Cinema is awash with scenes that attempt to capture the psychedelic experience. From the gurning wonderment of Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas or Jack Nicholson tripping in a kaleidoscopic graveyard in Easy Rider, each decade has shared its own take on heightened sensory perception.
Here are some of my favourite scenes that have been captured on film where existential confusion never looked so good:
Enter The Void (2009)
I once met France’s gleeful deviant Gaspard Noé in a bar in Paris. As the shot glasses began to slam down, I had the audacity to tell him that I never really liked his movie ‘Enter The Void’. Not in the same way that I liked his earlier releases.
”Did you watch it on acid?” he asked me. ‘There’s nothing I can say to that,’ I thought and considered what a trip it could have been from the moment the curtain drew back; coming up with my brain bubbling.
Trapped in your seat in a cinema auditorium as the titles flash to a thumping and demonic soundtrack, this headrush of an opening makes you gasp for air. A promise that the movie cannot fulfil.
Le Peril Jeune (1994)
Romain Duris, who stars in this coming-of-age movie, went on to become a big star in French cinema. Here, he plays a hedonistic teenager who embarks on a journey of drug-taking in squats in the volatile era of 1970s Paris.
The acid scene captures the awe of coming up for the first time. Entering the baffling gloop of space and time. An abstract and all-encompassing experience shared with friends. Seeing them all for the first time again, reborn and absurd.
The Matrix (1999)
Everyone has a classic movie that they have somehow avoided seeing. For me, until recently, it was The Matrix. I couldn’t get all the way through it but the ‘Construct’ scene really hit home. Laurence Fishburne evokes someone with the presence of mind to help guide you through a trip. Keanu Reeves is suddenly standing there with a need to reset himself – the cloak of normality roughly whipped from his shoulders. Someone shattered by a new reality; dealing with the fascination of a sofa beneath trembling fingers and the horrors of skewed perception. We’ve all been there.
By the late 60s counterculture was already being satirised in Hollywood. Jackie Gleason plays a mobster who accidentally ingests LSD in his prison cell. His cellmate attempts to guide him away from his fears by encouraging him to allow his ego to dissolve. It is beautifully put:
”They don’t realise the life without ego, the beauty of egoless life. Your time has come when all things are like the void and cloudless sky and the naked spotless intellect is like a transparent vacuum”.
The hot flush of jerking from repression to realisation is a joy to watch on Gleason’s face.
The Trip (1967)
Roger Corman seized the zeitgeist here when directing Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – both hugely responsible for pushing the counterculture of the era. It is a movie that displays to its audience the terrifyingly colossal universe of LSD and how it teeters into places you just might not be able to handle. Challenging the establishment and freeing themselves from the constraints of what American life expects from you, The Trip captures the energy of rebellion by allowing us to see what it is to choose to experience life ecstatically raw. It is Terrence McKenna on celluloid.
I can’t bring myself to pull one scene from this movie over another. So here’s the trailer instead.
I watched Mandy in a tiny cinema in Los Feliz in L.A. I had no idea that audiences in U.S. cinemas cheer and applaud throughout a movie as if at a boxing match or a public execution. Thankfully, Mandy is a movie that can only benefit from such audience participation. On a bad trip laced with revenge, Nicholas Cage is hellbent on wanton destruction of everything around him that has caused him pain. Including his own ego.
Here we watch him come up on acid:
Jacobs Ladder (1990)
Tim Robbins stars as the washed-out army veteran who suffers from the aftermath of when LSD was tested on soldiers back in Vietnam. The movie documents the panic and bile of a creepingly abrasive New York City. At every turn, Jacob has visions that take him to the edge of his own sanity. Flashback after flashback. One long bad trip for a man haunted by an uncertain past. Here, at a party with his girlfriend, paranoia gets the better of him to the point of collapse.
It’s not the directing or special effects that capture the sensation of LSD in this scene but rather the raw emotion of Florence Pugh who plays Dani. Her vicious wrangling with the pretense of normality as the trip begins to take hold allows us to feel her panic spiralling out of control. We focus on the tortured intimacy of her breath. It is here where we hear her holding back, pushing down and fighting against a tremendous emotion that fizzes within her. It’s a reckoning that she cannot avoid and it’s captured beautifully.