One of the cooler and more noteworthy things about the critical buzz for Ari Aster's highly trippy new horror folk film MIDSOMMAR is the widespread recommendation that one should not do psychedelics before seeing it. There have already been a few freak-outs in the theaters showing the film. (I won't link to the reports, because lightweights have no place on this site) but I am fascinated that psychedelics at the movies have become commonplace to the point it's not a question of whether one should trip at the cinema or trip at all, but a question of which tripped-out druggy horror films are best seen straight. "Sober audiences may feel like they’re tripping," notes Fast Company's Joe Berkowitz of Aster's new film, "but tripping audiences will probably feel like they’ve died or perhaps were never born at all."
I agree with Joe: Midsommar Delivers the Most Realistically Trippy Drug Scene Ever, for Better and for Worse. It didn't occur to me to go see it tripping, but now I sure wish I did! I'm a fan of that 'never born at all' feeling - isn't that what movies are all about? (3) Between this and Climax, and last year's Mandy, and shows like Euphoria, its heartening to see the ways psychedelics have moved from this kind of dirtbag-disreputable guilt-by-association into a kind of hipster mainstream respectability, creating spiritual transformations when the time, dosage and place are all just right, and nonfatal nightmares of self realization when they aren't.. Gone are the Judy Blume-style inaccuracies of after school specials like Go Ask Alice, replaced with a knowingness about the pros and cons of the trip.
In the past, when psychedelics were represented on film, it was always with a patina of dirtbag mummery: naked broads in body paint frugging through a kaleidoscope via a hyperactive zoom lens. Hallucinations were usually embodied by actors or latex puppets, completely divorced from the context in which they were perhaps originally hallucinated, thanks to the impossibility of getting the full scope of expanded consciousness across all the telephone game hands it takes to put into practice. (6) Drugs were associated strictly with a certain swath of music (acid rock, Ravi Shankar), and mired in an ever-oscillating mix naive idealism and burnt-out paranoia. Before we could really delve into the nature of a drug hallucination enough to write it down, the hallucination would be gone. A lot of us preferred to stay home alone as a result: micro-tripping and trying to record our visuals via painting, or ranting into a microphone, or scribbling poetry - but that too was dangerous, with no one to bring you off the ledge one could think oneself into a bad trip pretty fast. Thus the bulk of drug-taking imagery in cinema has always been--until recently--of a Lowest Common Denominator kind of vibe, both naive and skeevy, a bunch of easily-influenced kids shimmying to a guitar solo like lemmings to a cliffside chimera.
With Midsommar we finally move past those breakwaters - gone are the banal psychedelic cliches we're used to; instead, thanks to CGI and director Ari Aster's modicum of restraint comes the imagery of psychedelics as they actually are. Anchored to the expansion and contraction of the breath (is one 'hallucinating' when they become aware that the entire planet 'breathes' in ever expanding/contracting waves of energy?), with repressed trauma of sister's suicide barely visible in the trees around her.
As the backpacking guests at the weird Swedish commune take mushrooms and then drink some unknown herbal tea, we have to pay attention to see the way the deep black interiors of the flowers in Dani's hair widens and contracts just like a tripping pupil, or the way the tendrils of the vines wrap around her May Queen throne stretch to accommodate and encourage her ever-more tarot-style royal movements. The sacred space and time generated by ritual circular movement is made palpable in the flow of energy up the bark of trees, or the flow of energy between people entraining their breath and movements to the music guiding them in an endless May Pole dance, during which she can suddenly speak and understand fluent Swedish! Or are she and her last surviving dancer talking with words at all, or just ESP-ing?
Ever quick to invent new phrases, I dub this new trend, so indelibly volleyed first by Ari Aster in his new little horror semi-gem, Midsommar, 'hallucinaturalism' - i.e. going for what a drug trip visual actually looks like, the way hallucinations actually work, not as a black light lava lamp excuse for gaudy excess but a space beyond time where we can see the breathing of flowers, the growing of plant tendrils, the spiraling out of the breath, the rays of the sun, the soul leaving the body.
“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.” ― Joseph Campbell
"Who is to say what is real and what is not? 'Real' is a distinction of a naïve mind." - Terence McKenna
But even so, one can find one's mellow being harshed by one's buzzkill old lady, the type who invites herself along and then makes frowny faces every time you want to do funnels, or shrooms, or whatever (she doesn't want you to do them without her, but she doesn't want to do them yet... and it's always yet). Our main backpacker heroine is a kind of damaged co-dependent bi-polar buzzkill Dani (Florence Pugh), tagging along with her passive-douche boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), the kind of guy who's too cowardly to break up with her so close to the triple suicide of her sister and parents, or figure out how to not invite her as he in turn invites himself along with his anthropology masters degree buddies on a summer vacation to the solstice midsummer celebration at the agrarian commune of their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Bolmgren). They're expecting a kind of cross between Burning Man and an Amish barn raising party. Well, they get all that and more too, in the clear light of day, forever (the lack of a setting sun or nightfall is one of the film's most uncanny elements).
Bobby "Haxan Cloak" Krlic's avant garde string-heavy score might veer strangely close to Colin Stetson's for Aster's previous instant horror classic Hereditary - especially near the end, when the Phillip Glassy synth drones and cascading triplets come flowing into a kind of transformative sound re-baptism - but he gets the paranoid long-bowing bottom-dropping coccyx- tingling drones, Lygeti-esque solar wind socking, and encounter group breath work flowing through the barn door cracks to just the perfect level of strange. And if the cast lacks a force like Toni Collette to center things and if if it doesn't really add up to much beyond the sum of its parts, and if --at 2 1/2 hours--it still feels like so much of the film is missing, it's got enough great moments and, again the 'truest' hallucinations ever in cinema, and maybe the best druggy ceremonial group sex scene ever. Encompassing all that is interesting, beguiling and terrifying about such 'communes' - the collapse of privacy, the loss of independent thought, the way 'breathing method' panting seems here a seamless part of conception, and the lack of abjectification within the ranks (no one sits it out) --it leaves us reeling in a kind of dream daze that the rest of the film takes and--if not runs with--certainly walks in imperceptibly slight slow-motion ceremonial steps right into the fire and flowers.
|Dani's moaning and screaming at last finds its entrainment absolving|
MIDSUMMER NIGHT MOAN
“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ― Joseph Campbell
"It's very, very dangerous to lose contact with living nature." -Albert Hofmann
There's a feeling of being totally unmoored from one's place in the world very common today--when constant texting for validation from peers isn't enough to fill the 'god-sized hole' (as we call it in AA) and our leaning on a current sex partner or best friend to somehow make up that vast chasm of disconnect is a sure way to swamp our craft. For a lot of us, especially if we're not on meds, or they're not working anymore, the despair of isolation is so great that thoughts of suicide, on repeat, like a stuttering record, are our only salve. Dude, if even Ativan doesn't work (we see a bottle in Dani's cabinet - so jealous), you know you're fucked. And if your pair-bond doesn't fill the hole, then what? You can join AA or some other group - that's kind of a cult, and can be totally a cult if you wind up at the wrong meeting and let some weirdo sponsor you because you're too passive to say no. Or you can meditate... on drugs.. chant your way clear of the orbit around that damned hole.
Accepting that the gaping emptiness at the core of the self can never be filled is the only way to escape its gravitational pull.
On psychedelics, one isn't necessarily free of one's issues, they're just magnified. But with the right group--a primal scream therapy group at your therapist's office every other week for example--you can magnify your woes to such a large degree they disappear from the horizon.
CULTS Are for KIDS
“The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”
― Joseph Campbell
"Without a gang, you're an orphan!" - Riff West Side Story
Whether via hot coal walks or bad acid trip paranoia, initiation ordeals leave us tightly united to the group without the need for a common enemy. Rather than bonding through collectively hating on some outcast-- which is like the cheap knock-off Elmer's of social binding--it is through this initiation one finds acceptance (which when it goes too far and frat dicks get ahold of it becomes 'hazing'). (2)
AA gets it (I mean Ari Aster, though it goes both ways) Between this and Hereditary he's proving himself the champion auteur of the New Dysfunction - one where drugs are so numerous the zone between one's shrink and her litany of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds and the herbalist with the plastic baggy or the 'tea' - cease to exist. There's no 'normal' to start out with anymore, only degrees of dysfunctional isolation and co-dependence. In neither film do we ever hear from anyone like a policeman, a narrator, a court appointed grief counsellor, a psychiatrist. As in films like The Shining- the socially conditioned polarities of right and wrong, linear time and the concept of future obligation cease. Like psychedelics themselves, the 'snap' of cabin fever frees us from the kind of rote empathy that locks us into the social order. Madness moves us beyond such things - life and death and the degrees of 'goodness' are lost in the presence of a kind of Hanging Rock/Quetzalcoatl sun god green man archaic pre-Christian hunger for human sacrifice. We become like Jack Torrance, or James Mason in Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life, hankering to sacrifice his son like Abraham because he won't learn math, the in-denial mom refusing to so much as call a family friend for aid since father knows best.
Maybe you've seen 2000 Manics (left), The Cabin in the Woods or the Wicker Man (either version), and shuddered with the realization that in an alternate pre-Christian reality, macabre human sacrifice could become as routine and accepted as, say, fireworks on the 4th of July, or the lighting of a Lincoln Center Xmas tree. The scene at left is terrifying because we see the ease with which such a tableaux can fit easily into the apple pie and potato sack race shenanigans of a town centennial. As with Hereditary, Aster brings to the horror genre reflections of our own subconscious paranoia -that there's a secret society right there in plain sight, as banal as an old photo album of your grandma's showing a bunch of old ladies showing off their arts and crafts talismans, or a group of blonde farmers all dressed in white with big loving smiles and flowers in their hair--their actions too ancient, to rooted in archaic magics to be called evil in the pejorative sense. There is Machiavellian lip-smacking, no sordid rapey undercurrent. Everything is ritualized and slow according to the natural world, with which the commune is deeply in tune. They move in accordance of the breath, and the understanding that screams of the dying can be drowned out with group screaming in sympathy, that the most harrowing howls of pain and anguish can be matched and calmed through the entrainment of the support group and that all such negative emotions can be dissolved into the group like salt in the sea.
Between Chris Hemsworth's seductive cult freak in Bad Times at the El Royale and Tarantino's new Manson film, as well as new TV docs signifies the enduring appeal of the archetype of the holy madman is back, tapping into the aging millennial's desperate need for a blood-and-flesh tribe, a version of the fantasy of belonging they found in Twilight, Harry Potter, and so forth and the dozen other 'magical school' franchises glutting the market. They crave a world where they feel included, loved, protected, in a hermetic magical zone, able to face danger and the threats of life knowing a strong group of cool and capably friends have their back.
You or I might get this through being in a band in college, or belonging to a street gang, the military, or even sports team, but for the drowning psychotic the god-sized hole of desperate feeling of orphanhood is too much to navigate the give-and-take of a clique. For such people, being swooped up in the rescue gear of the cult-building mystic is a true godsend (ala Phoenix's character in The Master), the fragile ecosystem of social mores instilled in them by a failed family unit and educational system gets washed away with this shining all-inclusive paradigm. The ocean of support and 'being held' they receive more than makes up for things like the total loss of independence, personal property, and connection to the outside world.
Why it's so seductive in Midsommar's case is that we're not dealing with the usual Hammer Films gathering of British extras in robes cavorting and waving around goblets and bunches of grapes while Charles Grey glowers behind an altar - we're dealing with drug effects we may already be familiar with. Psychedelics' abilities to bond a social group and/or weird one out along the same line, is something we already know. At their best, they induce a harmony with nature, though a nature that is inscrutable in its demands - the sun and light of love they feel goes hand in hand with a clear-eyed and unflinching view of death, and a view of sex and mind-altering drugs completely free of all Christianity's and conservative parental hysteria's restrictions and taboos. We can't help but feel the attraction, the druggy pull of inclusion and oneness when, say, tripping really hard out in a park on a sunny warm day.
Coming out of the theater into the summer evening or late afternoon, walking home from the Alamo in the soggy summer heat, we may be grateful we're safe in the city, and sober, more or less, and happy more or less, in our world of pair-bond-cohabitation, our online communities ever a click away, aware finally that pursuit of balance not happiness is the key to... happiness. And that air conditioning, vaping, CBD gummies, anti-depressants, ant-anxiety meds, sleeping pills, herbal teas and Coke Zero, taken continually, makes everything all right, but not so all right we fall into mania and therefore, inevitably, a massive crash. If, like me, you spent the first 30 years of your life on a treadmill running from all-consuming massive depression, you know what heaven is - being able to stop.... running. The question then becomes... then what? What do we do now that we don't need to do anything?
"And goats have kids / like people have kids / like me / and you!"
- 70s Sesame Street song ("What Kids are Called")
"Mythology, properly understood as metaphor, will guide you to the recognition of your tiger face. But then how are you going to live with these goats?" - Joseph Campbell (full)
But why are goats such able vessels for human and daemonic spirits? Is it because we attributed this power to them, based on Pan, satyrs, the frolicking horned one, etc? From Hunchback of Notre Dame (where a little black goat is actually tried and accused of witchcraft to the recent The Witch) to my own part in the big Goatman scare in the Maryland woods in the early-80s. Which came first, the power we ascribe to the goats or the power they already have? Why is group of goats called a tribe or a trip?
Or does this shit go far deeper. If you don't think goats are supernatural you've never seen one standing out on a tree limb like a high wire act (above) when you know there's just no way that's even possible?
Or you find the Hell of self-conscious empty needy anguish, the 'alone even in a herd of friends' despair, so amplified to become untenable, so that crawling into a lit fireplace seems the only available recourse. Either way, it's over then too. You can declare you're 'done' with psychedelics, that you've 'passed' the acid test like the man forced Ken Kesey to say after he got busted. Or you can try to minister to the onslaught of needy mouths as they sense someone with 'the answer' and a free tab, like a flock of hungry seagulls around a lone guy throwing breadcrumbs into the wind (ala Javier Bardem in Mother) or you can barricade yourself from the beaks and mouths and hole up with a lover or two and a bunch of recording equipment and art supplies like Turner in Performance. Or you can join a commune, experience the oneness, and maybe it's not a cult after all (no messiah figure). Either way, someone has to do the dishes, and it's not going to be me.
Shout out to Ryan for the req!
PS - second viewing thoughts (1/13/20) on Prime: (Note: contains Spoilers)
This second time I was more aware of the key central relationship of passive aggressive bullshit from the boyfriend and the relative hunched-over postures of the non-members. It wasn't Florence Pugh's character at all, it was the boyfriend. He was just a pussy with no guts to break up with her NOR to commit fully, so he hangs in the doorway like a little shithead, thinking he's somehow doing the right thing. The whole movie is a kind of rape-revenge movie only there's no rape, just a boyfriend doing the kind of shit we expect from sophomores or juniors, not grad students. I wince, as I was that boy more than a few times, my girlfriends would sense my wariness and spend weekends trying to convince me to stick around. Looking back I see how I mistook squeamishness and fear of the unknown for somehow being 'a good guy.' It was actually shrooms that gave me the guts to break up with at least three girlfriends, despite one being super hot, one getting super violent, and one being super enabling and sweet-natured. Damn, it feels good to be able to judge this guy as totally deserving of his eventual burning, his symbolic casting out as the demon in the bear skin.
Ask not whom the devil drives to his first day of school... He honks for thee.
RECOMMENDATIONS / Further FOLK HORROR:
A cool movie with a similar plot arc, believe it or not, is 1978's THE LEGACY!
CinemArchetype 15: Human Sacrifice
Bell, Book and Hallucinogenic Tampon: THE LOVE WITCH
13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime
The Goat of Menses and the Fox in the Atheist Hole: THE WITCH
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Summersisle: THE WICKER MAN (201o)
Genealogy of Flies: Lords of Salem, House of the Devil (+my own Salem ancestry)
All the Missed Mystics: Nicolas Roeg's GLASTONBURY FAYRE (1972)
Bitches' Sabbath: WITCHING AND BITCHING
Acid's Greatest Horror #1: ANTICHRIST (2009)
Avenger of Whatever: KILL LIST
Sever me Member: EX-MACHINA, THE CREEPING FLESH
Why don't we just Go Ask Alice?
Alice 2.2 - The Looking Glass Dolls
The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer: SZAMANKA
The Man in the Grey Flannel Darkness: BIGGER THAN LIFE
and David Del Valle's Lovecraft/Satan piece from back in Acidemic #6: Sympathy for the Devil:
Give my My Skin: BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and the Devil Films of the 70s (2009)
1. yes I practice meditation daily with a light-sound machine, I recommend it
6. My recent DT hallucination of Veronica Lake swimming in ice below the tiles in the ER waiting room, beckoning me to jump in, would no doubt by the time they made it into a movie, be represented by a real actress dressed as Lake standing, dripping in the middle of the room, pointing at me and making a drowning noise, in other words completely divorced from the floor waxer brush prints from which my brain's pareidolia center and my recent drunk viewing of Sullivan's Travels worked with my heated brain to conjure Lake dancing in icy water below the floor. I was there at 4 AM and the floor had just been waxed. Would that image last through CGI effects team interpretation, presuming the animator has no experience with such mental states? Consider how much better films like Altered States, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Naked Lunch might have been with a more vivid and alert recreation of drug hallucinations rather than this kind of broad cartoon literality? Nothing against those films per se, especially Naked Lunch. I imagine Aster doing them all very different - i.e. with this CGI breathing subtlety.