“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint
No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only local screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his ideas for the sake of money.
While the original is fine, an alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve had it since 1993ish but there’s no record of its existence online that I can find. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for some scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release. (I’ll try and call them Avenue and Workprint to keep it straight). Calling this Van Sant’s cut would be presumptuous, since I don’t know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier experience, with no special effects, no jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction.
Before I get into specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes–and most of the dialogue therein–are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift from Van Sant’s darkly comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.
Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I can’t figure out. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your place?”–there is a pause. Instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops in from nowhere with the opening line of “Águas de Março”, and her duet with Tom Jobim then continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the differences between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But the “Águas de Março” sequence in Workprint is really exceptional and the film lacks without it. Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” is still present but less prominent, being used as source music in the apartment’s interior, not an incidental cue.
Apart from music, there are several great added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister comes by to bring clothes and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. In two other missing scenes, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick talk out a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from a 70s TV crime procedural. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, the decision was made to emphasize Bob’s patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.
This shaky redemption is conveyed through the bookending device that begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead, mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, assigning him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the head-shot of Dillon said to be modeled on Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s credits, over a replay of “Israelites”, a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended for advertising, why was it then edited into the final film? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.
NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.