It’s taken me a while to see this but the long search for a genuinely psychedelic feature film is over. That’s genuinely psychedelic not in the debased sense of a handful of garish or trippy visuals, but in the full-spectrum expanded-consciousness sense for which Humphrey Osmond invented the term in 1956:
I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents [psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, etc] under discussion: a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision. My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind-manifesting.
Other films have given us flashes of this kind of unfiltered experience—Chas’s mushroom trip in Performance (1970), for example—or attempted to relay LSD states through Hollywood conventions: The Trip (1967) and Altered States (1980). Then there are inadvertently psychedelic moments such as the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Some of the most successful works from a psychedelic perspective have almost always been abstract, micro-budget films such as those made by James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Ira Cohen and others. But until very recently no-one had attempted to combine the narrative-free intensity of abstract cinema with a film narrative that would warrant placing psychedelic experience at the heart of the story. I was hoping A Scanner Darkly (2006) might do it but, good as it was, it didn’t really get there. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void is the film that gets everything right.
Linda and Oscar.
The narrative is a simple one (Noé calls his story a “psychedelic melodrama”): Oscar, a young American drug-dealer living in Tokyo smokes DMT, trips out for a while then goes to exchange some goods with a customer in a small club called The Void. While there he’s shot and killed in a police raid. His disembodied consciousness leaves his body, and for the next two hours wanders the streets and buildings following his beloved sister, Linda, and his friends while they cope with the aftermath. Later on he starts to re-experience memorable (and traumatic) moments from his life. The Big Signifying Text in all of this is introduced in the opening scene: The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oscar hasn’t read much of it so his friend Alex quickly relates (for the benefit of the audience) the book’s description of what happens to the soul between the time of death and rebirth into a fresh human body. A few minutes later we’re with Oscar experiencing this very process in dizzying, miraculously-filmed detail. Flicking through my own copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (OUP, 1960) one paragraph in the introduction had particular relevance:
The deceased human being becomes the sole spectator of a marvellous panorama of hallucinatory visions; each seed of thought in his consciousness-content karmically revives; and he, like a wonder-struck child watching moving pictures cast upon a screen, looks on, unaware, unless previously an adept in yoga, of the non-reality of what he sees dawn and set.
This is your brain on drugs: the DMT trip.