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.
Up next: live textual re-enactment for the blogosphere of the “Dr. Edward Jessup” role from Ken Russell’s psychedelic thriller Altered States. A tongue-in-cheek model of sorts for one of my personae here at Trance-Scripts — minus, of course, the primatological regression, the obligatory serpent in the garden, the film’s return to propriety after its initial prodigality, its surrender to disciplinary mechanisms, its obedience to traditional morality in its final half. Neoliberalism does everything in its power to provoke this turn historically, and to emphasize it in the accounts it allows the culture to tell of what we thenceforth come to think of as the “failed revolutions” of the late 1960s. “Disarm the utopian potentials of psychedelic communism,” read the instructions for this ideology. “Stage elaborate spectacles of punishment and retribution. Contain the figure of the acid freak within narratives that end unhappily.” The wonderful documentary The Cockettes, for instance, bows to the weight of this narrative arc — as does Wild Wild Country.
Study takes me on psychogeographical walks each day in the company of my partner, my coworker, my beloved comrade. Working together, playing together, we improvise our speculative collective practice. Others organize themselves into tribes, teams, and crews, where the many act as appendages of a director-subject’s creative process. A friend over dinner describes his willingness to invent himself anew each morning: “no mistakes yet,” he says of each day’s promise. Dreamers float atop a calm, reflective surface. Companions along a journey embody resistance to tyranny as they pass through gossamer veils. Succumbing to hunger, however, the couple lands in a local fast-food restaurant. The walls of the place bombard them with Christofascist propaganda: a father lecturing his daughters about Jesus, bible-themed Jeopardy!, “The Message” beamed at captives via satellite. To cleanse myself, I retire to a pinewood room, bathe myself in soft pink light, and listen to Concrete Beach by Toasted Focus, one of four new cassettes received by mail yesterday from Baked Tapes.
Next thing I know, I’m watching a goofy 80s horror film called Brain Damage. A growling creature curls a cesta-shaped tentacle around my head. Vaporwave cinema avant la lettre, the film, released at the height of the AIDS epidemic, invents from an alien parasite narrative a gritty post-punk psychedelic grotesque. The film’s “Elmer” parasite, as destructive as a dirty needle, turns its protagonist into a sociopath every bit as repulsive as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Neither here nor there, the film plays in the space between.
I practice silently the names of plants in my neighborhood. Star magnolia, tulip magnolia, hyacinth. Rows upon rows of daffodils. A massive weeping cherry tree atop a hill. The first-person perspective shots in Maryam Goormaghtigh’s Before Summer Ends fuse me in an unprecedented way to a trio of Iranian male protagonists, vacationing on the coast of France. By these ways, we forge new ties, bonds, interests, empathetic capacities, across and despite traditional national-linguistic boundaries. Alas, life runs through our fingers; let us make haste in our imagining a beyond. Screw in the corners of a hammock. Relax, lie back, light up, read a book. Lincoln in the Bardo comes to mind. It and High Maintenance present themselves as clue-bearing reference points within a secret network, a kind of “Head Underground.” The joint effort of assembling art from jointly sent and jointly received sets of signs.
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.