The Case for Cocaine Bears
In college I took a psychiatry course taught by a
professor I’ll call Frank. Not your typical academic, Frank wore a tiny sport
coat that barely fit his giant
biceps, thinning hair held back with gel
and hair salon, and many necklaces that I thought were too many. I don’t know
where Frank was from, but I know in my heart
it was New Jersey.
Here is an
article about the Cocaine Bear, but I have to start with Frank, because Frank
was a psychologist who fed cocaine to pigeons. That was all his performance.
And abstractly, it’s okay! There are probably respected scientists around the
country who feed coke to pigeons for perfectly good scientific reasons. But the
thing about Frank was that if you lined up 20 guys off the street and you were
told “one of them feeds cocaine to pigeons for a living”, 10 times
out of 10 you’d pick Frank.
Walking along the green one day, when we were
both late for class, I had the opportunity to ask Frank how he got into his
“research area”. He then shrugged, flashed a wolfish grin and said,
“Because they let me.” I don’t know what it was to get Cocaine Bear
greenlit by Universal Pictures, but the film has an unmistakable Frank
“because they let me” energy.
Of course, there’s only one reason to see a
cocaine bear, and that’s because you want to see what happens when a bear uses
cocaine. In a country full of scammers and scammers, it’s refreshing to have
someone sell you exactly what you were promised. Loosely based on a true story, the plot of the film is
simple. Drug smugglers drop cocaine from airplanes. The bear found said
cocaine. The bear paints the mountain red to get the cocaine. There are a few
other small plot points along the way, mostly revolving around a couple of kids
who take a spoonful of cocaine and get lost, and a nice drug dealer mourning
his dead wife (cancer dead, not bear dead), but that’s about it. it.
fascinating thing about this low-angle blockbuster, however, is not its titular
bear explosion in the wilds of Georgia. The most interesting thing about the
film is its environmentalism. Cocaine
Bear director Elizabeth Banks has insisted that her seemingly light-hearted
film is about humanity’s arrogant desire to control its environment. “If
you mess with nature, nature sucks,” he sums up. This ecological angle may
surprise viewers who arrived in cinemas with the promise of a black bear
jumping on the nose bomb and raising hell.
the Cocaine Bear defies our expectations of what environmentalism looks like,
it is because American consumers are used to an environmental discourse characterized by piety and a touch of
sadness. Most “green” messages have a festive tone, accompanied by
little music and dire warnings. Above all, environmentally friendly content –
whether it’s a feature film or an advertisement for the World Wildlife Fund –
is always didactic. This would make us learn something through this training
and inspire us to act. Almost every
environmental discourse in America is based on the old Enlightenment maxim that
knowledge is power: if only we knew more
about humanity’s impact on the environment, we would change our behavior and
The unfortunate truth is that this assumption is
questionable. Research shows that informing about environmental issues does not
always change people’s habits or behavior. Additionally, some researchers argue
that the doom and gloom that often characterize mainstream environmental
communication can actually be harmful and encourage anxiety to act. As a
professor who teaches environmental films, I have seen firsthand how disturbing
films about serious topics like climate change or species extinction can have
like Snowpiercer or Children of Men may be great cinema – and have tough words
on environmental issues – but they don’t really inspire the kind of inclusive
attitude needed to address the
ecological crises they explore. My classrooms are populated mostly by bright-eyed environmental studies majors
who want to save the world, but watching movies and documentaries about
environmental disasters often seems to dampen their enthusiasm for activism.
“What’s the use of trying?” a student asked me during office hours
after the dark apocalyptic film The
Road. “Things are going to hell either way.” Such reactions often leave
me torn between my responsibilities as a professor – helping young people face
the hard truths of an endangered planet – and feeling that environmental art
often does more harm than good, creating despair rather than resolution.
Recognizing this kind of environmental despair in
herself and among her own students, Nicole Seymour—an environmentalist and
English professor at California State University—has asked a provocative
question: If pious messaging doesn’t inspire change, what if environmentalism might
“work” better by becoming more irreverent? More ribald and less self-righteous?
Silly rather than somber? More about giggles than guilt? Seymour calls this
cheeky posture “bad environmentalism,” which she defines as “environmentalism
with the ‘wrong’ attitude— without reverence or seriousness—and while also
having a sense of humor about oneself.” It is an attitude that Cocaine Bear is
shot through with.
The film’s desire to shun any pretense to
illumination is communicated from the very start. Before we catch our first
glimpse of the bear on booger sugar, the movie opens with an epigraph providing
very official-sounding information about what to do in the event of a bear
attack. As soon as the film finishes providing these helpful survival tips,
though, the epigraph concludes by citing its source as none other than
Wikipedia. The gag killed at my showing, doubly so because the joke was on us.
(The movie is called Cocaine Bear. Did we expect a scientific report?) From the
jump, the film confesses that it has no moral beyond the obvious, nothing to
teach its viewers that they couldn’t learn from a quick Google search. (FYI, if
you ever do find yourself being mauled by a black bear, your best chance is to
fight! Though if I learned anything from Cocaine Bear, it is that squaring up
with a coked-out Ursus americanus is not a good idea.
If the Cocaine Bear’s main target is, it could be
crooks like me who tend to be content with their mediocre environmental duties and always want
to spread their knowledge. (Good luck in composting, the planet is still
burning!) But drug dealers and tree huggers are one in the same. An
animal-loving detective, a park ranger who dreams of working in Yellowstone, an
environmental activist who came to “explore the forest” (what the hell
does that mean), and a couple of European eco-tourists with catchy accents.
accidentally inserted. a bear that takes its orders from none other than
Bolivian walking powder. Either way, their clear “environmental goal”
is insufficient: they die with other money, dirty children, and coke dealers.
the film is often grotesquely violent, there is also a strange comfort in its
bloodlust. If the bear is a metaphor for our current climate crisis—the
murderous embodiment of uncontrolled nature encouraging human exploitation—I
found myself somewhat comforted by this conclusion. The bear lives. Some people
do. Life goes on and the sun rises. Of course, there are no special nuances in
this. The whole movie is based on a kind of tautology: Cocaine Bear works
because Cocaine has a bear. But it’s also a pure, uncut pleasure to watch a
vaguely green film that isn’t obnoxiously preachy or relentlessly depressing.
Cocaine Bear is bad environmentalism at its best, up to 11 years old and wild.
And it has value.
literary critic Fredric Jameson has argued that seemingly shallow
“genre fiction”—such as crime novels or space operas—is able to
introduce its readers to serious subjects precisely because they are shallow.
Someone coming home from a long day in a
stall might not want to read a 500-page historical treatise on 19th-century
chattel slavery, but they might be game to read Octavia Butler’s Relatives , a
fascinating time-travel novel from the same period. and thing When it comes to
unashamedly mass-market genres like sci-fi or animal attack movies,
entertainment doesn’t always equate to mindless escapism. For Jameson, the most
entertaining elements of a novel or film can sometimes be a kind of Trojan
horse, allowing the writer or director to smuggle in serious subjects without
seeming stuffy, preachy or, worse, boring.
sense, it can be a no-brainer whether
Elizabeth Banks’ film about a black bear riding white lightning is a
quality “film”. (The inevitable “is this a good bad movie or a bad bad
movie?” has already begun). Ultimately,
Banks’ film may turn out to be too sophisticated to join the pantheon of other
nasty cult classics like Sharknado or The Room, whose creators walk the line
between incompetent and idiotic. I also wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that
Cocaine Bear is a game-changing piece of environmental propaganda: I don’t
think most audiences will leave the film with an awakened environmental
consciousness. But in a climate where it’s all too easy to suppress climate
anxiety, Elizabeth Banks’ film cuts through the ecological malaise. And when
you’re so exhausted, who couldn’t use a little pick-me-up?