Screen Ravers

Movies Play Catch-up With the Clubbing-and-Drugging Scene

Why has the rave movie been such a long time coming? Truth is, nothing really happens at raves. The basic nature of the experience is repetition leavened with randomness. Sure, there's a feeling of adventure—ephemeral incidents, ultra-vivid tableaux, strange encounters, being on a mission to the end of the night. But dialogue is fragmentary or nonexistent, because Ecstasy allows people to feel connected without needing to talk. Real life, with all its dramatic potential, is elsewhere. That's the point of raving, and the reason why it's been so hard to film. It's no coincidence that ravers boast of "losing the plot."

"I felt it was the details of rave culture that were the most elusive and yet most evocative," says Greg Harrison, writer and director of Groove (opening June 9), one of the first movies to rise to the challenge of making a story out of the scene. Documentaries like the new Better Living Through Circuitry (opening May 26) can show the eye-catching surfaces of rave with groovy footage of frenzied dancers in their freakadelic clothes, but only fiction can take you inside the madness. "All these things happen that are transitory and nonverbal and kind of inconsequential," says Harrison. "So it became a question of trying to put this truth of the scene on screen while also having characterization, dialogue, narrative. When we were looking for backing, people would invariably say, 'This is refreshing. But can we have someone die of an overdose?' "

Justin Kerrigan, who wrote and directed Human Traffic, the U.K. counterpart to Groove that opens Friday, faced similar pressure to adopt a conventional narrative arc. "But it would have been a complete sellout to put guns or gangsta shit in the movie, or have someone die through drugs," he says. "Human Traffic's based on the real experiences of me and my friends, and we never saw anyone overdose or jump through a window while tripping. That's what the financiers in Britain wanted, though, some moral message about taking Ecstasy." The you-must-pay-for-having-too-much-fun narrative is what marred Go, a recent attempt to use rave culture as groovy backdrop: Although nobody actually dies, the boy who reaches the highest heights on Ecstasy collapses by some garbage cans and the girl who dabbles in drug dealing is left for dead in a ditch.

Shaun Parkes and John Simm lose the plot in Human Traffic
photo: Hector Bermejo
Shaun Parkes and John Simm lose the plot in Human Traffic

Avoiding cheap moralizing isn't the only thing Groove and Human Traffic share. Both are inspired by personal experiences (early '90s San Francisco for Harrison; Cardiff, Wales, 1995-96, for Kerrigan); both feature pointless cameos from superstar DJs (Carl Cox as a menacing club promoter in Human Traffic, John Digweed as himself in Groove). There are crucial differences, though. Groove follows the trajectories of various ravers as they converge on an illegal warehouse party and then return to everyday life, in some cases transformed by their experiences. But the rave itself is the focus, the star. Human Traffic has been hailed as a definitive document of British clubbing-and-drugging culture. But strangely, the movie seems to put off getting to the club for as long as it can and then quits the dance floor as swiftly as possible, as if trying to evade its alleged raison d'être—the rave E-piphany, the white hole in which narrative incandesces. Instead, screen time is lavished on the twentysomething characters' commonplace problems and romantic woes. Only Moff, the Cockney "pill monster," corresponds to a clubland archetype: the born-again convert who proclaims that "raving's better than sex."

Moff's confession that he's got no real interest in relationships right now is one of the few moments in Human Traffic that actually tells you something about rave. It's the first youth-music movement where sex is not a primary motor. And this has everything to do with Ecstasy's peculiar lovey-dovey but anti-aphrodisiac effects. On E, many men experience George Costanza's "significant shrinkage"; most find it hard to get hard. The buzz, for both genders, is a hypertactile sensuality that's decentered and goal-less. Sure, people meet and get off with each other, but mostly the "loved up" energy coheres around the collective—the crew you came with, the dance floor massive of friendly strangers. Above all, there's an erotic relationship with overwhelming, engulfing sound—which is why ravers hug speakers, and why Moff declares, "I'm having sex with music, mate—and believe me, I can go all night." It's sad and suspect that Human Traffic lumbers Moff with two semicomical masturbation scenes. The one person to escape the heterosexual fix that encloses the other characters is dissed as a wanker.

Human Traffic's relentless bawdy banter contrasts with the film's coyness about drugs. Amazingly, the actual procuring and ingestion of drugs is never shown. Even in the scene where protagonist-narrator Jip and his best mate Koop talk stoned shit while chopping out coke lines, they never actually hoover any powder up their nostrils. Kerrigan concedes that "you don't see anyone taking anything harder than a pint of lager. If I'd put a close-up of someone dropping a tab, it'd probably have got cut out anyway." All tell and no show, Human Traffic flaunts a script caked in down-with-the-scene drug slang and we-are-the-chemical- generation rhetoric. There's a cameo from British cannabis crusader Howard Marks talking about "spliff politics" and a fantasy sequence in which Jip jousts with a neurologist about Ecstasy's drawbacks and dangers. Even the film's brief trippy sequence of dance-floor nirvana is overlaid with a blissed Jip voice-over: "we're thinking clearly yet not thinking at all. . . . We flow in unison. . . . I wish this was real. . . . "

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