Story by Carlo McCormick
“I hope I’m saying it’s a shitty drug and you shouldn’t use it,” Jonas Akerlund explains to us, lest anyone might mistake the utter speed-freak dementia of his new movie, Spun, as anything actually resembling fun. In the wake of an ever-expanding cornucopia of drug movies, the immensely successful young Swedish director delivers in Spun (Newmarket) a darkly amusing romp through the self-manifesting deluge of paranoia, perversion, dissociation, delusion, and amphetamine use’s other myriad pathologies.
Aided by some memorably degenerate acting performances by stars Jason Schwartzman, John Leguizamo, Eric Roberts, and Mickey Rourke, and a pantheon of cameos, including Deborah Harry, Alexis Arquette, Ron Jeremy, China Chow, and Billy Corgan, Akerlund’s vision of this particularly sunny corner of hell is by his own account, “funny and stylish, but trying to stay real.”
No doubt disturbing for many, what Spun in fact induces is a modest cinematic equivalent of the sheer sensory overload at work in your typical blast-the-top-of-your-fucking-head-off crank rush. “I made 5,345 cuts editing this movie in Sweden,” Akerlund counts. “That’s definitely for the Guinness Book of World Records.”
This kind of post-production virtuosity could hardly be possible for any first-time director, except that Akerlund has been one of the most prolific and imaginative music-video directors of the ’90s. Willing to take risks because “we can always say we’re first-time directors if we fuck up,” he actually brings decades of experience in the frenetic verse of pictorial shorthand that is so fundamental to Spun’s manic eye-popping artistry. Infamous for his banned Prodigy video, “Smack My Bitch Up,” and otherwise merely rich and famous for over a decade of commercial work, including such award-winning gems as Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video, Akerlund has taken his ideal of “making it impossible for people to look away” to the unholy extreme of feature length.
If Spun does find its way into the canon of cinematic drug classics, it will have to do so as a most singular entry. Despite its prevalence in our society, amphetamines have hardly captured the imaginations of the media, public and police as much as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, or LSD. And while these other drugs have by now accrued a lengthy resume of major film roles, speed is only just now emerging as a new sub-genre of drug movies.
Following in the immediate wake of Requiem for a Dream and Salton Sea, we may now see with Spun an almost formalist film language for depicting of the physical and psychological manifestations of this drug. Akerlund’s quest for a more gritty (less Hollywood) version of reality, as well as his obsessive-compulsive overworking of the editing process into a blender-effect frenzy, may ultimately set the standard for speed flicks to come.
Perhaps more significantly, whereas most filmmakers prove to be either prohibitionists or advocates, Akerlund exercises a rare suspension of judgment. “There are rumors of meth labs in Sweden,” he admits, “but it doesn’t exist there, so I have no experience with it. In America it seems everyone has a methamphetamine story. I don’t, but I have plenty of drug stories.”
That said, Jonas had little interest in sharing them with us, maintaining “I took a strong antidrug decision many years ago, and I’m going to stick with it. I’m not going to dedicate my life to fighting drugs. For me the best part was to peek into these people’s lives, and to do so with humanity. There are so many double standards here—a lot of stuff that people just don’t talk about that is a big part of American culture and lifestyle. As an outsider, I can observe and portray this situation from my own point of view, with hopefully a fresh eye.”