Three men enter a bar and hunch together around a table at the start of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Upon finishing their drinks, the three men — writer, scientist, and ex-convict — climb into a convertible and drive around through shadows and puddles, dodging cops, following cargo trains through gated crosswalks. Heads remain constant in the foreground against a changing background as the men journey into the Zone, a realm that “wants to be respected.” Humans who disrespect the Zone and trespass against it are punished. Perhaps this relates to a dream I had last night. Having traveled to the past, I tried to prove this fact to my companions, pointing to not-yet-existing years of copyright printed on objects: a notebook I happened to be carrying on my person, the tag on the tongue of my sneaker. These demonstrations were met with confusion and disbelief. Weirded out by my claims, my companions took a vote and agreed to abandon me. As they boarded a taxi, I suddenly remembered that I’d left my bags of luggage in their hotel room. One of them agreed to accompany me up a slow elevator — a vertical, Halloween-themed passage through a shadowy interior universe. I disembarked on the seventh floor, only to have someone rush up and pluck the key from my fingers — at which point the dream ended. Perhaps my actions were a form of disrespect. The reductive universe posited by Western rationality is the nihilistic universe, the lobotomized universe — the universe without meaning. Let us ascend from that place. By integration with plant-spirits and plant-consciousness, we chemically engineer ourselves into new kinds of mythic beings. Michael Davidson’s novel The Karma Machine offers one such myth. A community of immortal heads assembles a device called the Sophia, a generator of wisdom and truth, from which they then request a meta-narrative: the grand narrative to end all grand narratives. What they receive instead is a restatement of the Parable of the Tares.
Take the load off the self and place it on The Band (or, due to licensing issues, a band called Smith). The Easy Rider soundtrack remains for me a peak moment in 60s psychedelia. Despite decades having passed since its release, it still managed to turn me on to revolution and liberation when I first encountered it while rifling through my parents’ LP collection as a teenager in the 1990s. I picture every time while hearing it beautiful, peaceful people relaxing in nature. Let’s lie barefoot in the grass passing a joint. Fuck the system. Simply turn from it and walk away. Such has been my conception of Utopia ever since. Angel-headed hipsters singing, banging tambourines, harmonizing under umbrellas in a rainstorm, committing themselves eternally to growth and becoming. Tom Wolfe calls this ideal “Edge City” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: a place where “it was scary, but people were whole people” (50). Theaters there play movies like Hellzapoppin featuring American midcentury comedy duo Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson. (Wolfe died, by the way, this past May. In a final interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, he insisted he never tried LSD.)
Do I sometimes feel like a spy or an alien in a foreign land, and do I sometimes behave so? Indeed, I do. Joy is contraband for members of my class. Debtors are expected to work constantly to prove their right to live. And yet, once we deprogram ourselves, joy is easy to come by, easily ours. As easy as raising our arms to accept the light of the sun — a gesture I learn from the branches of bushes beside my office window on an uncharacteristically breezy 77° August afternoon. Self-actualizers, as Maslow says, “sometimes find emotions bubbling up from within them that are so pleasant or even ecstatic that it seems almost sacrilegious to suppress them” (Motivation and Personality, p. 158). With appropriate tools, one can expand into a sense of self empathetically absorbed into the nonhuman environment. Trying to place the brand of “techno-thriller” to which Ingo Swann’s Star Fire belongs, my mind lights upon the early works of Michael Crichton. Seeking info about the latter, I discover Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, a 1970 novel Crichton co-wrote with his younger brother Douglas under the pen name “Michael Douglas.” The book was adapted into a movie in 1972 featuring Barbara Hershey and John Lithgow in his screen debut as a campus drug dealer. Imagine Easy Rider set among the Boston and Berkeley freak left.
Desperately sad high schooler: Babe in the City. My Google-able Big Data doppelgänger goes to bed at 10. Meanwhile, a local company called Freedom Drones sponsors good boys and girls, as Wells Fargo lawyers up with the woman-in-the-row-behind-me’s father. BlacKkKlansman may be soft on cops, but at least it packed the theater with people in my city willing to express vocally their opposition to the current president. If only we could all paint our faces with punk mascara and evolve into beings immersed in the work of Paul Laffoley. If only we didn’t have to stare at our uneaten curly fries. If only we were writing it, rather than wanting to write it. If only we were floating atop a cool body of water rather than sitting in a Naugahyde booth. Will my refusal to learn to cook weigh against me in my quest for self-actualization? And how might the latter, I wonder, relate to eternal life?
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.