In 1995, New York was one year into the Giuliani administration that would, eventually, completely change the city. But it hadn’t quite yet. The de facto drinking age was still twelve – this writer has fond memories of his first visit to the city and sharing a brown bag bottle of Boone’s Farm Mai Tai with a friend from NYU in the subway in ’96 – and you could still smoke a joint on the street standing right next to a beat cop who obviously had more important things to do than arresting your stupid ass. And Williamsburg was a cheap place to live.
Against this backdrop, Island Pictures made a film of poet Jim Carroll’s coming-of-age-on-drugs memoir The Basketball Diaries. Carroll grew up in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, and started writing his diaries in 1963, when he was only thirteen years old. Excerpts were published sporadically over the years, in literary journals like The Paris Review, prompting Jack Kerouac to state that “at thirteen years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today.” The whole book was finally released in ’78, and all through the ’80s, people were trying to make a film of Carroll’s story. Once upon a time, Anthony Michael Hall of “met her in Niagara Falls, you wouldn’t know her” fame was slated to play the uber-hip young poet-athlete, but the project fell through. Later, in an interview with MTV, River Phoenix pulled out a worn copy of the book from his back pocket and said, “I want to play Jim Carroll!” But perhaps he should have confined his desire to be a junkie to the world of the screen, for Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993, and two years later the role of Carroll went to a young Leonardo DiCaprio. (Phoenix had also been eager to play Arthur Rimbaud in Agnieszka Holland’s biopic Total Eclipse, a role that also, port mortem, went to DiCaprio. Did Leo’s people slip River a hotshot? Were DiCaprio and Phoenix the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan of Hollywood?)
There are basically three versions of The Basketball Diaries to consider: the book, the screenplay, and the finished film. Each is different not only in plot details, but in the decade that it takes place in. Carroll’s diaries are from the 1960s. The screenplay transplants the action to the 1990s. But the film itself, while ostensibly following the screenplay, is such a weird juxtaposition of the book and the contemporary city that it ends up creating a strange netherworld all its own, neither 60s nor 90s. (Mean Street Cinema is, of course, devoted to the 70s and 80s, and while neither the book nor the film fall into this category, we justify its inclusion based on this strange blend, whereby it ends up somewhere in our range just by default. Also, in the 70s music and literature scene in New York, Jim Carroll was the man, palling around with Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, dating Patti Smith and hanging out at the early CBGB scene, and helping to record the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City album, on which he can be heard ordering a double Pernod and asking for pills in the background.)
The mainstream perception of the 60s is two-fold: there’s the early 60s, the era of JFK and tame teen idol fake-rock like Fabian, and then there’s The Sixties™ when everyone dropped acid, grew out their hair and went bonkers batshit fruit loop crazy. But reading Carroll’s diaries, one gets the feeling that this distinction didn’t really apply to New York. After all, by the time Jack Kerouac arrived in Times Square in the late 40s, it was already full of the junkies, hustlers and hookers that the Beats would go on to write about. Everybody in Greenwich Village was already smoking dope, dressing like some kooky foreigner and listening to weird music in the 50s. By the time Carroll started writing in ’63, maybe it was perfectly normal for a Manhattan kid to shoot heroin and turn tricks before he turned twenty. Or at least, he makes it sound so, given the innocence and eloquence with which he writes about his experiences.
The screenplay, written by Bryan Goluboff, changes the setting to the 1990s. In the scene that introduces Jim and his gang of friends at the start of the movie, they are described as “all dressed in the latest city style, oversized jeans, plaid shirts, white t’s, hats to the back.” In other words, they’re supposed to look like the characters in Kids, Larry Clark’s movie about aimless and hedonistic New York teenagers, also from 1995. That is indeed how teenagers in the mid 90s dressed, especially if they were into the hip hop or skateboarding or rave scenes. But the kids in Basketball Diaries don’t dress like that – they dress more like the teenagers in A Bronx Tale, which led me to think that the film actually was supposed to be set at the same time as the book. Also, as they walk down the street talking about basketball, they debate an imaginary game between the four of them and Wilt Chamberlain, who played from ’59 to ’73. But the screenplay has Patrick Ewing, which would have made a lot more sense if they were really supposed to be 90s kids.
A few other details were changed as well. A street whore drug addict named Diane is changed from a crackhead in the screenplay to a junky in the film – not that there weren’t junkies in the 90s, but there certainly weren’t crackheads in the 60s. When Jim and his gang steal a car, it changes from a Porsche to late 70s or early 80s Cadillac. Yet everything else in the film is 1990s. It’s as though Jim Carroll and his immediate milieu were all teleported out of the 60s, thirty years into the future. As old Bill Shakespeare put it, the time is out of joint. I suppose this could be seen as sloppy filmmaking, but in my opinion, it somehow ends up working, maybe because it doesn’t try too hard to seem like the 90s or the 60s.
For all the controversy generated by the film (due to the supposed influence of one scene on the Columbine shooters) it’s actually rather tame compared to the book. The sheer amount of drugs that Carroll writes about consuming, often at the same time, is mind-boggling. I’m reminded of another poet-artist in the same vein (ahem …) as Carroll, the British musician Peter Doherty, who back in the early-mid aughts was known for ingesting absolutely ridiculous amounts of heroin, crack cocaine, ecstasy, and who-the-hell-knows what else.
There is a tradition in literature of the wasted creator, the inebriated genius who finds his muse through the “derangement of the senses” as their invariable favorite poet Arthur Rimbaud put it. It’s a real tradition, which can cite examples from Carroll’s odes to junk back to Coleridge supposedly writing Kubla Khan while on the nod. But it’s a bullshit tradition because anything of value a junky ever made was in spite of being a junky, not because of it. The filmmakers seem to recognize this, and it would be hard to accuse them of glorifying heroin addiction in the film. If anything, it glorifies writing, which is the only constant in Jim Carroll’s life, as his addiction gradually takes everyone and everything else from him, eventually leaving him passed out alone on a basketball court in the dead of a New York winter, freezing to death, his only possession the battered notebook in which he chronicles his season in Hell.
Review by Joey Mook