“The Uncensored Cortex”: Psychedelia and American Avant-garde Film in the 1960s

The youth-movement counterculture(s) of the 1960s remain contested terrain for commentators across the ideological spectrum, interpreted and re-interpreted from every conceivable political or socio-cultural perspective. The struggle over the counterculture’s meaning in relation to larger historical contexts, in fact, mirrors its own concerns with representations of itself. One abiding concern of radical movements of the period was that of authenticity of expression and action as a means to transcend the constraints of a repressive technocratic society. “Authenticity” and “transcendence” are particularly critical notions for understanding the psychedelic “movement”, and thus in turn for shining a light on its cultural influence, not least on American experimental cinema of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Writers on psychedelia have paid virtually no attention to experimental film, [1] while contemporary scholars of avant-garde cinema have underrepresented psychedelic experimentation, with some exceptions (eg., William Wees’ discussion of Jordan Belson and James Whitney in Light Moving in Time). There is much more to say about the historical context in which this work was produced, and that is the starting point of this essay.

To begin, it will be necessary to briefly sketch the context of political discontent in America in the late 1960s to position psychedelia within the counterculture’s critique of American society and culture. I’ll discuss key figures like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Ken Kesey, and their divergent conceptualizations of the psychedelic experience, both its significance and its potential for driving social change. We can then begin to analyze the influence of psychedelia – the drugs, and the culture and discourses around them – on the American experimental filmmaking community of the late 1960s. We can distinguish two trends here, in some respects mirroring the divergence between Leary and Kesey. The first, exemplified by Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964) and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, (1954/1966) is concerned with symbolic, ritualistic representations of the LSD experience, in this way overlapping with what P. Adams Sitney calls the “Romantic” strain of American experimental film. The second was characterized at the time by Gene Youngblood as “expanded cinema”, concerned less with the imagination, and more with processes of thought and perception. This was cinema that attempted to do away with the interference of the ego, of the self even, aiming thereby to eliminate constraints on perception and on the human relationship with the mystical “infinite.” Variously using the technologies of film, video, and the multimedia light show, “expanded” filmmakers like Belson, Whitney, and Scott Bartlett sought to forge a connection with some larger consciousness via cinema. These are filmmakers who call to mind Robert Masters and Jean Houston’s description of painters and illustrators in their 1968 Psychedelic Art: “The psychedelic artist is an artist whose work has been significantly influenced by psychedelic experience and who acknowledges the impact of the experience in the work.” Artists since time immemorial have sought out extraordinary experiences to form the basis of their creations, they write:

These new artists travel inward, to … the world of visionary experience. … The result is psychedelic art: works of art attempting in some sense to communicate psychedelic experience, or to induce psychedelic experience, or at least to alter consciousness so as to approximate aspects of the chemically induced state.

This is not to say that “alteration of consciousness confers the ability to create works of art”; “The artist, not the chemical, has to provide the intelligence, feeling, imagination, and talent.” [2] In this essay, I argue that for certain filmmakers at this time, psychedelia as a cultural phenomenon – use of LSD and psilocybin, and attempts to understand their (potential) impact – was a profound experiential and philosophical influence. These filmmakers interpreted and translated the psychedelic experience through their own strategies and techniques, and through the framework of experimental film practice, in turn becoming an influence on later avant-garde cinema.

Authenticity, Psychedelia, and the Countercultural Critique
Debra Michaels writes, “The 1960s were awash with countercultural strategies for social revolution, many of which built on varying notions of ‘consciousness’ as the key to overhauling society.” [3] In The Sixties, Todd Gitlin argues that the student movement wanted to be both “strategic and expressive, political and cultural: to change the world (end the war, win civil rights) while freeing life in the here and now”. [4] Such ideas were drawn from a well of cultural and political discontent deriving from such critiques as C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), both exploring the idea that traditional community values were being flattened in the postwar rush to suburbia and white-collar corporate employment, only to be replaced by “conformism”. Both writers challenged “affluent society’s claims that its social arrangements were sufficient nourishment for the human spirit”. [5] Following them, Theodore Roszak’s 1969 The Making of a Counterculture criticized American “technocratic” society – a society of “organizational integration”, “the ideal that men have in mind when they speak of modernizing, up-dating, rationalizing, planning” 6] – for failing to live up to democratic ideals. By contrast, for Roszak the counterculture was an expression of the group consciousness of the young striving for a genuine sense of self, a rejection of technocratic values in favor of an emphasis on personal connections, and artistic, spiritual, and cultural liberation from rationality and its limitations.

Roszak acknowledges the influence of the postwar Beat writers who, like Allen Ginsberg, expressed this discontent in more militant terms. In Howl (1955), he rails against

Moloch! … Moloch the loveless! …/Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!/ Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running with money! … /Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! [7]

For the Beats, Gitlin writes, escape from the pervasive materialism of American society was crucial: “They felt cramped by the postwar bargain of homes and mortgages, steady jobs, organized suffering; they wanted to run around, hang out, get away, find spiritual bedrock”. [8] Yet the Beats also reified a traditional American faith in the individual, their capacity to achieve a state of being outside social conditioning. They rejected affluence for voluntary poverty, the nuclear family for breaking sexual taboos, Christianity for Buddhism, martinis for marijuana, and conformity in dress and attitude generally: “if Moloch was the harsh social superego making insupportable demands of the human spirit – then an intensely, polymorphously perverse life was the right rebuttal.” [9] “Meditation and drugs were the vehicles of their personal ecstasies”, [10] facilitating writing that would approach the condition of jazz improvisation, what Kerouac called an “undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret words … not selectivity of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought”. [11] They proselytized embracing the Now, and “cultivating Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses'” through drugs [12] as a way to short-circuit American society’s “surplus repression” leading to a “politics of joy” (not “accumulation”), so that one could become genuinely “organic”. In the words of Thorne Dreyer, this would be “open warfare against all that is dull or inhuman”. [13]

Later coalitions like the Students for a Democratic Society would embrace communal ideals in their rejection of a mainstream society whose materialism had produced only alienation. Their 1963 Port Huron Statement is framed by opposition to “the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things”, advocating “finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic” through community.

Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. … human brotherhood must be willed … as the most appropriate form of social relations. … Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.

Specifically, this meant focusing on “participatory democracy”, collectivity as a “means of finding meaning in personal life”. [14] This is deemed an “expressive politics”, and its goal was “finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic”. [15]

Doug Rossinow argues that the basic cultural politics of the New Left as a whole was built around a discursive opposition between (inner) “alienation” and “authenticity”. People were alienated first from parts of themselves; the answer to this was to be authentic (to be ‘real’, to be ‘natural’), and this was about “wholeness” and integration. Only on this basis could society be changed. San Francisco Oracle editor Allen Cohen wrote, “A new concept of human relations being developed within the youthful underground must emerge, become conscious, and shared so that a revolution of form can be filled with a Renaissance of compassion, awareness and love.” [16] Psychedelic drugs facilitated the process of achieving wholeness. David Farber writes, “The way people used drugs in the Sixties era facilitated their purposeful exit from the rules and regulations that made up the culture they had been poised to enter.” [17] LSD functioned “as an agent in the production of cultural reorientation”, [18] in Cohen’s words, a rocket engine of “social or creative tendencies”, speeding up change by opening pathways to those “creative and mystical insights” previously available to artists, visionaries and saints. [19]

This language draws on Aldous Huxley’s suggestion that “mescaline or some other chemical substance may play a part [in an enlightened educational system] by making it possible for young people to ‘taste and see’ what they have learned at second-hand, or directly but at a lower level of intensity, in the writings of the religious, or the works of poets, painters and musicians”. [20] In one essay, he asserted his belief that:

If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, attune us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant… then, it seems to me, our problems would be wholly solved and earth would become a paradise. [21]

While alcohol was anaesthetive, hallucinogens could open the individual’s senses to the world surrounding them. Experiencing his first mescaline trip, he “kept murmuring, ‘This is how one ought to see'”. [22] The opposition of drugs and alcohol would be a recurring countercultural trope. Writing in Ramparts in 1966, Donovan Bess wrote that:

young people accept LSD as a fact of the times. They are fed up with being latent human beings. The purpose behind their experiments is to find the humanity they feel cheated of by ersatz education, electronic conditioning, and living in families led by synthetic productions labeled “mother” and “father”.

Where older people relied on booze and television, Bess wrote, “Younger people prefer more awareness.” [23]

Huxley’s notion that psychedelics facilitate true perceptions of reality, not merely hallucinations, was tapping into a vein of thought that stretched back to Artaud and Rimbaud, who viewed hallucinogens as “a tortured means to a fuller existence, to a life more innately human”. [24] As early as 1931, Huxley wrote “the urge for transcendence and visionary experience was nothing less than a biological imperative”:

Always and everywhere, human beings have felt the radical inadequacy of being their insulated selves and not something else, something wider, something in the Wordsworthian phrase, “far more deeply interfused”. … I live, yet not I, but wine or opium or peyotyl or hashish liveth in me. To go beyond the insulated self is such a liberation that, even when self-transcendence is through nausea into frenzy, through cramps into hallucinations and coma, the drug induced experience has been regarded by primitives and even by the highly civilized as intrinsically divine. [25]

Huxley compatriot Al Hubbard said, “Most people are walking in their sleep. Turn them around, start them in the opposite direction and they wouldn’t even know the difference.” The remedy: “give them a quick dose of LSD and ‘let them see themselves for what they are’.” [26] More than this, for Huxley LSD gave the user a ‘Beatific Vision’, put him or her in touch with the divine itself: “What came through the closed door was the realization … the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact. The words, of course, have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle. But the fact remains. … ” [27]

While Huxley’s thinking on this remained influential, the chief schools of thought on the psychedelic experience, which each had a profound impact on filmmakers’ understanding of the drugs’ significance, were represented by the divergent philosophies of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. Each understood the effects of LSD in similar ways, but understood its significance in relation to personal experience in different ways, especially in terms of the individual versus the group; this would have knock-on effects for how they conceived of the ideal set and setting for the taking of the drug that in turn influenced how filmmakers represented that experience. Following on from this, then, they profoundly disagreed on how LSD should be disseminated for maximum positive impact on society. This was an issue that had preoccupied Huxley as well. Looking to LSD as both a social panacea and a means to personal discovery, Huxley had felt that it should be disseminated slowly, given first to visionary artists, and to this end initiated the likes of Anais Nin, Allen Ginsberg, and Alan Watts into the psychedelic experience. By 1965, Ginsberg was speaking of LSD in terms similar to Huxley’s, but with a more political bent that coincided more directly with the development of countercultural thought: acid, for him, was a way to wipe your psychological slate clean of the Establishment’s “conditioning”.

Leary would describe this in terms more still conversant with the countercultural critique of technocratic society. Describing his first psilocybin trip, he wrote:

Visual transformations … Gone the perceptual machinery which clutters up our view of reality. Intuitive transformations. Gone the mental machinery which slices up the world into abstractions and concepts. Emotional transformations. Gone the emotional machinery that causes us to load life with our ambitions and petty desires.

Leary claimed that internal change would have to precede any kind of real social change. Here, the mental baggage that Huxley identified as the primary casualty of the acid experience was specifically that of Establishment society: “The most efficient way to cut through the game structure of Western life is the use of drugs. Drug-induced satori. In three hours under the right circumstances, the cortex could be cleared.” [28] What was left was “something Western culture knows very little about. The open brain. The uncensored cortex”. [29] The drug, he writes, is a “chemical key – it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures”. [30] Leary’s message echoes throughout the counterculture. Tuli Kupferberg proclaimed, “Remember … the first revolution (but not of course the last) is in your own head. Dump out their irrational goals, desire, morality … ” [31] while Ramon Sender and Alice Bay Laurel would write:

Open yourself to the possibility of having visions. Then prepare for them by felling your own being and your own environment. The wisdom of all ancient teachings lives in your heart. When you relax enough to hear it, this wisdom can rename you, reclothe you, give you dances, exercises and meditations, ceremonies and recognitions of divinity in everyday life that make your whole day an act of being radiantly blissful. [32]

Emphasizing LSD’s spiritual potential, Leary compared stages of the LSD trip to those in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol, both for him revolving around this relationship of the self to reality. The first stage involves transcendence of the self, the second dealing with the self, the third return to the self. He urges the user to trust the brain while turning off the mind- one must “avoid imposing the ego game on the experience”. [33] During the experience, “the consciousness will be freed from the games that comprise ‘personality'”. [34] On the way back from this journey, the consciousness will reconstitute the personality, in the process allowing one to freely choose a new identity. LSD would allow for a conquest of the spiritual world over the material through this freeing of consciousness. One can transcend external reality as well as alienating social conditioning to achieve the “radiant bliss of at-one-ness”, [35] and by choosing new behavior patterns, new social forms could be developed. For Leary, “LSD rearranged the ‘imprinting process’ and allowed new imprints to be made”. [36] It could allow users to “rethink what they had become and reinvent themselves according to a deeper, truer, drug-produced set of understandings”; “productive, happy people should use LSD to evolve”. [37]

Leary’s talk of shrugging off the shackles of conditioning recalls the idealization of childhood across the counterculture (echoing the stance of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage). As Peter Braunstein puts it:

To be childlike in this new construction meant to be at one with nature, with the earth, with other human beings; to be non-violent, loving and re-sensitized to the violence around you; to consciously regain the simplicity and wonder of childhood as a perceptual prism for reclaiming a society wracked by civil uprising and war abroad. [38]

Braunstein writes, “Given that this non-judgmental openness to phenomena replicated the perceptual vistas of the infant or small child, many LSD users tended to describe their trips as rebirths, Huxley referring to his mescaline experiences as a ‘second childhood’.” [39]

Gradually a body of thought began to emerge from such luminaries as Huxley, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary, who utilized the insights gained from their LSD-enabled new-childhoods in the service of erasing adult, middle-class programming. If LSD revealed a world of psychic plenitude, the collorary insight was that adults viewed their surroundings with blinders on: LSD philosophers concluded that adults’ perception of their environment was so shuttered, rigid, and one-dimensional that, not surprisingly, their response to stimuli always followed the same dismal pattern, producing war, injustice, poverty, racism, and sexual repression. The antidote to this psychic tunnel vision called maturity was ‘deconditioning,’ a term coined by Burroughs. [40]

Rupturing the psychic straitjacket of adulthood encouraged the creation of new behavioral responses which were allowed by the ability granted by LSD to perceive one’s own conditioning. [41] Writing of Jonas Mekas’ role in countercultural debates in cinema in the ‘60s, Paul Arthur notes that “‘presentness’ – empowering the new while repudiating the old- was held in multiple arenas of social struggle as a precondition as well as a consequence of change”. [42]

Like Leary and, more directly, the Beats, Ken Kesey was looking for a “nakedness of mind, ultimately of soul”. [43] His assessment of LSD would not be dissimilar to Leary’s description of the “uncensored cortex”:

The first drug trips were, for most of us, shell-shattering ordeals that left us blinking knee deep in the cracked crusts of our pie in the sky personalities. Suddenly, people were stripped naked before one another and behold: we were beautiful. Naked and helpless and sensitive as a snake after skinning, but far more human than that shining knightmare that had stood creaking in the previous parade rest. We were life, and life was us. [44]

He would describe a sudden removal of perceptual barriers to Tom Wolfe:

Suddenly he is like a ping-pong ball in a flood of sensory stimuli … all quite ordinary, but … revealing themselves for the first time and happening … Now … as if for the first time he has entered a moment in his life and known exactly what is happening to his senses now, at this moment, and with each new discovery it is as if he has entered into all of it himself, is one with it. … [45]

For him, the power of LSD was not in any kind of psychic choices it enabled one to make, but rather in the experience itself.

The whole thing was … the experience … this certain indescribable feeling … Indescribable, because words can only jog the memory, and if there is no memory of … The experience of the barrier between the subjective and the objective, the personal and the impersonal, the I and the not-I disappearing … that feeling! [46]

But while Leary emphasized the individual’s trip (in symbolic and spiritual terms), Kesey would become obsessed with the group mind, a shift in emphasis which would make Kesey’s a more compatible model with the dissemination of the psychedelic experience in the larger counterculture. The Merry Pranksters’ motto and destination, as emblazoned on their bus, was “Furthur” [sic], and you could only get there through a synched-up, group plunge into any possible kind of sensory experience while on LSD. “For the Pranksters, the true test of psychedelic self-hood was one’s ability to plunge into the whitewater of this new experience and, using only one’s wits, reach the calm mystic pools downstream.” [47] They sought an infusion of meaning into life, reminiscent of Huxley’s discovery that under mescaline, he saw:

what Adam had seen on the morning of creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence … flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged … Words like grace and transfiguration came to mind. [48]

This was the ultimate goal of the Beats’ at-one-ness, of Huxley’s “interfusion” with the surrounding world. The prank, a rebellious, outrageous put-on, was an important part of this, parallel to the Beats’ ” acte gratuite“, “that spontaneous, usually violent act that freed one from the tyranny of bourgeois morality”. [49] Though never violent per se, the Pranksters were wont to commit acts of “psychic violence” to help break people out of their shell, bring them “out front”, from behind bourgeois inhibitions, almost as a rite of hazing. Taking acid was the ultimate prank. Alice Echols writes that LSD had been considered an antidote to the “adventure shortage”, a means for the likes of Jerry Garcia “to enter a reality he had always thought existed but had never been able to find” [50] ; for Garcia as for many others, Kesey’s “happenings” were key in setting the terms of the journey to that reality.

Leary’s approach had centered on the notion that, in making this transcendent psychic journey via LSD, one is tapping into an ancient, Eastern form of mysticism with which modern humans have lost touch (similar to Huxley). In order to fully escape the corrupting influence of technocratic society through the LSD trip’s sacrifice of the ego, one must also reject all of modernity’s technological trappings, part and parcel of the restrictions the technocracy placed on the self. One had to ‘break the set’ of modern life to allow the consciousness to be reborn. Though with just as pronounced a sense of its transformative potential, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters would represent a radical break with this model of the LSD experience. They used science-fiction, not the Bardo Thodol, to conceptualize the LSD trip, seeking meaning and promise in pop culture and modernization. For the Pranksters, the creative use of modern technology was crucial in spreading the psychedelic word. It could do so by duplicating the experience itself. Through the combined use of artfully positioned microphones, variable-lag tape recorders, elaborate PA systems, painting, sculpture, light shows and other projections, including film, and the music of Prankster favorites The Grateful Dead, Kesey and the Pranksters turned their Acid Tests into pioneering multi-media performance art happenings wherein they sought to replicate and encourage the sensory hallucinations of LSD, creating an environment that expressed a continuity between their acid-influenced perspective and their surroundings, an “interfused” reality. While for Leary, consciousness expansion came through an exploration of “inner space”, for Kesey, it came through a renegotiation of “social space”. [51] Parallels can be drawn between Kesey and the Pranksters and John Sinclair’s White Panthers, who similarly exalted the potential power of a “collective youth consciousness” achieved not so much through inner contemplation as through maximizing sensual input through collective experiences. [52]

At the same time as these events encouraged the Pranksters’ own explorations of the liberatory effects of spontaneous, imaginative artistic expression, all of those participating (artists, musicians, audiences) would be plunged into the whitewater of a communal spiritual experience. Through their manipulations of the media the Pranksters could push the group zeitgeist “Furthur” into more extreme sensory experiences, greater synchronization among the group, and an embrace of The Now. In this attempted replication of the spiritual ecstasy they found on the drug, they pursued a transcendence comparable to Leary’s “ego-loss”. Braunstein argues that the “happenings” were an expression of the “presentism” [53] celebrated in the counterculture as a way to bypass the straitjacket of social conditioning (the teleologies of causation and resolution being suspect as capitalist traps). [54] Ultimately, then, the most profound difference between Leary and Kesey was not so much in the endgame – that is, in the way they described the spiritual regeneration promised by LSD – as in the means to achieve it, and the tenor of their calls to rebellion. The Berkeley Barb seems to echo the Kesey ethic when an anonymous correspondent wrote:

In unity we shall shower the country with waves of ecstasy and purification. Fear will be washed away; ignorance will be exposed to sunlight; profits and empire will lie drying on deserted beaches; violence will be submerged and transmuted in rhythm and dancing. [55]

The communal nature of the Acid Tests, of Pranksters’ whole philosophy, as well as the fact that they were based in Northern California, helped Kesey become a direct influence on the psychedelic culture of the Bay Area. The Tests were, for many, their introduction to acid, and the multi-media setting provided by the Pranksters became the quintessential cultural form associated with hallucinogens. Kesey’s light shows were soon adopted by the rock clubs of the area, and would themselves influence filmed depictions of the experience. Gene Youngblood would even describe the multi-media performance as being a crucial component of his definition of “expanded cinema”. Indeed, Kesey’s embrace of technology would be fully elaborated in both the theory and practice of the Bay Area’s “expanded” filmmakers.

LSD, Art, Consciousness and Film
Between Huxley and Leary’s interest in disseminating LSD among artists, Kesey’s performance art events and egalitarian approach, and the presence of the growing countercultural community in Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury, psychedelia became a pervasive influence on the larger Bay Area underground scene. Not the least of those drawn into the scene came from the SF experimental filmmaking community.

Sally Banes’ Greenwich Village 1963 can help indicate the extent to which the psychedelic critique of social conditioning fell on receptive ears even in the East Coast bohemian scene of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. She depicts the ‘60s artists as possessed of a “utopian dream of freeing themselves from the past”, [56] with “art as a metaphor for freedom”. [57] Improvisation, the depiction of sex as a liberating force, and a concern with heightened consciousness, were all parts of this.

[F]or some of these artists it was precisely through the experience of the material body itself that consciousness could be illuminated and expanded: the conscious body was the “gate of perception” that, it was promised, could lead to the absolute. [58]

Drugs, as well as Eastern spiritual practices like Zen, could help “expand awareness”. [59] Art, by dealing with such issues, could “serve as a new channel for spirituality”. [60] Film was particularly important here, presenting a “pathway to authentic experience”. [61] Kenneth Anger echoed this for his own work: “The push from the unconscious to get free, to get high or to get beyond is so great that it will seize on drugs as a means of breaking through this godawful inhibition.” [62]

The desire for experimental cinema and drugs to play a symbiotic role in this liberation is the focus of Gene Youngblood’s 1970 Expanded Cinema. “When we say expanded cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness … like life it’s a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.” [63] If this aim is not new, Youngblood writes, the context is unique: “a vast portion of our culture, free of the conditioning of and nostalgia for past environments, has intuited something fundamentally inadequate in prevailing attitudes towards the notion of reality.” [64] Youngblood’s explanation of this development is reminiscent of Leary, but he takes a Kesey-esque attitude towards technology.

Because of mankind’s inevitable symbiosis with the mind-manifesting hallucinogens of the ecology on the one hand, and his organic partnership with machines on the other, an increasing number of the inhabitants of this planet live on another world. [65]

Youngblood claims that, together, these forces are giving man a radical evolutionary push (an idea embraced by hippies who would speak of being a “new race”); here, again, he echoes Leary. “Mysticism is upon us”, Youngblood writes: “it arrives simultaneously from science and psilocybin”. [66]

The parallels between the cinematic avant-garde and the counterculture are notable in their shared emphasis on the heightening of perception. Just as Stan Brakhage would speak of freeing perception from the constraints of its conditioning and returning to a child-like directness in the apprehension of sensory input, the SF-based activist group the Diggers stated that acid could “rekindle childhood’s lost ‘tense of presence'”. [67] Jonas Mekas, who had called for a “derangement of the cinematic senses” as liberation from conventionality, [68] wrote that “The experiences of LSD show that the eye can expand itself, see more than we usually do”, [69] and noted the drug’s potential to aid in the creation of an “absolute cinema, [a] cinema of the mind”, [70] wherein the expansion of the eye could aid in the expansion of consciousness. [71] In 1967, Film Culture published a report on San Francisco’s Hipster Cinema. Its author argues that SF-based filmmakers are “firmly attached to the more vital movements in their society”, specifically the kind of rebellion that Leary, Ginsberg, Kesey and others had advocated. They were non-conformists rejecting social conformity, submerging themselves in their own “humanity,” a humanity that exists “in detachment” from the “mechanical, impersonal society”. [72] Among those films singled out for praise: Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (described as depicting peyote-induced visual orgasms), and Ben Van Meter’s various cinematic explorations of drug-induced hallucinations (Puntang Trilogy (1965), LA Is Burning…Shit (1965), and Acid Camp (1967)). In summary, “The word which best describes the world of the San Francisco film-maker is ‘ecstasy.'” [73] The same year, Mekas himself celebrated the hippie generation’s entrance into filmmaking as the kind of liberation he had been calling for:

I have good news. Change is taking place in the underground. The youngest generation, a generation that grew up with the Co-op, with Bobby Dylan, with LSD, with Allen Ginsberg, with Brakhage – this generation is entering the field of action. During these coming few months we shall see a completely new crop of names coming in and a new, free, fresh, loving spirit. My own concern here is cinema. Cinema is being reevaluated, redefined. [74]

One of those he celebrates is John Cavanaugh, who was open about his use of LSD and praise for “what it does to you”: “it liberates the life flux, the swirling energy patterns that make up the actuality of life … and that to me is life pure mind, intelligence. So my concern now is to deal directly with that, and trace out with my camera the life flux.” [75]

These film and video artists highlighted by Youngblood echo these ideas. Loren Sears claims his video art manifests a “neuro-aesthetics” based on the premise that the media are connected to the central nervous system, and can therefore affect specific kind of hallucinations on that basis. [76] Youngblood quotes Eric Siegel as saying that “television [can be] … a psychic healing mechanism creating cosmic consciousness, awakening higher levels of the mind, bringing awareness of the soul”. [77]

The San Francisco-based filmmaking community was foremost among those affected by this confluence of drug and cinematic discourses. In 1965, the SF-based Canyon Cinema distribution co-operative began publishing its newsletter, and it provided considerable evidence of the crossover between the psychedelic and filmmaking subcultures. It included poems like Trip (“RED RED red and quiet GLOWING WIND /drizzles the tops of the waves aWAY /while I, GLUTTED with COLOUR, /vomit RAINBOWS.” [78] ), cartoons, and abstract art which play heavily on psychedelic imagery. Various issues gave the address of the Psychedelic Info Center in Massachusetts; discussed Ken Kesey’s LA Acid Test, and films being made of the Trips Festival [79] ; and announced the schedules of the Cinema Psychedelica experimental film series in Berkeley, run by John Schofill (one of Youngblood’s “expanded” filmmakers) and Jerry Abrams, maker of a film of the First Human Be-In (a psychedelic event featuring appearances by the Grateful Dead, Ginsberg, and Leary). [80] From November 1966, the newsletter began to publish listings of films for rent through Canyon Cinema Co-op (the cover of that issue: a photo of a camera with the caption “Let this machine work on your mind”), many of which were advertised as “psychedelic” work, such as those by Loren Sears, Jud Yalkut, Richard Myers, Daniel Howard, Jerry Abrams, Bob Giorgio, Earl Bodien and Lenny Lipton. Beyond this, the newsletter publicized showings of Jean Mayo’s film The Psychedelic Experience; advertised programs of explicitly psychedelic films at local cinemas [81] ; and announced that filmmakers like Ben Van Meter were giving light shows at the Bill Graham’s Fillmore rock club. [82]

Indeed, much of the “expanded” artists’ filmed work found its genesis in the light shows many of them participated in in the Bay Area from the late 1950s. Craig Baldwin notes Belson’s 1957-59 Vortex Concerts, done in collaboration with the sound artist Henry Jacobs in the Morrison Planetarium. These were, he writes:

a crucial watershed. Their radical advances in projection arts set the stage for the Sixties psychedelic light show scene… an ‘expanded cinema’ form that drew heavily on hypnotic loops and phastasmic, freely circulating clips from the populist surrealism of Max Fleischer, Busby Berkeley, Flash Gordon, and other antecedents. [83]

Tony Reveaux discusses the “psychedelic light show scene” in more detail, thereby linking it more firmly to cinema per se. The light shows were designed to accompany SF rock band concerts, beginning in the Sixties but peaking in the ‘70s. At these, filmmakers and artists created a “shifting, borderless, and immersive environment”, [84] mixing colours and patterns projected onto audiences. Bill Hamm and Elias Romero were among the first to develop these. “By floating coloured emulsions on water, they projected globular, changing images onto a large screen, creating fluid, abstract colour fields”, [85] only later adding explicit imagery and symbols. Hamm and Romero designed the lighting at the SF Trips festival in January 1966 (filmed by Ben Van Meter), a watershed event that “positioned and revealed the character of a new counterculture”. [86] Others of note here included poet and collage artist Gerd Stern, who formed the USCO in the mid-‘60s with Steve Durkee to stage multimedia performances on both the east and west coast involving slides, strobes, film and video, and performance art. In this capacity they worked with the likes of Jud Yalkut and Carolee Schneeman, at one point even accompanying Timothy Leary in a series of events in New York dubbed the “Psychedelic Theater”. Stern and Michael Callahan’s Intermedia Systems Corporation went on to develop technology to facilitate multimedia performances. [87] Yalkut’s use of film and video to create psychedelic “immersive environments” were partly guided by his work with USCO. [88]

In 1966, Scott Bartlett and Tom DeWitt collaborated on a project called “Whatever It Is”, staged in a cafeteria on the San Francisco State University campus, where they were students. Stewart Brand, then an artist in residence, was the project’s producer. “Whatever It Is” incorporated Bartlett’s film Metanomen (1966) and DeWitt’s AtmosFear (1966); films by the Whitney brothers and others on a second screen; and Gary Ewing’s liquid projections on a third screen. The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane played, and Kesey’s Pranksters were in attendance. “Thereafter”, Reveaux continues, “Bartlett and DeWitt produced a series of light shows at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom under the aegis of the filmmaker Ben Van Meter”. [89] Van Meter ran the North American Ibis Alchemical Light Company, which he formed in 1967, and which did light shows for the Avalon Ballroom in particular. Van Meter’s shows there were the work of a 5-person crew who used 4 overhead projectors for patterns; liquid projections; a focus spotlight; a strobe downlight for the dancefloor; a high-intensity wide angle strobe; and 13 slide projectors, and two 16mm film projectors throwing images onto a 180-degree screen.

When Van Meter left the Company, Bruce Conner took over. Conner, for his part, had previous experience using slide projectors and an 8mm film projector at concerts in the area, where he encouraged the bands to improvise against his free-form accompaniment. Jerry Abrams briefly partnered with Glenn McKay in the punningly-named Head Lights Company, before going on to do his own shows. McKay went on to multi-image productions using slides, film, projectors, liquid and patterned media. Bartlett went on to work with videotape, attracted in particular by the visual possibilities of ‘bad’ video, which allowed for effects consonant with his light show work: “They liked the glowing graininess, psychedelic phosphorescence, dramatic flaring and streaming, and pop-art posterization that were relatively easy to involve on video tape compared to optical printing.” [90] In Off/On (1967), a quintessential “expanded cinema” piece, Barlett used “live and prestructured light-show projections and photographed video”, which “were switched, processed, and fed back and optically printed. Bartlett even hand-dyed film loops taken from the overhead projectors in light shows in tubs of food colouring,” along with his “electro-video graphics”. [91]

The Bay Area was also home, at one time or another, to Jordan Belson and Kenneth Anger, both of whom were open about their use of hallucinogens. Interviewed by Take One, Anger stated that Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, in its 1966 “Sacred Mushroom” version, was “actually a film for people who have tripped”. [92] In Expanded Cinema, Youngblood asked Belson, “Do you feel drug experiences have been beneficial to your work?” to which Belson replied, “Absolutely. Early in life I experimented with peyote, LSD, and so on. But in many ways my films are ahead of my own experience.” [93] Such themes were readily apparent to contemporary commentators on the West Coast experimental film scene. P. Adams Sitney wrote an appraisal in the December 5 issue of The Village Voice, where he singled out Belson’s work, Samadhi (1967) in particular, which he celebrated as “the pinnacle of the abstract film”, but also found John Schofill’s work noteworthy, in particular Die, described as “the purest of canonical LSD films”. [94]

Having provided a broad sketch of the influence of the psychedelic counterculture on the avant-garde filmmaking community as a whole, I want to demonstrate the specific ways that influence is played out in the work of filmmakers who adapt psychedelia’s imagery and themes within the context of specific experimental filmmaking traditions. In the films I will discuss, the terms of the countercultural critique and the psychedelic experience are recast in the context of those traditions. In what follows, I want to examine key works by Ron Rice and Kenneth Anger in light of Romantic trends in the avant-garde, and then works by Jordan Belson, Scott Bartlett, Standish Lawder, and James Whitney, “expanded” filmmakers working with a fundamentally distinct model for how the psychedelic experience could be represented in, or replicated by, the cinema.

LSD and Romanticism
Ron Rice and Kenneth Anger are both depicted by P. Adams Sitney as filmmakers working in a Romantic tradition in their explorations of the imaginative consciousness. This framework proves helpful in explaining the work of both, but obscures the influence of contemporaneous countercultural developments; Leary’s overtly mystical conception of psychedelia being particularly salient. To the extent that such developments are discussed, they provide a valuable starting point for my investigation. Both in Visionary Film and in David E. James’ Allegories of Cinema, Rice is characterized by his association with the Beats. This connection helps to explain Rice’s movement into psychedelia, and the countercultural ideologies underpinning his filmmaking practice.

In James’ analysis, the central pre-occupation of the Beats, for cinema, was “to open out the entire practice of cinema as a sphere of countercultural activity”, concentrating on the pro-filmic as a realm of improvisation, following the theme of art as play. [95] For Sitney, this is partly an attempt to recover a kind of child-like innocence through filmmaking, echoing the counterculture’s celebration of childhood as a state free of conditioning. Though he himself would never expressly set out to recreate psychedelic consciousness-expansion on film, Stan Brakhage’s philosophies of perception echo these strains of thought. James writes that Brakhage wanted to achieve a state of “an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”. [96] For James, this is also a way to resist the professionalism of Hollywood, which he casts in terms analogous to antagonism toward social conditioning. James quotes the “First Statement of the New American Cinema Group”, wherein they complain of Hollywood films that “The very slickness of their execution has become a perversion covering the falsity of their themes, their lack of sensitivity, their lack of style”. [97] A rejection of Hollywood polish is then cast as a resistance to the deadening effects of cinematic conditioning, as well as an attempt to open up independents’ practice to allow for greater self-expression, itself arguably a primary Romantic goal. This was a statement that art could be liberating as play, indeed one characterized by Sally Banes as “neo-Romantic”, [98] evincing a “Romantic primitivism that associates both pleasure and freedom with childhood”. [99]

Though ultimately in pursuit of a form of filmic authenticity, for Rice this emphasis on play and improvisation involved the use of artifice, the “shredding and dispersal” of plots into “rituals” encompassing “beat existentialism, presupposed ludic self-dramatization, Fantasy, play and theatricality”, wherein “social transgression becomes the basis for the formal transgression of publicly sanctioned filmic codes”. [100] As for the Beat writers, social transgression encompassed the use of drugs as vehicles for liberatory ecstasy. While Rice dealt with marijuana consumption in Senseless (1962), 1964’s Chumlum is a far more explicit evocation of hallucinatory, if perhaps not strictly psychedelic, imagery.

Described by Sheldon Renan as “an Arabian Nights vision of a palace brothel”, [101] Chumlum presents a number of elaborately costumed, bejeweled, and greasepaint-slathered individuals frolicking in a setting that is reminiscent of a prototypical opium den, filled with pillows, translucent fabrics, and a hammock. It opens on a shot of a guitar behind lace placed in front of the camera. We then see a cityscape, from which we quickly escape. The following images are shot from a train as it speeds down the tracks, and from the stern of a ship, showing its wake. These present unusually explicit illustrations of the idea of taking a ‘trip’. Next, we see a man dressed as a wizard, beckoning us. From here, the film truly gets underway, with superimposed shots of figures swaying on hammocks, and laying on the floor amongst pillows and sheets, then dancing, making love, and of course consuming drugs. It is exactly the kind of “polymorphously perverse” bacchanal that the Beats celebrated as a refusal of conformist social constraints on pleasure.

Chumlum (Ron Rice, 1964)

Chumlum (Ron Rice, 1964)

The canted angles and the predominance of silky fabrics, mesh, and lace in the foreground help focus attention on the purely visual qualities of the scene. Through to the middle of the film, the frame is increasingly dominated by saturated colours, and the shaky handheld camerawork and multiple superimpositions combine with the use of fabrics over the lens to create a strong impression of a distorted, hallucinatory reality. The effect of using these meshes recalls “eidetic” imagery, those patterns seen across the visual field when the eyes are closed, described by Masters and Houston as common to both the psychedelic experience and its art. They are also similar to the lattice patterns described by William Wees in Light Moving in Time [102] as integral to the initial stages of psychedelic hallucinations. The effect is typically that of a kind of “integrative” pattern found in all the eye gazes over. This is a sensation that Rice repeatedly plays upon in Chumlum, and creates the impression of a reality once removed, behind a uniform, pervasive visual distortion. This sense of a specifically hallucinatory distortion seems to be confirmed by images of the wizard smoking substances in a long, thin pipe and passing it around. Later, the wizard will be seen holding a poppy flower, invoking opium.

As the film progresses, we see more and more figures in costumes, jewels and makeup, acting out still further the Arabian Nights fantasy. They seduce each other, dance, and frolic through woods and an empty amusement park. The costumes, the playful, transgressive actions, self-evidently improvised, and the handheld camerawork are all consistent with the Beat aesthetic as Rice had utilized it up to that point. But never had drug-taking played so dominant a role in the action, and never had he gone so far in exploring the visual sensations of drug-induced hallucinations. With the use of mesh patterns and superimposition, too, the familiar Beat handheld camera begins to have an effect of woozy delirium rather than rough, gritty realism or mere lack of polish. The rituals and mythological content often portrayed as central to the psychedelic experience are here fundamental to the form of the film. Seen from this perspective, it could be argued that the film as a whole presents a telescoped version of distinct aspects of drugged states of being, here collapsed into a vision of the kind of liberatory, transgressive play found throughout the Beats’ work.

Kenneth Anger, in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (first released by Anger in 1964, then re-released in altered versions three times; the last, 1966’s The Sacred Mushroom Edition, being the one that concerns us here) also utilizes the idea of ritual, but in a context which has little to do with ‘play’ or improvisation. As is well-known, Anger fashioned himself as an avatar of evil, indulging in every possible transgressive activity, but for the most part concentrating on homosexuality, Satanism, magick, and drug use. The mythological content of his work is often tied directly into his study of Aleister Crowley’s magickal Satanism, and it is this that Sitney focuses on in his explication of Inauguration. Taking this as read, I will instead concentrate upon its specifically psychedelic aspects.

There are many obvious points of comparison between Chumlum and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: both work with saturated colour, both depict costumed, bejeweled figures participating in bacchanals. Drug consumption here, though, is not an aspect of loose, improvised play by any means. Rather, these indulgences are rigorously ritualized, in conjunction with Anger’s depictions of rites among specific mythical gods and goddesses. Also, whereas Rice is ambiguous concerning the nature of the drugs consumed, Anger is far more explicit in his invocation of psychedelics. The first act of consumption comes when “Lord Shiva, The Magician” [103] swallows his beads. He dresses and enters the pleasure dome.

<em>Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome</em> - Sacred Mushroom Edition (Kenneth Anger, 1966)

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome – Sacred Mushroom Edition (Kenneth Anger, 1966)

Here, as his costuming and make-up repeatedly shifts, rituals are presided over by Shiva and Kali in which numerous substances are consumed. In one instance, Shiva is handed an orb, which shrinks to a pill, and when swallowed he grows wings and flies. Later, Shiva and the gods and goddesses are ceremoniously served a kind of nectar which is variously seen as a liquid and as a sparkling silver powder. The consumption of this is followed by a burst of superimpositions not unlike those in Chumlum, wherein the characters are seen wearing elaborate masks. As in Rice, the intensity of the superimpositions are exacerbated by the use of brightly coloured, jeweled, translucent fabrics shaken in front of the lens. This climaxes with images of people falling off a cliff into the flames of Hell (presumably), projected over Shiva and the increasingly fevered celebrants.

Given Anger’s consistent motivic use of evil and mythology in his films, the implications of this “descent into hell” can hardly be seen as damning. Rather, the ultimate effect of this kind of ritual seems to be a sense of liberation similar to that sought by Rice. In both cases, the filmmakers depict the effects of drugs in terms of transgression of, and release from, social boundaries. This transgression is an important part both of drug discourse and of the Romantic ideal. The point of it all on the level of form seems to be release from the strictures of Establishment filmmaking practice, to indulge in orgies of colour, form, and pattern. Ultimately, then, if freedom of the imagination and self-expression are crucial to the Romantic philosophy outlined by Sitney, these films illustrate what that might mean in the context of drug consumption. Both Rice and Anger demonstrate a reconciliation of the Romantic and the psychedelic, within the context of shared filmic concerns and countercultural celebrations of transgressive pleasure, as valued in the work of the Beats and echoed in the “expressive” politics of “freeing life in the here and now”.

Rice and Anger express their sense of the psychedelic experience in symbolic terms drawing on mystical and spiritual traditions, much as Leary drew on the Bardo Thodol; in this sense, there is a particular kinship between these filmmakers and Leary’s philosophical understanding of psychedelic liberation. If this sense of liberation was shared by those involved in the psychedelic movement, the effects of LSD struck many as enabling something much more radical, a liberation from the very concept of the self. There is a kind of Romantic thrust to the idea of the “uncensored cortex”, free from conditioning, but within it there is also a move towards a kind of depersonalization through ego-loss, of a kind closer in spirit to the intent of Kesey’s happenings and the Pranksters’ attempts to go “Furthur”.

One exploration into psychedelics concluded that the level of “symbolic” perception (the locus of ritual and myth) is followed by a very different kind of perception, one that recognizes a realm without boundaries, “infinite and eternal”, behind “the apparent multiplicity of things”. [104] Anais Nin wrote that on LSD she felt as if she had discovered “images behind images, the walls behind the sky, the sky behind the infinite”. [105] Octavio Paz described the sensation of the revelation of the infinite in these terms:

The self disappears, but no other self appears to occupy the empty space it has left. No god but rather the divine. No faith but rather the primordial feeling that sustains all faith, all hope. Peace in the crater of the volcano, the reconciliation of man- what remains of man- with total presence. [106]

Awareness of the infinite and transcendence beyond the normal human bounds were the most extreme implications of Leary’s “death of the ego”. For this to be captured and conveyed on film to any degree, Romanticism would have to be left behind. While Youngblood repeatedly embraces ideas of symbolic, mythical awareness, refers to the “Cybernetic Age” as “the New Romantic Age”, [107] and stresses expanded cinema’s link to abstract expressionism (perhaps the ultimate collusion of Romanticism and high modernism), [108] the cinema that he champions breaks with the most common implications of Romanticism to embrace the idea of a consciousness expanded beyond the self.

Expanded Cinema/ Expanded Consciousness
“Expanded cinema”, as I will discuss it here, elaborates a model of psychedelic experience fully consonant with its most radical possibilities, insofar as it eschews symbol and myth. Arguably, this approach is more resonant with Kesey’s understanding of LSD than that promoted by Leary, but I don’t mean to overstate this; both shared a similar sense of the psychedelic end-game, even if they pursued it in different ways. The “expanded” films shy away from any explicit social critique, indeed any explicit ‘meaning’ of any kind, but they illustrate the pursuit of ‘advanced’ states of consciousness through which (in theory) social constraints could be abandoned, and the “radiant bliss of at-one-ness” achieved. There are two key aspects to “expanded cinema” that I will examine here, the first being the emphasis on purely formal qualities: various kinds of patterns and other abstract visual devices and structuring principles. The second is the intent of the “expanded” filmmakers to induce specific psychological effects in the viewer; like Kesey’s Acid Tests, these films can be taken as attempts to duplicate the psychedelic experience. Like the Acid Tests, too, these films fully embrace the potential of technology.

The first and most noticeable difference between Rice and Anger’s films, and expanded films like James Whitney’s Lapis (1966), Jordan Belson’s Samadhi, Scott Bartlett’s Off/On, and Standish Lawder’s Raindance (1972), is that the latter have little (if any) in the way of representational content. One is chiefly restricted to distinguishing recognizable shapes and patterns. While these may include the human form, when present (it is so only intermittently) it too is abstracted (leaving to one side the opening of Raindance). The emphasis shifts from symbolism to formal structures; the films are dominated by the elaboration and formal development of visual and aural patterns to suggest the experience of psychedelicized transcendence. Youngblood stressed the significance of formal design in the expanded cinema. “Ordinary vision-conditioned and encultured by the most vulgar of environments”, he wrote, “is liberated through aesthetic conceptual design information”. [109] In “expanded cinema”, because the design predominates, the filmmaker can “record”/recreate his or her consciousness and mental processes, rather than physical reality. While the idea of self-expression remains, this is a radical shift in what self-expression might entail, allowing the filmmakers to account for the expanded visions of the infinite endowed by LSD according to the Huxley/Leary model.

The specific patterns that predominate in these films themselves derive from LSD experience, and Eastern mysticism. Whitney’s Lapis, for instance, is a film made entirely out of shifting dot-patterns. Over a raga soundtrack (itself closely associated with psychedelia for its droning, flowing qualities), the dots form concentric circles which shift and oscillate in contrasting directions, forming at times precisely the lattice-tunnels described by Wees and others, at others coalescing into the recognizable shapes of mandalas.

Lapis (James Whitney), 1966

Lapis (James Whitney), 1966

Mandalas are Eastern religious symbols formed by concentric circles, variations executed by criss-crossing lines within those circles. The kaleidoscopic nature of these patterns is consistent with the “eidetic” imagery of spirals, tunnels, cobwebs and the like described by Masters and Houston. In fact, one LSD session they examine in this regard could almost describe the patterns of the Whitney film. The subject in question recounted seeing “snowflake patterns” in pentagram formations, which began to whirl and form spirals. The shapes formed grids which became increasingly complex, and eventually resolved into a recognizable “mandala”. [110]

Wees discusses the mandala as an image used in meditation. In this sense, too its use in the context of the hallucinatory thus furthers the films’ emphasis on inner perception and consciousness expansion. The choice of a symbol derived from Eastern traditions also ties the films into then-contemporary drug discourse even more strongly; the union of drug culture and Eastern mysticism was long-standing, from the Beats to Leary, with his use of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as the basis of The Psychedelic Experience. However, in the context of mystical experience, the mandala connotes more than just a kind of hallucinated or religious image: for instance, it can help the meditator “recognize patterns that are already present in the visual system but remain unnoticed until the steady stream of external stimuli is cut off by techniques of meditation or by other physiological and psychological conditions that cause hallucinations”. [111] It is thus a particularly potent motif for the expanded filmmakers, allowing them to draw on the concept that meditation, LSD and their films all tap into a core perceptual process that connects the perceiving self to the universe in such a direct and unfettered way as to allow the mandala pattern found in all things, and in the infinite itself, to stand in relief.

It is no surprise, then, that the mandala features prominently in Bartlett’s Off/On. The film opens with a shot, tinted blue, of an eye. From inside the eye, swirling lattice tunnels appear. This shot ends, and we again see an eye (this time tinted red but against a blue background), and now from inside the eye, a mandala appears, then grows until the eye itself disappears (we enter into it, perhaps), and the mandala dominates. As the film continues, and Bartlett plays with abstractions of human heads and bodies – tinted various colours, superimposed, doubled, etc. – the mandala repeatedly forms, collapses, and re-forms in the background of the image. It is as if whatever else is going on, whatever image is placed between the viewer and the mandala, the mandala always dominates. The implication is again that the mandala is ever-present, both as the true form of the lattice tunnels seen in the opening, and behind other visual patterns both within the film and without.

OffOn (Scott Barlett, 1967)

OffOn (Scott Barlett, 1967)

Like Bartlett, Belson honed his cinematic practice in light show experiences. Kerry Brougher describes Belson’s Allures (1961) as rooted in his Vortex Concerts, immersive environments in which he fused painting, film, light projection, and environmental art, “shifting visual art into the realm of the music of the spheres”. [112]

Allures (Jordan Belson, 1961)

Allures (Jordan Belson, 1961)

The mandala is a key feature in his Samadhi, where it is imbued with a still more cosmic significance. The film opens with fields of colour blending into each other, with no clear sense of shape beyond an impression of vertical waves. A circle forms, turns black, and colours begin to whirl around it. It gradually takes on the appearance of the sun, complete with sunbursts around its perimeter. It transforms into the center of a series of concentric circles which form mandala patterns as they expand and contract, moving into and out of each other. Finally, this image dissolves into more clouds and waves of colour. From this point on, the film alternates between the clouds of colour, and the mandala/sun pattern. By designing the mandala to resemble the sun, Belson can retain its visual characteristics while creating the impression of some kind of cosmic travel. By invoking outer space in this way, too, the impression created is that of finding, losing, and finding the mandala in the very stuff of the cosmos itself.

Samadhi (Jordan Belson, 1967)

Samadhi (Jordan Belson, 1967)

Belson, for his part, insisted that much in his films derived from, and tried to approximate, his own mystical and psychedelic experiences: “The hallucinatory aspect of my imagery is certainly inherent in my work and the ideas relevant to my work. … I have to see the images somewhere, within or without or somewhere. I mean, I don’t make them up.” [113] But the work of Belson, Bartlett, and others strive for more than to recreate images seen in various altered states, “withdrawn from external reality and made to seem like images evoked in the mind”. They strive also to actively invoke those states in the viewer. As Wees writes, the images of Belson and Whitney not only visualize, they aim to “help induce” images seen in deep meditative states. [114] Theirs is “a film practice in which kinesthetic optical effects are both produced in response to the visual and visionary experience of altered states of consciousness and used to achieve them” in a union of physical perception and cosmic space. [115]

In emphasizing design rather than any “content”, Youngblood argues that the large-scale patterns across these films facilitate a shift from objects of perception to the perceptual and cognitive processes themselves. In doing away with any representation, any content outside of these processes, the filmmakers are free to invent a new kind of language, playing on the medium’s sensory data in new ways. The cinema that results from these explorations is termed “synaesthetic” cinema, in reference to the synaesthesia experienced “under the influence of mind-manifesting hallucinogens”. [116] Only this sort of cinema, he asserts, can truly approximate consciousness without distortion. Youngblood goes further, however – “by creating a new kind of vision, synaesthetic cinema creates a new kind of consciousness: oceanic consciousness”, a consciousness without boundaries, enabling the viewer to be “lost in mystic union with the universe”, and to approach the “no-mindedness of Zen”. [117] The implication is that this new cinematic language can itself expand the consciousness.

Standish Lawder’s Raindance provides a particularly explicit example of this. Over abstractions of raindrops and shifting colour patterns, Lawder utilizes a “flicker” effect whereby the screen grows brighter and darker in rapid succession. This flickering is intended to produce alpha brain waves in the viewer of the film, which are normally experienced in deep meditational states, and which tend to prove highly effective here. Whitney’s Lapis, too, attempts to induce a hallucinatory state as a flicker accompanies the resolution of dots onscreen into a mandala pattern. A flicker is also used in Off/On as the mandala seems to oscillate behind the figures and patterns in the foreground.

Masters and Houston reckon that this kind of direct impact on the viewer typifies psychedelic art. They refer to art’s “ages-old role as a shaper of consciousness” [118] as a particular focus of the psychedelic artist. Psychedelic films, for instance, “do not give a psychedelic experience- something no art form yet has come close to doing- but they effect changes in consciousness at the same time as they elicit a positive aesthetic response”. [119] Youngblood looks to Whitney’s Yantra (1957), a film where again the mandala plays a central role, and quotes the filmmaker:

A Yantra is an instrument designed to curb the psychic forces by concentrating them on a pattern, and in such a way that this pattern becomes reproduced by the worshipper’s visualizing power. It is a machine to stimulate inner visualizations, meditations, and experiences … [120]

Youngblood also quotes Stan VanDerBeek, another expanded cinema artist, who asserts, “We’re not just fooling around on the outer edges of our own sensibilities. The new technologies will open higher levels of psychic communication and neurological referencing”. [121] In this way, expanded cinema seeks not only to manifest the artists’ psychedelic experiences, but to be a catalyst for a “radical evolutionary push” just as the use of psychedelics was thought to be. In this sense, though never explicit in the work itself, “expanded cinema” was of a piece with the counterculture’s opposition to the American technocracy.

As P. Adams Sitney writes of Belson, in the “meditative quest” that his work represents, “once the consciousness begins its transcendental movement, the self upon which it might then look back vanishes”. [122] This, as he acknowledges, is a clear refusal of the Romanticism and post-Romantic paradoxes that define so much of the American avant-garde in his telling. David James puts it another way. To him, the final achievement of “‘acid’ filmmaking” was its use of the medium as a metaphor for consciousness, wherein the inclusion of “all phenomenal experience and then all reality” came to be seen as projections of the filmmaker’s own ego and consciousness. [123]

Indeed, after the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the American avant-garde film was marked by an increasing degree of self-conscious reflexivity about the medium and the role of the filmmaker in shaping what we see on the screen; structural film is a prime example of this (Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, J.J. Murphy, and others). At least one structural filmmaker, Tony Conrad, worked extensively with flicker effects. Given this, one could argue that the psychedelic cinema represented the last gasp of that modernism wherein the filmmaker tried to achieve a kind of greater, more absolute truth (“the infinite”). Or, one might argue that psychedelic cinema, especially expanded cinema, made manifest a movement towards a kind of heightened awareness of the materiality of the medium, which became a dominant concern in the ‘70s. Certainly, as I have tried to show, these experimental filmmakers, drawing so deeply from the well of the counterculture’s critique of technocratic society in their adoption of the psychedelic alternative, represented one stage in the politicization of the avant-garde. Though often thought of as inhabiting a hermetic, closed community, these film artists were very much in synch with the cultural discourses of the period. The study of their work can enrich our understanding of the position of radical, underground artists in the larger communities and subcultures in which they work. This can nuance our perception of the relationship of artistic and cultural contexts, in the 1960s and ‘70s, but also since, via the lingering aftereffects of that period.

However we acknowledge the role of psychedelic film either in the history of the medium and its artistic traditions, or in the history of the counterculture, we should acknowledge it. After all, psychedelics were never meant to be an end in themselves, but were valued for the effects they could have on society as a whole. They were supposed to be a catalyst for historical change, a means to an end. Alan Watts wrote that “psychedelics ‘were like a boat one uses to cross a river’ … but once on the opposite bank, the journey continues on foot”. [124] As the impact of that time continues to reverberate throughout contemporary politics and culture, it seems that where the journey will end remains unknown.

Thanks to James Kreul, Matthew Ward and Eileen Yu for their input and assistance.

[1] This is easily explained, as this end of psychedelia was a culturally marginal movement.
[2] Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992), pp. 17-18.
[3] Debra Michaels, “From ‘Consciousness Expansion’ to ‘Consciousness Raising’: Feminism and the Countercultural Politics of the Self”, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 42.
[4] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1993), p. 6.
[5] Ibid., p. 29.
[6] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 5.
[7] Ibid., p. 45.
[8] Gitlin, The Sixties, p. 46.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 47.
[11] Ibid., p. 48.
[12] Ibid., p. 49.
[13] Doug Rossinow, “‘The Revolution Is About Our Lives:’ The New Left’s Counterculture”, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 111-113.
[14] “The Port Huron Statement”, reprinted in Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader, eds. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 54-55.
[15] Gitlin, The Sixties, p. 108.
[16] Terry H. Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 172.
[17] David Farber, “The Intoxicated State/Illegal Nation: Drugs in the Sixties Counterculture”, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 18.
[18] Farber, “The Intoxicated State”, p. 19.
[19] Ibid., p. 29.
[20] Aldous Huxley, Moksha (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1982), p. 30.
[21] Aldous Huxley quoted in Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 41-42.
[22] Stevens, Storming Heaven, p. 46.
[23] Donovan Bess, “LSD: The Acid Test” (Ramparts, 1966), quoted in Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader, eds. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 259.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Huxley, Moksha, p. 23.
[26] Lee and Shlain, Acid Dreams, p. 44.
[27] Huxley, Moksha, p. 81.
[28] Stevens, Storming Heaven, p. 158.
[29] Ibid., p. 150.
[30] Timothy Leary, The Psychedelic Experience, A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel 1995), p. 11.
[31] Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties, p. 241.
[32] Ibid., p. 261.
[33] Ibid., p. 14.
[34] Ibid., p. 12.
[35] Ibid., 45.
[36] Farber, “The Intoxicated State”, p. 23.
[37] Ibid., 23.
[38] Peter Braunstein, “Forever Young: Insurgent Youth and the Sixties Culture of Rejuvenation”, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 252.
[39] Braunstein, “Forever Young”, p. 253.
[40] Ibid., p. 253.
[41] Ibid., p. 254.
[42] Paul Arthur, “Politics of Emancipation: Jonas Mekas and Alternative Cinema in the Ideology and Politics of the Sixties”, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 1.
[43] Ibid., p. 107.
[44] Ken Kesey, Ken Kesey’s Garage Sale (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 175.
[45] Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 37.
[46] Ibid., p. 40.
[47] Stevens, Storming Heaven, p. 236.
[48] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 17.
[49] Stevens, Storming Heaven, p. 102.
[50] Alice Echols, “Shaky Ground”, Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader, eds. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 23.
[51] Farber, “The Intoxicated State”, p. 24.
[52] Ibid., pp. 26-27.
[53] Braunstein, “Forever Young”, pp. 255-6.
[54] Ibid., p. 260.
[55] Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties, p. 172.
[56] Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 8.
[57] Ibid., p. 25.
[58] Ibid., p. 235.
[59] Ibid., p. 236.
[60] Ibid., p. 249.
[61] Ibid., p. 244.
[62] Kenneth Anger, interview by Spider, Film Culture, issue 40 (1966), pp. 68-71.
[63] Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1970), p. 41.
[64] Ibid., p. 45.
[65] Ibid., p. 47.
[66] Ibid., p. 136.
[67] Lee and Shlain, Acid Dreams, p. 183.
[68] Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971 (New York: Macmillan, 1972), p. 1.
[69] Ibid., p. 118.
[70] Ibid., pp. 144-146.
[71] Ibid., p. 222.
[72] Thomas Kent Alexander, “San Francisco’s Hipster Cinema”, Film Culture, issue 44 (1967), p. 70.
[73] Ibid.
[74] Ibid., p. 267.
[75] Ibid., p. 273.
[76] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, p. 291.
[77] Ibid., p. 314.
[78] Alexander Weiss, Canyon Cinema News, April 1965.
[79] Canyon Cinema News, February 1966.
[80] Canyon Cinema News, May 1966 – Jan. 1968.
[81] Canyon Cinema News, September/October 1966, February 1967.
[82] Canyon Cinema News, August 1966.
[83] Craig Baldwin, “From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link”, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, eds. Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 98.
[84] Tony Reveaux, “A Legacy of Light,” in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, eds. Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 107.
[85] Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 174.
[86] Reveaux, “A Legacy of Light”, p. 107.
[87] Gerd Stern, “From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978”, an oral history conducted by Victoria Morris Byerly, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 74-110.
[88] “Jud Yalkut on Immersive Environments”, Seth Thompson: Media Artist, Writer and Educator, 17 July 2014, http://seththompson.info/essays/video-interviews/jud-yalkut-on-immersive-environments.
[89] Reveaux, “A Legacy of Light”, p. 107.
[90] Ibid., p. 109.
[91] Ibid., p. 110.
[92] Kenneth Anger, interview by Bruce Martin and Joe Medjuck, Take One, Vol. 1 No. 6 (March 1967), p. 13.
[93] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, p. 174.
[94] P. Adams Sitney, “Underground Movies Are Alive Along the Pacific”, The Village Voice, December 5 1968, p. 53, quoted in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, eds. Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 174.
For his part, Lenny Lipton found Sitney’s comments patronizing toward the scene as a whole, characterizing Sitney’s attitude as “preposterously provincial”. Lenny Lipton, “Letter from Lenny Lipton”, quoted in Radical Light, p. 175.
[95] David James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 99.
[96] David E. James, “The Movies Are a Revolution”, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 283.
[97] Ibid., p. 87.
[98] Banes, Greenwich Village 1963, p. 140.
[99] Ibid., p. 144.
[100] James, Allegories of Cinema, p. 120.
[101] Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1967), p. 178.
[102] William Wees, Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
[103] All character designations for Inauguration are taken from P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978 (New York: Oxford, 1979), pp. 104-115.
[104] Stevens, Storming Heaven, pp. 179-180.
[105] Ibid., p. 62.
[106] Lee and Shlain, Acid Dreams, p. 56.
[107] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, pp. 146 & 347.
[108] Ibid., p. 347.
[109] Ibid., p. 72.
[110] Robert Masters and Jean Houston, Psychedelic Art (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 92.
[111] Wees, Light Moving in Time, p. 139.
[112] Kerry Brougher, “Focus: Allures,” in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, eds. Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 103.
[113] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, p. 159.
[114] Wees, Light Moving in Time, p. 124.
[115] James, Allegories of Cinema, p. 128.
[116] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, p. 81.
[117] Ibid., p. 92.
[118] Masters and Houston, Psychedelic Art, p. 81.
[119] Ibid., p. 82.
[120] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, p. 223.
[121] Ibid., p. 246.
[122] Sitney, “Underground Movies”, p. 269.
[123] James, Allegories of Cinema, p. 139.
[124] Stevens, Storming Heaven, p. 347.

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

Paul Ramaeker lectures in Film and Media Studies at the University of Otago. He is currently working on a manuscript about the influence of the international art cinema on American film from the late 1960s.View all posts by Paul Ramaeker →