Friday, October 17, 2008

Trippy, Dude: A Guide to Films Best Seen in an Altered State

Ideally, when we succumb to a film, we’re giving ourselves over completely to it. We ask it to take us away to another place, another time, away from where we might be in our lives. When the lights dim in a theater or a den, we hope the trip on which we’re about to embark will lead to unabashedly spiritual or physical changes in our bodies. In that way, movies certainly resemble drugs, recreational or otherwise. For the reader's information, I am pro-drug (if you wanna call pot a drug). And. of course, I'm pro-movie. So naturally I've long considered which movies work best with which substances. Let's call these films "stoner movies."

In thinking about stoner movies, it’s easy to fall into a typical playlist of films that are more overtly about drug-taking: Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting, Reefer Madness, Up in Smoke, The Man With The Golden Arm, The Trip, even some of the titles I list below. Good films, all. But lots of those are downers and point out the negatives of drugs. When I'm stoned and in a movie-watching mood, I want cinema to wow me with visuals, dumb laffs, or deep thoughts. And I'm sorry, but as a film lover, I don't see anything negative in that. Anyway, my idea of a true stoner film is one that acts as a strong narcotic upon viewers even when seen straight...but when seen in conjunction with the right imbibed substance—marijuana or LSD (these are the only drugs, besides alcohol, nicotine and sugar, that work well with movies)—the best stoner movies are the ones that overtake viewers and make them blurp and swoon along with the effects of their chosen poison. So, what follows is a list of seven lucky movies (and ones similar to each) that should leave you dizzy and discombobulated, particularly when seen under the right circumstances.

As far as I can tell, there are only a few iterations of the best kinds of these films:


Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)
The great director’s self-described “dream of dark and troubling things” is the ultimate in nightmare imagery, capped with one of the strangest, most sublime “happy” endings in movie history. Stylishly utilizing Frederick Elmes and Herbert Caldwell’s unparalleled black-and-white cinematography and Alan Splet’s cosmically detailed sound work, Eraserhead plunges us into the irrational, industrial world of Henry Spenser (Jack Nance), a cloistered near-hermit fully equipped with a famously teased head of hair, a hideously deformed baby, and an all-day-show going on behind his hissing radiator. Lynch’s one-of-a-kind original continually dummies us up with its indelible visions: Henry and his call-girl neighbor sinking sexually into a bedroom pool of milky sweat; a scarred man living inside another planet (art director Jack Fisk) pulling a rusty lever that releases a giant sperm cell from Henry’s mouth; and a scary scenario inside a pencil factory that gives the movie its moniker—all these images and more make the jaw drop open in response to the singular mind that concocted them. I once tripped while watching a double bill of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. Both films benefited from the experience: the vibrant colors of Blue Velvet throbbed and pulsated pleasantly, but Eraserhead trumped the later film, revealing itself to be a painterly off-world vision with a whooshing, buzzing soundscape and a wicked sense of humor (I laughed my ass off at the little stop-motion animated piece involving that silly little worm). Fun stuff, surprisingly. IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM: check out other black-and-white dream films like Herk Harvey’s landmark 1962 horrorshow Carnival of Souls; the two collaborations between visual artists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andelou and L’Age D’or; Guy Maddin’s out-of hand 1988 tour-de-force Tales of the Gimli Hospital; Richard Elfman’s hysterical 1980 comedy Forbidden Zone; Curtis Harrington's weird mermaid tale Night Tides, with a 1961-era Dennis Hopper; and 1961’s The Mask, an incredibly strange drug addiction parable with stunning 3-D sequences by Slavko Vorkapich.


The Lickerish Quartet (1970, Radley Metzger)
The circularly logical Lickerish Quartet began its theatrical life, like most of Metzger’s work, as a particularly well-made skin flick. Nowadays, the sex scenes—while erotic—are tame comparative to scenes in more mainstream fare like Shortbus and Betty Blue, for instance. This development finally reveals the movie for what it truly is: a wake-up call for the square to get hip. The obscenely beautiful Erica Remberg plays a stunt motorcyclist who, after a show, is invited back to the opulent mansion of a stiff-lipped family, each of whom are enlightened carnally and intellectually by this woman’s sure sensuality. By the time the movie kicks us in the solar plexus with its final trick, we realize we’ve been witness to the sexiest episode of The Twilight Zone ever made. Replete with vibrating primary colors and sharply top-notch production values (like a lot of expatriate Metzger’s works, it was filmed in Europe in one of the region’s gorgeous, ancient castles), The Lickerish Quartet contains a justifiably famous scene that catches Remberg and Italian superstar Frank Woolf (Once Upon a Time in the West) making love in an ultra-cool library decorated with gigantic dictionary definitions of the word “fuck.” Incredible!! The colors in this film alone make it a must-watch-on-acid. IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM: check out other weirdly sexy journeys like Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 trek through the Australian outback Walkabout; George Roy Hill’s perfect 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic sci-fi fable Slaughterhouse-Five, Gaspar Roe's intense Enter the Void, and Steven Soderburgh’s sadly forgotten, maniacal curiosity Schitzopolis.


Tommy (1975, Ken Russell)
Psychotropic substances can work wonders if great music is blaring in our ears as we peak. I mean, who among us hasn't gotten stoned at a concert? So naturally rock and roll movies work well on pot, or on stronger substances. Ken Russell’s sorely neglected filming of The Who’s 1968 rock opera Tommy scores high in this regard. As Pete Townshend’s raucous, Oscar-nominated libretto chugs along throughout (there’s only one spoken word of dialogue in the movie), a parade of 70s rock and movie stars marches by. Among the guests of honor: Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner (fantastic as the insane Acid Queen), Jack Nicholson, Paul Nicholas, Keith Moon and the rest of The Who, and Elton John, who steals the show with his one scene as the impossibly big-booted Pinball Wizard. All flail madly around our deaf-dumb-and- blind-kid hero, played energetically by Who frontman Roger Daltrey. A masterful damnation of the cult of personality, Tommy contains brilliantly orchestrated visuals and songs, highlighted by “Champagne,” Ann-Margret’s show-stopping number that is once a celebration and denigration of fame and fortune, climaxing with her imaginary, drunken frolic in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate that, surely alone netted Ann a Best Actress Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. It is for certain one of the most erotically-charged yet repulsive scenes in cinema. On top of all this, we have to give a shout-out to the over-the-top art direction by John Clark and to the fuckified costumes by Shirley Russell. But I think it's Ken Russell (who's obviously done massive amounts of drugs) that we truly have to thank for this unsung (tee-hee) movie. IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM: check out other hallucinatory celebrations of tonal brilliance like David Byrne’s celebration of middle-American idiosyncrasy True Stories; Bob Rafelson’s frantic, free-association 1968 Monkees vehicle Head, with cameos by Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Frank Zappa, choreographer Toni Basil, and screenwriter Jack Nicholson; Milos Forman's loving adaptation of the Broadway hit Hair; and two kingly concert documentaries: Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning overview of Woodstock, and D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking Monterey Pop, with its transcendent climactic performance by Ravi Shankar.


Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
Some of my favorite psychedelic films are ones that chart the epic journeys of doomed innocents who find themselves blindsided by a barrage of alternate-reality mind-fucks that leave them—and the audience—shattered to the core. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil stands as a prime example of this unusual genre. Set in a dilapidated, retrofitted future, it follows lowly government bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) as he battles a maddening police state, bad duct work, and circuitous paper-pushing in pursuit of his dream girl, the ravishing yet leather-tough Jill (played with supreme gorgiosity by Kim Griest). Gifted with stunning art direction, inventive special effects, and a game supporting cast that includes Michael Palin, Ian Holm (pathetically radiant as Sam’s paranoid boss), Katherine Helmond, and a snappy Robert De Niro as the world’s most likable terrorist, Brazil deftly mixes allusions to Mad Max, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Battleship Potemkin, film noir, and the Marx Brothers in a paean to the elusive nature or dreams, love, and sanity. IF YOU LIKE THIS MOVIE: check out other films of this oft-misunderstood ilk like Lars Von Trier’s colorful decent into Nazi hell Zentropa, Francis Ford Coppola’s cruise through Vietnam hell Apocalypse Now (to which I tripped to once and it was FANTASTIC), Alejandro Jodorowski's insane Holy Mountain, the Coen Brothers’ confounding slog through Hollywood hell Barton Fink, Alejandro Innuritu's dazzling Birdman, and O Lucky Man!, Lindsey Anderson’s 1973 musing on morality and everything under the sun, featuring Malcolm McDowell and possibly the greatest rock score ever penned for a motion picture, by Alan Price.


Yellow Submarine (1968, George Dunning)
Given its limitless nature, animation has always been a mainstay of the drug scene. Yellow Submarine, with a score by The Beatles (whose genius need not be overstated), is the greatest example, to my mind, as to the blend of hand-painted imagery and psychedelia. This bright, Heinz Edelmann-designed romp follows John, Paul, George and Ringo as they battle the nasty Blue Meanies, who've captured Pepperland’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and turned the town’s inhabitants into cold stone. Yes, a pall is cast when the viewer learns that The Beatles themselves had little to do with this production outside of lending their tunes and a tiny live-action cameo at the end. But the uncanny voice work does a lot to dispel this, since the actors perfectly perform the difficult task of imitating each member of the group (for the record: John Clive does John Lennon, Geoff Hughes does Paul McCartney, Peter Batten does George Harrison, and Paul Angelis does a dead-on Ringo Starr). Plus the writing by Lee Minoff, Beatles cartoon show vet Al Brodax, Hanna-Barbera mainstay John Mendelsohn and, notably, Love Story author Erich Segal, does wonders in recreating the group’s famous wit and wordplay. Not to mention, of course, that Dunning’s expert direction of Edelmann colorful designs brings further vibrancy to the Beatles’ already landmark music. IF YOU LIKE THIS MOVIE: check out works by animation masters like Walt Disney (the trippy-before-its-time Fantasia), Ralph Bakshi (American Pop, Wizards, Heavy Traffic), The Films of the Brothers Quay (including their shadowy showpiece 1991’s Street of Crocodiles), Jan Svenkmeyer (Alice, Faust), Rene Leloux (the cult classic Fantastic Planet), Ari Folman's more recent and extremely challenging The Congress, or Wladyslaw Starewicz (whose Tale of the Fox is very possibly the greatest animated film ever made).


Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)
Science fiction’s raison d’atre is to bend our minds in pretzel shapes in order to prepare us for a host of possible futures. For this reason, the genre goes particularly well with a puff of smoke or the drop of a tainted sugar cube. There are many films I could talk about in this case, but I choose to highlight Danny Boyle’s incredible Sunshine here because I feel it is one of this decade’s most unjustly underseen movies. In a FX-oriented time where great spacebound sci-fi is strangely absent from the screen, Boyle gave his all to this generous, thoughtful, horrifying, elating tale of a group of space explorers embarked on a mission to respark Earth’s dying sun by firing a massive nuclear bomb into its core. Boyle and writer Alex Garland perform miracles in illustrating for the first time since 1983’s The Right Stuff the niggling need for science's exploration of space’s unknown reaches (the scene where the wide-eyed crew catches humanity’s first glimpse of the firey planet Mercury is one of the film’s most magical, meaningful moments). What further distinguishes Sunshine is the simple twist that, instead of venturing away from the light and into the darkness of space, our heroes are doing the exact opposite—their ultimate goal is to be uber-dazzled by the brightness of our nearest star, which is overwhelming even in its partial power. The film’s beautiful art direction and special effects play their parts well in Sunshine, however it should be noted that the movie takes unexpected power from its performances, particularly from Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and especially from Hiroyuki Saneda as the mission’s taciturn captain. Very few movies in this genre approach the sheer emotion and wonder displayed by Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which deserves a devoted cult following. IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM, naturally you’ll like sci-fi’s greatest films: Fritz Lang’s sobering masterpiece Metropolis, William Cameron Menzies’ astounding Things to Come, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s funny/weird Dark Star, Andrei Tarkovsky's mystical Solaris, Ken Russell's philosophical Altered States, Ridley Scott’s unspeakably accomplished Blade Runner, Christopher Nolan's mindbending Inception; Dave McKean's beautiful Mirrormask; the Wachowskis' exciting The Matrix (which is the best movie I've ever seen while flying on LSD), Jonathan Glazer's incredibly visionary Under the Skin, and of course, the ultimate trip of all trips, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Smiley Face (2008, Gregg Araki)
They say that the powerful force of laughter adds precious time to your life. If that’s true, then a little weed and the right comedy can really get you into your emeritus years with the greatest of ease. This is particularly true of a host of films dealing with pot-smoking itself (not many comedies out there dealing with cocaine or heroin). The very finest of this mini-genre was released earlier in 2008. Gregg Araki’s films were never all that funny (at least not to me), but he’s earned my eternal thanks for giving the world Smiley Face, not least of all because he’s the first to hand my favorite comedic actress, Anna Faris, her first truly great role. Sure, she’s the best thing about the Scary Movie franchise, and she even brought some light to a somber movie like Brokeback Mountain. But this blue-eyed, pink-faced blond bundle of moxie will have to search hard to find a better vehicle than this cautionary tale of weed-loving which has Anna's slack-jawed, wide-eyed Jane trying to navigate her way through a difficult day while being more stoned than anyone has the right to be. Seeing Faris rolling slowly out of a possessed car, dumbly falling about a moving bus, trying her best to not look stoned at an important acting audition, or imagining the perfect political rant while delivering in reality something much less eloquent, is quite enough to make even the non-smoker giggle uncontrollably. Somehow, Faris seems to be channeling the slapstick ghost of Lucille Ball (high praise, indeed) in this movie that’s vividly directed with more than the tip of a hat to John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Martin Scorsese's After Hours. See Smiley Face and…well…get you a smile on your face. IF YOU LIKE THIS MOVIE: check out the greatest of all pot comedies, 1998’s Half-Baked with Dave Chappelle and Jim Bruer, then look into 2001’s How High with Method Man and Redman, Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams (which bests their more popular Up In Smoke), the Coen Brothers' justifiably legendary The Big Lebowski, Richard Linklater’s lovely Dazed and Confused, Paul Thomas Anderson's labyrinthine Inherent Vice, and Kevin Smith’s potty-mouthed mainstay Clerks.

So, um...spark up and enjoy, folks.


John Smith said...

An Interesting and eclectic list.


MovieMan0283 said...

I couldn't add too many films to the list from my own experience, but I did once try that "Dark Side of Oz" gimmick while mildly stoned. The music syncing up to the image was not especially effective (I've seen better examples that were inadvertent and not chemically lubricated) but it did open up a space to view the film - and its dark underbelly - through an entirely different lens. The artificiality of the movie is heightened (you can sense the cameras and crews just off-screen, and the sense that everything, even the open-air scenes, is taking place in a vaulted, closed-off studio) while the emotional and psychological undertones of its story, its visuals, and its historical backdrop (knowing how troubled Judy Garland was, and on a larger scale, the dire social conditions of 1939) are exploded. At least for me.

sarahnomics said...

One time I was on mushrooms with some friends and I put on The Dark Crystal and it upset everyone but me.

Lisa said...

I'm not into drugs but I think "Half-Baked" is one of the most delightful -- and totally hilarious -- comedies ever! Just love it!

What about something like "Tenacious D -- The Pick of Destiny"? That's kind of trippy, too, and funny.

Dean Treadway said...

The weirdest movie I ever tripped to was THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Lemme tell ya, every glass of tea Streep and Eastwood had was a cosmic experience!