[3 September 2013]
Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938 at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland but it was several years before the scientist ingested the drug himself and had one remarkable experience. The story of this wonder drug has been told before in a variety of mediums (including Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s excellent social history, Acid Dreams) but Martin Witz’s 2011 documentary, new to DVD on these shores, provides some fresh perspectives on this topic, bringing us from Hofmann’s early revelations to a resurgence in interest in the drug’s medicinal uses within the last decade.
Witz incorporates a 2006 interview with Hofmann (who died in 2008, at 102, just as the director was to conduct a new interview with him) and others from the early waves of the acid craze as well as newsreel footage into the film, offering a comprehensive look at the long and tumultuous journey the substance has taken.
From the start, LSD was thought to have therapeutic properties and was seen as another tool in understanding the worlds of psychosis and analysis. Time and again those who respond positively to the drug have concluded that its ability to temporarily disable a troubling sense of self is among its greatest properties. With no attachment to the ego, one can be free and the true journey one encounters in the therapeutic process, some argue, can really begin. Therapists insist that clients undergo a great transformation under LSD’s influence than without it.
Its other medicinal value can be seen in a wide range of treatments ranging from alcoholism (Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson believed in acid’s ability to aid in sobriety and some chronic drinkers responded well to LSD treatment; it probably also spoke to that program’s insistence that its members undergo a spiritual awakening) to helping cancer patients deal with the end of life process.
But the drug’s unpredictability has long been problematic, even in the clinical setting. It has been known to magnify psychosis and depression in some patients or provide those who have previously responded positively with negative episodes. For a time it was tested as a kind of truth serum by the CIA ,but that very unpredictability created problems that summon many a comic (and a few tragic) scenarios.
Psychologist Timothy Leary may have, despite his sounding of the acid trumpet, done more harm than good for his efforts. (He sent Hofmann a request for an enormous amount of LSD at one point; its creator denied the guru his mega dose. Hofmann says he knew that the drug’s unpredictability was just one of the unresolved problems that would keep it from seeing widespread use so soon after its birth.)
For a brief period of time, LSD was legal, but under Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon acid’s manufacture and distribution moved deeper into the underground, especially as it became more difficult to distinguish (for some at least) between the peace and love types from the likes of Charles Manson a man who often dosed his disciples in attempt to gain greater control over their minds and by late 1969 succeeded. Its reputation and indeed its quality were tarnished. Watching Reagan’s wholesale dismissal of LSD in the archival footage here is not so much surprising or disappointing as it is annoying and evidence of the all-or-nothing attitude he proclaimed on many issues.
The public’s seeming inability to conceive that drugs were not immoral though people who used them may sometimes behave in an immoral fashion remains one of the most frustrating elements of the ongoing stigmatization of drugs. That one should be cautious of properties in substances such as LSD is a given; that any and all use of it will lead to savage orgies and murder sprees is not. But LSD’s rehabilitation, if there is one in this century, is likely to come later rather than sooner.
But that’s not entirely the point of Witz’s film and although he claims, via an extensive interview included as a bonus feature, that he was not out to make a film that was simply pro-acid, the viewer can’t help but feel that the drug and its proponents have been wronged. And in making us think at all we must commend Witz and his film.
If you’ve read Lee and Shlain’s Acid Dreams, The Substance isn’t an act of revelation, but it’s still a fine exploration of a subject that demands more of our attention and more open discussion. (Still, you won’t get the archival footage here in a book and that alone makes this DVD worth seeking out.)
The aforementioned interview with Witz is the only bonus feature and it’s disappointing only because he mentions how long and in depth some of his conversations with certain interview subjects ran and that maybe he could include them on the DVD release. Still, getting a glimpse into his process and the beliefs that steered him toward making The Substance is worth exploring.