Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), co-edited by a young Martin Scorsese, overlays sounds and images, especially in its use of split-screen, in order to represent the crowd as a cooperative beloved community. The collective intelligence of audience, performers, and crew is astounding, comparable only to that other collective intelligence, the US military. With the walkie-talkies and the helicopters and the ever-present talk of food and supplies, the festival was clearly the War in Vietnam’s deliberately inverted double.
I have long been a fan of the American independent filmmaker Jem Cohen, so it was a source of some pleasure to watch his recent film “in fifteen chapters,” Counting.
Early on, the viewer is made to wonder, Why is Cohen’s relationship to the city (like it is for so many of us) that of a silent, alienated, spectating/observing bird-watcher? What conditions have stripped life of joy in common? Why do the citizens of the twenty-first century global metropolis live as burdened, isolated monads? Is it, perhaps, because of the way we’ve organized our relations with others? Cohen intervenes in this reality about ten minutes in with the emotional intensity of Dirty Three’s “Furnace Skies.”
The film’s second chapter, titled “A Day Is Long,” takes us to a drab, lonely post-Soviet Moscow where statues of dead labor rot amid cars, ads, litter, lonely pedestrians on cellphones. Bring back the culture war, the cultural revolution, styles of radical will exercised in speech, hair, and fashion. It will be my duty this semester to recall for students the shapes and horizons of political action during what Michael Denning called “culture in the age of three worlds.” I’ll present Abbie Hoffman’s “talk-rock album” Woodstock Nation as the hippie modernist equivalent of a blog. Topical writing, filled with a sense of immediacy. Nowadays it’s tear gas and pepper spray for protesting in a park, as it was then. A dog stares up at the sky, sad and confused, in a city in Turkey. There is at least a dense, lively quality to Istanbul’s streets, a bustle, at least in the shots Cohen includes in Counting. Cats, birds, people eating outdoors, street markets. Of the film’s cities, the ones in the US and Russia are the most miserable. Like The Evens song featured on its soundtrack, the film asks us to stop repeating defeated being. Thus afterwards, to welcome a new dawn, I listen to Jefferson Airplane performing “Volunteers” at Woodstock. As Sly Stone says on the track that follows, “Time to get down.”
Among Hollywood’s various failed attempts to cash in on the LSD craze of the late 1960s, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) stands out as quite possibly the strangest of the bunch. Imagine a zany Peter Sellers comedy about organized crime, featuring psychedelic visuals and bits of Marat/Sade done up in hippie garb, starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith, and Mickey Rooney, with Groucho Marx playing a character named “God.” They even got Timothy Leary to appear in the trailer, telling “every young person in the country” to “turn on Mom and Dad by taking them to this movie.” “Dated” doesn’t even begin to capture the marvels of this trainwreck.
To prepare myself for the new CBS Jack Parsons show, Strange Angel, I dedicate my evening to avant-garde occult cinema. The evening’s programming begins with feminist experimental filmmaker Suzan Pitt’s surrealist animated short, Asparagus (1979), after which I watch two counterculture films starring Marjorie Cameron: Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
To my surprise, however, a pattern forms among these films as the night proceeds, as all of them can be interpreted as frightening sex-magical critical revisions of the myth of Adam and Eve. The Anger film took as inspiration for its title the opium-influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “Kubla Khan”—a poem that begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree.” Very very nice. Pan that. Quality never in doubt. Wax comma hex comma spells. I barely have a boat, big chump, where’s the boat, where’s the lawyer. Here’s the thing, man. I got family. I’m not lively, nor am I adventurous. I don’t just jump right in, I step in and enter gently, in stages. “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a mythographic film,” argues P. Adams Sitney, “in its aspiration to visualize a plurality of gods” (Visionary Film, p. 107). To Sitney, however, the myth revived in Anger’s work is not the Eden myth, so much as “the primary Romantic myth of the fall of a unitary Man into separate, conflicting figures, a myth that dominates the prophetic writings of Blake and finds expression in the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley” (110). If there is to be an intervention, I conclude, if there is to be a resistance against present conditions, it will have to be countercultural, it will have to be by way of magic. Consciousness will have to draw a circle around itself, spin an imaginary wheel, and select from this wheel a provisional belief system for itself as if at random. As soundtrack for this ritual, happenstance recommends Mount Everest Trio’s Waves From Albert Ayler.
Señor Ernesto de la Cruz, the patriarchal musician-god worshiped by the protagonist in the Disney-Pixar film Coco (2017) says, “Never underestimate the power of music.” The film’s secretive, cunning protagonist Miguel abandons his matriarchal, tradition-obsessed shoemaker family in order to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, only to then embark on a trippy, out-of-body journey through a magical-realist alternate-modernity Mexico among the souls of his dead ancestors in the company of spirit-creatures and a dog named Dante. To resolve the contradiction between its content and its form as animated digital spectacle, the film must imagine a distinction between moral and immoral action: valid artistic aspiration and talent cultivation on the one hand, and murderous, deceitful capitalist fame-chasing on the other. Spirit-animals and ancestors will come to our rescue, the film suggests, and justice will triumph, the false patriarch-god crushed beneath the weight of a bell — this latter symbol resonating, of course, in ways both sacred and profane. Liberty Bell, Mission Bell, Taco Bell: all are potential referents, threads of sense woven into the film’s system of meaning.
The mind, like a hand, clenches and holds. The unconscious remembers everything: lessons in unmastered foreign languages, the self as inner ear. In a religious idiom, one would speak of minds knowing themselves in the Christ narrative, toggling between one and many. Were early descriptions of psychedelic experience overdetermined by encounters with Op Art, the contemporaneity of the two no mere coincidence? The answer lies buried in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, a film that sought to depict visual and spatial disorientation using “Op Art”-inspired special effects. Voices and sounds prompt projections, the more abstract, the more manipulated the perception, the better. Lead and descant chase each other’s echoes. Op Art at the very least shared with the psychonaut population an interest in heightened or intensified modes of perception. Sensations of otherworldly motion, vibration, topological warping. Reality displays itself in some new way, allowing apprehension of something beautiful and bewilderingly complex. Magic circles convert the mind’s eye into a portal connecting distinct ontological realms, from which we catch brief impressions — until, like vapors, these realms disperse.
Neoliberalism sheds much of Fordism/Keynesianism’s reliance on “myth” or “popular narrative” to win consent, as it realizes it can rule more effectively now through simple economic coercion — behavior regulated by wages, prices, and debts. Combined, of course, with the ever-present use of state violence, or the threat thereof. I imagine appareling myself in wizard’s robes, sleeves hanging low off of upraised arms. There I am, standing before the class enemy, waving a wooden wand. “They neglect to invent new stories,” I complain. Blades of grass quiver gently beneath a breeze as sunlight warms my face. Seated later at a table topped with irises, I sample two upcoming tapes from Eiderdown Records, followed by KBOO’s program “Music and Poetry of the Kesh.”
‘Tis a day and night of gluttonous consumption. Pull My Daisy (1959) pulls my daisy. Jack Kerouac yaks out a rickrack storyline atop black-and-white footage of the Beats, shot by Robert Frank. Mind is a breath that rides shotgun alongside being.
Sarah and I listened to Ought’s “Beautiful Blue Sky” off their album Sun Coming Down while driving to see Godspeed You Black Emperor the other night, the last moments of sunlight shining through the rear window, warming the backs of our necks. Standing at the show afterwards, I wondered: “Who today are my countrymen? Who today stand opposed both to machines and to those who make them?” Recalling these thoughts now, I wonder: is the true power of witchcraft and sorcery their ability to provoke consciousness-alteration in oneself and in others? Those affected vape and dance despite their dehumanizing professions, as nonhuman nature finds its springtime groove. A television in the corner of a Chinese takeout disturbs my peace of mind with an infomercial hawking beauty products: some sort of ‘Cindy Crawford’-sponsored age-defying skin treatment super-serum. The ex-‘global supermodel’ collects a tax, even if just as burdensome interruption of one’s soundscape and field of vision. I’d rather lie around all day in a state of jouissance. Kicking up dust, reading old reports, watching The Godz, a short work by psychedelic filmmaker Jud Yalkut.
I sense my heart beating as I listen to Overscan’s “The Narrows.”
My mind’s eye cycles through a sequence of images. Time stolen for sensation rather than narrative progression. An octopus swims in a giant underground tank. Beams of sunlight pierce the rafters of an abandoned factory. By conjuration, I acquaint myself with Andrew Weil’s The Natural Mind. The subjective universe continues its slow, bit-by-bit expansion. Marijuana lets me use time to step back from the Agora, the marketplace — the business of everyday life under capitalism. I scatter into platters, platelets, matter: shrinking man, dissolving into panpsychic, object-oriented bliss. I can move up and out, release myself of gravity, transform into a thought bubble floating in a world of sound, as in 15 Corners of the World, a documentary about Polish electronic music composer Eugeniusz Rudnik. Teaching, on certain days, with the right students and under the proper conditions, needn’t be a burden. We’re like electric ants in that regard. We can change three-dimensional reality by reprogramming ourselves internally. It’s a matter of explaining three dimensions in two-dimensional terms.
I listen to Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants” in the lead-up to 3:47pm EST while standing atop a nearby mountain, head roughly level with a series of hawks circling above a figure-ground landscape laid out in miniature, the phallic ego a tiny dot in the far distance. I expect something tragic to happen, but it doesn’t and the day is splendid. I top it by watching Come Worry With Us!, Helene Klodawsky’s documentary on Montreal post-rockers Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. We all ought to learn how to stand amid a moving universe. But the film is otherwise a terrifying portrait of parenting aboard a Greyhound bus. What would it mean to raise children while awaiting a flood? Wouldn’t a person’s paranoia double? How small the world seems when imagined as a pattern prepared for kids by their parents. Most of the artists I admire live amid simulated, twenty-first-century Dickensian squalor, hustling constantly for money by which to live. Are there still ways to live counterculturally when neoliberal reality evolves into Jurassic Park? Must the song remain the same while getting worse? Let us get back to the splendid anarchy of public assembly each and every instant. Joy on one side, fear on the other. I am committed to a politics of joy. The liminal land visited in waking dreams.