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.
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 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.
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.
So I finally got around to seeing the movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road, not far off two years after its UK release, which, for a writer and film buff who counts the Beat scene as a specialist interest, seems somewhat lackadaisical! I missed it at the cinema and having absorbed the lukewarm reviews and general lack of buzz surrounding the release, I wasn’t in any hurry to catch it on DVD. In a way I was delaying disappointment, putting off a moment of long anticipation that was now almost certainly destined to be anticlimactic. Why would I want to spend two hours witnessing one of the most cherished and influential novels of my life turned into just another average piece of 1940s-’50s period cinema-screen fodder?
Like its companion Great Beat Novel Naked Lunch, On the Road presented challenges to the filmmaker. Its autobiographical narrative is episodic, meandering and strung out, lacking the neatly shaped arc that would authoritively drive a film plot. What holds the book together is, of course, Kerouac’s prose itself, his ‘bop prosody’ with its jazz-like spontaneity, exuberance, fearless rule-breaking experimentation and pure drug-tinged scintillation. Finding a parallel method to inject all that into a film and make it work is no easy task. Go too far from the original – as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch – and you end up with something that’s a bit potty; but try to be too faithful and the danger is your product will be flat and lacklustre in its attempts at reverence.
Walter Salles’ On the Road does at times fall into the latter trap. What was cutting edge in ’50s culture and writing – acting crazy whilst mouthing off about poetry and philosophy, doing Benzedrine and weed and swapping sexual partners – now seems tame, dated and so-whatish in many of the film’s scenes. There is no shock value and not much of a curious spin to make us view the action in a special light. Kerouac the writer manifests in the most conventional of ways – in voice-over narration from the actual text, banging the keys of his typewriter with big close ups of the emerging words, and the usual spiel about wanting to capture life’s evanescence. Finally the moment where he writes the first draft of the book itself, on a continuous scroll of paper (obviously not part of the text itself), becomes the apotheosis of the whole process – again hardly a ground-breaking idea.
This device of real-life framing of the fiction, also employed in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch mash-up, seems almost inevitable in dealing with Beat mythology now, as the biographical details of the protagonists and their writings permeate each other totally. And when you have a ‘fiction’ such as On the Road which is already ‘real-life’ – on the IMDB page real and fictional names appear side by side – one might think there is little point in retaining the fictional armature at all; why not make a film about the events ignoring Kerouac’s own perspective and instead try to say something new? Read more…
Memorable drug scenes in films tend to fall into two broad categories: either they successfully mirror the drug’s effect or the behavioural spectacle of its usage. So in the former category there’s the trippy, such as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where a hapless Johnny Depp on acid watches the carpet pattern swim and the bar clientele transform into giant reptiles; or William Hurt’s mushroom mash-up in Altered States – a fast-cutting fury of pyrotechnic flashes, tribal ghost dancing and eventual ossification. In the latter category there’s the horrors of heroin, such as Ewan McGregor shooting up and overdosing to Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in Trainspotting, or Frank Sinatra going cold turkey in The Man With the Golden Arm. And somewhere in between there’s the mania of cocaine, such as Al Pacino’s nose-burying excesses in Scarface, or Ray Liotta’s snort of wide-eyed wonder in GoodFellas, followed by that marvellous paranoia-fuelled helicopter chase sequence.
These substances come with natural in-built cinematic potential, and there are scores of similar examples that can be quoted. But how many memorable scenes can you think of that are based around the use of downers? Neither the inner nor the outer experience would seem at first glance to have much to offer the filmmaker, but that assumption has just been proved incorrect. Now on release, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has become a talking point with regard to the various array of amoral excesses it exposes; it will also enter the annals of movie list-making with one of the most splendid drug scenes ever, involving that most unlikely of candidates…Quaaludes.
As a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street does start out very like GoodFellas, so much so that it has the sense of being a souped-up retread. There’s the ‘wise guy’ voice-over with visuals tailored to fit, sometimes fast-cutting, other times freeze-framing; and this time the technique is taken further, with the action compressed or expanded in very deliberate schematic ways, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish – Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) even performs direct pieces to camera on occasion. Then there’s this narrator himself, an evident narcissist who opens a door to let the audience into his secret hermetic world, a forbidden pleasuredome of naughtiness and noir in which he wants you to simultaneously delight and abhor.
GoodFellas can be viewed as a kind of addiction movie, though not about addiction to any one substance or activity but instead to the whole existential package of gangsterism – the power, the glamour, the esteem of belonging to an elite crew, the easy money, the enhanced access to sex and drugs, the reckless abandon and, of course, the routine violence. Jordan Belfort is just like Henry Hill in being perpetually high on such a lifestyle, mainlining more and more of it till he suffers an overdose and the inevitable side effect of having the FBI on his tail. Being a dodgy stock-trading boss, sometimes operating outside the margins of legality, has a great deal in common with being a wise guy and many of the aforementioned boxes are ticked in both movies. Read more…