You, Rolf Potts, are a Contemptible Jackass, Part I: Stoner movie redemption

Around the time Marco Polo Didn’t Go There was set to debut in bookstores, I began to wonder what kind of negative comments it might attract. I wondered this not because Marco Polo is a bad book (to the contrary, I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve written), but because some degree of knee-jerk negativity is inevitable in the instant-reaction atmosphere of the Internet Age.

I learned this when I debuted Vagabonding five years ago. For the most part, of course, reader reaction to my first book has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. But every once in a while I’ll get an email or a blog comment that basically claims I’m a contemptible jackass because of some theme or observation in the book. One rather perplexing criticism that recurs from time to time is that Vagabonding is “preachy.”

At first this observation baffled me, since I urge flexible open-mindedness from the opening Preface chapter (“Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual is more than any style or system”), and the only things I preach against are postponing your travels, micromanaging your itinerary, or traveling too fast to truly experience your cultural surroundings.

After a bit of follow-up, I’ve discovered that most of these critics were upset by my “anti-marijuana” stance. The thing is, I never come out and tell people to not smoke it on the road; all I say is to (a) not get caught traveling with it in places where it could land you in jail, and (b) don’t get into the habit of using it all the time, because it will separate you from the more mind-blowing experience of unfiltered reality. That’s as anti-drug as I get in Vagabonding — and in fact (while I’ve never much been into smoking it myself) I’m all for marijuana legalization in the United States.
Moreover, I’m of the belief that stoner movies are one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture. In fact, from my personal DVD collection, here are four stoner movies that I make an effort to watch at least once a year:

4. Dude, Where’s My Car? Admittedly, one reason I love this movie so much is that I first saw it on the big screen in Bombay’s Colaba neighborhood, and it proved to be the pop-cultural equivalent of time-travel amid a very intense sojourn in India. But even better, this is a stoner movie that (unlike, say, Smiley Face) doesn’t try too hard to be a stoner movie: It’s just a delightfully pointless and juvenile comedy that features occasional marijuana use, an idiotic sci-fi sub-plot, and a million quotable lines. And then? No more and then!

3. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle This movie has already been praised for its effectiveness in capturing an ebullient, almost patriotic vision of the American Dream without having any white guys in starring roles (unless you count the genius cameo by Neil Patrick Harris). This munchie-driven comedy might even qualify as an iconic American road movie, since Harold and Kumar’s epic burger quest shows how any destination is made that much sweeter by the challenges of the journey itself. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

2. Dazed and Confused Richard Linklater’s pot-laced tribute to 1976 might be hilarious and quotable, but it’s also startlingly well observed. Indeed, this is no madcap stoner fantasy — it is (to me, at least) a wonderfully evocative look at mid-American teenage life in the pre-cell-phone age. A nice reminder that, at the end of the day, you just gotta keep livin’ man — L-I-V-I-N.

1. The Big Lebowski The first time I watched this movie I laughed myself silly — and nearly 20 viewings later it keeps getting funnier. To try and explain why I love this movie so much is beside the point: Either you know what I mean because you love it too, or you’re one of those people who just couldn’t embrace its stoner-Zen absurdity (and if so, then, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.). The Dude abides! Fire up the Ford Torino and take me to LebowskiFest.

So there you have it: My admonitions in Vagabonding don’t mean I’m against marijuana; I’m just saying you should save plenty of psychic space for unmediated reality as you travel. As for Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, it remains to be seen which aspect of the book attracts the most grumpy emails. I’m guessing it’ll either be the “Jack Kerouac for the Internet Age” blurb on the cover (which might attract the ire of Beat movement fundamentalists), or use of the word “postmodern” in the subtitle (which could attract the fundamentalist ire of pasty academic guys in black turtlenecks). We’ll see!