Human Traffic (1999) — Looking at club culture from the outside in

“I’ve got 48 hours off from the world”

Rich’s rating: This is going to be an impossible sell.

Rich’s review: Now, as I’m one of the many twenty-seven year old ball of collected neuroses occasionally known as human beings, I like to consider myself ‘worldy’ to some degree. I’ve never been one for sitting at home and thinking about doing them; instead, I’ve often gone out and done them, with disastrous results — but at least I did them in the first place. I can look back at my twenties without feeling like I wasted my youth (even though I probably did).

However, since it’s impossible to do everything; there were several ‘scenes’ I only ever saw from the outside in. Line Dancing, for example — I can quite happily say that I have never dressed up in a tasselled denim jacket and cowboy boots and danced to country & western music. The whole Heath & Fitness/Gym culture passed me by. Those people who stick 80 foot spoilers and 30 foglights on the front of their 1987 Ford Capri. All these subcultures are mysteries to me.

However, the biggest scene that I was never a part of has to be the ‘Club Scene’. Of course, my personal preference only for music with 3 guitars and heavily tattooed men shouting so loud your ears bleed probably has a lot to do with it; but I’ve just never really ‘got’ the club scene — but I have known several people for whom their weekend club trips were their equivalent of pilgrimages to Mecca. That is, if Mecca sold bottled beer at 300% overcharge and had bass so loud you could stand still and use the vibration of the floor to propel you around.

All this long winded and wordy garbage is my way of telling you that Human Traffic is a film about club culture; in fact, many of the people that I know who are into the club scene consider this film their manifesto; the expression of all the reasons they love their weekends. Why I watched this film really still eludes me. Nothing about it really appealed to me on the surface; it wasn’t about me. Maybe it was the hype, or maybe I just wanted an outsiders perspective on it. Regardless of my long forgotten reasons, I watched it, and was amazed by it for several reasons, some good, some bad.

If you read my reviews a lot you’ll know that it’s around about paragraph five that I actually bother to get round to giving you an idea of the plot rather than burbling on about myself. The trouble with Human Traffic is that it has less plot than 30 seconds of Sunset Beach. As a film, I don’t really know what to call it; it’s part documentary, but not shot in the documentary style; part commentary on drug culture, social values, and the alienation of the younger generation; it’s part love story, part family tragedy, part character study. But it’s not a complete anything; it’s like a sandwich with grape jelly, lime pickle, whipped cream and chocolate chips; a blend of things that don’t really mesh, but are held together by one thing. In the sandwiches case, it’s the bread; in this film’s case, it’s the characters.

The film’s narrated by Jip, a twenty-something boy who hates his job and lives for the weekend. Jip introduces us to the characters, situations, and ideas of the film by regularly addressing the audience directly. Ordinarily, ‘breaking the 4th wall’ is a pretty tired convention — but here, it becomes an integral part of the film — since the entire thing is essentially plotless, it has to be driven by the characters; and so through a combination of flashback montages narrated by Jip, comments directly to the audience, and clever cinematic tricks, writer/director Justin Kerrigan manages to make people care enough about the characters to forgive the fact that the plot seems to have escaped off the lot during filming.

All the characters, like everyone I know really, are bags of insecurities. Jip is having a problem… er… ’performing’ with the ladies; Koop, Jip’s best friend, can’t deal with the fact that other men are attracted to his girlfriend Nina; Nina herself is stuck in a job she hates; Nina’s best friend Lulu seems to be a magnet for insensitive men who mess her about; and Moff, Jip’s other mate, is at constant war with his family over his refusal to get a job.

But there’s more! Family strife also abounds; Nina’s brother Lee is going to the club (and taking Ecstasy) for the first time; Koop’s dad has had a breakdown, and believes that Koop is actually a pair of identical twins called Leon who are bringing him news about the war going on outside the mental home where he’s incarcerated; and Jip’s Ma makes her cash by providing discrete ‘services’ for elderly gentlemen.

With that much unresolved tension hanging in the air, you could easily imagine that this film could devolve into an emotional rollercoaster when mixed with drugs and drink; I remember watching this film thinking – “Here it comes, here comes the part where it all falls apart and all their lives are ruined forever”.

But it never happens; in what is either a stroke of genius or madness, the characters work around their problems, or forget their problems, never confronting, resolving, or being brought low by them. Those problems seem to exist only to show that these characters are real people; but they have no major bearing on the film other than providing dialogue-fodder for our heroes and heroines to discuss.

In many ways, this film is almost the anti-Requiem For A Dream. Rather than show the inevitable decline a hard drug habit causes; it shows both the up and down sides of the recreational drug use that is part of the club culture. It doesn’t do it in a preachy way, or a glamorous way; the message of this film isn’t really about drugs at all. But the attitude of this film is pretty much summed up during a scene where Jip is watching a tape of some classic Bill Hicks standup. Bill’s line, from a famous show of his, goes simply “I’ve had great times on drugs. Never killed anyone, never hurt anyone, never raped anyone, never lost a home, job, wife, or kids, laughed my ass off, and went about my day. Sorry”.

As a sell, like I said at the beginning of the film, this is close to impossible. I really can’t see a situation where someone in the US will walk into their local BlockBuster, walk up to the counter and say “Hi! I’m looking for a practically plotless British film involving strange camera angles, weird flashbacks, drug use, and club tunes. Oh, and if the characters could have some kind of regional accent that’s hard for outsiders to understand and swear every sentence, and if it could be peppered with references only Brits or deranged anglophiles would get, that would be great!”.

I don’t think so.

Which is a shame, because for all my whining about the film not actually doing anything other than following five people on a night out at a club, it does have a lot to say about the alienation of the younger generations, and a feeling of belonging the club culture seems to foster. Like I said, it’s not my scene, but having seen this film, I can at least understand the attraction now.

So, if you’re feeling adventurous, and you really want to follow my recommendation, I don’t think Human Traffic is a waste of anyone’s time. It’s a cleverly made, well acted film with a lot to say; but if it goes over your head because of the Anglican references, or offends you with it’s messages or morals, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh, and if you’re into the club scene and you’ve not seen this film, I tell you now that you should.

But for me, I’m off to crank up my stereo and see if I can still make my ears bleed.

Didja notice?

  • Oh so many references to British TV in there… sorry, non-Brits, but you’re gonna be going ‘huh?’ a lot.
  • Jip’s Sexual Paranoia manifesting as his ex-girlfriends watching him in bed. Now that’s enough to put any man off his game.
  • The fantastic subtitled conversation between Lulu and her Aunt, where the subtitles say what they actually mean by what they’re saying.
  • Cameo appearance by UK author and prominent pro-cannabis campaigner Howard Marks.
  • The dramatically building and ominous music as Moff tries to cross a busy road while coming down, which cuts off immediately as soon as he makes it to the other side.
  • Dear Film-Makers; having your characters reference Star Wars is no longer cool – STOP IT!
  • An absolutely fantastic in-film rebuff to all the critics who would have inevitably said that the film promoted drug use; very clever, but not very subtle.

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