Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Kind of Mushroom: GO ASK ALICE


It's a heavy trip, being addicted to 'drugs.' In the case of the 1973 TV movie version of the 'anonymous diary' GO ASK ALICE, drugs are a vague mix of cocaine, amphetamine, quaaludes, Valium, marijuana, but mainly--weirdly enough--LSD. Moron says what, now?

Do you know how hard I tried to be addicted to LSD in the 1980s? It's impossible. Those of us who tried to do it on a daily basis (in my case, every other day), wound up in many a psych ward, but there's nothing physically addictive about it, and the idea of junkies shaking and scratching as they turn tricks to pay for their next LSD hit is ridiculous. Heroin or meth, crack or coke, sure - I've never been there but I can believe it. LSD and DMT are totally different, it's like comparing whiskey to coffee, in fact LSD was used in the 50s as a cure for alcoholism. But 'acid' pills are clearly the drug of choice in GO ASK ALICE. There's no mention of heroin, and when she's introduced to speed it's in pill form, which is the same thing as an upper, i.e. amphetamine, which she'd been taking long before that. So what the fuck?

the 'big' money
I remember certain scenes from this film from when I saw it for an elementary school health class in the seventies: Alice (Jamie Smith-Jackson, who's excellent) in her cool hippie hat, blowing off her nerdy high school friend to hang out with the cool kids; Alice and her fellow druggie runaway on their knees in some twisted sadomasochistic game run by an older couple to make the girls beg for capsules of some drug, which I hope is not acid. Can you imagine wanting to do acid with leering adult perverts? Everyone seems like a leering adult pervert on acid to begin with. 

For all that, though, this perv swinger couple flashback scene has some extra heavy grotesque nightmarish resonance, like a promo for a dark drive-in film ALICE's target audience was still too young to see. But, as with the drug references, it's very (intentionally?) muddled. What pill exactly does the creepy sadist have in his hand? What sick game is he proposing in his muffled voice, and why does one girl lunge at him while another spins around and races into the other room screaming? The effect is unsettling - as if the film is a nonsensical dream deliberately trying to upset and confuse us while making the crimes depicted impossible to duplicate, scrambling the details to an almost surreal David Lynch-esque degree (Lynch's similarly dislocated idea of a dark sex-and-drugs underbelly in TWIN PEAKS, for example, has a similar after school special-run-amok lack of logic).


This surreal melting extends to non-drug interactions too: one day Alice walks in on her boyfriend to find him in bed with someone else (see below) My fellow schoolmates argued over whether it was a boy or girl in bed with him, for months! Watching it now I can't help but think the vagueness is deliberate, to muddy the waters, to depict the druggie world as it must look in the brains of children for whom adult realities are constantly shifting and getting harder to navigate, letting their fuzzy imagination run warm and weird (looking closer with the video, we can see it's a deliberate switch: first a very dark-haired girl then a boy). Either way Alice steals his money and grabs a bus to San Francisco with her Kay Lenz-ish friend. And I remember her outburst at a drug counseling group when a fellow addict seems to be enjoying his tales of glue-sniffing just a little too much (and then he offers her something called "a mixed bag"): "He's getting high just talking about getting high," Alice says, after storming out of the circle. "And you're getting high off of his high, and I'm getting high off of your high. And it's one big contact high!" That line seemed to me at the time, seeing this in first grade, as the one kernel of truth, and it haunted me all through my first AA meetings. In fact, remembering this scene kept me out of AA for longer than it might have otherwise. The grainy TV movie image of her walking away triumphant from the myopic addict circle was my badge of resistance against AA's cult reputation.

What Alice Sees before leaving
What we see after Alice leaves
One area wherein this ambiguity and deliberate fogging device works (to promote childhood playground discussion perhaps of what really happened?) is family dynamics: The parents are oblivious to how zonked the kids are at Alice's birthday party, even giving them champagne. Later they prove blind to Alice's pain, and dismiss her real concerns about druggie reprisals (after she rats out a tweaked babysitter) with rote speeches about standing up for herself.

The result: someone doses her soft drink while babysitting (we're tipped to her being drugged when Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" starts playing on the soundtrack while she's still feeding the baby) and you know how the rumor goes about babysitting on acid. Alice locks herself up in a closet to resist the temptation (apparently overwhelming in 70s babysitters) to put the baby in the oven and the chicken in the crib. Luckily the lock holds and the baby is saved. When she comes out of it her hands are all bandaged from having tried to claw through the door, Poe-style. It's pretty ridiculous, putting herself through hell (rather than just watching TV and letting it pass) and leaving the infant unattended, rather than risk some abstract hazard, like now that she stopped doing it for awhile she suddenly believes the parental hysteria flame-fanning urban legends of the parent-baiting newscasters.

comes a straightedge
But for all that--the parents aren't the bad guys, which is sooo 70s. Parents were expected to have their own lives, and help their kids best they can, but not become dicks about it, or get all micro-managing and helicoptery. William Shatner is there for that. Fake mustache or no, he's actually pretty wise, assuring her there's no easy answers, no specific thing she can just eliminate to get her life back on track. It's going to take ruthless self-honesty, work, and time.

In the end, though, Alice's trip to Wonderland here is too vaguely sketched not to draw a smirk from anyone remotely 'experienced.' Her first trip occurs when she's passed a soft drink at a party. The kids around her chant "button button - who's got the button?" as they put the white cap-like object in their mouths. The cap, I guess, was acid. Alice notes in the diary voiceover later that night that once she let go of fear and symbolically died she felt, for the first time, beautiful. It's the first and last time her experience seems believable. That's what really happens! Alas, it's all downhill from there. Seconds after writing in her diary that she has no interest in ever doing it again, her new boyfriend calls and she goes running down the stairs and out the door and starts doing coke. A scene later and she is 'hooked' on a regimen of her mom's tranquilizers, speed, and acid. The confusion over what drugs she's doing might not be in the book, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is.
 

Oh yes. That really is Robert Carradine, above, as the sleazy druggie boyfriend. Allow it.


In the end, for all its vague twisting and avoiding the gritty details, GO ASK ALICE was a major cultural touchstone seen by nearly everyone my age and that's enough to make it 'important' as a factor in the larger teen drug equation. It's the movie that taught us to fear psychedelics as much as heroin, coke, pot, etc. and in the process taught us that our parents knew even less about drugs than we did. Yet for all that ALICE still works: the performance from Jamie Smith-Jackson is spellbinding -- she goes through so many changes so fast she barely seems like the same person from scene to scene (the closest comparison I can think of is De Niro's Travis Bickle) -- and there's no quick short happy ending, just one trial after another. It's because of these trials, though, that Alice endures, even grows as a person. Like the Airplane song goes, she is some kind of a mushroom, and so is the film surrounding her --both have adapted to find nourishment even in the mire of after-school message bullshit.

For if drugs were legal, Alice wouldn't be having these problems - that's the thing. If the deans just passed LSD out at graduation then the evil kids wouldn't have any more power to seduce, hypnotize, and destroy. Until adults stop demonizing what they don't understand, older kids with drug savvy will always have the most power; but if the parents have the drugs, and the kids want some, then forget it --they'll behave like angels.


As it is now, even if you have the most beautiful, spiritual experience in your life on acid, even if it brings you out of suicidal depression, you can't tell your parents because they'd just send you to rehab or call the cops. So the creeps who gave you the stuff become the only people you trust, the only ones who know the score, so when they say heroin and coke are even MORE beautiful, well the only thing holding you back are warnings from adults who warned you off LSD too. If you're taught to think all drugs are the same, and all bad, then all drugs become good once you have even a single good experience. And they're not. Some are downright evil.


I believe that if psychedelics and pot were legal a whole new shift in the drug war would take place and the scummy leeches like Alice's boyfriend would be down to just the nasty shit like crank and coke to make their living. Hell, I'd be anti-drugs then. But as long as you make spiritually transformative chemicals like DMT, psilocybin, and LSD as illegal and as demonized as the evil shit, it's like you're giving a bunch of grotty hairbag scrubs the powers of Jesus and then wondering why no young people are snoozing through monotone sermons at church rather finding God for themselves in some rock venue parking lot. Go ask Alice, I think she'll know... that you played yourself, America. You gave up logic and proportion, and instead trusted the media, the shadiest drug dealer of all.

3 comments:

  1. Great post! I haven't seen the movie, but I read the book and it was just as ridiculous. Everybody who saw me reading it in high school probably thought that I believed it all-- little did they know that I was snickering behind my hand. :)

    Rock on!

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  2. Anonymous26 June, 2011

    I loved your closing comments, which were so true. That's exactly the problem. When kids realize that the propaganda about hallucinogenics is bullshit, they'll think it's all bull shit and get caught on something bad. A few friends of mine in the '70s had that problem.
    Just FYI, in the book it was just the two boys in the bedroom and they were in mid-activity. I think the TV producers got squeamish about putting on a gar scene in 1972, so they muddled it up, just like they muddled the rest of the grittiness, as they said. This should have been an AIP production or an underground movie. And finally--does anyone know what the song is that's playing while they do the coke? I really love it, and I have no idea what it is.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for 70's Made for TV Movies Wednesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete

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