My latest piece for Reality Sandwich explores the notable psychedelic elements in Doctor Strange, linking it to Avatar, Inception, The Matrix and other cyberdelic movies.
Back in 2009, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void appeared to herald a new era in psychedelic cinema, where increasing awareness and appreciation of DMT states fused dramatically with rapid advances in visual effects technology, to give rise to a better, more subtle and sophisticated film iconography that transcended the shortcomings of earlier years and got much closer to depicting the actuality of these fugitive and evanescent states. Noé’s lengthy extemporised sequences, involving fantastic voyages through fractal geometries and transmogrifying amoeboid forms, evoked both internal and external space adventure, and for the initiated he very much had it cracked. But despite high critical acclaim in some quarters,Enter the Void bombed at the box office and abjectly failed to kick-start a tryptamine-cinema renaissance. Seemingly by being so completely focussed on the arcane realms of the psychedelic inscape, it was too purist for many, lacked sufficient narrative underpinning and didn’t press enough buttons in the vital area of entertainment as well as enlightenment.
Cut to 2016 and in the latest Marvel blockbuster, the eponymous Doctor Strange – played assuredly by Benedict Cumberbatch – has his rationality and scepticism smashed by shamanic ninja the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and after first discovering his astral body, he is then hurtled onto an cosmic roller-coaster ride that more than uncannily resembles Noé’s void. The Doctor whizzes through a world of eidetically coloured planetary bodies, black holes, fractals and kaleidoscopic visions, coming to witness his own fingers sprouting hands whose fingers sprout yet more hands, and so on, and he finally becomes a true believer in alternate dimensionality. And in many other discombobulatingly trippy sequences, using further advanced generations of visual effects and 3D technology, the latest psychedelic fare is once again delivered successfully to the masses – by wrapping it in the entertainment-friendly foil of science fiction.
Read more on Reality Sandwich.
The latest Psypress Journal, 2016 Volume XVIII, features ‘War Stories and Cosmic Flights’, my in-depth interview with LSD historian Andy Roberts. We compare notes on the mind-bending properties of Operation Julie acid and generally muse about tripping in the 1970s, with Andy giving examples of the various weird acid synchronicities he’s experienced.
Andy goes on to talk about his new book Acid Drops, a collection of essays and interviews about all things psychedelic. As well as exploring the wacky, scary and wonderful in first-hand trip accounts, he also debunks long-standing urban myths about acid, such as Francis Crick being aided by LSD in discovering the DNA double helix; and also the classic ‘Reservoir Drugs’ scare story, about LSD in the water supply potentially freaking out entire towns and cities.
His collection includes interviews with Liz Elliot, Casey Hardison and Ramsay Campbell, and he also features a piece of his own fiction, all of which he discusses, along with his upcoming biography of Michael Hollingshead. Finally Andy gives his thoughts about the ‘war on drugs’, which makes him ‘incandescent with rage’, and also the current psychedelic renaissance, including the effect of the internet and social media on acid culture.
Psypress 2016 Volume XVIII also features Dr Andy Letcher’s ‘Mad Thoughs on Mushrooms’, a Foucauldian discourse on the effects of mushrooms within various classifications – some philosophical brain food of the highest order here! Christopher G. Ewing gives a marvellous account of the healing properties of psychedelics in dealing with conditions such as PTSD and addiction, and Vladimir Stephan delves into the area of sensory deprivation and altered states, examining the various techniques. For an enlightening read, get your copy now: Psypress 2016 Volume XVIII
Part 2 of my article Psychedelia in the Movies, originally published in the Psypress UK Journal 2015 Vol IV, has been republished on Reality Sandwich alongside Part 1, including the illustrative video clips. So the the whole story, including text and imagery is now available online!
Once the late ’60s boom in acid culture and acid cinema had dissipated, the psychedelic movie became another component of the fringe and the experimental, something to recur and be revived at intervals, a pattern that continues into the present. As we saw in ‘Part 1’, a principal avenue of this tendency involved name directors, associated with the weird and offbeat, taking on solid psychedelic literary properties – such as Ken Russell, the work of John C. Lily and Altered States; and David Cronenberg, the work of William Burroughs and Naked Lunch. The next big milestone in psychedelic cinema occurred in just the same fashion, with Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
With his track record in mind-bending fantasies such as Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam would seem the ideal director to tackle Thompson’s tale of madcap psychedelic debauchery, where the ‘effects’ are already ‘scripted’, rendered in electrifyingly graphic prose. But Gilliam came into the difficult pre-production process late, having to produce a new script in a short time, and the filming itself proved as chaotic as the movie’s contents. The end result achieved a disappointing box office performance and very mixed reviews, with many critics understandably attributing the characters’ qualities of waywardness and incoherence to the movie plot itself.
Whilst falling short of being a totally satisfying adaptation of the book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is nevertheless a very worthy effort in the reification of psychedelic effects and head spaces for the screen. Gilliam wanted the film to feel like a trip from beginning to end, and with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, he designed a catalogue of techniques to match the qualities of each of the many drugs that are consumed, such as melting colours and flare effects for mescaline, and wide angles and morphing for LSD. Voice-over narration from Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke provides much-needed structure and grounding, bringing us back to the novel and Thompson’s original vision as a bulwark against drug chaos swamping everything.
Read more on Reality Sandwich.
My Breaking Convention talk from July 2015 is now up on Vimeo.
In their writings and lifestyle experiments, the Beat writers Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg were very much the precursors of the psychedelic movement – in particular with regard to their employment of drugs for recreational and psychonautic purposes. They were pioneering users of ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD; and when Timothy Leary began his Harvard work he naturally tried to induct the three as elder statesmen figures. The results were somewhat volatile and unexpected, with one resounding success, another a mix of good and bad, and another a resounding failure. Nevertheless the Beats remain highly influential figures and today’s psychedelic culture would not be the same without them.
My article Psychedelia in the Movies, Part 1, originally published in the Psypress UK Journal 2015 Vol IV, has been republished on Reality Sandwich, including the illustrative video clips. So the full experience of text and imagery is now available online!
From its earliest days the medium of cinema has embraced the flight of fancy, the surreal journeyings of the imagination, reified on celluloid by ingenious combinations of special effects. Georges Méliès remains the most celebrated pioneer of this kind of work, producing masterpieces such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), which employed multiple exposures, hand colouring and substitute splicing amongst many other techniques in order to make the filmmaker’s vision come alive.
But when it came to placing specifically drug-induced visions on the silver screen, the inevitable barrier of censorship prevailed for many decades, as of course it did with explicitly sexual and violent content. The Motion Picture Production Code (the Hay’s Code) was very rigorous on the matter of drug use depiction, though it began to ease as the censorship climate softened through the 1950s. This edict was in place until March 1951: ‘The illegal drug traffic must not be portrayed in such a way as to stimulate curiosity concerning the use of, or traffic in, such drugs; nor shall scenes be approved which show the use of illegal drugs, or their effects, in detail.’
Specifically anti-drug movies – such as the risible Reefer Madness (1936) – were permissible, but the first major film to study drug use seriously was The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), directed by Otto Preminger and starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict who struggles to say clean after a spell in prison. Very controversial in its day, it was one of the first films to challenge the Hay’s Code restrictions and it laid the ground for the massive changes that were to follow shortly in the 1960s. Consequently when the acid revolution took place, the acid movie was not far behind.
Read more on Reality Sandwich.
Author Ben Sessa is a psychiatrist, and his novel starts with a psychiatrist character, Dr Robert Austell, having a violent fantasy where he cuts a patient’s throat with a scalpel and nonchalantly watches her bleed to death. The reader can be forgiven for momentarily wandering just how autobiographical the work is, and indeed whether such things are the norm within the psychiatric profession! But of course this slasher opening is a piece of black comedy in order to set up the jaded, disillusioned Austell as someone who – like the majority of the working population – is bored with his job and wishes he could be doing something more enlightening.
Austell’s situation is contrasted with that of another British psychiatrist, Dr Joseph Langley, who is living the New Age life in California, taking in the ocean vibes whilst high on LSD, his ego and self frittering away ‘into nothing but a river of effervescent specks of infinite light.’ Steeped in the alternative society since embryohood, Langley has brought those values to bear on his psychiatric work, and is now a renowned leader in the field of psychedelic therapy – using LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA to effect healing on the emotionally damaged.
The two psychiatrists come together when Austell happens to attend a psychedelic conference in California, not really aware of what he’s getting into. Here, the novel’s comic undertone gets a boost as a number of New Age weirdos are seen through Austell’s eyes. They include one speaker, Mountain Spirit, who sports a grey ponytail and talks of:
‘…The double helix gliss-openings percolating into our grid cubes transmit to us from mutated cadence entities. Using a synesthetic code derived from two-dimensional forms we exist simultaneously in identical universes. We jump in real time using fractal wave structures between this, our everyday world and the Other – where nothingness is connected with ourselves, the spirits and our environment.’
Austell thinks he’s a suitable case for sectioning, but as the conference progressives he becomes less judgemental of the quirks of psychedelic medicine, and by the time Joseph Langley speaks, Austell is more receptive. The two psychiatrists meet in the bar afterwards and begin a beautiful friendship, each seeing the other as their own flipside or complementary element in a yin/yang dynamic – Austell the down-to-earth jobbing physician with regular patient contact, and Langley the head-in-the-clouds world-changer who needs to get more pragmatic to achieve results.
They form a partnership, which leads them to establish a psychedelic medicine centre, down on a muddy farm in Somerset. Here, a selection of Austell’s patients – hopeless cases as far as conventional psychiatry is concerned – have their lives turned around and are completely rebased as a result of targeted treatment with LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA. Eventually a thriving commune develops on the farm, and word of the miracles being worked spreads far and wide.
Psychedelic medicine is Ben Sessa’s own pet project within his psychiatric work, and in To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic, he is actualising a dream of it becoming generally accepted and even taking over the world. In reality it could never be as simple as portrayed, and no one knows this better than Dr Sessa himself, who has written and talked extensively about the obstacles, misunderstandings and general resistance there is toward such a venture.
But within sections of the psychiatric world itself, there is interest and sympathy for the clinical use of psychedelics, and this is something he wants to nurture. A novel, then, concerning the subject – with a far greater latitude of creative freedom than a non-fiction work provides – would seem like an ideal venture and a way to win over more support and attention regarding the cause.
But still, it has to be entertaining and page-turning to succeed, and indeed it does. Dr Sessa displays a great talent for creative writing and never ‘lectures’ his readers in a dull or pedantic way. Instead he uses irony and satire in liberal doses to take amusing sideswipes at conventional psychiatry – in particular its reliance on fat-profit pharmaceuticals to achieve any end. Whether it be benzodiazepines, SSRIs, tricyclics, anti-convulsants or antipsychotics, their efficacy is limited and patients really need something more to fill the black holes inside themselves.
Ben Sessa is also good at bringing characters alive, from spaced-out hippies to plodding psychiatric journeymen to burnt out headcases. His novel moves along rip-roaringly and leaves a constant smile on the face. Perhaps the story does involve a lot of wishful thinking, but that’s what psychedelic transformation is all about – dreaming wonderful dreams, attempting to make the impossible come true, and whatever the outcome it matters no great deal, for as the Buddhists say: the passing is nirvana.
To purchase a copy of the novel, please visit the Psypress Shop.
The new Psypress UK 2015 Vol V Journal contains Part 2 of my exploration of psychedelic movies, taking the story into the late 1990s and up to the present. Films containing notable trip sequences include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Enter the Void, and A Field in England, and clips can be viewed below. Other trippy movies featured include the sci-fi-oriented A Scanner Darkly and Inception, and here trailers are posted, as they convey the overall weird ambience better than any particular isolated scene.
The article also features a look at the history of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in cinema, in particular the Tim Burton adaptation, with its highly psychedelic production design, further enhanced by 3-D. A clip of Burton’s Mad Hatter’s tea party is included, together with another Alice short animation, Malice in Wonderland, which is particularly trippy in its constantly metamorphosing effects. The clips follow the same order as the accounts in the text.
Psypress 2015 Vol V also features inspiring pieces from Graham St John, James Oroc, Julian Vayne, Jani Pestana and David Luke. To purchase a copy please visit the Psypress Shop.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). This clip shows the latter part of the hotel lobby ‘Sunshine’ acid trip, where the carpet liquefies as reality distorts and the barroom clientele transmogrify into giant leering lizards. Heavy or what!
A Scanner Darkly (2006). This trailer gives a good impression of the unique overall schizoid hallucinatory feel of the movie. The animation overlay, achieved through interpolated rotoscoping, hovers ambiguously between real and cartoon; and then there’s that being from the next world, with a head covered in eyes…