Review: I’m Dangerous with Love

If only Dimitri Mugianis were as worthy of our attention as Michel Negroponte considers him.

I’m Dangerous with Love
Photo: Ashley Valmere

“You can’t be a healer without being sick, and I’m a sick motherfucker.” So goes the epigrammatic ethos of ex-junkie, one-man rehab center, and showboating post-punk wannabe Dimitri Mugianis, the desultory center of Michel Negroponte’s equally unsteady documentary I’m Dangerous with Love. As though treating himself to a lively tangent from his last film, the addiction-themed Methadonia, Negroponte follows the stocky, street wisdom-spouting Mugianis as he distributes, and manages the ingestion of, the psychoactive ibogaine to recidivist heroin users in the hopes of passing on his own shamanic escape from smack. The detox process, we’re told early on, is not precisely recreational; likened at one point to ten years of psychoanalysis condensed into 12 hours, the treatment renders most “patients” bedridden beside buckets of “purifying” vomit for a day or more, making it seem suspiciously like a state of accelerated withdrawal. Still, as one anonymous ibogaine veteran attests, the weekend or so of humiliating corporeal agony for some interrupts chemical dependence in a manner that facilitates the effectiveness of more traditional forms of therapy, like counseling.

Mugianis makes much of the fact that, despite its astounding potential as an anti-addictive, ibogaine is a class A controlled substance in the United States and is rarely even heard of outside of West African communities, where it has ceremonial value, but his dubiously extemporaneous pharmaceutical guidance and the unscientific (to say the least) nature of the results recorded here don’t quite compel one to start requesting the hallucinogen from his local Kaiser. Far more piquant than the drug itself, in fact, is the customer experience Mugianis provides, which allows users to procure assistance through the same channels that abet their self-poisoning. It’s a kind of “street treatment” where no one is refused (Mugianis charges on a sliding scale), the impartial sterility of hospitals can be avoided, and peer credibility can be safely maintained (regardless of motive, buying ibogaine is still a criminal act).

The only competent exploration of this urban-savvy cottage industry, however, comes from Mugianis himself, amid a mugging explanation of why he’s drawn to the dealer lifestyle. “It’s chaos,” he says, in near-perfect tagline form. “It involves crime, it involves elements of death, physical danger…” And Negroponte, ultimately more fascinated with Mugianis’s habit-oriented personality than with his improvisatory clinic, focuses on delivering on these dramatic promises while photographing a handful of home visits. (During one episode, the director admits with faux-investigative anxiety that he has “no idea who’s house we’re in.”) These are meant to be illustrative of ibogaine’s rangy mercurialness (we see heroin addicts, benzo addicts, as well as trauma patients), but the paucity of non-soundbite testimony presents them as exhibits rather than people. Even when in the intelligibly vocal throes of an ibogaine high, the soundtrack drowns them out, alternating distanced narration with the aggressively mundane poetry that Mugianis recited as the front man of Leisure Class (a choice quote: “I love you more than all the heroin in New York!”).

Toward the middle of the documentary, Negroponte ingests the narcotic himself, and the predictably lysergic results couldn’t be stuffier; a CGI fetus and some ghostly home movies float by while the director carries on like a preadolescent girl growing tipsy while downing champagne on the sly for the first time. “It’s good that my wife and children are out of town for a few days,” he giggles, “‘cause I’m in a totally altered state!” But the lifelessness of this gonzo auteurism may illuminate Negroponte’s curious interest in the seductively theatrical Mugianis; one senses a stark envy beneath the nondescript voiceover commentary, one that perhaps refused to damn the postmodern dope peddler’s hamming to the cutting room floor.

If only Mugianis were as worthy of our attention as Negroponte considers him. During a third-act sabbatical to Africa, he becomes more acquainted with ibogaine’s spiritual uses and he returns to New York refreshed, with plans to integrate costumed tribal worship rituals into his treatments. Questions regarding the ethics and social value of Mugianis’s vigilantism not only remain, they’ve been made clumpy with the putative “earth respect” of face paint and incense. If only both director and subject could momentarily hallucinate themselves into the afterlife; it might give a likely eye-rolling Hunter S. Thompson an opportunity to smack them upside the head.

 Director: Michel Negroponte  Screenwriter: Nick Pappasm, Joni Wehrli  Distributor: First Run Features  Running Time: 84 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2009  Buy: Video

Joseph Jon Lanthier

Joseph Jon Lanthier is the director of What Should I Put in My Coffee? His writing has also appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal.

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