‘The Substance’ Review

CANNABIS CULTURE – It’s a tough job making a film about drugs in 2012. Over the last half century no substance has been more idealized or demonized than LSD. It’s been associated with everything from ‘delivering God in a capsule’ to destroying the fabric of Western society. Spend a little time researching LSD and you’ll find that very few people sit on the fence when it comes to this immensely powerful and influential hallucinogen. Given this diversity of opinion, it’s been exceedingly difficult to find any rational, reliable analysis of the values and pitfalls of LSD experimentation and its effect on thought and culture. Thankfully, the Swiss documentary film maker, Martin Witz, director of The Substance, did a very good job of steering clear of the hyperbole from both sides of the psychedelic debate and created the best film to date about the drug culture in the West.

Through a combination of archival footage and interviews with those who were at the forefront of the LSD generation, Witz approaches his subject with an even hand by sticking to the facts and doing his best to present an objective overview of the many catalysts that not only accounted for the creation of LSD, but also for its widespread use by the psychological community, the military, artists and finally the public at large.

The film begins with a fabulous interview with Albert Hoffmann, the Swiss chemist who mistakenly invented LSD on November 16, 1938 while he was experimenting with Ergot fungus to determine if it could be used as a respiratory and circulatory stimulant. At first, it wasn’t considered very promising, but five years later in 1943 while reviewing his research, Hoffmann accidentally absorbed a tiny amount of the substance and the rest – as they say – is history. Of this first acid trip, Hoffmann said, “On Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to stop my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and to go home, as I was seized by a peculiar restlessness associated with a sensation of mild dizziness. On arriving home, I lay down and sank into a kind of drunkenness, which was not unpleasant and which was characterized by extreme activity of the imagination. As I lay in a dazed condition with my eyes closed, there surged upon me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness accompanied by an intense kaleidoscope-like play of colours. This condition gradually passed after two hours.” This interview with Hoffmann that was conducted shortly before his 100th birthday is one of the highlights of the film. Playful, elegant and erudite, listening to Hoffmann speak so articulately, seriously calls into question the long held assertion that LSD causes brain damage.

Hoffmann and his associates recognized immediately that LSD was indeed a very special substance and they all believed that it must have an important use for the medical community. Even though he ingested LSD repeatedly over the years, Hoffman was also very cautious about its distribution and had little sympathy for the unfettered recreational use of the drug espoused by Timothy Leary, the Pranksters and other psychedelic pioneers. He believed that a person needed to have some maturity to cope with the visions and experiences that LSD encouraged. Even though he was a scientist first and foremost, Hoffmann recognized LSD’s mystical qualities, and its ability to give to largely neglected areas of the mind and the unconscious. Given this, it was not surprising that LSD was first widely distributed amongst the psychological community with the hope that therapists would find it useful in their practices. Though it was widely used, many psychiatrists complained that LSD did not produce predictable or measurable results and that effects seemed to vary widely from person to person.

At the same time as the medical community were puzzling over the substance, the US military and the CIA were doing experiments of their own. At a certain time, the American military even considered manufacturing LSD bombs to drop on the enemy, hoping that this would result in bloodless victories due to their inability to fight back. This plan was quickly dropped once it was discovered that if there was any wind, the LSD would blow back onto the American soldiers, rendering them similarly useless. In an especially hilarious scene in the film, an archival American military film shows soldiers trying to march while on acid before breaking down into uncontrollable laughter. Unfortunately, the early experimentations weren’t all that funny as the film demonstrates with terrifying footage from LSD brainwashing experiments conducted at an institution in Saskatchewan in the 1950’s.

Experimentation branched out from the military and medical communities into the academic world. By the late 1950’s, universities were encouraging artists to volunteer to take LSD in clinical settings to record the results. A brilliant clip of an anonymous painter as he tries to work on LSD is one of the film’s many highlights that beautifully illustrates the enthusiasm many doctors and academics innocently ascribed to the substance before it fell into common use.

No film on LSD would be complete without looking at effect the drug had in helping to give birth to the sixties counterculture. It is a compelling tale that has often been told, but surprisingly this is the only area in which the film falters. There has been so much hyperbole, myth-making and hype surrounding the effects of psychedelics on American culture that it is still difficult to get an unclouded view of what really went on. Thankfully, Witz had the foresight to conduct an interview with Carolyn Garcia aka ‘Mountain Girl’ that honestly illuminates what it was like to be one of Ken Kesey’s pranksters in the early sixties and how San Francisco’s infamous Haight Ashbury district became a mecca for LSD experimentation and a very unique unfolding of culture. Like Hoffmann, Garcia comes across as very clear headed (and unrepentant) as she eloquently gives context to her generation’s fascination with acid and the experimental lifestyles it engendered.

The most prickly and difficult part of the story for any writer or filmmaker who tries to make sense of the psychedelic generation has to be trying to explicate Timothy Leary. Called a Messiah by some and the ‘most dangerous man in America’ by others, Leary is still an exceedingly complex figure and one that is hard to nail down. The film glosses over Leary’s experiments while he was on the faculty at Harvard and opts to take up his story from the time he and several of his followers took up residence at Millbrook, a large property in upstate New York, and formed a psychedelic commune there. It’s understandable that as director, Martin Witz had to make some choices about content and that the footage taken at Millbrook was brilliant and too good to leave out, but this section seems disconnected from the rest of the film. The film’s most serious omission, Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass, who worked with Leary at Harvard and went on to spend his life studying the connections between psychedelic states and traditional spiritual practices, is not even mentioned. Without examining Alpert’s role in the movement, and the eventual disintegration of the Millbrook experiment which lead to Alpert’s trip to India and Leary’s years as a fugitive, the story Witz tells in The Substance is not complete.

Perhaps realizing the gaps in the story line, Witz managed to get Ralph Metzner, another father of the psychedelic generation who taught with Leary and Alpert, to sit down for a lucid and revealing interview that gives insight into the heady environment at Harvard and Millbrook in the early sixties. More entertaining is the long section of the film that centres around Nick Sands, another friend of Leary and Alpert’s, who was elected to try his hand at LSD manufacturing when the drug was no longer available legally from the Sandoz corporation. Other than the infamous and recently deceased Owsley Stanley, Sands was certainly responsible for making and distributing more acid than anyone else on the planet – a situation that he doesn’t seem to have any regrets about four decades later.

The film ends by coming full circle and examining LSD experiments that have been conducted in Germany since 2007. Rigidly scientific, yet respectful of the substance’s mystical properties, these explorations attest to the fact that the world still has a lot of work to do before LSD and its functions are completely understood.

A subject as complex, baffling and far reaching as the history and effects of LSD cannot be fully explored in a single documentary. While it would have been nice to hear some other perspectives – from the legal and mainstream medical communities – about the legacy of the drug, these are small quibbles. It will be a long time before another filmmaker creates a better documentary about LSD than Martin Witz has done here. The Substance is essential viewing.

The Substance is a film by Martin Witz starring Albert Hoffmann, Carolyn Garcia, Nick Sands, Ralph Metzner and other pioneers of the psychedelic generation.



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