Shifty - High times
Shifty is the best drug scene drama in years. But, argues Paul Dale, we shouldn’t be making films about dealers, we should be copying their business models
‘I said God damn, God damn the pusher man.’ From Easy Rider’s doomed wild hogs to Denzel Washington’s Harlem kingpin in American Gangster, I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve spent with cinema’s dealers and peddlers. I’ve laughed my socks off with Cheech and Chong (and their natural successors Harold and Kumar) and I’ve been known to get drunk and impersonate Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface.
I’ve never regretted the time I spent with Christopher Walken’s venal Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s still astonishing The King of New York or James Franco’s Saul Silver in Pineapple Express. Hell, sometimes when I’m lonely I even go back and visit Gary Oldman’s ridiculous white Rasta dealer Drexyl Spivy (from True Romance) or I’ll make it a long weekend with Faizon Love’s curler-teased Big Worm from Gary Fleder’s 1995 bro-mance Friday.
I’ve got a lot of time for these outlaw folk. For all their peculiarities and eccentricities the pusher man is really only guided by (Adam) Smithsonian notions of supply and demand, free trade, self-interest and trader inventiveness. These fictional creations always seem to have read and understood the Scotsman’s seminal text The Wealth of Nations with its concepts of ‘the invisible hand’ and the ‘specialisation of skill’. When it comes to crime boss Stringer Bell in The Wire, who takes economics classes at Baltimore City Community College, that’s literally the case.
It’s also true of Riz Ahmed’s titular Shifty in Eran Creevy’s impressive new low budget Brit thriller. Well educated, well organised and with an understanding of client liaison and the market’s debt to the community, Shifty is a very modern breed of small time drug dealer. That his best-laid plans ultimately begin to fall apart has more to do with others’ corrupt business models is something we can all now relate to.
Shifty is a very good example of public sector investment in young English filmmakers; the film was funded by Film London’s Microwave scheme, and delivered after a shooting schedule of just 18 days. Watching it made me think that maybe what we need in Scotland is a war or better a prohibition on feature films. It sounds ridiculous, but think about it for a moment. Its excellent short film schemes aside, Scottish Screen has invested in features over the last ten years to produce what? Stone of Destiny? On a Clear Day? Gamerz? The Flying Scotsman? Films I would only revisit as part of a government sanctioned non-invasive torture chamber routine in some unnameable Pacific hellhole.
Better we make all feature film production illegal north of Berwick upon Tweed. Pushers, pimps, gangsters and thieves – society’s natural economists – would move in and create the film studio equivalent of a still in their back gardens. There would be no more wine and canapé receptions for the employees of cultural funding bodies, just money generation from making films people really want to see, namely ones featuring sex, blood, comedy and maybe a little romance. When the going gets good the prohibition could be repealed and all criminal assets seized to reinvest in some tosh middle-class Scottish art movies and we can all begin again.
Shifty, selected release from Fri 24 Apr.