Subtle and Not so Subtle Homages to Psychedelics in Film

I have wanted to make a post on this for awhile now because I find it fascinating how directors can portray the psychedelic experience through the medium of a screen. To be able to take a very mental and physical experience and covert that to sights and sounds takes a solid amount of creativity and precision to do effectively. It’s a tricky subject because it is very easy to come off as too dramatic, just in the nature of substance being generally vilified by the average individual. But the ability to both capture the experience visually and audibly while allowing the viewer to (at least partially) connect emotionally is what impresses me the most.

But we should make a clear distinction here. There are films that directly acknowledge psychedelics – it is part of the core subject matter or talked about openly by the characters – and then there are the films that are seen as tributes to the psychedelic experience. These could be movies that make no direct reference to substances, but attempt to be outwardly “trippy” and symbolic in their design, to the extent that much of the content seems deliberately “out-there”. These films tend to be the cult classics and are lauded for their supposed deeper meanings.

Portrayals of psychedelics/psychoactive substances are usually done in one of two ways ways: with humor or seriousness. I’m thinking here of the difference between Cheech and Chong and Enter the Void – one uses comedy to downplay the effects of substance, the other tries to paint a haunting, ethereal representation of a psychedelic experience. While I’ll toss a few comedies on this list, I think the more impressive of the two is definitely the serious view. It takes guts for a director to try and capture the psychoactive experience, while trying to do so without coming off as cheesy and cliche. Humor can cover up the seriousness of the experience, but I think as with most films, the more serious in subject matter and execution have a much more lasting, deeply-felt impact on the viewer. Just my two cents.

Here are my favorite tributes to psychedelics in film:

  1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998): The quintessential psychedelic experience in a movie. The book is outstanding in its own right, probably better, but the movie is a wonderful work of art as well. Johnny Depp is iconic in this role as an ultra-eclectic psychonaut travelling to Vegas with the sole intention of ingesting every psychoactive substance known to man. What follows its utter insanity. What makes this film so effective, though, its ability to convey the experience visually (colors, bent camera angles, set choices) and audibly – particularly with Depp’s narrating which describes his internal monologue and reactions to his experiences. This provides a truly awesome experience for the viewer who is normally not beholden to what a user is thinking during his experience. This may be the MOST iconic (and well-made) psychedelic film ever.
  2. Pineapple Express (2008): The buddy stoner comedy I grew up with – Pineapple Express is a hilariously funny look at how innocent potheads end up in an incredibly wild situation, and their reactions to it. This movie defined Franco and Rogen as heroes of the genre and made them household names in the stoner community.
  3. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971): Most of us have seen this at some point. Gene Wilder is the mind-bending leader of a colorful and extravagant adventure through his secret candy factory. Acting as a sort of spirit guide, he leads his band of various children (representing different traits, personalities and backgrounds) through a contest of his own creation. Many have noted such scenes as the boat ride being incredibly geared towards the psychedelic viewer. Watching this as an adult, I picked up on several other clues as well. Watch for yourself and see if your perspective has changed on this childhood classic.
  4. Enter the Void (2009): This film takes a more serious look at life and death than most are willing to touch. Riddled with hallucinogens and first-person psychedelic experiences, ETV is directed by a man who actually took ayahuasca for the purpose of creating this film. Not for the faint of heart – this movie is as trippy as it is disturbing. You have been warned!
  5. Midsommar (2019): This was an amazing surprise when I saw this in theaters last summer. I’ve written on this before, but Ari Aster does a tremendous job of capturing the psychedelic experience in a very “real” way. The characters are as mesmerized and confused by the psychedelic elements as the viewer, which makes it feel as though you are really experiencing the hallucinations the film portrays along with them. The visuals in this film are subtle but stunning. The viewer is very much along for the ride in this cleverly thought-provoking film.
  6. Waking Life (2001): A college-aged male winds his way through animated dreamscapes which introduce various speakers and discussions, particularly focusing on themes of life and death, progress, success and failure, and dozens of other worldly topics. If any film has made me think, it was Waking Life. There are some excellent ideas presented here, and the visuals are unlike anything I have ever seen.
  7. Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982): This is a highly symbolic film set to the audio of Pink Floyd’s The Wall album. Floyd is known for their influence on psychedelic rock and culture during their time, so this addition to the list should come as no surprise (and yes, I am a huge fan). The movie is dark, disturbing and very thought provoking in a way only Floyd could do properly. Another cult classic of psychedelic cinema.
  8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967): One of the most transcendental and thought provoking films ever made, along with the basis for the sci-fi genre ever since, 2001 is undoubtedly an amazing film. It’s also very psychedelic in many instances. Long, draw-out shots, booming audio and music election, unique visualizations and meticulous directing make this film a true masterpiece – and one that is hiding a tremendous amount of symbolism behind it. It’s been called one of the most thought-provoking films ever made, and has a cult following among critics and hallucinogen enthusiasts alike.
  9. Easy Rider (1969): An iconic, dark American Odyssey across the open road, starring the rough riders of society’s underbelly. The film, which came out in the late 60s and 70s sports an outstanding soundtrack, and “came to represent a counterculture generation increasingly disillusioned with its government as well as the government’s effects on the world at large and the establishment in general.” Very much a trippy film and a cult classic, this is a piece of true Americana which speaks for the rebels of society during this time.
  10. The Big Lebowski (1998): The consummate stoner, Lebowski is an icon of American cinema. This film is virtually perfect in every way, and is one of my favorites – it has comedy, excitement, psychedelic sequences, and plenty of doobies. Amazing music selection, top-notch acting and the Coen Brother’s signature dark humor make this a cult classic. White Russian, please.

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