From the outside, Syndicated looks like an abandoned factory. Or, anyway, I walked by it twice, trying to find the restaurant, theater and bar at which I was about to watch Inherent Vice, Up In Smoke and Half Baked in a row, in honor of the day’s date: April 20, 2016. On the inside, there are high ceilings, an astonishing amount of natural light considering the deceptive exterior, and a marble countertop bar, which surely doubles as the ideal backdrop for cocktail Instagrams. I would describe it as “bougie Nitehawk,” in that they also deliver food straight to your seat in the theater located in the back, and there are $13 tater tots on the menu.
I had smoked before and was carrying a Ziploc bag of special banana bread that tasted earthy in a bad way, despite the copious amounts of PB2 I had added to the recipe. As I found my seat, and prepared to for Joaquin Phoenix’s somehow pretentious slapstick antics, it occurred to me that I had concocted an outwardly acceptable means of celebrating 4/20.
“Is there anything I can bring you?” asked a friend, who was planning to stop by for a drink in between Inherent Vice and Up In Smoke. It was as if I were accomplishing some admirable feat. Watching these movies while high was something I had to endure, sort of like the time I convinced myself I was going to go on numerous OKCupid dates a weekend in college for an article in the school paper. (I ended up engaged to one of those guys, though I’m not sure there’s a similar, serendipitously satisfying ending to to this particular story–my apologies in advance for any resulting disappointment).
Meanwhile, on Twitter, there were jokes about 4/20, and jokes about jokes about 4/20, and here I was getting high and watching a triage of pot-adjacent movies, because I had to, because journalism. In this noble endeavor, I noted that the crowds varied wildly between each showing. It’s possible hyper-perception courtesy of the second piece of banana bread led me to believe as much. Anyway, hear me out, and then decide for yourself if this is a brilliant observation or something that should have been a listicle in Elite Daily: Your favorite stoner movie says everything about who you are as a stoner.
At first glance, that sounds so hilariously common. We’re all so different and special, if your favorite city is Paris, you’re probably so sophisticated and chic, etc. Except, I mean something deeper than that, something that can perhaps best be explained through laughter.
In Inherent Vice there was a man periodically laughing so aggressively, with such pageantry, it was as if every 10 to 12 minutes, he stood up and yelled, “I UNDERSTAND THIS MOVIE! I GET IT ! I KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON!” Of course, that would be a blatant lie. Inherent Vice is a pastiche of impressions, which makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seem as neatly coherent as the fable of The Fox and the Grapes. That’s OK, and maybe American audiences require a bit too much linearity, but that’s for another essay. The point is: You can’t grasp the meaning of Inherent Vice any more than you can grasp the meaning of several unfinished paintings by Max Ernst, but this man was working quite hard to pretend otherwise.
Then we had Up In Smoke. It amazed me, while chewing on my third piece of banana bread now, how cartoonish Cheech and Chong are. They’re clowns, and not in any even remotely derogatory sense of the word, in terms of artistic archetype and comic tonality. It’s amazing they aren’t animated. They exist as entities beyond the scope of human nature, bouncing off the walls, and yelling “LARD ASS? HARD ASS?” at the police officer using the code name “Hard Hat,” with no more consequences than there might be in a “Bugs Bunny” short. And, as a result, the laughter in Up In Smoke was loud, but fundamentally different from Inherent Vice. It was almost as if it burst forth from audience members like an accident they barely realized was happening. Like a fart or a burp, only if it was a pleasant surprise. At one point, the guy next to me spit out a piece of nacho, and barely flinched. It wasn’t embarrassing. It almost seemed right for the moment.
In Half Baked, there were the occasional bursts, but overall more of a trickling of endearing snickers, and that makes sense. The plot, as absurd as it may be, follows a logical progression (unlike in Inherent Vice) and the people aren’t clowns (unlike in Up In Smoke), they’re real characters, pumped up into caricatures; as if Dave Chappelle took relatability and got it super high for the first time. It’s about the bond of friendship, but mostly weed and, yes, pussy. (There appear to far less intricacies spanning a love for pussy than a love for weed.)
Each movie is attached to its own archetypal projection. The stoner who prefers Inherent Vice, thinks they are so smart, maybe brilliant, in an almost conspiratorial sense. They think they know what’s going on, and they’ll tell you, though only in a condescending way, perhaps beginning with the world “actually.” Up In Smoke is a complete release from such explanations. It’s out-of-breath silliness as the ultimate form of relaxation. It’s letting go and having fun in a part of the venn diagram of human experience that isn’t even close to touching the bracket for Social Norms & Values. And then there’s Half Baked, which posits having fun as a priority to the extent that it’s almost a defense mechanism. For the stoner who likes Half Baked,, smoking is an escape to be carved out of the real world, though the real world never truly falls away.
It’s interesting the way we think about pot. There’s shame attached to it partly because it’s not legal, partly because it’s stigmatized as an element of too much sleeping and messy apartments. But there’s also, paradoxically enough, a danger of showboating, as if you have to worry you’ll be perceived as a lazy shithead OR it’ll seem like you’re trying too hard to be cool. (Seriously, who earnestly publicizes their celebration of 4/20? Not me, I did this for #journalism.) While the Inherent Vice stoner tries to couch the negative connotations in pseudo-intellectualism, the Up In Smoke stoner rises above, simply by virtue of having grabbed a hold of the nearest balloon, and the Half Baked smoker is caught in the liminal space of having an awareness of reality, while still trying, almost desperately, to grasp beyond it.
The mingling of pot culture and pop culture clicks into a new window for looking at who we are, who others think we are, and what those two things mean when they express themselves in tandem. Maybe. I mean, I don’t know. One of the theater waiters at Syndicated was a large man, with a shaved head and green sweater. He had to hunch over at a near-90-degree angle in order to shuffle through the rows without disturbing the audience, and I spent a solid portion of my near-seven hour stint at the the theater amazed by how much he seemed like an anthropomorphic turtle. Also, my phone died and I forgot my notebook, so I took some of these notes using miniature pencils on the $13-tater-tot paper menus. Miniature pencils are hilarious.