This just in from pseudoscience: Addiction documentaries contain an element that excites dopamine receptors, shuts down the frontal lobe and causes intense cravings.
Pseudoscientists don’t know yet whether drug-documentary addicts are hooked by the gruesomely thrilling scenes of tourniquets and needles, the photos of pre-Vicodin fifth graders or the promise of redemption through higher powers. But something definitely sets the brain reeling with manic questions: How could they fall so far? How could so many of us? Whom will addiction strike next, and will the culprit be the demon rum or the demon OxyContin?
The American addiction story, as refined by Alcoholic Anonymous, tells of good folks turned bad — of men taking drinks and drinks taking men. No wonder we crave this story: It’s the master narrative of innocence and fall, complete with the possibility of deliverance. Nor is it any wonder that HBO has embraced the genre with its current authoritarian gusto. That channel’s “Addiction,” an anthology of short films by famous documentary filmmakers, has its premiere tonight.
The blunt title holds promise. As a story, addiction to drugs and alcohol has a chilling and ritualistic arc. Typically, the variable is the drug. Some viewers go for the methamphetamine documentaries, with their slightly high-handed attitude toward the Midwest, their contested statistics and their focus on dental issues. Other viewers prefer the shadowy, stylish heroin ones, with the sexy, skinny kids and “Requiem for a Dream” fashion.
When it comes to drug-addiction TV, I’m a garbagehead: I watch it all. But to my amazement, “Addiction” doesn’t quite hit the spot. Someone at HBO seems to have instructed the esteemed filmmakers — auteurs like Albert Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker, even — to deny ravenous viewers what they want. The film is bereft of feel-good scenes and drug-movie clichés. As such, the shorts can build a cumulative sense of deprivation.
Don’t expect needles here, in other words, or ravaged street kids turning tricks, or spectacular scenes of delirium tremens. No one even gets high in “Addiction”; no fervid expression gives way to one of stoned beatitude. It’s enough to make you kind of mad: “Addiction” is holding out on us. And, surely, this is the point.
The program is part of a solemn project, something that Sheila Nevins, the enterprising president of HBO Documentary Films, has called “didactic television.” It is also devised to be more accessible than past HBO projects, with some cable systems, including RCN in the New York City area, showing it free during its first four-day run.
Intended to do more than entertain or alarm, then, “Addiction” is meant to sober people up. To that end, its message is this: Drug and alcohol addiction are diseases of the brain, and they can be treated, at least partly, with medicine.
This straightforward message is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, it’s intrinsically controversial, since A.A. for a long time expected its participants to refrain entirely from drug use, even prescription pills. The model of addiction presented here — addiction as a brain disease — is somewhat at odds with the cognitive model used in classic 12-step programs.
Second, it’s remarkable that so many top-notch filmmakers have consented to push someone else’s point so hard. It’s almost ominous. The sameness of the films in “Addiction” might aid its effectiveness as propaganda, but as art it’s monotone; it’s hard to believe it’s the collaborative work of so many otherwise individualistic artists.
Evidently, filmmakers submitted film to HBO, which took over postproduction. As a result, each installment mixes vérité and to-the-camera interviews in precisely the same proportions; employs explanatory title cards and interviews with experts; showily defers to the experts, most of them M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s; refrains from using graphics, humor or archival photographs; and keeps sound bites short.
An exception here is Barbara Kopple. Her short film “Steamfitters Local Union 638” is crisp tonic with lime. Unlike the other filmmakers, she has stuck to her interests and her aesthetic, making a film about a labor union that now actively supports its members who want treatment for addictions. The faces and voices of the union members, many of whom have been installing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems for decades, are like nobody else’s in “Addiction,” and indeed like those of few other people’s on television.
“We were the hardest-working,” says one union lifer, remembering the ’60s, when he was drinking daily on the job. “We were the biggest drinkers.” He recalls how the members used to enable one another as drinkers, helping them lie to their wives and families and still be paid.
Now the union uses the same infrastructure of loyalty to help people into detox and rehabilitation. Steamfitters like them — with mustaches and paunches like theirs — join them in meetings; there’s no interference from management or doctors. As rendered, this is an extremely effective, and good-natured, program.
By presenting both addiction and recovery as community affairs, only “Steamfitters Local Union 638” has added something beyond the brain-scan science to these drug and alcohol stories. Still, as I detoxed from the sensationalism I had gotten from other films and had been hoping for in “Addiction,” I also came to appreciate other parts of the program. One was the short by Chris Hegedus and Mr. Pennebaker. In their story of two young addicts who try a new Methadone-like drug to treat their cravings for prescription pills, the melancholy Amanda caught my eye. She’s kind of a lazy oracle.
As she’s driving to the clinic for the first time, contemplating the new drug that she’s hoping will relieve her dopesickness, she seems to speak for every kind of addict, as well as about the paradox of treating drug addiction with drugs.
As Amanda says, “I hope it works as good as everybody says it does, so I don’t have to worry about feeling like this anymore.”
HBO, tonight at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Produced by John Hoffman and Susan Froemke; Sheila Nevins, executive producer.