"I'm only a freak by the standards I reject."
"It's not so much I'm scared of the police. I'm scared of the junkies."
"What is that? Fuckin' Spider-man? I'm talkin' serious. Life. It's not all shit and dope. People do things."
By the early 1970s, it had become abundantly clear that subcultures existed within America, and businesses had no clue how to market to them. Many of these, indeed, aggressively rejected (or claimed to reject) marketing and tried to avoid mass culture. Media moguls were stymied. They did a pretty good job of selling music that reached, celebrated, and/or exploited the counterculture, but putting token characters in TV shows who said things like, "groovy" and making films like Riot on Sunset Strip only went so far. In the chaotic rush to reach, to grok, someone at Warner Brothers signed off on this film without even seeing a script. This was a good thing for the filmmakers, as they did not have one.
Director Floyd Mutrux and associates did, however, have a fascinating premise. They filmed some actual junkies and street hustlers, and juxtaposed those scenes with staged re-enactments of some of their stories and entirely fictional scenes using both real-life participants and actors. They stitched the footage into a chaotic blend with no real pretence of a story, but with many fascinating moments. Released in 1971, Dusty and Sweets McGee has achieved cult status. People, actual and imaginary, speak their realities:
"No matter how much we had it just gets fuckder and fuckder. More fucked."
"More fucked. Each time."
"You're getting more intelligent also."
The title characters, a junkie couple, shoot up in a motel while listening to Van Morrison. Another couple inject in the mouth. A hustler tells his sordid tale. A man revisits his old neighbourhood and cannot connect. One scene involves someone eating Pinks Famous All-Beef Chilli Dogs. The film also features some brilliant editing, and excellent shots of LA's often terrible sub/urban beauty. The cinematographer, William A. Fraker, had already established himself as a star in that field, and over the course of his career he would be nominated five times for Academy Awards.
What gets captured casts long shadows. We hear a description of a gang bang that is realized literally, a few years later, in Saturday Night Fever. Excessive footage of cars cruising Sunset Strip (to curiously dated pop music) and the "Where are they now?" of the final credits would be imitated in American Graffiti, a far tamer and more famous film that acknowledges this one as an influence.
It's not enough for the running time. Some great moments, captivating and repulsive, interrupt a movie that frequently feels like an improv workshop that has taken a dark turn and gone out of control. It's fascinating nonetheless. Twenty-first century Reality TV might play like this, if the people involved in Reality TV had talent and integrity or were at least within a binocular view of the pages in the dictionary on which those words appear. At least Dusty and Sweets McGee acknowledges that it's heavily fictionalized, and it eschews simplified story arcs.
Do we have a masterpiece? Not really, but, depending on one's interest and tolerance levels, it's worth seeing. We have, in the end, a portrait of lost Americas. I've watched better movies, but I haven't bothered to review them all.
They don't haunt me in quite the same way.