Monday, June 13, 2011

A Fragment in Charcoal & Smoke: Flame Schon's DOPE

When you hear the phrase, “swinging 60's,” more than likely there are very specific images that come to your mind's eye: mini-skirts, rock music, free love and pop art, but time cannot and should not always be measured with such obvious landmarks. Capturing the many shades of a sliver of time is never as easy as it seems, especially when it comes to such a flux-filled decade as the 1960s. There's a lot of darkness in the day-glo, something that is beautifully evident in Flame Schon's (nee Diane Rochlin) and Sheldon Rochlin's rare 1968 documentary, DOPE. 

Before I delve into this, immediately push out any preconceived notions you have about what a documentary is supposed to look and sound like. DOPE is a film that uses experimental film making techniques to paint a true picture of both its subject, an kohl-lined gamine from New Zealand named Caroline Thomson and the dirty thumbprint of an era. A friend of such artists as the stunningVali Meyers, Caroline was residing in the heart of late 60's London when DOPE was shot. On the surface, this film documents the journey of this young child-woman and her growing love affair with heroin. While we definitely do get a peek into her habit and the fragments of her everyday life, DOPE is much more than that. 


For starters, there is the disjointed audio, with bits and pieces of rock music weaved into the regular soundtrack of sonic noise and words, creating the effect akin to trying to talk to someone at one loud and intense party. With any other film, this would be highly annoying but here it lends itself to giving a more accurate feel of what life was like for Caroline and her friends. Some will get annoyed by this and feel like they could be missing an integral piece of information or emotional character insight. That's probably true, but keep in mind that one's whole life and history can be built upon half-heard conversations and words that are instantly up to re-interpretation once they are out of the mouth. This technique is honest to Caroline's experience. Sure it won't work for every documentary. Just imagining anything by Ken Burns as brought to you in mumblecore vision is maddening, but here it works fine. 

The gloriously unique, Vali Meyers. 

Also, there's a whole underlying tone about the growing national fear and awareness of drug use, whether it is assorted newspaper headlines involving drug busts or Caroline and her roommates watching a television special entitled “An American View on LSD.” In addition to the audio, there are some very colorful editing choices, including some really good superimposition and an overall kinetic visual rhythm that lends a fragmented, almost dreamlike feel to the proceedings. (Even when the dream has burned edges all around it, which is perfect for a film whose subject matter involves heroin.) 

  Throughout the film, we see Caroline go to rock concerts, art shows, trying to hustle a coin collection for money, shoot up and then sort of toy around with the needle like a kitten. One of the final shots shows her dancing to “In the Midnight Hour,” leaving the film on a strange and sad note. The image of Caroline, now looking almost ghostlike, dancing in front of a dingy mirror, as if the midnight hour in question is referring to her uncertain, death-tinged future is one the most effective in the whole film. 

 In the midnight hour.

Music, being one of the biggest heartbeats of the youth culture scene in the 1960's, is a strong underlying thread. The use of it at times is almost accidental, whether it is Caroline and her friends fiddling with the radio, resulting in a cut-up version of the Beatles' “Paperback Writer” or early on, where we can hear her sing, off-camera, along to the Alan Price version of “I Put a Spell on You.” The latter's breathy and real person tunelessness lends the film more authenticity than any of the multiple shots of people shooting up. 

DOPE is a fascinating peek into a harsher side of a scene that is typically portrayed as all dandyfied rock stars, Mary Quandt skirts and Mars bars. While it lags a little towards the end, it is, as a whole, a colorful and honest time capsule of both Caroline's life and the pop culture of London during that time period. Speaking of which, there are some brief shots of such artists as Marianne Faithful and Pink Floyd featuring Syd Barrett, so it pays to keep your eyes open. 

The likelihood of DOPE getting an official DVD release is pretty much slim to none, but thanks to director Flame Schon, you can get a copy for the price of manufacturing and shipping. For more information, check out her website;

© Heather Drain, 2011