“Release Your Mind” – Catalogue Essay: Psychedelic Film Festival

The Psychedelic Film Festival is a hypothetical film festival, pitched as part of an assignment for the subject BCM333. Please watch the film trailer below to give context to this catalogue essay.

“The Drug Attitude” was a term once used by Parker Tyler in his notorious denouncement of 1960s experimental cinema, calling out experimental filmmakers as dependent “too much upon the optical ‘explosions’ occasioned by drugs, too little upon the parallel explosions of the creative imagination.” Tyler feared that recreational motivation for the use of filmic imagery representative of the LSD experience would have minimal lasting historical value, instead labelling the “hippie cult of drug taking as a source of fantasy […] imputed here to Underground filmmaking and film taking.” 

Little did he know, however, the prolific and prevailing influence that the psychedelic aesthetic would have on both popular culture and, more specifically, the film genre which would take heavy inspiration from the mind manifesting substance. This filmic imagery would be something you’ve probably seen before, even if not having realised the historical context from which it stems. It looks something like those trippy swirling visuals, characteristic of the 1960’s, with bright and colourful patterns often complimented by strobing effects and warped optical illusions. As David Church, a Lecturer in Cinema Studies at Northern Arizona University writes, it was during this time the Hollywood tried to “approximate the audiovisual fireworks of drug-altered states” (2018). He writes that “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” (Church, 2018).

The discovery of the mind-altering properties of LSD in 1943 has throughout history been met with both acclaim and criticism by various sectors of society, making it prevalence in the cinematic experience all the more intriguing. As BBC Culture Author Holly Williams writes, “after its psychedelic properties were accidentally discovered in the lab by Albert Hofmann in 1943, the drug was banned in the UK in 1966. LSD is still most strongly associated with hippies who embraced its mind-expanding properties” (2018). It was this significant divide in opinion as well as the controversial and unconventional nature of the drug which in turn stirred even more attention from both the public audience and scientific research. Church (2018) writes that “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”. And with this, media attention surrounding the nexus between drug use and cinematic spectatorship became prevalent. Church (2018) argues that “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.”

The Psychedelic Film Festival has attempted to capture and explore this cinematic experience and technique, offering patrons an insight into the historical influence of the drug and its evolving place within society. It should be noted, however, that the purpose of the festival is most definitely not with the intention of the consumption of psychedelic substances. As previously noted by Church (2018) there are often two primary approaches to the psychedelic film genre; that is-  films which replicate the hallucinogenic experience of taking LSD, and films which aid the “recreational drug use during the viewing experience” (Church 2018). He notes that “though 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 audio-visually recall hallucinogenic experiences, often through avant-garde (or avant-garde-inspired) techniques” (Church, 2018).

The selection of three different films in the psychedelic film genre from varying eras in time is also reflective of the evolution of cinematic techniques in the recreation of the hallucinogenic experience. Throughout time, as technology has evolved, as has the methodology used by filmmakers in the generation of such aesthetics. The Tingler (1959), starring Vincent Price, was the first example of an onscreen appearance of LSD. As Evan Martin, a writer for The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies explains, the techniques used in recreating the psychedelic experience were reflective of the methods available to filmmakers at the time. He writes:

“Multicolor oil lighting effects were projected over the black and white film during the LSD scene; a real skeleton popped out of a trap door next to the screen and zip-lined out towards the audience; actors paid to be moviegoers screamed and fainted in their seats; and electric vibrating buzzers under the seats startled the audience when the movie’s namesake creature, which feeds on fear, supposedly escaped into the theater”.

(Martin, 2012)

The first film selected for screening at the Psychedelic Film Festival is Daisies (Sedmikrásky) (1966). This Czechoslovak comedy-drama film was written and directed by Věra Chytilová follows the chaotic trip of two liberated women, a psychedelic rebellion against the political conservatism of the country at the time. At the time of release, this film was banned by Czechoslozakian government, reflective of the controversy about which Church (2018) writes. He argues that “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”. The truly unique cinematic masterpiece, however,  mirrors oppression through freedom and rebellion, giving audiences a revolutionary treasure, a product of a subdued society. 

Moving forward around 40 years to 2009, our second experience of psychedelic cinema at this festival is Enter the Void, an experimental drama art film written and directed by Gaspar Noé. One viewer writes, of the film, that it is “hugely ambitious… done almost entirely as a single never-ending shot, from the main character’s life through death and beyond… I’ll never forget it, for it’s scope, it’s relentlessness, and it’s ambition” (Linder, 2019). Enter the Void was nominated for Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and won numerous awards at the Catalonian International Film Festival (2009), Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (2010) and International Cinematographers’ Film Festival Manaki Brothers (2010).  This beautifully raw film offers a remarkably accurate rendering of a DMT trip. Self awareness is a side product of this unmatched cinematic experience, leaving the viewer revisiting, reevaluating and reassessing all their truths through Gaspar Noé’s gifted enlightenment. The 40 year time distance between Enter the Void (2009) and Daisies (Sedmikrásky) (1966) further accentuates the evolution of technology in the portrayal of the psychedelic cinematic experience. As Martin (2012) writes, “special effects have always been part and parcel of cinema’s evolution. As photographic and editing technology improved, so did the apparent reality of on-screen illusions”. 

The third and final film to grace the screens at the Psychedelic Film Festival is The Sunshine Makers (2015), which brings viewers the soulful tale of Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, the unlikely duo at the heart of 1960s American drug counter-culture. Dashing through the streets of 1960s America, characterised by a drug counter-culture, the men unite in a utopian mission using the consciousness-raising power of acid. Perhaps living up to the claim that they were vital to the rise and fall of LSD in the 1960s, they produced millions of hits of acid before federal authorities caught up to them. This documentary brings viewers a unique and somewhat educational insight into the culture surrounding LSD in the 60’s and has been carefully selected for screening at the festival to portray the notions psychedelic film culture in a slightly different light. The film is, perhaps, best summed up by its tagline: Two Warriors For Peace, A Vat of Chemicals and an LSD Cookbook. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It is simplistic and perhaps a more conservative view to consider the psychedelic movement of the 60’s as a moment in time, left firmly in the past alongside the free-love notions of the hippies. In a world now so readily driven by an emphasis on long working hours, excessively occupied schedules and the hustle and bustle of daily life, perhaps it is now more than ever that the psychedelic movement might be appreciated as a fresh and liberated approach to not only cinema but life as a whole. As Church (2018) argues, should these “psychedelic methods” merely be 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”. He explains that “these shifts in social and legal attitudes toward more sensible drug use have coincided with a recent resurgence in psychedelic aesthetic” (Church, 2018). 

It is hoped this festival introduces a new generation of youths to the historical and societal significance of psychedelic cinema. And so presents the question: Are we due another psychedelic renaissance? Williams (2018) writes that the British playwright, Leo Butler is hopeful. He tells BBC Culture; “There was a need – political, socially – for that LSD explosion in the 60s and the ecstasy explosion in the early 90s… You look at the world now and think, god it could really do with a super-strong psychedelic! We need something to bring us together – let’s have a third summer of love.” (Williams, 2018). And with that, we too can observe a resurgence in the psychedelic cinematic experience; in particular, “world cinema including in more mainstreamed forms like the narrative films Renegade (Jan Kounen, 2004), Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006), Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)” (Church, 2018) 

Martin (2012) too supports this notion, arguing that “phenomenal strides” are being taken in the “inoculation of pop culture with psychedelic revelations, yet we are still but on the brink of fully realizing the potentials for big budget applications of rapidly advancing media technologies to the momentous, shamanic emotion of the imminent entheogenic reformation”.

The Psychedelic Film Festival is both an educational and sensory experience unlike anything before seen in the Illawarra region. Its unique selection of films, including carefully curated complimentary activities, will provide a much anticipated recovery day after the annual Yours and Owls Festival. All the while, a new generation will be exposed to a cinematic genre which has had such profound impacts and influence on pop culture throughout history, and will inevitably continue to do so heading into the future.

References:

Church, D 2018, ‘The Doors of Reception: Notes Toward a Psychedelic Film Investigation’, Senses of Cinema, Online Essay, Issue 87, June 2018, viewed 20 October 2019, available at <http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/feature-articles/the-doors-of-reception-notes-toward-a-psychedelic-film-investigation/&gt;

Martin, E 2012, ‘The Art of Reality: Psychedelic Experience in Cinema and Television’, Maps Bulletin, vol xxii, no. 1, pp. 9-11.

Tyler, P 1969, Underground Film: A Critical History, Grove Press, New York, p. 85


Williams, H 2018, ‘How LSD Influenced Western Culture’, BBC Culture, online blog post, 17 October, viewed 22 October 2019, available at <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20181016-how-lsd-influenced-western-culture>

Published by susiealdermann

Fifth Year Bachelor of Communications and Media/ Bachelor of International Studies (Dean's Scholar) student

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