Reel Recovery

By: Leonard Buschel

Follow the musings of REEL Recovery Film Festival Producer and Writers in Treatment Founder Leonard Buschel.

Reflections on Mr. Nice

Mar 17, 2011

Most hip Americans think Mr. Nice is just a popular brand of weed sold in California medical marijuana dispensaries. Mr. Nice is, in fact, the Howard Hughes of international hashish smuggling, Welshman Howard Marks. It’s also the title of the ecstatic epic film  chronicling the notorious rise and fall of a recalcitrant drug dealer who once controlled ten percent of the world’s cannabis trade.

Director and writer Bernard Rose is no stranger to depicting the lives of the high and mighty, having directed Gary Oldman as Ludwig van Beethoven in “Immortal Beloved.” He also made Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into a film in 1997.

It could well be that, on the surface, this film seems to celebrate and glamorize the heady days of marijuana’s ascension to sacramental status around the world but it is really a subtle and scathing denunciation of the damage that life-long excessive cannabis sativa use can inflict.

Mafia and IRA
Marks’ smuggling career had him mingling with the Mafia and IRA. He claimed to be working for M16, the British Secret Service, when local authorities arrested him. He convinced them of his special dispensation and avoided prosecution, at least that time. Marks did end up doing seven years in the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana (not very glamorous sounding). While on trial, he reiterated what was known to his legions of admirers: He never used violence or dealt any hard drugs, even when offered vast quantities of heroin or cocaine on credit.

Rhys Ifans (“Notting Hill,” “Greenberg,” “Pirate Radio”) stars as Marks and Chloe Sevigney (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Zodiac,” “Big Love”) as his loyal wife, Judy. The iconic director Ken Russell makes a special appearance, perhaps as a symbol that this era of excess is over.

One U.K. reviewer said: “The film takes us through the tumultuous times of sex, drugs, betrayal, greed, prison and pot which Marks and his merry men navigate their way through against a lush backdrop of ’70s pastiche. By the time we get to the story’s conclusion, we have great connections with the character’s motives as a result of the superb cast and due to an impressive directorial mesh of humor and grit from Rose. What's left is the best British film of the year to date.”

Finally, the film shows Marks sad decline and lack of transformation. A drug that promises personal progress clandestinely, over time, starts to implant a barely perceptible new dance step into your life—two steps forward and three steps back. So while you feel like you’re cruising along, you’re actually gradually floating downstream. A 25-year-old’s occasional use or experimentation is a lot different that a 60-year-old needing to take a few hits in the morning just to make coffee or greet a god-given glorious day. As my son reminds me from time to time, “Dad, remember what Tim Leary said, ‘the goal is not to get high, the goal is to be high.’”

In the Editing Studio
I had the privilege of spending some time with Rose in his Beverly Hills editing studio. While viewing an exciting hash dealing scene that did not have a soundtrack yet, Bernard’s assistant editor, Alexandra Daniels, slides a flash drive into the editing computer and says that “Philip” just emailed this over from New York. It’s the music for a dealing scene with the Pakistanis. Suddenly, like his music always does, the Philip Glass soundtrack is pulsating through the room and my nervous system is waiting to inhale. Not weed, just the artistic genius present in the room.

I asked Rose how he got Philip Glass to do the score for a film whose other main composer is Jimi Hendrix. Bernard said Philip had offered his service because the two had a good time working together on “Candyman,” the charming chiller that became an instant cult horror classic film in 1992.

The high-tech exchange of music files from Manhattan to Beverly Hills as background for a hash deal reminded me of how low tech my first cash-for-hash transaction was behind the walls of Old Jerusalem when I was 20 years old. A thousand dollars counted by the glow of a Bic lighter under a crescent moon. I swear I saw a donkey waiting nearby to make the next delivery. I sensed that this Peter Lorre-like Palestinian was going to pull a ‘rat-and-return’ arrangement and tell the Israeli police he had sold a couple kilos of Red Lebanese hash to an American staying at Kibbutz Mezer. Then they would raid the kibbutz and give the Arab back some of his stash for being a stoolie.

Remembering what I had learned on the streets of Philadelphia—“when in doubt, get out” —my mule and I were on the first bus to Haifa and the next Zim cargo/passenger ship to Marseilles. Wisely, I had decided not to fly out of Tel Aviv because we had been warned that airport security was just starting to body frisk the devout-and-deluded New York Jews and Christian pilgrims. Of course I too had stuck a prayer into the Wailing Wall. This was in 1970, before the first skyjacking and Israeli air marshals began riding shotgun in the sky.

We arrived in Marseilles on New Years Eve morning and took a train to Paris. We found the last vacant hotel room in the whole Left Bank. West Bank, Left Bank. The next day, one of us (not me) flew with her body strapped with hashish to Kennedy Airport while I kept my fingers crossed in front of Notre Dame and kept remembering the prayer I had wiggled into the Wailing Wall. “God, please don’t let us get busted doing your work.” I thought hashish was the manna from heaven talked about in the Bible. I waited for my brother’s telegram at the American Express office telling me the eagle had landed and all nine 200 gram little bricks of Red Leb wrapped in mesh burlap fabric, with the farmer’s decorative blue stamp on each brick, had been successfully removed been from beneath our traveler’s full-body girdle.

Following My Bliss
My family thought I went to Israel to discover my roots, my friends thought I had gone to make money. Nothing so merciful or mercenary. I really just went to Jerusalem to score some hash because you couldn’t find any in Philly. I didn’t even think about it at the time. I wanted to get high. I was following my bliss. That was before I even heard of Joseph Campbell. I guess it’s like ‘going to any lengths.’

One of the first things I did when I quit smoking pot was sign a petition to ‘legalize it’ or, at least, decriminalize it. Booze is legal (85,000 deaths a year), cigarettes are legal (435, 000 deaths a year), Prescription Drugs (uncountable adverse reactions and 32,000 deaths a year) and doctors are peeling Vicodin prescriptions off their pads as often as Lindsey Lohan is pulling tissues out of the box at her probation officer’s office. Deaths a year from marijuana? Zero, according to the website

Also, once the hookah was given away I decided to join a Twelve Step group that helps marijuana addicts quit THC consumption in any form. Yes, pot can be highly addictive. Being a film lover, I started two meetings, one in North Hollywood and the other in Marin County, both called "Alice B. Tokeless."

Everyday I don’t smoke pot is a miracle. I was one of those college dropouts whose favorite place to get high was outside a Broadway theater at intermission amongst obsessive urbanite cigarette smokers. I thought I was adding something sweet to the evening air. Sixteen years after my last joint on the way to the Betty Ford Center (which I thought of as a 28-day ashram), I stillhave the occasional dream of hot-knifing a piece of hash, or rolling a quick joint at a red light in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I even had to get blitzed before going up to Anne Frank’s fifth floor, walk-up shared apartment. I couldn’t believe how small it was, even by Manhattan standards. I remember hearing a man wearing boots coming up the staircase behind me and thinking he was coming to take ME away. I flashed on reading Anne’s diary as a sensitive 13 year old and seeing Shelly Winters in the movie. I started to cry and could not stop. I think half the water in the canals are tears shed at the Anne Frank House.

Today Howard travels selling his books and doing stand-up, spliff in hand. I wonder if he’s ever visited the Anne Frank House. I’ve read he has gone straight, but not gotten straight. The gift of chemically undistorted feelings is one of the greatest gifts of sobriety. This is probably a mitzvah poor Howard is depriving himself.

It was Alan Watts who said (referring to LSD but it could be true for pot, as well): “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”



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