpower but instead said he was going to "study," as he put it, "taste perceptions." (I'm not sure myself, upon reading this experiment, whether or not the subjects themselves knew what that meant.)

Only half the subjects, it was decided, would have their willpower tested (the ones instructed to eat the radishes and ignore the cookies), while the other half were given the opposite directive. When both groups were given, after ignoring their respective bowls for five minutes, a complex puzzle to complete, the group that had depleted their willpower from having to ignore the cookies quickly gave up; while the group who did not have to ignore the cookies stuck with it and persevered. From behind the two-way mirror, the burnished valuable conclusion was—in short—willpower, while being a learned skill, acts similar to a muscle that can be strained and fatigued.

For a seeker, the conclusion certainly is worth its weight in gold a few lines later, once one sifts through the lines:

"Researchers have built on this finding to explain all sorts of phenomena. Some have suggested it helps clarify why otherwise successful people succumb to extramarital affairs (which are most likely to start late at night after a long day of using willpower at work.)"

It's clearly pyrite. Did he really imply, in the above passage, that an extramarital affair is a kind of phenomena? I'm not buying the rhyme and reason he uses to conclude soundly that: The wandering spear always pokes the tired dear.

Of course, Duhigg wouldn't dare call habits, that which can ‘freeze into motion your future,' anything other than habits, although an alternate, less scientific book title comes to mind: The Power of Karma, which summarizes just as definitively the book (and Drugstore Cowboy's) significantly beautiful, yet rather horrific conclusion, that how you happen is what you choose.

"I predict," says the priest, played by beat writer William F. Burroughs, to Bob, "in the near future right–wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus." Burroughs paranoia, however lauded and esteemed, or, if you insist, his foresight in describing our current cloudy state of affairs, is slightly off the mark in the grand scheme of scenes. Instead, how's this scene for a ray of sunshine?

Rick: So like Dave, do you think you could get me a TV?

David: Yeah, I could get you a TV.

That even after a score, hydromorph "blue," (known colloquially as hospital heroin), runs through the crew's veins, yet Rick tries to fence some valium in exchange for the mother of all opiates.