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.
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.