Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bitches Be Trippin': TOAD ROAD, A FIELD IN ENGLAND


I've always taken a hard line stance that idiots (and minors, of course) shouldn't use drugs. Drugs should only be taken by artists, truth-seekers, visionaries and never by normal dipshits looking for dumb burn-out kicks... Seeing all the great drugs wasted on the snickering young in the 2012 indie Toad Road made me remember back to the young age when I could only get high, or even get hold of a beer, by driving around with metalhead Central Jersey burn-outs. Cool as some of them were I could have done without the damage to my eardrums, car, or the snickering idiot who lit us up a joint, got us high, then announced said joint was laced with PCP (an encounter that took approximately three years of amok time trapped in a blue-light and white fog prison/prism to come down from, and all during the real time drive home across rush hour in Central NJ to dinner with the parents!). And I hated the music those metalheads played; I'd bring Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" along on our endless rides in search of weak-willed liquor store workers, or some random dude who might possibly have 'something' to share. The metalheads didn't dig it. We settled on Aerosmith and the Zeppelin. The common ground.

 I ditched them senior year of high school when I discovered the Clash and punk rock, and slam-dancing (as it was called before 'moshing') at the Trenton club City Gardens' all-ages punk shows; I started drinking more, doing lines, and god knows what, but still I wasn't satisfied. I needed psychedelics. Neither punks nor metalheads wanted anything to do with LSD. They tried to warn me off it, but I felt the calling of a higher power, a spirit was beckoning. I ditched the punks as abruptly as I'd ditched the metalheads, and became a hippie...

And there, at last, was the LSD kids. Still, I had to endure endless Dead concert tapes to get any. But when I did, the world opened up to me like a flower to a bee.

But what a burnout-and-lightweight-strewn path I left behind --so many people--metalheads, punks, hippies--who never should have tried drugs at all, but just didn't say no because it wasn't 'done' in bad kid rock circles. They failed out of school or never went or got busted or died. I survived, barely, through the miracle of AA... applause. BUT, despite fitting in with the weirdos there better than in all the other camps, I've never stopped believing in the positive transformative power of psychedelics, which makes me anathema in their eyes. But hey - I gotta be me.

All those cliques, all the way back to those PCP burnouts, I went a-tumbling, while seeing Jason Banker's 2012 film Toad Road. It's made me ask myself: Has my blithe openness about psychedelics on this site done more harm than good in the short term and worse, expose a truth I've hidden even from myself, that my whole holy enlightenment shortcut-seeking trip masks just another garden variety waste case burn-out, because for all my fancy lotus posturing, I'm probably one of those idiots who shouldn't do drugs?


All through my travels I've seen people, especially the very young and Piscean, get way into psychedelics far too fast, too deep, chasing some white rabbit truth through twisting trails right into rehab, jail, the hospital, or the grave.  It reminds me of that question posed to Anne Wiazemski in Godard's Sympathy for the Devil (1967) "Do you consider drugs a form of spiritual gambling?" ("oui"). Spiritual seekers never listen to advice from anyone who's already chased that rainbow and maybe they shouldn't (the "I did acid and it changed my life but you shouldn't because I did too much of it and/or got busted" crowd). One such doomed truth-seeker, in Toad Road, is Sarah (Sarah Anne Jones), a young debauched-innocent wastrel too cute to be wasting time with the scruffy band of monosyllabic marauders she's chosen as a posse. An older guy--James (James Davidson)--is pining for her, but he's also on his way out of the scene; he's getting counseling and--like Hickey in Iceman Cometh--rather than bail on his posse, turns into the preachy buzzkill of the group, which is too bad considering Davidson isn't the usual mumblecore anemic smarm merchant but a charismatic young actor. He might do something grand one day, but this character he plays, James, is annoying. Using his smitten adoration for Sarah as an excuse to hang out by her side, incessantly lecturing her that she doesn't have to do drugs to have a good time. Alas, he'll still hang out if she does, because he has to 'protect' her from herself, and other boys. Too stoned and young to know how to shucker him loose, Sarah just keeps doing drugs, trying to drink and smoke him away. Man, I wish I didn't know the type; I've played both parts of that dosed dichotomy. I know the pain of being with a girl who's so gorgeous she never had to develop a personality and indeed has avoided having one lest she only make her problem worse by earning even deeper obsessive adoration. And I've been in the same boat Sarah has, with a stalker girl trying to rope me into sobesky Squaresville and me hoping I can just drink my way free without having to start some huge scene right there in the party, like a dumbass.

James is a square, man, is my point. But fair and cool is Sarah. A true psychedelic pilgrim, she wants to go the Fulci distance, tripping her way through the seven gates of Hell via the legendary PA "Haunted Mile," i.e. the nearby Toad Road, where she might, as they say in The Beyond, "face the sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored."

Sadly, the real Sarah Anne Jones died in real life shortly after the film's premiere, though I got the sense of a fractured kind of ghoulish 'coming true' of the storyline that hints-- even if she died after the film was completed---that she was MIA on set a lot, ala Marilyn Monroe during the never-completed Something's Got to Give (1962). Maybe this was just exactly as Banker envisioned or maybe I missed something. Like so many cinematic trips I got talked into by the Village Voice, Toad Road feels like it had a chance to do something wild and almost did, and then blew it. Maybe that's Sarah's drug problem's fault, or maybe it's the director's. Maybe it's just that my whole idea of something 'wild' is warped.


But the music is good, the photography tight and clever, and it works when it all hinges on the frail Sarah it works. She has a great way of kind of throwing her shoulders around as she walks, and her thick long hair coupled to her waif thinness makes her seem like a willowy older sister to Valerie (of Her Week of Wonders). If you know the druggie scene you know this type of girl and probably fell in love with her at some point: H
er damaged sweetness and her unrelenting drive to explore the void make a haunting combination. Maybe you wrote a poetry book, or album about her, like that girl Holly for Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady): "Holly's inconsolable / unhinged and uncontrollable / cuz we can't get as high as we got / on that first night." If you know the type you shiver when you hear that song, shiver with her memory and the chill of never getting that first night glow back. The torture of being in love with someone you are powerless to save increases all the more with their inevitable absence. Gone, you never seem them age; they freeze as a memory for you that way. The spell is only broken when, if they're alive still, you clock their Facebook profile 20 years later and see their time-worn faces and child-worn shapes, hopefully.

I would have enjoyed the Toad more if they had maybe gone a little meta about that kind of memory, shooting-wise. The whole Picnic at Hanging Rock element never really gels with the muted realism (imagine if the girls in that film really did disappear during filming but they didn't want to admit it so they changed the film to hide their absence, or replaced her with a different actress like Luis Bunuel). Still it's a promising feature debut for former documentarian of the youth music and 'culture' scene, Jason Banker, and I love the dark and beguiling poster series...



I also like the art and posters for Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (2013), a much more psychedelic-recall shiver-inducing film. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it draws from old woodcuts and psychedelic posters from mid-60s Britain, correctly recognizing their common psilocybe cubensis roots. Common to both cosmic alchemists of the 17th century and 20th century Zen hipsters tripping at outdoor music festivals, the ancient futuristic space spore mushroom grows wild in those mossy English fields! The whole Elizabethan era probably owes its 'golden' aura largely to them!



Field chronicles the manly transformation of a wussy assistant alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) from a coward hiding behind a wall of shrubbery during a furious offscreen battle (in the English Civil War) to his ultimate triumphant return to the same battle, still in progress, as a psychedelically liberated hero. In between, he pals around  with a savvy deserter (Julian Barrett), a dimwitted wanderer (Richard Glover), and a fourth man (Peter Fernando) with a mysterious agenda. In no hurry to rejoin the war, this quartet set off in a series of fascinating tableaux across one of the rolling hedgerow-lined fields of England, on a holy quest for ale. Who can't relate? I
f you've ever been lost in the fields at some giant concert, high as hell, with aching feet, and on fire with thirst, you'll know I ain't kiddin' when I call it a holy quest.

Set sometime during the English Civil War of the late 1600s, Wheatley's film does right what most historical dramatists don't: rather than seeming fresh out of wardrobe, the clothes look like the actors have been wearing them for about twenty years without a bath --as was the fashion-- and the pistols and muskets all need to be patiently reloaded with powder and ball after every shot, which is how it was, the inconvenience of which is seldom fully captured in movies. So here is a film wherein battles are mostly spent in the tall grasses, reloading and shouting oaths to keep your enemy distracted. The men later run into the shady Irish bastard alchemist O'Neil (Michael Smiley), and his assistant Cutler (Ryan Pope), and there's psilocybe mushroom circle, a black sun, and some of the best use of sudden gusts since, um, 1925's The Wind. The acting is uniformly pointed and Amy Smart's dialogue is rich in period slang, robust expletives, hilarious asides, tangents, forgotten alchemical science, sly deadpan joke illustrations of the way men bond easily with one another in times of trouble, and the way a mouthful of the right mushroom can turn a meek scholar into a lion (after a strange and perhaps alienating pupa state of course).

The actors never leave the field, or are never seen indoors, and there's almost no one in the cast other than these five men (no women), but Field in England never feels dull, constrained, or Jarmusch-y Jim White's slowly building score moves from a single, sturdy military drum beat into a full blown sonic mind-melt whirlpool of droning guitars reminiscent of Bobby Beausoleil's score for Lucifer Rising. There's also an invigorating kind of mortality-sneering masculinity vibe ala Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Interesting then that Field was written by a woman! Aye, and lensed by a woman (Laurie Rose) and produced by two women (Anna Higgs, Claire Jones) (and one man).



Field's existential Sartre-Godot-Aristophanes-style robust gallows humor and its weird mystical angles (with ropes descending into the alternate realities, etc.) reach a peak during a ground zero time-distilled psilocybin freak-out wherein--buzzing and soaring in and around its droning center--the score sirens out across a series of overlapping strobes and mirror splitting; and you might say 'yeah yeah, that mirror split screen effect hasn't been fresh since Led Zeppelin's Song Remains the Same, (I even used it in Queen of Disks)' but here it rocks with real British tarot archetypal resonance. And the strobe cutting is so seizure-inducing it comes with a warning label, but 'tis no stoner fucking about 'til everyone but himself has a panic attack, but rather a calculated specific effect to show the process by which psychedelics open the doors of perception (like a Mad magazine gatefold). On one hand it's nothing too different than what one might shoot with their friends on mushrooms in the graveyard as I did (and Syd Barrett before me) in the early fall of 1987 --there's no unusual sight or diegetic sound (I was thinking for sure they'd switch film stock to color for the tripping parts, ala Wizard of Oz or Awakening of the Beast) but the strobing overlapping images create a truly psychedelic effect, the two or more images cohering into one buzzing throbbing molecular NOW waiting for us all just outside the veil, ala William Blake or the old school alchemist woodcuts (below left). A thin fiberoptic line between waking life and the collective archetypal unconscious is frayed for a moment; the black hole sun overlap between waking and dreaming is exposed afresh. The union of birth and death, past and future, real and unreal, speeds up our perceptions fast enough they slow way down and death's hidden-from-the-sober-living flag unfurls for all three of your agog eyes and the psychedelic peak across linear time's usually uncrossable river is at last crossed... by a film no less, rather than direct experience.
Dorothy, still half in Kansas

And when one returns to where they started from, the bank of sanity, one is renewed a third-eye Popeye coming back from the dead and now completely made of atomic spinach.


In short, A Field in England shows us the reverberating core that tripping outdoors should unveil. It all but illuminates Oberon and Titania watching gamely from their trans-dimensional faerie bower. Even though Wheatley's film leaves plenty of room to doubt the reality of these visions, Field also shows what we've missed by denigrating alchemy and the ancient arts as superstition. Maybe one day we'll learn knocking on wood grounds the body's accumulated current or that salt tossed over the shoulder dissipates negative ions. One day western science will seem vain in its denial of the existence of things beyond its ability to measure. If we want to wait for the modern science to catch up to our ancient past version, we'll be sitting in the waiting room 'til we're cobwebbed skeletons. There are many sciences for many realities, but don't tell 'science' that... it'll be too busy sneering at you. 


Alas, this is also why it falls to the psychedelic warrior braves to sometimes party with the burn-outs just to get high enough to learn how to escape them and their crap music. Psychedelics would have immense benefits to the human race if used in rites of passage both into adulthood and out of life. Just the briefest voyage beyond the ego is sometimes enough to help one's whole outlook transform. A Field in England shows that before the ridiculous illegality of certain kinds of mushrooms, their presence in a field was enough to make reality's fabric at least partially transparent even to the thickest of skeptical dimwits.



Alas, Toad Road shows the downside of all that, that such threading can rip weaker fabric long before it endows them with zippers, especially with some lovestruck moths chewing away its once stout fibre. So fuck off, James! You make bad trips happen by hanging around talking about how drugs are bad. The Beyond accommodates no kibitzers. Point your camera down into the dark sea if you want to know our destination, but don't expect to see the disappearing Sarah, the one life your sad raft ain't fast enough to rescue, the one already claimed by whatever dark god's been eyeing her from the get-go. So let the lens flare as she falls down to the beautiful swamps of black socket blankness, down the toad-secretion road through the bottleneck beautiful empty, the big sleep that will not come without first hours of almost-sex, cottonmouth kissing, rummaging through drawers and under couches for any dropped pills, scraping resins from bongs and Nyquil dried on a baking sheet and smoked, guzzling mom's vanilla extract to stop the shakes after all else is gone, lying in bed trying to sleep with the gray dawn light buzzing in the ears, hallucinating mom's scolding voice in the sound of running water, the black-and-white patterns inside-of-the-eyelids as you try to sleep.

First I always saw roses, then skulls, hearts, then finally... the harsh buzz saw sound of the rest of the world stirring into its daily grind as the window shade slowly begins to glow at the edges.

Finally, later that afternoon, we wake, ever hoping we're the same 'spiritually awakened' person as the night before, but with Oberon's flower nectar off our eyes we're just toast crumbling beneath the spread bullshit butter of sanity, threading through God's breakfast mandible sprockets in a 35mm scream to nowhere... again. 

2 comments:

  1. I have always loved to read about the drug culture - Huxley, Watts, Robert Anton Wilson, it doesn't matter, I've always swallowed it all.

    A few years ago, though, I saw a clip of Leary taken shortly before he died. He said this: "I take every kind of drug there is at least once a year just to prove I'm not a wimp."

    That pretty much broke my heart.

    I thought no, he can't say that. What this guy was doing was about breaking through the mundane rut of consensus reality and becoming one with Reality!

    Nothing's that simple.

    ReplyDelete
  2. heh - you can do both - you try to do the one but you end up doing the other, or vice versa

    ReplyDelete

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