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…
My latest piece for the Psypress UK Journal – the first installment of a two-parter – explores the roots of psychedelic movies, their rise in the 1960s and the spread of their various influences thereafter, including psychedelia in comedy, sci-fi and horror, cartoons and reality benders. In particular ‘trip sequences’ in films such as The Trip, Easy Rider and Altered States are analysed at length, alongside other psychedelically-tinged scenes in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Yellow Submarine.
Whilst verbal descriptions convey much, I felt it would be useful to back up the article with some clips of the actual scenes under discussion, so here is a selection of suitable elements to peruse in conjunction with the piece. They follow the same order as in the text. Psypress UK 2015 Vol IV also contains illuminating essays from Peter Sjostedt-H, Nathan Horowitz and Ido Hartogsohn. To purchase a copy please visit the Psypress Shop.
The Trip (1967). This trailer gives a good flavour of the kitschy pop art treatment of the subject back in its heyday, with much reliance on flicker and strobing effects. It will blow your mind!
Easy Rider (1969). The Mardi Gras cemetery acid trip borrows from the grammar of The Trip, but moves it into darker, edgier spaces with fast cutting and vertiginous camera moves conjuring an atmosphere of chaos.
I attended the recent Breaking Convention at Greenwich University and gave a talk entitled ‘Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement’, which covered the story of how the major Beat figures – William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy – preempted and were later inducted into 1960s psychedelia by Timothy Leary. It gave me the opportunity to again explore in detail the fascinating facts of Burroughs’ early involvement with ayahuasca – previously covered in William Burroughs: Ayahuasca Tourist and The Soundless Hum – which in the context of the conference and the current huge interest in ayahuasca were most pertinent.
At Breaking Convention there were many talks relating to use of the vine, covering ayahuasca in group therapy, tools for navigating its altered states, the current wave of tourism versus tradition, soma and ayahuasca; and also the related areas of tryptamine plant mythos, the pineal portal, the ontology of entities in the DMT realm and what it’s like to be a machine elf. In fact the whole ayahuasca/DMT/pineal gland nexus is the hottest area in the current psychedelic zeitgeist.
And good old Bill Burroughs was there first – a fact that other speakers and participants picked up on as well as myself. Luke Goaman-Dodson gave an illuminating talk on the parallels between Burroughs and Terence McKenna as ayahuasca psychonauts, comparing McKenna’s thoughts on the syntactical nature of reality with Burroughs’s cut-up technique, an area that touches on both post-structuralism and chaos magic – the notion that the world is made of words and that reality can be manipulated through them. Burroughs developed his cut-up technique into form of magic using recording devices and used it effectively; once he attacked the Moka Bar in Soho, where he’d received rudeness and bad service, and after several sessions the business began to collapse and eventually closed down.
The transgressive nature of Burroughs’ activities – the ‘literary outlaw’, drug addict and gun nut – cropped up in Alan Piper’s excellent presentation on psychedelics as a key tool for alterity in the twentieth century avant garde. Burroughs’ writings in The Yage Letters and Junkie were juxtaposed with some excellent photos of the older writer in a three-piece suit, pistol in hand of course! Alan posed the question of whether psychedelics would lose their transformative powers if they become officially sanctioned, commodified and safely marketed – a route that Burroughs never traveled in his art and life.
And Burroughs’ hand could also be seen in the area of the convention’s installations, in particular with regard to hypnagogic light machines. Burroughs explored flicker-effect altered consciousness with his collaborators Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, who designed and built a ‘Dreamachine’ – a cardboard cylinder containing slits, with a light bulb inside, rotating on a record deck so that it would flash at the correct rhythm to induce hallucinations.
Dr Dirk Proeckl and Dr Engelbert Winkler discussed their Lucia No.3 Light Machine, a very high tech variant where a pulsing whirring light is aimed at the subject’s face, with closed eyes, to induce psychedelic displays of colours and shapes, out-of-body feelings and deep relaxation. But retailing at £16,000, it resides at the high end of one’s pocket also!
More in keeping with the original concept, digital artist Luciana Haill displayed dreamachines augmented with EEG installation. Subjects sit with closed eyes and monitored brainwaves, listening to sounds on headphones, in order to create an interactive participatory artwork. Luciana is also involved in the academic side of brainwave research; she is a Visiting Research Fellow at Sussex University’s Department of Informatics and has written a paper on ‘Dreamachines and Electroencephalographic Signals in Art’. Mr Burroughs and Mr Gysin would have definitely approved!
Also at Breaking Convention, Muswell Hill Press launched its anthology of the best of PsypressUK writing – Out of the Shadows – covering subjects such as the use of psychedelics in medicine and psychotherapy, archetypal psychology and spiritual awakenings, creative surges in literature, myth and visionary art, and philosophical theory to ayahuasca healing. It features top psychedelic commentators such as Stanislav Grof, Rick Strassman, Ben Sessa, Rob Dickins, Tim Read, Maria Pap, Sam Gandy, Andy Roberts, Dave King, Henrik Dahl, Jack Hunter and David Luke, and an interview with activist Casey William Hardison. It also contains my article ‘Beats on Acid’, which provided the original basis for my Breaking Convention talk.
In the words of Dr David Luke:
Florid as psychosis, poetic as the elements, insightful as meditation and intellectual as the noosphere: PsyPressUK is a ragtaglledy mag loaded with psychedelic word mongery from far-flung medicine bags and the academy’s finest pharmacographers, and this anthology assembles the best of those essays in one book. Not just writing on drugs, but writing about drugs, with the light fully switched on.
Copies are available from the Psypress Shop.