Trippy Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This is the fifth installment in an ongoing series devoted to movies with psychedelic themes. The subject of this post is the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick wrote the screenplay in association with Arthur C. Clarke, and Clarke wrote his own version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey as a novel. Spoiler alert: as always, the following discussion contains spoilers.

When 2001: A Space Odyssey was initially released it received some negative reviews, most notably from Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, who called it “a monumentally unimaginative movie.” MGM had spent $12 million on the film, the most they had spent on any film to that time, and they were worried about the effect this would have on the film’s box office. Initially billed as “An epic drama of adventure and exploration”, audiences were not prepared for the film’s slow pacing or its philosophical ambiguities. MGM brought in Mike Kaplan, who referred to himself as “the resident longhair in the publicity department of MGM”, to rethink the film’s marketing. Kaplan was aware that that the underground press had embraced the film and he decided to tap into the 1960s “youth revolution”. He noted that younger members of the audience and liked to get high during the concluding section of the film, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, and he designed a poster for the film to highlight its appeal to the counterculture. The poster read “The Ultimate Trip” and featured the image of the “star child” from the film’s final frames. Ultimately 2001: A Space Odyssey has come to be regarded as a classic with a reputation as psychedelic film.

The first two hours of 2001: A Space Odyssey offer little in the way of psychedelic imagery or influence. The concluding sequence, however, is extremely trippy. After disconnecting the malfunctioning HAL 9000 supercomputer, astronaut Dave Bowman pilots the pod toward the monolith, which is floating in space. Everything comes into alignment and Dave enters a color field. The dazzling show of visual effects goes on for over nine minutes. Initially Dave’s expression is one of wonder but it doesn’t take too long before he’s overwhelmed by the experience. As the scenes start to take on recognizable shapes once again we see Dave’s eye in extreme closeup through a variety of color filters. Finally when the ship comes to rest in a strange, elegant yet antiseptic room, Dave goes from having convulsions to seeing his life pass by a rapid succession, and then is reborn as a star child–the next level of human development–when the monolith reappears.

In a Rolling Stone interview Kubrick was asked about the influence of LSD on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I have to say that it was never meant to represent an acid trip. On the other hand a connection does exist. An acid trip is probably similar to the kind of mind-boggling experience that might occur at the moment of encountering extraterrestrial intelligence. I’ve been put off experimenting with LSD because I don’t like what seems to happen to people who try it.

The mind altering that takes place in 2001: A Space Odyssey comes as a result of contact with the monolith that appears at various points through the film, and the monolith is presented as an alien entity completely outside of human experience. In the opening sequence, “The Dawn of Man”, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Encounter in the Dawn“, the monolith leads Moon-Watcher (as the main ape-man character is called in Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey) to use tools and weapons. The monolith is next seen centuries later in an excavation site on the surface of the moon. This part of the story was initially based on another Clarke short story, “The Sentinel“, where the monolith sends some sort of signal upon its discovery by humans. In the movie, the signal brings about a mission to Jupiter aboard the spaceship Discovery to find the receiver. Dave Bowman is the only astronaut to survive the trip, however, as the on-board computer, the HAL 9000, tries to kill the crew before they reach their destination. Dave outsmarts the computer, however, and disconnects it so that he can carry out the mission. He finds a companion monolith, which leads him  into the psychedelic color field and on his journey toward the next stage in human development. The monolith makes one more appearance at the end of Dave’s life, bringing on his rebirth as a star child.

Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odysseyoffers some clues as to the purpose of the monolith and its effect on those it contacts. The monolith is presented as advanced being that inspires creative thought through patient, repeated engagement. Kubrick’s monolith is more enigmatic and viewers are left wondering what it all means. I don’t claim to have the final word on that subject but I do have my own interpretation. Rob Ager‘s observation that the monolith represents a movie screen turned on end is persuasive. We never see the monolith oriented horizontally like a movie screen in the film, but about 1:40 after Dave enters the color field, the orientation of the light show shifts from vertical to horizontal, suggesting that viewers should alter our perspective in the same manner. Once that shift occurs, the color field changes to images suggesting the birth (or rebirth) of the heavens, followed by a descent to more familiar landscapes, though still rendered with psychedelic colors. I would argue that the monolith-as-movie-screen is not meant to be taken literally, but rather as an image of our dreams projected, limited only by the scope of our own imaginations.


2001: A Space Odyssey has a point to make about our relationship with technology. The faith in HAL as an infallible computer leads to disaster, and only when Dave is able to overcome HAL is he able to continue on the journey and be aided by the monolith. At one point Frank Poole (the other astronaut aboard the Discovery) responds to a question about what it’s like to be in “hibernation,” that is, held in suspended animation in a technological capsule. “Well it’s exactly like being asleep. You have absolutely no sense of time. The only difference is that you don’t dream.” Our reliance on technology has taken away our ability to dream. Only after Dave frees himself from HAL is he free to dream again. And while it is overwhelming at first, ultimately it allows him to progress to the next level of human development.

Trippy Films: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Is The Wizard of Oz a drug movie? On the blog Acidemic, Erich Kuersten asserts that The Wizard of Oz is a “metaphor for acid itself, and remains a common way to describe the effects to people who’ve never tried it” Also, the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s appreciated the psychedelic elements of The Wizard of Oz. Joe Baltake of the Sacramento Bee referred to The Wizard of Oz as “the definitive head film,” pointing out that hippies interpreted Dorothy’s adventure as an acid trip and would get high watching it. Comedy troupe the Firesign Theater, who had an enthusiastic following among the counterculture, originally formed on the free-form radio show Radio Free Oz on the radio station KPFK in Los Angeles. The show, which was hosted by Peter Bergman in his role as the Wizard of Oz, presaged the psychedelic comedy of the Firesign Theater. Late in his life, counterculture icon Ken Kesey wrote a satirical performance art piece called Twister based on The Wizard of Oz. In 1994 Kesey went on a tour with the Merry Pranksters performing Twister, which was released as a film in 2000.

One reason The Wizard of Oz has drawn this sort of attention is that it does make a direct drug reference. When the Wicked Witch of the West wants to stop Dorothy and her companions, she puts a field of poppies in their path so that they will all be put to sleep. Opium, the source of a variety of narcotics, is derived from poppies. This part of the movie was taken directly from L. Frank Baum’s original story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900:

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep. [The full text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is available through Project Gutenberg.]

The film version of The Wizard of Oz made an interesting change from Baum’s original story. In the book the Tin Man and the Scarecrow carry Dorothy from the poppy field (“So they picked up Toto and put the dog in Dorothy’s lap, and then they made a chair with their hands for the seat and their arms for the arms and carried the sleeping girl between them through the flowers…. They carried the sleeping girl to a pretty spot beside the river, far enough from the poppy field to prevent her breathing any more of the poison of the flowers, and here they laid her gently on the soft grass and waited for the fresh breeze to waken her”) The Cowardly Lion was too heavy for them, but thousands of field mice came to the rescue to bring the Cowardly Lion to safety. In the movie, however, when the Tin Man and Scarecrow try to move Dorothy they “can’t budge her an inch” and rely on Glinda to revive their sleeping companions by making it snow. The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse (bet that was a fun one to compile!) includes an entry for “Magical snow:” “colloquial term for cocaine, from the ‘magical snow’ which awoke Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.” Interesting to note that there is no reference to snow anywhere in Baum’s original version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the slang term “snow” was used for cocaine as early as 1914, well before The Wizard of Oz was filmed.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Website Wiki strongly refutes the notion that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains drug references. “You’re kidding, right?” is the response to the question “What’s with all the drug references in Oz?” The OzWiki points out that L. Frank Baum himself was not a drug user, and while the effects of opium were well known at the turn of the twentieth century, they were not as stigmatized as they are now. In The Annotated Wizard of Oz Michael Patrick Hearn points out that poppies have long been a symbol of sleep and death, and that Baum often used imagery of malevolent vegetation. Still, it’s possible that the screenwriter(s) for
 the 1939 MGM version of The Wizard of Oz who used the image of snow were aware its drug connotations. Noel Langley, the screenwriter who contributed such key original elements of the film as Glinda’s arrival in a bubble, Dorothy’s companions in Kansas having counterparts in Oz, and Dorothy’s Oz experience being all a dream, later wrote the screenplay for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), about a war veteran who becomes involved in a criminal gang smuggling cocaine, among other things. In any case, the MGM version of The Wizard of Oz does possess a trippy quality and Jim DeRogatis fittingly includes this film on the list of “The Psychedelic Influence of Popular Culture” in his book Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.

One of the most creative interpretations of The Wizard of Oz I have run across was from a website called Planet Groovy, which asserted “The Wizard of Oz Is All About Drugs.” Planet Groovy is long gone, but thanks to the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive I was able to recover it. According to Planet Groovy, Dorothy has never done drugs, but she’s given a lollipop by the Munchkins, just as pushers often give drug users a free sample. The Scarecrow has been told that his brain has been fried by drug use. That he demonstrates more intellectual capacity than any other character in the story, however, reveals how damaging society’s scare tactics against drug use are. The Tin Man is a heroin addict who needs a fix from a syringe-like oil can to be able to function. The Cowardly Lion is afraid that others will find out about his drug use, so he’s “lyin'” about it. The yellow brick road symbolizes the money that can be made from drugs and the Wizard of Oz is the guru of the drug world, and oz, of course, is the abbreviation for ounces, often used as a unit of measure for drugs. And it goes on from there. Perhaps the observations don’t always make sense, but this interpretation is highly entertaining, not to mention more deftly handled than Cracked’s attempt at Wizard of Oz drug humor.

Planet Groovy also mentions the synchronicity between The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Dark Side Of The Moon. Supposedly if you watch The Wizard of Oz with the volume turned down and synchronize the movie with Dark Side of the Moon, a number of strange coincidences occur. So many, in fact, that some people are convinced that Pink Floyd deliberately recorded as a sort of soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps best appreciated on drugs, as the discussion forum on features a thread entitled “Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon = Trippiest thing ever”.

In 1964 Henry Littlefield published an article in the American Quarterly where he argued that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a political allegory about the Populist movement and the election of 1896. In his article “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Parable on Populism,” David B. Parker said that once Littlefield’s article had been published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was no longer an innocent fairy tale.” How far we have come. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Trippy Films: I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968)

This is the third installment in the Turn Me On, Dead Man series of posts on movies with psychedelic themes. This time around the focus is on the 1968 film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hy Averback. Spoiler alert: as always, the following discussion contains spoilers.

In I Love You, Alice B. Toklas Peter Sellers plays the character of Harold Fine, a lawyer preoccupied with maintaining “respectability”. Just as he is about to get married to his clingy fiance (Joyce Van Fleet), he becomes enamored with Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), a hippie flower child. Taking a page from Alice B. Toklas‘s cookbook, Nancy feeds Harold cannabis brownies, which have a transformative effect on his life. Harold decides to drop out, fully embracing the hippie lifestyle (which this movie presents as free love, mooching, disregarding hygiene, and endlessly repeating empty phrases) and searching for meaning with the aid of a guru. Ultimately Harold decides that the hippie lifestyle is not what he wants but he can’t go back to his old life, either. Though the movie presents only superficial caricatures of hippies (and of middle-class Jews, for that matter), Peter Sellers is great fun to watch. He was a master of roles like Harold Fine, and it’s hard not to feel his panic when he runs off at the end of the movie (“There’s gotta be something beautiful out there! I know it!”)

I Love You Alice B. Toklas isn’t trying to make any sort of serious statement, so it isn’t fair to criticize the movie for not having those sorts of ambitions. Still, it would have been interesting if the movie had taken itself just a little more seriously in presenting a man’s search for meaning, and Peter Sellers would have been uniquely able to pull this off.  For one thing, Peter Sellers was right in the middle of the explosion of creative ideas occurring in Britain in the 1960s. He developed friendships with some of the Beatles, appearing with Ringo in the film The Magic Christian. John had a particular respect for Peter Sellers. He had been a fan of The Goon Show, and Peter Sellers was his favorite Goon. The Beatles chose Richard Lester to direct their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, in part because of a short film he directed in 1960 called The Running Jumping Standing Still Film, which, according to the film’s credits, was “devised” by Peter Sellers.

One thing that struck me as I watched this short film again is its connections to other great British shows to follow–Richard Lester directing A Hard Day’s Night, Leo McKern later appearing in Help! and The Prisoner, the absurdist humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus–and all devised by Peter Sellers.

In addition, Peter Sellers was on his own  spiritual quest, described by George Harrison in the following clip. He tells of how Peter Sellers became a hippie in the late 1960s and hung out with George and Ravi Shankar. We also hear a little from Peter Sellers himself.

Peter Sellers had a near-death experience in 1964 as a result of a heart attack. He saw the white light and wanted to go toward it. A hand reached out to him but he was revived before he could reach it. He reported that he knew that beyond the light was real love and he was disappointed when he was revived. The experience convinced him that he had lived past lives and he no longer feared death. In the long run, however, the experience didn’t resolve his spiritual questions, and he struggled with depression throughout his life. I think what all this is pointing to is that Peter Sellers really was a version of the character he played in I Love You Alice B. Toklas–frustrated, locked into a life he didn’t really believe in, but searching for something deeper he couldn’t define. It sounds like he may have had glimpses of it, but never really found it to his satisfaction.

One interesting thing about Peter Sellers is that it appears he maintained a certain distance with everyone, even with friends. Check out this video of when Peter Sellers dropped by the studio to chat with the Beatles during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions.

Even though they no doubt all had respect for one another, this interchange feels uncomfortable, with Peter Sellers assuming a character–almost like his hippie self in I Love You Alice B. Toklas. According to Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt, this YouTube clip only catches the last part of Peter Sellers’s visit, and the whole encounter was awkward. Peter Sellers, who remains standing during the entire visit, couldn’t understand why the Beatles were sitting around doing nothing. The part of the visit captured on that YouTube video is the point at which Peter Sellers “gleefully plays along” with the drug humor.  Given how uncomfortable that segment feels, the exchange prior to that must have been really awkward. Perhaps it was their age difference (Peter Sellers would have been 43 at the time), but for whatever reason, Peter Sellers built walls around himself. According to Ringo, “The amazing thing with Peter was that, though we would work all day and go out and have dinner that night–and we would usually leave him laughing hysterically, because he was hilarious–the next morning we would say ‘Hi Pete!’ and we’d have to start again. There was no continuation. You had to make the friendship start again from nine o’clock every morning. We’d all be laughing at six o’clock at night, but the next morning it would be ‘Hi Pete!’ then ‘Oh God!’–we’d have to knock down the wall again to say ‘hello’. Sometimes we’d be asked to leave the set, because Peter Sellers was being Peter Sellers.” (The Beatles Anthology, p. 328) So perhaps the idea of letting the audience see a true picture of Peter Sellers’s spiritual longings would not have been possible in any case.

Trippy Films: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

In a margin note in Kaleidoscope Eyes (a more recent edition was retitled Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock, Jim DeRogatis listed a number of movies, books, artists, products, and all sorts of other things under the heading “The Psychedelic Influence in Popular Culture.” I thought it would be interesting to look at movies with a psychedelic influence, and the first installment in this series is the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder directed by Adrian Lyne. Interestingly, this movie was not among those in DeRogatis’s list, but it is one of the trippiest movies I’ve ever seen. Spoiler alert: Before going any further, be aware that what follows contains spoilers.

Jacob’s Ladder contains particularly disturbing imagery which contributes to the sense of mystery about this film. Fortunately a couple of sources are available that explain the intent of the filmmakers. A companion book published at the time the film was released includes the screenplay (including deleted scenes) and an extended essay by the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, on how Jacob’s Ladder came to be made. Of course, now there is also a “Special Edition” DVD that contains many of these scenes and audio commentary by Adrian Lyne, but it was somewhat unusual in the pre-DVD era for any source to contain deleted scenes, and Rubin’s notes on why these scenes were deleted is illuminating.

Rubin compares screenwriting to a homeowner selling their house. Just as the new owners can do what they like with the house regardless of the original owner’s intent, filmmakers often take great license with a story once they have a screenplay in hand. It sounds as if this was not a problem the case of Jacob’s Ladder, however, as Rubin and Lyne collaborated effectively, with Lyne’s visual approach to the film adding great power to the themes Rubin had developed in the screenplay. The main character in the film, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), is plagued by demons as he faces the end of his life, and Rubin wanted to depict his struggle with traditional imagery. Lyne, however, felt that it would be too easy for the audience to dismiss familiar images of demons, or even laugh at them. Lyne wanted to shock the audience by using images of deformity, what they came to refer to as “thalydomide,” and looked to 20th century artists for the visual style. Despite their initial disagreement, Rubin came to trust Lyne’s ideas. They considered H.R. Giger, a strong influence for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and photographer Joel Peter Witkin, but perhaps the strongest visual influence came from the paintings of Francis Bacon, particularly in the way he would distort the heads of his subjects.

Francis Bacon- Three Studies for Self-Portrait

One of the most lasting images from the film is what Lyne and Rubin came to refer to as “Vibroman,” an image used at various points during the film of a figure where the body is in focus but the head is blurred through rapid motion. At first Rubin was resistant to this image, but he came to see it as “a vision of the unknowable, the unthinkable, the ungraspable. He was the vision of death.” A strong influence on Lyne’s development of this image came from Street of Crocodiles, a 1986 short film by stop-motion animators Timothy and Stephen Quay.

What is revealed to the viewer at the end of Jacob’s Ladder that the entire story following the opening scene of Vietnam War combat has been taking place in Jacob’s mind as he lies on the operating table in a field hospital fighting for his life. He imagines his life extending a few years into the future, working at the post office, divorced from his wife and living with Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena), and struggling with death of his youngest son (McCauley Culkin in an uncredited role). Jacob comes to understand that he is dying and ultimately accepts it. Rubin explains that his original idea was that Jacob was already dead, but later realized that the story would have much more spiritual significance if he were in the process of dying. Rubin drew on a Buddhist notion of death, particularly the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as Jacob struggles with letting go of his physical existence.  According to Rubin,

In Eastern religions, it is not the body that dies, but the illusion of the body.  One loses the sense of separation between one’s finite self and the larger universe.  In Eastern terms, this separation is illusory and death is a disillusioning experience.  It is a moment of truth.  You become aware of your oneness with all existence, a oneness that has always been there.  If you are not prepared to be stripped of your illusions, death will be a painful process.  If you have spent a lifetime angrily fighting with the world around you, you may not enjoy discovering that you have, in fact, been doing battle with yourself.  You will fight this knowledge.  You will see terrifying visions.  Hell will become a real place.  If, however, you have loved life, if you have learned to remain open to it, then death is a liberation, a moment in which you recognize that there is no end to life.  You are one with it in all its finite and infinite manifestations. (pp. 190-191)

Rubin also drew on the biblical imagery of Jacob’s ladder. Once again, however, Rubin initially saw this in traditional terms, but Lyne’s visual sense prevailed, as Jacob, acccompanied by his lost son Gabe, ascends a staircase in his former home as he accepts his death. It’s interesting to note that the film shows Jacob consulting traditional images of demons as he tries to make sense of his terrifying visions. He is shown examining Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

A film that strongly influenced both Rubin and Lyne was An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) by French director Robert Enrico, from a short story by Ambrose Bierce written in 1890. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge won the Best Short Subject award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962 and the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in 1963. The Twilight Zone showed this film as the final episode of the 1964 season.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is set in the Civil War, and a man is to be hanged for sabotage. A noose is placed around his neck and he is dropped from the the bridge, but he escapes when the rope breaks. He runs away to wife, but just as he is reunited with her, the scene cuts to the bridge where the rope tightens on the man’s neck. The entire film had been in the condemned man’s mind. He had imagined his escape and reunion with his wife during the last seconds of his life. Jacob’s Ladder takes this premise, updates the film to the Vietnam War and expands on the idea, but where the central character in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge alternates between appreciating the beauty around him and the terror of making his escape, Jacob is plagued by demons as he clings to life.

Jacob’s Ladder attempts to explain its hallucinogenic qualities by making reference to experiments conducted on Vietnam-era soldiers using the drug BZ.  Ironically enough, however, this is the least satisfying aspect of the movie, as the statement at the end of the film feels tacked on as an afterthought. The movie hints at some sort of government conspiracy, and it has since been revealed that the CIA’s Cold War experiments with hallucinogenic drugs did extend into the Vietnam era, but this serves as a distraction from Jacob’s spiritual struggle. Also, BZ’s effects are not at all what are depicted in Jacob’s Ladder, not to mention that since all of this is happening in Jacob’s head, he would have no way of receiving the information the chemist gives him in his exposition late in the film. Still, this contributes to the idea that Jacob is experiencing a hallucinogenic nightmare.