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.
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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.
How do you effectively depict mental illness in cinema? The necessarily internal nature of much of its substance has presented a formidable challenge to filmmakers over the ages. Psychotic states are easier to handle, as they’re inherently more dramatic. Who can forget the cracks opening up in the walls and ceilings of mad Carole’s flat in Polanski’s Repulsion, with hands springing out of the walls on percussive beats to taunt and molest her? Then there’s ventriloquist Maxwell Frere in Dead of Night, whose schizoid condition renders him under the control of his dummy, the delightfully sinister Hugo Fitz. And more recently, crazy mixed-up Donnie Darko gets to chat to a six-foot-tall rabbit about the end of the world, as you do.
But how does a filmmaker cope with depression? You can have a character act moody, downbeat, irrational and dead to sentience, but by what means do you convey the grand drama and existential terror of the inner apocalypse that is the hallmark of the full-on depressive state? Lars von Trier has found a way – by reifying it as the eerily beautiful blue planet Melancholia, which is coming towards Earth and maybe will collide, or maybe not.
Melancholia is very deliberately a film of two halves. The first, entitled ‘Justine’, depicts a train crash of a high-class wedding reception, where depressive bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) simply isn’t in the mood, breaking off from the proceedings to take a bath, wander on the hotel golf course and capriciously shag one of the guests in a bunker, as family and friends fulminate around her. Shot in a chaotic style, with jerky camerawork, jump cutting and crossing the line, it lightly sketches Justine’s situation, but does so with knowing expertise. The interaction of her cold, ball-breaking mother (Charlotte Rampling) and skittish, ineffectual father (John Hurt), now estranged, tells us all we need to know.
The second half is entitled ‘Claire’, after Justine’s better adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and shows the aftermath of the failed wedding, with Justine staying on at the country hotel which is owned by Claire and husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Apart from the family there is no one else around – no guests, no golfers, no staff – so the setting could be a more aesthetic version of the Overlook Hotel. Into this hermetic bubble, the planet Melancholia makes its entrance, with John studying it through his telescope and calming fears about an imminent collision with Earth. Through careful and inspired use of CGI, the blue planet manifests in the sky over the ornate topiaried gardens and lake, forming a luminous binary combination with the moon by night and an impressive blue-white sphere of increasing magnitude by day.
Despite reassurances from John, Claire becomes increasingly anxious and googles Melancholia to find a diagram of its trajectory in relation to Earth, which contains a tricksy whiplash sting in the tail. However, in contrast to Claire, Justine finds herself much more serene than normal, somehow in accord with the approaching Melancholia, and even takes to bathing nude by its light, the preternatural sapphire glow sculpting her body so that she resembles an ethereal goddess. To placate Claire, John creates a circle out of wire, to be held at a fixed distance and so measure whether the planet is getting bigger or smaller. Having loomed large in the sky, it starts to recede, causing relief all around, but presently – horror of horrors – it starts to swell again, threatening to wipe out everything, life as we know it.
So by using the science fiction conceit of the cosmically-wrought end-of-the-world scenario, Lars von Trier perfectly recreates the conditions of depression, with its looming all-pervasive horror, waxing and waning and waxing, and the threat of apocalypse always felt to be imminent. As a rationale it’s more subtle than cracking walls, a giant talking rabbit or a dummy with a mind of its own, and has left some of its audience out in the cold and bewildered. The ponderous very Northern European style of the filmmaking, reminiscent of Bergman and Tarkovsky, and low on entertainment value, has also acted as an alienating factor. Yet for those that ‘get it’, this is uncompromising cinema of a high order, a true auteur’s vision of a coalescence of beauty and darkness, a transcription of the perilous path that circles the Nietzschean abyss which is always there, if not always in sight.
Still: the third level of Dom Cobb’s dreamworld © Warner Bros.
My favourite films involve dreams and dreamlike continuums, such as Dead of Night and Mulholland Dr., so when I heard that Christopher Nolan was making a dream-oriented blockbuster, spawning a new genre—the metaphysical sci-fi actioneer—I was intrigued. The results are good to mixed, and whilst the film works well in its own terms, it doesn’t quite achieve the magic of the aforementioned masterpieces.
Depicting dream in film, effectively capturing the nuances of its radically altered physics and metaphysics, is very much a minor art in its own right. Hitchcock was pretty good at it; then there’s the European school that would include Buñuel, Resnais, Cocteau and Tarkovsky; and David Lynch is currently acknowledged as the master of the extended dreamlike state. Together they make a fine peer group for Christopher Nolan to associate himself with as he draws dream into the mainstream with his thriller Inception; and with a track record in reality benders such as the tricksy reverse-narrative Memento and the smoke-and-mirrors prestidigitation saga The Prestige, he would seem well qualified for the job.
But for all its Freudian rollercoaster ride tropes and the occasional Kantian grappling with the nature of reality, Inception proceeds along very familiar lines. It opens with a routine rough-and-tumble mission, which provides a taster for the big one that will form the body of the movie. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an espionage agent specialising in stealing secrets from targets’ minds by means of manipulating shared dreams in scenarios that take the form of 4-D chess games of the id. And he doesn’t work alone. So, in addition to his regular sidekick, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he assembles a crack team, including dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy) and sedation expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao), in order to go after their ‘mark’, business magnate Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) on behalf of rival Saito (Ken Watanabe).
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