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.
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.
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.
The news that Alice in Wonderland has become the tenth highest grossing movie of all time, supplanting Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, further strengthens the hold the 3-D phenomenon has taken over cinema. The fact that an offbeat fantasy, which did not receive the highest critical praise, could be so successful is another indication that audiences are flocking to cinemas for the spectacle, the buzz of 3-D alone, with subject matter a secondary concern. So what exactly is the nature of the new 3-D’s seductive allure, its x-factor, its secret ingredient? As psychedelic initiates have realised, 3-D produces something like an altered state, a non-ordinary level of sensory experience that is comparable to a drug trip.
The very act of putting on the glasses and seeing things differently is like passing through a gateway, or cleansing doors of perception. Then there’s the strangeness, the strikingly unusual quality of 3-D vision, where everything is heightened, surfaces and textures are more alive and resonant, and the commonplace becomes transfigured and imbued with specialness. The nature of how things are rendered in 3-D becomes part of the viewing pleasure, as important a factor as plot, action and characterisation; and the anticipation of the next 3-D thrill, plus the sense of immersement in another realm, take the audience beyond mere cinema into theme-park-ride and virtual-reality territory—other parallels for chemically enhanced consciousness.
Moreover, Alice in Wonderland proves the case that 3-D movies are becoming trippier in terms of narrative and design as well as in sensory effect. The story of Alice has been a favourite paradigm for trippiness ever since Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ marshalled up the references: substances to make you grow or shrink, a hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the talking Rabbit himself—a film favourite from Harvey to Donnie Darko to Inland Empire. Using a medley of techniques—green screen, motion capture, live action and full animation—Tim Burton has pieced together a new Wonderland for the 2010s, and with a combination of his already well-developed Gothic-weird sensibilities and the astute use of 3-D, he has rendered the material into a totally bone fide trippy adventure. In 3-D the z-axis layering of the various elements—themselves set at different points in the scale of reality to unreality—creates a synergy that gives rise to an entirely new whole: an alloy of the real and imaginary that lives independently on its own terms…how psychedelic is that? Read more…