Human Traffic and Groove
Village Voice, May 3 - 9, 2000
by Simon Reynolds
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.
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. . . . "
Groove largely avoids depicting the actual consumption of drugs, but it deals with their effects much more deftly. Ecstasy virgin David's ascent through trepidation, the panic rush as the E comes on strong, to flushed and woozy rapture, is nicely captured. Groove's ethical center, its low-key message, emerges when David stumbles into the company of Leyla, a jaded veteran raver who finds herself moved by his born-again bliss. Leyla achieves a painful breakthrough herself, realizing how she has used parties and drugs to avoid going anywhere with her life. "I wanted to convey the more subtle dangers of this scene, not the real but rare risk of overdose," says Harrison. "You can get lost behind this screen of chemical happiness and become unwilling to deal with the bad in your life. The very epiphany that's opened David's life is the thing that's trapping Leyla."
Rave isn't just about Ecstasy, it's about the synergy between drugs and music. Even the most addled participants in dance culture are incredibly picky about what soundtracks their frenzy. But Human Traffic transmits little sense of the urgent distinctions and dissensions that animate your genuine club-culture fiends—which DJs are cool, which tracks rule, where the vibe is to be found scene-wise. Groove gestures at this pure passion for music, showing the dedication of the DJs and the fans obsessed with John Digweed.
The Digweed thing—a Wayne's World if-you-book-them-they-will-come fantasy, given that this superclub DJ would never deign to play an illegal party—is one of a handful of unrealistic notes in Groove. (Free water? DJs who smile while spinning? C'mon!) But the slightly idealized version of rave is forgivable, since the film is about the culture in its most romanticized underground form (the break-in warehouse party). Groove also documents the early-honeymoon phase of the S.F. scene, says Harrison, before polydrug abuse darkened the vibe. Groove is about rave as counterculture, as DIY autonomist activity, about outwitting the law with pluck and planning. Human Traffic is about something more modest and ultimately conformist—young people letting off steam at the weekend, like they've always done. "Every generation goes through the same things—McJobs, sexual insecurities, not sure what you're going to do in life, thinking, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna live in the present rather than work for a tomorrow that's never going to come,' " says Kerrigan. When he wrote the script, there was a huge media panic about Ecstasy in Britain, but by the time Human Traffic got its U.K. release last year, there'd been a turnabout. "We got no negative commentary at all, because the media's beginning to realize that Ecstasy is not a threat to society." Indeed, the movie can't make up its mind whether all the drugging is just harmless fun, or whether it's edgy, subversive, naughty. This vacillation mirrors the fact that British rave has become a leisure industry, with only the illegality of the party potions providing a vestigial veneer of rebellion.
Ultimately, Human Traffic is just a lively post-Trainspotting youth movie with club scenes as backdrop. There's even an anxiety-of-influence nod to Trainspotting, when Nina and Lulu tell a documentary TV crew that they don't do E anymore, but "jack up on heroin and float about the club. . . . We saw Trainspotting and it just made us want to do it. . . . We seem to be so impressionable." This also works as a riposte to any possible accusations that Human Traffic makes drug culture glamorous and seductive. Actually, it's more likely that the movie's five friends—an irritatingly feisty and manic bunch—will turn kids off big time. More subdued, and more true to life, Groove conveys the joy, devotion, and weird energy this culture has magicked into being in its 12 years of existence. It might even make you wonder what you've been missing.