Dangerous Minds recently blogged the above film, one of the more balanced investigations of the history of LSD that I’ve seen. So starting there, I thought I’d compile a review of acid histories, anti-LSD psych-outs, and other psychedelic docs you can easily find online. A debate that comes up repeatedly in these films is hallucinogens’ potential positive therapeutic applications versus the very real risks especially from irresponsible abuse of the drugs. Setting aside the more general benefits of “mind expansion”, openness to both sides of that debate tends to indicate a more fairly presented documentary. The most negative drug films are produced by agencies of the US Government; ironically, prior to trying to frighten people about hallucinogens, they were aggressively investigating how drugs could be used for military purposes like interrogation and conducting some of the most irresponsible drug experiments that have ever been done. Details of those experiments, which inadvertently accelerated the mass use of LSD in the 1960’s, also feature prominently in these documentaries.
The film above is called The Beyond Within (there’s a 1972 book of the same name, now out of print). A review from a few years ago states that it was released in 1986 as part of the BBC Documentary series “Everyman”, but I haven’t been able to verify that. It’s an 80-minute well-produced, comprehensive history which includes extensive interviews with Albert Hofmann who discovered LSD in 1938, footage of Aldous Huxley (author of The Doors of Perception), excerpts of a suppressed film of a British MP taking mescaline, details of The CIA’s Project MK-ULTRA surreptitiously dosing people in the 1950’s, going Furthur with Ken Kesey (who participated in the MK-ULTRA tests), turning on with Tim Leary, and a controlled experiment for a Harvard theological masters thesis testing the legitimacy of religious feelings that divinity students experienced while on acid. Both an honest assessment of the potential benefits and a clear-eyed take on the dangers mark this film as the best of the bunch. Very informative. I’m just not sure why there’s a string quartet playing throughout, not a great match for the psychedelic subject matter, but oh well.
Now it’s time to get scared, if you can stop giggling long enough. Trying to portray the subjective effects of a drug experience to a broad audience is a difficult task. And especially when the goal of the film is to scare people away from drugs the results are often melodramatic and unintentionally hilarious (especially at the distance of a decade or four). In LSD-25, the drug itself talks to us, in the first person, about it’s “cool chemical name” and a whole lot more. The little chemical devil whispers conspiratorially throughout, with just a tinge of reverb cuz if acid has a voice, it’s definitely spacey.
LSD-25 is a goofier than average drug scare flick produced in 1967 for the San Mateo Union High School District in San Mateo, California. The entire film is narrated by a tab of LSD – a device that Bunuel would have admired.
It’s full of tripping dramatizations, mutton-chopped groovy drop-out parties that turn into bad trip central. Pale nerds who wander into sparkling lights, oops, no, that’s traffic. Bummer. And this freaked out kid, trying to avoid a syringe of sobriety.
“It dissolves in your mind as well as your mouth”, like some kind of M&M’s from hell. But while it wants to be scary, LSD-25 comes off instead as an entertaining journey through a vintage acid un-fun-house that’s pretty hard to take seriously.
Next up is the Canadian documentary Hofmann’s Potion which focuses on serious and especially scientific efforts to use LSD for the general good. It features Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer who were pioneering psychiatrists working in Canada using LSD to treat alcoholics and schizophrenics. Osmond is notable for turning on Huxley to mescaline and inspiring his advocacy for psychedelics. Also featured is Al Hubbard, “The Johnny Appleseed of LSD”, a fascinating character, but it’s notable that there’s no mention here of the controversies regarding his government intelligence connections and the possibility he was involved with MK-ULTRA. Leary appear in a somewhat negative light for advocating acid as a Utopian concept while glossing over the downsides. His former Harvard colleague Ram Dass comes off much better, focused on the benefits of personal use rather than ambitions for mass societal change. Overall a good documentary, featuring a more extended look at the positive potential of LSD.
The Internet Archive has a whole section of videos called FedFlix, old US government films. And as you might expect, there are several about drugs. They include not only government-produced films, but also archived news programs about the government and even raw press conference footage. The 1970 film The Mind-Benders: LSD and the Hallucinogens by the US Food & Drug Administration is a bit surprising, in that it’s not quite the scare flick that it at first appears. While mostly presenting drugs in a negative light, there’s also coverage of government clinical tests which highlight the positive uses for hallucinogens. It also gets high (heh) marks for trippy montages, an echoey drumming soundtrack, and great black & white interviews of ‘users’. Plus extra points for the primitive sculpture holding a bong.
The best moment though is at 22 minutes, a pretty remarkable monologue by a government scientist who thinks “rebellion is a healthy thing” but thinks that taking LSD is “not like swallowing goldfish”–it’s part of an honest, genuine statement in which he admits that “adults have screwed a lot of things up”. Ultimately, despite some melodramatic tendencies, the message that comes out from this film is “we don’t know everything” and “let’s be careful out there”.
Also from FedFlix is this 1970’s ABC news show called Mission: Mind Control, an expose on the US government (including The CIA & Army Chemical Corps) various experiments with drugs and even hypnosis in their search for a mental weapon for interrogation, brainwashing, and to even artificially induce schizophrenia to immobilize large groups of people.
The TV program includes interviews with agents involved with these activities which included safe-houses in New York and San Francisco where prostitutes and others were dosed and observed without their knowledge. This video comes with the extra bonus of Michelob Light, GrapeNuts, and Bufferin commercials from the era built-in. It’s a bit sensational at times, but the reporting seems to be accurate. Unfortunately it highlights some very unsavory activities that the American government has engaged in over the years. Some of the Army research, even appears in a 1960 article in Popular Science called Can “Loony Gas” Win Wars Without Bloodshed (it focuses on animal research, and doesn’t mention the tests on people).
The published evidence indicates that Project MKULTRA involved the use of many methodologies to manipulate individual mental states and alter brain functions, including the surreptitious administration of drugs and other chemicals, sensory deprivation, isolation, and verbal and sexual abuse.
Less nefarious, and much more boring, is this 1955 film which is a proto-infomercial for MER 17, a drug purported to disrupt the effects of an LSD trip. While it seems to work well in the film, apparently MER 17 was ultimately not very effective in clinical tests. The film features an incredibly insightful experiment in which a young man is given LSD and asked repeatedly how he’s feeling by a dude who looks like the love child of Alfred Hitchcock and Allen Funt. This proves without a doubt that someone who is tripping gets really bummed out by being constantly interrogated by old dudes in suits in front of a fake paper clock.
Finally if hanging out in a 1970’s emergency room getting a 35-minute tour of people overdosing on various drugs sounds like your cup of tea, then What Did You Take? by The Department of Justice will be your new favorite film.
via Dangerous Minds