Posted on Sunday, March 21st, 2010 by Hunter Stephenson
It’s a crazy, mixed up world and we are thankful for movies that offer proof. Slashfilm’s Weekend Weirdness examines such flicks, whether in the form of a SXSW premiere for a provocative indie, a mini review or an interview.
The new documentary, Dirty Pictures, opens with a shot of two old folks naturally sitting and chatting in good spirits. The man has a white beard, white hair, and is blessed with one of the longest eyebrow hairs I have ever friggin’ seen, white or otherwise. The man looks like a retired professor who has smoked many joints late at night at a chalkboard. Close. This is Dr. Alexander Shulgin, or Sasha for short, the chemist credited with discovering the mind-altering effects of MDMA or Ecstasy and lesser known psychoactive drugs numbering into the hundreds. Utterances like “I don’t like drugs that inhibit communication, like 2C-E…I mean MDE. …2-CI is good,” roll off his tongue like the drugs roll onto it. His wife, author Ann Shulgin, warmly backs him up with, “If you can’t make love on a drug, there’s something not quite right [with it].”
Weekend Weirdness was able to screen an early, semi-rough cut of Dirty Pictures before its premiere at SXSW in Austin last week. As drug docs go, it’s sober and objective, and since it deals primarily in chemical substances the film doesn’t offer up the eye candy of, say, the recently reviewed doc Know Your Mushrooms. Nor does it offer any sort of illicit visuals possibly conjured by the title; “dirty pictures” is simply what Shulgin calls the charmingly classic and precise molecular compound illustrations he draws on his amber-colored drug bottles. This isn’t to say director Étienne Sauret didn’t happen upon the opportunity to capture second hand sex-tales. Ann Shulgin tells the camera that she’s written at length about her sexual experiences while on super-trips—published tomes on them—but we curiously never hear about these sexcapades in detail. Ageists will be fine with that, I imagine.
To contrast the Shulgins—who conduct their studies independently at home in San Francisco and in Sasha’s backyard lab (Breaking Bad’s Walter White would approve)—the filmmakers talk with several modern day academics and scientists in the drug field. These professionals, as one would expect, tend to view their white-coated experiments and studies of psychoactive substances using a clinical and atheistic eye. Much of the doc allows for reserved awe and curiosity at Dr. Shulgin, who has personally ingested all of his studied substances for decades and promptly recorded his findings about their mystic and spiritual qualities.
What about the cops? Rather awesomely, Shulgin held a license sanctioned by the Drug Enforcement Agency until the mid ‘90s that legally permitted him to hold elaborate drug sampling meet-ups with colleagues. These group tests ceased—or at least slowed—after the DEA raided his lab, but the Shulgins were never charged with criminal wrong doing. His wife proposes the bust was incited by the publishing of a book of studies they wrote entitled PiHKAL and remembers with a tsk tsk punch, “…these people [on the DEA] were really scared [of the peyote]. It’s just a damned cactus.” Dr. Shulgin adds in a huff, “There’s no mention in the Constitution of drugs anywhere.”
One of Dr. Shulgin’s theories discussed in the doc–if too briefly—suggests that human beings are equipped with active psychoactive receptors in their brains because eons ago the human body naturally contained psychoactive substances. Evolution phased this out i.e. “Wow, that hairy animal over there is such a spectacularly pretty and well built creature. It’s feathers are turning into stars. [chomp] [chomp] [chomp]” It’s worth noting that late writer and counter-culture figure Terence McKenna had similar ideas about evolution and drugs, but these are not mentioned in the film.
Today, Dr. Shulgin continues to look down at many psychoactive drug studies because they are conducted on animals and thereby ignore what he feels are many of the drugs’ therapeutic and psychological benefits for humankind. (It would have been interesting to hear his ideas about the impact these drugs have had on creativity and artistic achievement). For viewers who don’t follow this subculture and science, the doc will shed light on the surprising amount of academic activity involving psychedelic substances ongoing at universities (Purdue, John Hopkins). The doc rarely if ever sheds an equally positive light on recreational drug use for hedonistic purposes—the ill-fashioned, semi-waning rave culture and aught movements like Burning Man are filmed at a distance or shown via old news broadcasts.
For viewers who have tripped, the film addresses the common wonderment about the experience: is it a brief window into enlightened bliss and/or frightening madness…or a glimpse of something bigger. With America’s younger generations typically less accepting of traditional gods and religions than those previous, and secular science accepted as, thankfully, the norm, Dr. Shulgin represents the last of the authentic ’60s Haight-Ashbury idealism.
We watch as he tends to his impressive collection of peyote and other druggy cacti,wobbling a bit and facing mortality. The film unexpectedly cuts to shots of the Shulgins staring out at the Great Pyramids while traveling in Egypt. Eschewing “goals,” Alexander Shulgin speaks with excitement about all the ancient mental hallways he’s walked and all of the infinite ones left explore still, destinations that existed before the DEA and will continue to after his life permanently goes hypercolor or black, like everyone else’s.
Dirty Pictures is an official selection of the 2010 SXSW Film Festival. For its SXSW info page, here.
For previous installments of Weekend Weirdness, here.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached on Twitter. If you’d like to send him a screener, or a screening invitation: h.attila/gmail.