I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.
—Alejandro Jodorowsky, interview, 19711
By such means we can de-classicize the severest classic. […] This may be bad art history, but it is certainly enormous fun.
—Aldous Huxley, Heaven & Hell, 19562
In his notoriously scathing assessment of 1960s experimental cinema, Parker Tyler denounced the “hippie cult of drug taking as a source of fantasy […] imputed here to Underground filmmaking and film taking.”3 The “Drug Attitude”, as he termed it, meant that experimental filmmakers “depend too much upon the optical ‘explosions’ occasioned by drugs, too little upon the parallel explosions of the creative imagination.”4 Moreover, Tyler feared that when filmic imagery simulating the LSD experience became as recreationally motivated as other ephemeral events like countercultural “Happenings” and “expanded cinema” shows, such films would have little lasting historical or aesthetic value, and thus derail the longer history of avant-garde film practice:
Current filmmakers regard such “magic” as easier than it is, as basically “inexpensive” (it isn’t), as only a matter of instant psychedelism…a lump of doctored sugar in your coffee and you virtually have a film, or if not, you have a trip, which to some is just as good as a film.5
In some cases, these filmmakers themselves were also resistant to their work being labeled “psychedelic” because, as art historian Lars Bang Larsen suggests, “a journalistic and colloquial term rather than a curatorial or art critical one,” psychedelic “quickly became a magic sales word” instead of gradually becoming “institutionally inscribed.”6
This indeterminacy is, in part, because the term psychedelic (literally, “mind-manifesting”) could just as easily apply to an aesthetic style, an affective-sensorial experience, or even, in retrospect, a historical period from the late 1950s to mid-1970s in which recently discovered consciousness-expanding drugs like psilocybin and LSD gained larger social significance and a diverse mix of art films, experimental films, exploitation films, and the occasional Hollywood production attempted to approximate the audiovisual fireworks of drug-altered states.7 During that period, visionary images could be used for both sensationalistic and self-experimental ends: for viewers who had not personally tried psychedelic drugs, these films might promise some touristic insight (however dubious) into the era’s counterculture; while for others, the films themselves were intended as aids to recreational drug use during the viewing experience.
For the purposes of the present essay, this latter usage of specific films as an experiential extension of a pharmacological “high” or “trip” is of foremost importance, as I will argue for a phenomenology of drug-induced spectatorship as a “lost” methodology for exploring films that, in many cases, were intended by their filmmakers to be viewed under pharmacologically altered conditions. To paraphrase Harry Benshoff, the psychedelic film is best understood as a subset of the “head film”, a broad, cross-generic category of films intended to be seen or retrospectively associated with drug use as a reception practice.8 Although it could be argued that psychedelic drug consumption might turn any film into an avant-garde experience, the psychedelic film proper devotes extended sequences to dazzling effects which audiovisually recall hallucinogenic experiences, often through avant-garde (or avant-garde-inspired) techniques. Indeed, much as psychedelic advocates like Timothy Leary proclaimed the importance of “set and setting” – i.e., a person’s mindset when ingesting a psychedelic drug, and the setting in which the subsequent trip takes place – these films are defined as much by their aesthetic strategies as their conditions of reception, with both factors integral to their full cinematic effect.
Within the field of film studies, however, the idea of taking seriously the sensorial influence of psychedelic drugs in meaning-making for these films is implicitly written off as somehow outdated or juvenile – as though, like the common presumption that drug experimentation itself is a transitory phase from which rebellious youth eventually mature, studies of avant-garde cinema have themselves moved beyond such considerations. Moreover, the familiar declension narrative that 1960s New Leftists compromised their revolutionary energies by “turning on” and “dropping out” of macropolitical action in favour of turning inward with recreational psychedelics, is yet another reason for this disdain among left-leaning academics.9 But what if, extending the youth metaphor, we were to consider how recent research has found that psychedelic drug experiences often leave lasting and meaningfully positive effects upon users, even across their lifespan?10 Hence, it is also worth considering the long-term value that psychedelic drugs might offer film studies as a unique intervention in phenomenological questions about specialised varieties of film interpretation.
In other words, I speculate here whether experimentation with psychedelic drugs might offer a correspondingly experimental research method for engaging with the history of avant-garde film aesthetics. By discouraging viewers from participating in the filmmaker’s intended reception context, legal prohibitions against recreationally using psychedelic drugs to complement the recreational experience of film viewing serve as a practical blockade for scholars wanting to more fully understand how psychedelic cinema impacted historical audiences during the cultural heyday of psychedelia. Moreover, the open question of whether drug use can produce meaningful knowledge as a methodological tool for film analysis is all the more relevant amid both a digital-era resurgence of psychedelic aesthetics and our more contemporary moment of changing social attitudes toward recreational drug use.
Both science and popular culture had begun investigating the hallucinatory effects of powerful, newly isolated chemicals like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT during the mid-twentieth century. The 1950s, for example, saw intense clinical research into low-dose, “psycholytic” uses of LSD as a new tool for psychoanalytic therapy; while a more controversial branch of research, which carried on into the 1960s, explored high-dose, “psychedelic” uses as a more radical means of destroying and reintegrating the ego.11 LSD’s profound effects upon the user, including its potential shortcut to religious or visionary epiphanies, inspired more clinical research than perhaps any other single drug in history. Indeed, Stephen Siff outlines how coverage of LSD and psilocybin use in major American magazines and other mainstream media venues positively advocated for the revelatory value of psychedelic experiences until as late as 1968. By that year, however, countercultural uses popularly outweighed serious clinical uses, and LSD was officially outlawed in the United States.12 Narrative films of the late decade, especially low-budget productions from the exploitation film market, tended to reflect the turning tide of public opinion away from LSD’s therapeutic uses, toward widespread fears about insanity, mind control, and antisocial behaviour.13
LSD had such a high public profile that the psychedelic experience was already heavily mediatised for many first-time users. Media narratives about psychedelics likely influenced the set and setting within which the drug was consumed: the likelihood of “good trips” was a reflection of the era’s celebratory rhetoric about social change, and “bad trips” were a more likely result of the paranoia about LSD’s effects following moral panic and criminalisation.14 Moreover, multiple scholars have noted that comparisons to cinema (e.g., dazzling Technicolor effects) and other audiovisual technologies were a common way for clinical researchers and writers of both mainstream and countercultural stripes to not only describe LSD’s visual effects, but also to secularise its potentially religious impact for the lay reader.15 The 1950s and 1960s thus saw a mediatised reversibility between cinema and psychedelic drugs that was not just rhetorical, but also had a real-world influence upon the contextual effects these drugs might produce in the user. This somatic convergence was, however, merely a less legitimised case of wider post-war shifts toward the interpenetration of biomolecular and multimedia technologies, with drugs (technologies of the body/self) and cinema (technologies of representation) feeding off each other for mutual gain within the mid-century pleasure economy.16
Given the emergent media hype about these drugs as keys to visionary experience, it is no surprise that avant-garde filmmakers were, as early as the mid-1950s, among the first artists to explore the nexus between drug use and cinematic spectatorship. Part of his famed “Magick Lantern Cycle”, Kenneth Anger’s kaleidoscopic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954/1966) is arguably the first film to implicitly depict a psychedelic trip, predating by several years The Tingler (William Castle, 1959), the first film with an explicit (if laughable) depiction of LSD use. In Inauguration’s Day-Glo depiction of an orgiastic party amongst various mythic figures, Lord Shiva (Samson De Brier) slips an “aphrodisiac-initiatory powder”17 into Pan’s (Paul Mathison) drink, triggering a wildly colourful barrage of rapid-fire superimpositions during the final third of the film’s 38-minute duration. The program notes for Anger’s revised 1966 version – dubbed the “Sacred Mushroom Edition” – provided instructions for a brief intermission during which “Psychedelic researchers desirous to Turn On for Pleasure Dome should absorb their sugar cubes at this point [and] should remain seated during this intermission. The following film should, under ideal circumstances, be experienced in that Holy trance called High.”18 As Jonas Mekas remarked when recounting his own use of marijuana as a viewing aid, “The cinema of superimposition is made by people whose perception—by whatever process—has been expanded, intensified… Their images are loaded with double and triple superimpositions.”19
Although Anger’s depiction of a drug-infused Crowleyan ritual remains rooted within the figurative tradition of American experimental cinema (an aesthetic to which he would return in his ominous portrait of the San Francisco counterculture, Invocation of My Demon Brother ), other filmmakers like Jordan Belson used inspiration from psychedelic drugs to develop far more abstract and non-representational directions, prefiguring 1960s liquid-light shows and other expanded cinema events which, in David E. James’s words, were “a continuously transforming, enveloping, pan-sensual experience that could be entered and exited at will, a circumambient theater of light and sound that strove never to be distinct or distinguishable from the interior projection of hallucination.”20 Belson’s 1950s experimentation with peyote and LSD inspired his Vortex Concerts (1957-59), a series of collaborative events with composer Henry Jacobs staged at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium – unused images from which would be reworked into the early psychedelic short Allures (1961), his first fully-fledged “visual music film” (a variety of abstract film which, as the name implies, is rooted in synaesthesia). Precursors to the late-1960s liquid-light shows of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, The Joshua Light Show, and Single Wing Turquoise Bird, the Vortex Concerts’ immersive phantasmagorias of live multi-projector effects also pioneered the broader art of expanded cinema events.
Unlike Anger, however, Belson had far less interest in the mid-1960s hippie milieu that followed in the years after the Vortex Concerts, wanting his own films to be shown separately from the drug-fueled reception contexts populated by self-described “color heads.”21 A devout Buddhist, by the time he made Samadhi (1967) – a psychedelically abstract depiction of kundalini energy moving through the chakras (as depicted through gaseous forms swirling and undulating around differently colored circular cores) – he had moved beyond drugs in search of more ascetic means of reaching “cosmic consciousness” via meditation, yoga, and even the filmmaking process itself.22 Indeed, Belson’s films may depict both drug and meditation experiences: the superimposed patterns and dazzling light forms in Allures, for example, are “a textbook illustration of…hallucinations,”23 while also mimicking the “speed and activity of the neural pathways as they enter even deeper into the state of meditation.”24 Both Anger and Belson, then, created psychedelic films as reflections of their individual drug experiences and their respective beliefs in occult and Eastern mysticism, but they differed widely in their attitudes about how their films should be consumed amid the psychedelic drug scene in hippie-era San Francisco, where they both lived and worked. Both filmmakers framed their own drug use within a sacramental or “entheogenic” context, but Belson’s position was far closer to Parker Tyler’s skepticism about the “Drug Attitude” as empty recreation.
Unlike Tyler, other major chroniclers of the 1960s experimental film scene (such as Mekas, Sheldon Renan, and Gene Youngblood) generally celebrated the interplay of films and drugs as mutually constitutive avant-garde transformations in human consciousness, and these critics did not share Tyler’s generational outsider status in lamenting the so-called Drug Attitude as mere “infantile regression.”25 Yet, latter-day academic studies of this period have more often followed Tyler’s cautions about the potential impermanence of 1960s experimental films – albeit reframed to revalue aesthetic analysis of the films over historiographic access to the past. More than the era’s films becoming ephemeral themselves (although some certainly have), many films directly inspired by psychedelic visions – such as the work of Anger, Belson, Tony Conrad (The Flicker, 1965), Storm De Hirsch (Peyote Queen, 1965), Paul Sharits (Ray Gun Virus, 1966), Ben Van Meter (Acid Mantra, 1968), James Whitney (Lapis, 1966), et al. – have been enshrined in the erudite avant-garde canon, while their drug-inspired contexts of production and reception have instead proven especially evanescent. Passing mentions of psychedelic drug use within that historical period or countercultural milieu are numerous in the existing literature, but seldom dwelt upon as constitutive of both “filmmaking and film taking” (to use Tyler’s phrase).
In other words, psychedelic cinema is more often explored for its hallucinatory aesthetics than for its complementary reception conditions – a lacuna that obscures how these films might represent “cinema arguably at its most avant-garde because […] it seeks to transform the viewer’s perception into a state not yet known.”26 Of course, losing access to bygone historical contexts and relying instead upon textual analysis of extant films is a larger historiographic issue for all manner of cinema,27 but the art-historical tendency toward formal analysis of aesthetic style is all the more common in exploring avant-garde practice. In contrast to more traditional narrative forms, avant-garde cinema’s formal experiments with “alternative ways of seeing”28 seemingly privilege, and thereby separate, “the sense and meaning of vision and specularity from a body that, in experience, lives vision always in cooperation and significant exchange with other sensorial means of access to the world.”29
Nevertheless, the premise that drug use might comprise a useful working method for film analysis is not as outlandish as it might at first glance seem. After all, one common altered state of consciousness – the dream – has already had a long tradition within 1970s apparatus theory’s emphasis on film spectatorship as an oneiric condition. But apparatus theory’s structuralist conception of a universal spectator was premised less on the vagaries of drug-altered states than the psychosexual mechanisms of the Freudian unconscious. In my estimation, then, phenomenology provides a far more fruitful opening for analysing psychedelic cinema, because accounts of dream/trip experiences are not synonymous with those experiences themselves. Much as dreams seem real when within them but do not make sense upon waking retrospection, the trip experience only seems real until recollected later – but all we can have access to as researchers is the post-facto reportage of such altered states: a second-hand translation of vivid experience into discourse that inevitably fails to capture the in-the-moment profundity of such experiences. This act of discursive translation helps account for why such reports are so easily dismissed as solipsistic reverie instead of empirically valid observations.30
The objective value of altered states of consciousness has long hinged on questions of how such experiences are achieved, and whether they find commonalities with others’ experiences. According to William James, all psychological experiences are rooted in neurology, so the physiological origins of an experience cannot be used as a value judgment against it. Through self-experimentation, James found that drugs like nitrous oxide and ether can induce an “anaesthetic revelation” that unlocks a lasting sense of “mystical consciousness” for the user – but even if those states have the right to be seen as authoritative experiences for those who have undergone them, the fact that such experiences are difficult to reconcile with the general population’s everyday waking consciousness rightly opens such revelations to contestation.31
And yet, even if a pragmatist like James acknowledged that the personally important (subjective) value of drug experiences might not translate into widely recognised (objective) value, more recent generations of religious and cultural scholars have argued that alternative states of consciousness are no less valuable for evading such rationalist protocols. It is, after all, no coincidence that anthropologists have had to de-centre their Western rationality to better understand more embodied ways of cultural knowledge (e.g., shamanistic traditions like entheogen consumption), including those derived from the Eastern, indigenous, and esoteric/occult traditions that also resonated with so many practitioners of 1960s psychedelism. Take, for instance, the de-centring of the Euro-American anthropologist characters in Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015) in favour of an Amazonian shaman as protagonist, who administers an Ayahuasca-like drug whose effects are conveyed by transforming the starkly monochromatic film into a vibrantly colored psychedelic sequence with cosmic imagery strongly reminiscent of Belson’s avant-garde work.
Here it is not difficult to see parallels in the longstanding bias within film studies against taking subjective embodiment seriously, such as when Vivian Sobchack cites “perception-altering substances such as drugs” as consciously producing a heightened version of the synesthetic perception that remains unconsciously overlooked in “objectivist reductions of the film experience.”32 In the specific case of psychedelic films, then, the reciprocity of two technologies – drug and cinema – working in unison ideally creates strong synesthetic effects, powerfully bridging the gap between viewer and screen. Harry Benshoff, for example, speculates that watching cinematic approximations of LSD trips could stimulate the brain in similar ways as the drug itself, creating “a new form of metasuture based upon the congruence of the cinematic apparatus and the neurochemical processes within the spectator’s sensorium.”33 Similarly, Anna Powell describes psychedelic cinema’s potential to produce a “contact high” in the viewer: “The capacity of the viewer’s eye, in assemblage with the light-driven machinery of shooting and projection is thus expanded and the camera itself becomes an ingested drug.”34 For Sobchack, sensory arousal at the movies inevitably falls sort of the full corporeal immersion that synaesthesia teases: “However hard I may hold my breath or grasp the theater seat, I don’t have precisely the same wild ride watching Speed [Jan de Bont, 1994] that I would were I actually on that runaway bus.”35 But it is precisely this unity of the unfolding onscreen event and the viewer’s sensorium that the properly psychedelic film experience, in which the film is viewed under a pharmacologically altered state, can better approximate.
Moreover, since verbal and written discourse are exceptionally poor media for the post-facto reportage of psychedelic experience, cinematic depictions of drug trips – arguably “the primal cinema of affect”36 – are far more adequate for communicating the sensory impact of such experiences. Although some narrative-based psychedelic films depict characters ingesting of specific psychedelic drugs – The Trip (Roger Corman, 1967) and Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009), for example, structure their very narratives around trip states (inspired by both directors’ own psychedelic experiences), with opening scenes in which characters take LSD and DMT, respectively – most avant-garde and non-narrative psychedelic sequences do not make reference to specific drugs. In order to experience a phenomenological resonance between screen and body/mind, the viewer therefore need not necessarily ingest the same drug that was either depicted within the film or inspired the filmmakers of psychedelic sequences.37 Rather, as hinted in the previous example of Anger and Belson’s contrasting desires for the reception contexts of their respective films, a constitutive difference between viewing a psychedelic sequence in either a sober or altered state may have less to do with one’s specific neurochemical state than the viewer’s experiential intentionality. In other words, consistent with the idea of set and setting, if a pharmacologically aided viewer approaches a psychedelic film with the expectation that spectatorship will expand one’s consciousness or provoke a mystical experience, then he/she will be more likely to come away with such an experience; whereas a sober viewer may gain some “outsider” perspective on what a psychedelic experience could look/feel like, but without the expectation that the film taken alone will be able to provide a consonant visionary experience.
This is not to say, however, that certain commonalities of psychedelic experience do not exist. In his study of avant-garde film aesthetics, William C. Wees observes that most drug-induced hallucinations feature certain basic geometrical patterns (e.g., lattices, cobwebs, tunnels, spirals) and colours that eventually give way to “more complicated patterns and even full-scale scenes,” all of which share distinct similarities with the mystical visions and symbols (e.g., mandalas) found across many religious traditions. Moreover, Wees adds, “One could hardly ask for a better breakdown of the basic elements of most abstract films!”38 For early “psychonauts” like Aldous Huxley, such hallucinatory commonalities across cultures represented an “Other World” in the “mind’s antipodes” that might be explored like the landscapes and species of an uncharted continent.39 But such structuralist commonalities are actually attributable to arousal of the brain’s image-making system under such non-normative conditions as drug use, meditation, dream states, sensory/nutritional deprivation, and other inducements to visionary or mystical experience – which helps explain such cross-cultural similarities on a basic neurological level.40 In a study of psychedelic film reception that re-centres drug use as a constitutive part of the viewing experience, we must therefore admit the centrality of altered states of consciousness as a neurological baseline not often associated with more normative (unaltered) viewing states – but one onto which important contextual factors (e.g., set and setting, or the more traditional subjects of reception studies) are concurrently overlaid, hence the fact that psychedelic drugs do not affect everyone alike. Indeed, one need only consult the “experience reports” contributed by psychedelic users to the non-profit Erowid Center’s website to note the many variables in such self-reportage.41
But it is precisely this phenomenology of drug-enhanced spectatorship – and the attendant proposition that no text has any inherent meaning outside one’s subjective experience of it – that makes psychedelic cinema such a valuably challenging outpost in the “antipodes” of film analysis. Indeed, Stephen Siff notes that because the “portentousness” endemic to psychedelic drug experience allows otherwise trivial details or platitudes to gain seemingly profound significance, it remains an open question whether psychedelic profundity objectively counts as “true” insight or simply feels like insight – especially if sincerely believed as such by the user during and even after the trip.42 “During a psychedelic trip,” explains Joseph Bicknell, “each person can observe for him- or herself that an alteration of internal neurochemistry results in a tangible alteration in the perceptual quality of the external world.” The resulting state does not so much induce hallucinations of entirely alien forms, but rather reveals hidden aspects of one’s everyday reality that go otherwise unnoticed due to the conventional subject/object divide within normative consciousness.43 Even though the spectator’s own body becomes cinema’s illusion-making medium (or “surrogate body”) by affectively resonating with illusory onscreen worlds,44 it is impractical to distinguish illusion from hallucination via a distinction between perceptions sensed as respectively internal or external to the self. Rather, perceptual alterations, including both cinematic experience and drug-induced hallucinations, depend on environmental factors that are neither entirely within nor outside the brain, but invariably exist somewhere in between.45
The experience of psychedelic films, then, positions them as a variant of what Scott Richmond terms “proprioceptive cinema,” or films whose aesthetics thematise the spectator’s reflexive self-perception of submission to powerful bodily illusions, as achieved through cinematically altered states of perception that impact the viewing body prior to the discernment of representations. The oft-idiosyncratic hallucinatory effects of an avant-garde film like Tony Conrad’s The Flicker, for example, cannot be wholly located within either the film or spectator separately, but are only activated by the viewing body’s position within the technics (or dispositif) of cinema.46 Importantly, though, Richmond argues that attention to proprioceptive aesthetics “has often seemed insignificant, since our habitual forms of aesthetic significance pass through various forms of criticism – more often than not, a specifically modernist criticism” whose interpretive conventions are ill-equipped to grasp these films’ non-representational impact.47 Since one’s own body forms the medium for these affects, they often require autobiographical accounts to describe, but because this embodied aesthetic “postulates neither [the] universal assent nor even generalizable validity” undergirding modernist aesthetic categories, this aesthetic “is not vulnerable to skepticism.”48 In other words, like James’s “anaesthetic revelation,” such cinematic experiences may have profound subjective significance, but not translate into readily acknowledged critical value.
Much as conservative critics once bemoaned the recreational use of psilocybin and LSD as “inauthentic” or “blasphemously” easy shortcuts to profound mystical experience,49 the sheer accessibility of such powerfully affective experiences thus remains a crucial question. Whereas wider use of psychedelic drugs during spectatorship would allow film scholars to trace commonalities in reception – and thereby push back against claims of such affective reportage as purely subjective and solipsistic – the prohibition of such drugs also restricts access to these pharmacological technologies to begin with. And yet, recent changes in drug policy (e.g. marijuana’s legalisation for recreational use in select U.S. states since 2012) and drug research (e.g. renewed clinical trials with psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA)50 suggest that older paths to altered states of consciousness are currently being rediscovered for their pragmatic value.51 The fact that marijuana, LSD, and MDMA do not share the propensity for addiction and morbid toxicity endemic to alcohol, opiates, and many other legal psychoactive drugs has also made them prime candidates for such reconsideration.
Moreover, were psychedelic methods merely constrained to the height of hippiedom, it would be easier to write off psychedelic cinema as a historical footnote with little continuing relevance for film analysis. But these shifts in social and legal attitudes toward more sensible drug use have coincided with a recent resurgence in psychedelic aesthetics within world cinema, including in more mainstreamed forms like the narrative films Renegade (Jan Kounen, 2004), Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006), Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), Enter the Void, Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009), Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, 2010), A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, 2013), The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013), Embrace of the Serpent, Woodshock (Kate and Laura Mulleavy, 2017), Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018), Climax (Gaspar Noé, 2018), and innumerable music videos.52 Most of these films employ the avant-garde possibilities enabled by computer-generated digital imagery (e.g., complex fractal forms, deformations of photorealistic images, etc.),53 suggesting that technological shifts are another impetus for this revival of dazzlingly abstract, kaleidoscopic imagery at a moment when the digital has thrown the traditional relationship between body and technics (e.g., the primacy of theatrical exhibition) into crisis.54
Indeed, an air of nostalgia seems to animate the fact that this psychedelic revival has occurred at a time when non-theatrical viewing contexts have largely supplanted the big-screen theatrical immersion that was seemingly crucial to psychedelic reception in the 1960s-70s. For Alison Griffiths, immersion describes “that sense of being in closer communion with something other than the here and now, something that takes us into a ‘virtual’ reality that could be defined as an interstitial state where we are never fully ‘there’ because our bodies can never fully leave the ‘here.’” Her concept of the “revered gaze” – in which upturned visitors to cathedrals, museums, and planetariums (recall the Vortex Concerts) experience a rapt and even quasi-religious response to spectacularly immersive visual environments – is especially notable for thinking about psychedelic reception.55 When, for example, “a young man ran down the aisle during the Star Gate sequence” of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) “and crashed through the screen screaming ‘I see God!,’”56 it is far easier to imagine this (possibly apocryphal) occurrence happening during the film’s 70mm Cinerama exhibition, not a latter-day home viewing. Although high-end home theatre systems may attempt to approximate the big-screen experience,57 then, it is worth pondering whether “psychedelic cinema” operates as a historical designation inseparable from the era of predominantly theatrical exhibition, or whether the same effects can be achieved at home (where recreational drug use may be safer and more comfortable).
As a brief case study for this unconventional methodology, I have compiled accounts from anonymous online viewers who claim to have viewed Gaspar Noé’s 2009 film Enter the Void (perhaps the most prominent example of recent psychedelic cinema, and one whose reception is far easier to empirically trace than 1960s avant-garde works) in pharmacologically altered states. Enter the Void is already structured as a cinematic experiment in moving beyond human perception, starting from an intensely subjective first-person opening sequence in which the protagonist, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American living in Tokyo with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), smokes DMT in his apartment. Through CGI trickery, the camera, viewer, and character are collapsed together as we inhabit Oscar’s head throughout, seeing his hallucinations, hearing his inner monologue, and even registering his blinks—all combined in the illusion of a single, unbroken take. Shortly afterward, Oscar is shot and killed in a botched drug deal, having been set up in revenge for sleeping with the mother of another expatriate. As seen during his initial DMT trip, Oscar floats free of his body, the camera/viewer positioned just behind his head throughout a lengthy sequence of flashbacks that leads, through increasingly abbreviated chunks of time, back up to his fatal shooting. After this second-person series of nonlinear flashbacks, these posterior-head shots vanish and Oscar’s consciousness continues floating around Tokyo in a post-death state as his sister and friends mourn his loss and he is eventually reincarnated into a newborn child—one of many allusions to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol), a text whose descriptions of the post-death experience were reworked by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) as a 1964 user’s guide for psychedelics.58
In The Doors of Perception (1954), Aldous Huxley cites Henri Bergson’s concept of the normative mind as a “reducing valve” that psychedelic drugs throw open to an untrammeled flow of ideas and sensory stimuli.59 Judging from such psychedelic users’ accounts, the subject may thus experience a dissolution of self within the rapid-fire flow of ideas and sensations. As such, one’s senses may easily coalesce into a perceptual blur, or one may willfully re-focus attention on an individual sense by attempting to isolate perceptual details—but the altered state fluidly oscillates between these phenomenological positions, creating a sort of push-pull dynamic between sensory coalescence and sensory isolation. Stéphane Delorme argues, for example, that psychedelism’s constant flow of imagery can be distinguished from surrealism’s associational collage of disparate objects and ideas. If surrealism veers toward the literary and the ironic, psychedelism is more musical and sincere, better evoking cosmic journeys than psychosexual depths.60
Adapting this idea into the context of film viewing, we might speculate that the rapid stimulation of ideas enables fixating on a present scene’s formal traits at the expense of mentally retaining prior scenes, thus subordinating narrative form to sensory impact. Yet, this potential for fixating on presently perceived sensory details over broader narrative coherence can paradoxically generate acute criticism of a film’s artifice, with one’s dispersed attention working against the film’s Gestalt effect, and thereby magnifying the text’s perceived flaws. In other words, the film may work exceptionally well at some moments, producing strong synaesthetic and portentous effects that render the experience markedly different than sober viewing; while other moments (particularly those featuring less psychedelic imagery) may fall especially flat in their seemingly poor execution. Echoing Huxley’s observation that psychedelic states tend to create a neglect of human relations, subordinating interpersonal concerns to the revelation of immanence,61 more normative moments of characterisation and narrative motivation may frequently pale in comparison to spectacles of psychedelic abstraction.
According to viewer accounts of the Enter the Void as both a depiction of and adjunct to the psychedelic experience, the 42-minute-long series of flashbacks indeed registers as laughably trite instead of portentous, blurring together in contrast to the spectacular post-human perspectives of flying through matter and space. Laden with a plethora of ham-fisted Freudian imagery like primal scenes and nursing mothers in order to explain Oscar’s unnaturally close bond with his also-orphaned sister Linda, his Oedipal longing for his expatriate friend’s mother, and his soul’s literally aborted attempt to inhabit Linda’s terminated fetus before finding purchase in a later fetus, these all-too-human, literally grounded moments of narrative connective tissue are far less compelling on the intellectualised level of blatant Freudian characterisation than as symbols of Oscar/the viewer’s pleasurable sensory undifferentiation from mother, drug, and screen alike. By contrast, these viewer accounts claim that the film succeeds in what we might identify as its digitally updated moments of nostalgic inspiration from 1960s avant-garde cinema, ranging from Conrad-esque stroboscopic sequences when the camera flies into and out of bright light sources; to Belson-inspired cosmic hallucinations; to hypnotically slow, gravity-free camera movements recalling Michael Snow’s films. These experimental sequences dot the narrative, calling back to an earlier cinematic era through, for example, the abstract organic forms seen during Oscar’s DMT trip, the hypnagogic effects of the flicker sequences, and so on. Noé’s self-referentiality even extends to the tremulous, flickering lighting seen during many of the floating sequences, recalling how flicker films reveal the interval between frames that the projector typically elides; and scenes in which characters ride a roller coaster, watch psychedelic media, and stare at Day-Glo scale models of Tokyo resembling the film’s own vertiginous aerial perspectives.
More to the point, Enter the Void allegorises its own drug-altered interpretation through its depiction of Oscar’s disembodied consciousness gliding fluidly over the miniaturised surface of the diegetic cityscape, occasionally dipping down into concentrated moments of attention to specific chunks of time (narrative events), much as the altered viewer him/herself likely does during the reception process. As later confirmed by Oscar’s flashback of looking at a near-identical scale model of the glowing city, the film figures Tokyo as a sort of “dollhouse” over which Oscar/the viewer repeatedly drifts, dropping into fragments of time that become nonlinearly spatialised like dollhouse rooms; the fact that many of these flashbacks unfold within rectangular interiors only enhances this effect. As William Brown and David H. Fleming suggest, Enter the Void shows how both cinema and psychedelics have the ability to “space out” the user by opening his/her perception to “the void,” or space of interconnection, that the Tibetan Book of the Dead posits between all people and things.62
Indeed, one of the film’s key aesthetic achievements is putting urban space into abstract motion, the overhead fly-throughs distorting everyday spaces into hallucinatory blurs – albeit via digitally constructed long takes instead of the rapid-fire montage seen in many avant-garde city-symphony films. Huxley, for instance, singles out Francis Thompson’s kaleidoscopic NY, NY (1957) as an early example of avant-garde cinema evoking a drug-induced deformation of everyday life. Furthermore, Huxley believed that “whatever, in nature or in a work of art, resembles one of those intensely significant, inwardly glowing objects encountered at the mind’s antipodes is capable of inducing, if only in a partial and attenuated form, the visionary experience,” but he argued that our familiarity with the modern commercial world’s surfeit of bright colours and lights has diminished such vision-inducing qualities.63 By depicting neon-bathed Tokyo like a black-light painting, then, Noé attempts to restore psychedelic potential to otherwise quotidian scenes of consumer culture (much like the rapidly edited Sunset Strip-on-acid sequence in The Trip also does). Hence, the increasingly artificial and miniaturised look of the CGI-rendered Tokyo may actually evoke ambivalence about the visionary potential of drug/cinema as themselves highly commodified technologies—an ambivalence that, true to the film’s 1960s-era inspiration, may even extend to Enter the Void’s own commercialisation of avant-garde techniques that (as seen in the earlier contrast between Anger and Belson) were already seen as compromised by the “Drug Attitude” of recreational use.
Although I have no reason to doubt the visionary intentionality of the psychedelic Enter the Void viewers whose accounts I compiled, it remains important to remember that none of them were presumably using such drugs for the explicit purposes of film analysis. Had their intentions included such considerations, however, we might speculate about unintended interpretive obstacles to this analytical approach, such as the viewer potentially concentrating on one sensory or aesthetic aspect of a film over another for an indeterminate amount of time; or the difficulty of producing cohesive readings in the moment, due to the viewer’s constant flow of ideas/images. (On a practical level, viewing notes would have to be very quickly jotted down before a given idea were swept away by many others. Much as psychedelic therapists prescribe a post-trip “integration” period, a sober follow-up viewing would likely be necessary for making retrospective sense of one’s notes and clarifying which ideas might be specifically generated during a drug-induced state versus a sober viewing state.)
While exploring these more recent developments in digital-era psychedelia in more detail is beyond the scope of this essay, it is nonetheless difficult to appreciate the continuing influence of psychedelic cinema without accounting for a longer history of avant-garde practice including “sets and settings” rooted in altered states of consciousness. Whether future changes in drug policy will (re-)open avenues for more appropriately psychedelic research in this direction remains to be seen. As such, my observations here can only be considered provisional at best (especially because I have elected to remain on the “safe” side of legal prohibitions), but I hope to have at least suggested how approaching certain varieties of cinema on their own terms might require scholars to follow filmmakers down phenomenological paths less taken. When more researchers begin to report back, comparing the types of insight gleaned from cinematic texts and pharmacological devices – when experienced both separately and together – then we will begin to discern not only the potential utility of drugs as an additional viewing technology, but also more fully grasp the continuing aesthetic and historical significance of some of cinema’s most dynamic experiments upon the viewer.
With thanks to Barbara Klinger, Paul Donnelly and several anonymous readers for their generous suggestions.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film (New York: Douglas Book Corporation, 1971), p. 97. ↩
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell (New York: HarperCollins, 2009/1954-56), p. 172. ↩
- Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Grove Press, 1969), p. 85. Emphasis in the original. ↩
- Ibid., p. 121. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 52, 60, 67, 131, 207. Quote at p. 131. ↩
- Lars Bang Larsen, “One Proton at a Time: Art’s Psychedelic Connections” (2013), Raven Row Gallery, http://www.ravenrow.org/texts/51/. ↩
- Filmographies of psychedelic cinema often subdivide the corpus into narrative feature films and avant-garde films, inadvertently reinforcing a cultural taste division between low-budget exploitation movies and high-minded experimental films. See Harry M. Benshoff, “The Short-Lived Life of the Hollywood LSD Film,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 47 (2001), pp. 41-42, and Jack Stevenson, Addicted: The Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film (London: Creation Books, 2000), pp. 105-108. Others, however, reflect more catholic tastes, such as Cyril Béghin, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, Stéphane Delorme, Florent Guézengar, Joachim Lepastier, and Jean-Philippe Tessé, “Frise psychédélique”, Cahiers du Cinéma 705 (2014), pp. 78-85. ↩
- Benshoff, “The Short-Lived Life”, op. cit., pp. 31-32. ↩
- Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1993), pp. 213, 225, 253. ↩
- See Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (New York: Penguin Press, 2018). ↩
- Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties, and Beyond (New York: Grove Press, 1992), pp. 55-56. ↩
- Stephen Siff, Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015), pp. 13, 147, 185. ↩
- See Michael DeAngelis, Rx Hollywood: Cinema and Therapy in the 1960s (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018), ch. 4. ↩
- Lee and Shlain, Acid Dreams, op. cit., pp. 156, 200. ↩
- See Benshoff, “The Short-Lived Life”, op. cit., p. 33; Siff, Acid Hype, op. cit., pp. 86, 179, 185, 189; and especially Andrew Syder, “‘Shaken Out of the Ruts of Ordinary Perception’: Vision, Culture, and Technology in the Psychedelic Sixties” (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 2009). ↩
- Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), pp. 33, 77. Timothy Leary claimed that Marshall McLuhan actually coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out,” with both men becoming countercultural celebrities for their shared prophesies about technologies as extensions of human consciousness (Siff, Acid Hype, op. cit., p. 149). ↩
- P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (3rd ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 100. ↩
- Anger, quoted in Alice L. Hutchison, Kenneth Anger: A Demonic Visionary (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2011), p. 154. ↩
- Jonas Mekas, “August 27, 1964: On Laterna Magica, Superimpositions, and Movies Under Drugs,” in Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971 (2nd ed.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 165. ↩
- David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 134. Also see Cyril Béghin, “Expansion du vortex,” Cahiers du Cinéma 705 (2014), pp. 64-65; and Paul Ramaeker, “‘The Uncensored Cortex’: Psychedelia and American Avant-garde Cinema in the 1960s,” Screening the Past, no. 41 (2016), http://www.screeningthepast.com/2016/12/the-uncensored-cortex-psychedelia-and-american-avant-garde-film-in-the-1960s/. ↩
- James, Allegories, op. cit., pp. 132. The phrase “color heads” comes from Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1967), p. 251. ↩
- Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1970), p. 174. ↩
- William C. Wees, Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 131. ↩
- Aimee Mollaghan, The Visual Music Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 75, 89. ↩
- Greg Taylor, Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 117. ↩
- Stuart Heaney, “Avant-Grade Hallucinogens: The Poetics of Psychedelic Perception in Moving Image Art,” Close-up Film Centre, https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/documents/avant-grade-hallucinogens-the-poetics-of-psychedelic-perception/. ↩
- See Barbara Klinger, “Film History Terminable and Interminable: Recovering the Past in Reception Studies,” Screen 38, no. 2 (1997), pp. 107-128. ↩
- A. L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video (London: British Film Institute, 1999), p. 5. ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and the Moving Image (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 59. Original italics. ↩
- Joseph Bicknell, “Cognitive Phenomenology of Mind Manifestation,” in Breaking Convention: Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness, eds. Cameron Adams, David Luke, Anna Waldstein, Ben Sessa, and David King (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2013), p. 225; and Andy Letcher, “Deceptive Cadences: A Hermeneutic Approach to the Problem of Meaning and Psychedelic Experience,” in Breaking Convention, op. cit., pp. 255-256. ↩
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Modern Library, 2002/1902), pp. 17-19, 422, 460-461. Cf. Huxley, The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell, op. cit., p. 155. ↩
- Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, p. 69. ↩
- Benshoff, “The Short-Lived Life”, p. 41. ↩
- Anna Powell, Deleuze, Altered States, and Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 66, 73. Also see Heaney, “Avant-Grade.” ↩
- Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, op. cit., p. 72. ↩
- Powell, Deleuze, op. cit., p. 3. Emphasis in the original. ↩
- The psychoactive temporality of different drugs is a notable constraint here as well, since, for example, the psychedelic effects of LSD can last up to 10 hours compared to DMT’s 5-20 minutes – and these highly variable durations may be more resonant with the expanded or contracted duration of avant-garde films than to feature-length running times. ↩
- William C. Wees, Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 126-30. Quotes at p. 127. ↩
- Huxley, The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell, pp. 89, 96, 99. ↩
- Wees, Light, pp. 94, 127-29. Also see Ronald K. Siegel, “Hallucinations,” Scientific American 237, no. 4 (1977), pp. 132-140. ↩
- See the Erowid Experience Vaults, https://erowid.org/experiences/. ↩
- Siff, Acid Hype, p. 99. ↩
- Bicknell, “Cognitive Phenomenology,” pp. 219-220, 222-223 (quote at p. 220). ↩
- Christiane Voss, “Film Experience and the Formation of Illusion: The Spectator as ‘Surrogate Body’ for the Cinema,” trans. Inga Pollmann, Cinema Journal 50, no. 4 (2011), pp. 139, 145. ↩
- William Brown and David H. Fleming, “Voiding Cinema: Subjectivity Beside Itself, or Unbecoming Cinema in Enter the Void”, Film-Philosophy 19 (2015), pp. 138-139. The role of environmental or “ecological” cues would also include the intersection of naturally occurring hallucinogens (plants and fungi) and human consciousness, suggesting psychedelic cinema’s relevance to ecocriticism. See Vít Pokorny, “Biophenomenology of Altered States,” in Breaking Convention, op. cit., pp. 201-211. ↩
- Scott C. Richmond, Cinema’s Bodily Illusions: Flying, Floating, Hallucinating (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 12, 57, 129, 147-148, 160, 169. On this effect of flicker films, also see Wees, Light, op. cit., p. 147; and B.C. ter Meulen, D. Tavy, and B.C. Jacobs, “From Stroboscope to Dream Machine: A History of Flicker-Induced Hallucinations,” European Neurology 62, no. 5 (2009), pp. 316-320. ↩
- Richmond, Cinema’s Bodily Illusions, op. cit., p. 42. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 141, 147, 150. Quote at p. 141. ↩
- Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 49, 169, 180; Siff, Acid Hype, op. cit., 64; and especially Karl Baier, “High Mysticism: On the Interplay between the Psychedelic Movement and Academic Study of Mysticism,” in Constructions of Mysticism as a Universal: Roots and Interactions Across Borders, ed. Anette Wilke (Wiesbaden: Harrassovitz, 2018). ↩
- Pollan, How to Change Your Mind, op. cit. ↩
- Also see Ayelet Waldman, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017). The recent trend of “microdosing” with LSD and other psychedelics relies, however, in the daily ingestion of small enough amounts to supposedly encourage happiness and innovative thinking, but without the traditional hallucinatory effects of a full dose. ↩
- See Cyril Béghin, Stéphane Delorme, Nicholas Elliott, Joachim Lepastier, Jean-Philippe Tessé, and Antoine du Jeu, “Épilogue: Où est passé le psychédélisme?” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 705 (2014), pp. 86-87. ↩
- Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?” in Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011), p. 1067. ↩
- Richmond, Cinema’s Bodily Illusions, op. cit., pp. 21-22. ↩
- Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 285. ↩
- Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1999), p. 312. ↩
- See Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), ch. 1. ↩
- See Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel Press, 2007/1964). ↩
- Huxley, The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell, op. cit., pp. 22-23. ↩
- Stéphane Delorme, “Quand le cinema était psychédélique”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 705 (2014), pp. 59-60. ↩
- Huxley, The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell, op. cit., p. 35. ↩
- Brown and Fleming, “Voiding Cinema”, op. cit., pp. 138, 141. ↩
- Huxley, The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell, op. cit., pp. 105, 115, 168-169. Quote at p. 105. ↩