Just as a fountain cannot spring forth from empty sky,
So virtue and vice are de-objectified in voidness.
— from Identifying Intelligence, Natural Liberation Through Naked Vision
Mankind has been taking hallucinogenic foodstuffs for millennia to reach altered states of consciousness. Given the power of these hallucinations, the resulting psychedelic “trip” was often yoked to spiritual journeys akin to meditative trances. The drugs were one of many methods to change perception; others included extended mediation, chanting or dancing sessions sometimes coupled with prolonged fasting or sleeplessness or pain or other means of extreme physical exertion. Often these altered perceptions were yoked to spiritual experiences.
However, it was not until the 20th century that hallucinogenic drugs began to be used in earnest purely for recreational purposes. It didn’t take long for filmmakers to attempt to recreate the experience of tripping for audiences.
Most discussions on this topic trace the trip-out scene in a New Orleans cemetery in 1969’s paean to American hippie culture, Easy Rider as the point of departure for the psychedelic cinematic experience. There were technical precedences for depicting altered states in dream-sequences, and director Dennis Hopper used most of these techniques in his film. They include fast jump cuts and zooms; fisheye lenses; close-up shots of flowers with color filters and strobe lights. In addition, the actors behave strangely. Some get naked. At one point, there’s a shot of Peter Fonda holding an open umbrella even though it isn’t raining.
From the distance of nearly half-a-century, the Easy Rider scene looks remarkably contrived and corny. Technically, the scene falls far short of recreating for the audience the sensations of being on LSD. It mostly looks made to freak out the straights, Hey, adults in suits! Your kids are dropping acid and waving umbrellas around in cemeteries! Hopper was hardly the last filmmaker to attempt to film such an experience, though the techniques he used remained standard for his successors.
With the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI), filmmakers were given another tool in their kit for depicting hallucinogenic experiences. Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaption of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas features a memorable scene when the main character drops acid and watches the vegetable-like patterns in a carpet wriggle and writhe. The concept of “morphing” was not particularly new (Terminator 2: Judgement Day‘s molten metal shape-shifting T-1000 had made its appearance in 1991), but as far as I know, Gilliam was the first to use it to accurately recreate the visual experience of an acid trip.
I remember watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when it premiered at a midnight showing in San Diego and this moving carpet special effect got a round of applause. That most of the audience was at least half-baked is a solid recommendation of it’s veracity.
With the advent of fully digital filmmaking, however, producers and directors began to use the old bag of tricks to new affect, sometimes even eschewing special effects altogether.
A Field in England, the 2013 period-drama by British director Ben Wheatley, was shot and edited entirely in digital format, and even though it’s black and white, it features a psychedelic scene that rivals the best. After consuming mushrooms, the characters go through a trip-out that turns the balance of the plot. Watch carefully, and you realize that there is no CGI used. The cinematographer Laurie Rose used some bespoke lenses, but otherwise, the techniques of mirror images, extreme close-ups, slowing the frame rate, and reversing the images (plus actors behaving strangely) are all there from Easy Rider. The big difference is in the editing.
The super fine cutting that digital editing allows is used here to remarkable effect. Wheatley worked closely with editor Amy Jump and the mushroom scene is undeniably the film’s showpiece. The flashing juxtapositions of the images are something that would have been almost impossible with the old cut and splice methods used for film. The mushroom scene needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Director Gaspar Noé has also embraced the power of digital filmmaking to create a psychedelic effect on his audience. His 2009 effort, Enter the Void, employs every trick they’ve used since Easy Rider. Along with digital editing and state-of-the-art motion graphics and CGI plus a holographic neon color palette that ceaselessly swirls and blurs and strobes while the camera floats through walls and hovers above the action, the film actually gives the viewer a physical response similar to taking drugs. It’s almost as if the film’s disorienting effects are a narcotic.
It’is the only film, at least that I know of, that claims the point-of-view of a ghost for nearly the entire run-time. This frees Noé’s camera from nearly all laws of physical space and time. Yet, it’s here that the intentional psychedelic experience Noé crafts gets sticky with spiritual elements that led many critics to deride the film as both brilliant and vapid.
The film is admittedly thin on plot. A young American drug-dealing orphan named Oscar, who lives in Tokyo with his really sexy stripper sister named Linda, with whom he may have an incestuous relationship, is shot and dies. His spirit then floats around watching his companions in the immediate days after his death; remembering in vivid flashbacks his youth and the violent death of his parents; and hallucinating within this hallucination about the next life. At the end of the film he’s reincarnated as the child of his sister and his French drug buddy named Alex. The word “Void” flashes on the screen. The end.
So is the film about reincarnation? As Noé told Den of Geek:
I read books on reincarnation and many books about out-of-body experiences. Actually, the movie is not so much about reincarnation. It’s more about someone who gets shot while on acid and DMT [Dimethyltryptamine], and trips out about his own death and dreams about his soul escaping from his flesh, because he wants to keep this promise to his sister that he’ll never leave her, even after death.
Despite this caveat, Noé makes a point of prominently placing a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in front of the audience. Alex explains to Oscar (and to us) the concepts of the book, thus cleverly providing the exposition dialogue of the first act and the “rules” of this film. Alex explains:
Basically, when you die, your spirit leaves your body… actually first, you can see all your life like reflected in a magic mirror then you start floating like a ghost and you can see anything that’s happening around you… you can hear everything, but you can’t communicate with the world of the living. And then, you see these lights, all these different lights, of all different colors. These lights are the doors that pull you into any place in existence… but most people actually… actually like this world so much that they don’t want to be taken away, so that’s when the whole thing turns into a bad trip. The only way out is to get reincarnated. […] Basically, you do this forever and ever until you manage to break the circle.
This framework sets up the narrative for the audience and gives us some orientation once Oscar’s spirit begins its peregrinations across the dark wonderland of Tokyo’s nightlife. But what were Noé’s intentions in specially using The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
An interview with film producer Nicolas Schmerkin printed in the press kit offers some suggestion. Noé says:
In the description of the afterworld in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there’s definitely a voyage, a process with several stages that leads up to the final stage: reincarnation. But inside, the visions and the nightmares that are supposed to reveal the psyche, or past life, of the dying individual, aren’t described. The “Book” is very abstract, very colorful and very poetic. This parallel world, where the spirit, which has now left the body, floats for a long time, is described as a reality as illusory as the world of the living.
A lot of people have been inspired by this book to write fiction (in particular Philip K. Dick), but it was also used to guide people through collective LSD-induced psychedelic voyages, as Timothy Leary did in the ’70s. While the book is a religious text, it quickly became a beacon for the hippies I so admired as a kid.
The mention of drug guru Timothy Leary is paramount.
Famously derided by President Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America” for his positive advocacy of drug use, Leary’s version of the book was titled The Psychedelic Experience and was published in 1964, co-authored with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner. They intended the book to be a guide through psychedelic drug sessions, which Leary believed could have positive therapeutic effects if the experiences were given the correct framework. Folkways Records released audio recordings of Leary reading the book in 1966; it’s now available on Smithsonian Folkways.
Here is a portion of Leary’s text the neatly mirrors the aesthetic assumptions of Noé’s film:
The experienced person will be able to maintain the recognition that all perceptions come from within will be able to sit quietly, controlling his expanded awareness like a phantasmagoric multi-dimensional television set: the most acute and sensitive hallucinations — visual, auditory, touch, smell, physical and bodily; the most exquisite reactions, compassionate insight into the self, the world. The key is inaction: passive integration with all that occurs around you. If you try to impose your will, use your mind, rationalize, seek explanations, you will get caught in hallucinatory whirlpools. The motto: peace, acceptance. It is all an ever-changing panorama. You are temporarily removed from the world of game. Enjoy it.
It seems that Noé’s film is more in keeping with Leary’s trip guide than with the spiritual dimensions of the original text. This does not invalidate it as a finely crafted cinematic experience, but does it rob of it authentic spirituality? That question begs another: what is it about this particular book that inspires such psychedelic reenvisionings in the first place?
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an instruction book on preparing the living for dying and for the dead to finding their way in what is often translated as the “Between”, a sort of limbo which is where most of Noé’s film takes place. Wandering the Between can last up to 49 days after death, and depending on one’s choices in this place (which are really only the hallucinations of one’s own mind), one can reincarnate in a variety of realities, not all of which are hospitable, and some of which last eons.
Your success will depend on your recognition of the various deities and semi-divine entities you will encounter in the Between. The Tibetan Book of the Dead presents the reader with exercises in meditating upon these beings so as to prepare your soul (or if already dead, guidance) for a satisfactory reincarnation or hopefully, to leave the Wheel-of-Suffering altogether. It is essentially an exercise in visualization. Yet these hallucinations are intensely psychedelic.
In case you’re wondering just how psychedelic, here’s a brief extract from Robert Thurman’s 1993 (Bantam Books) translation:
Hey, noble one! Listen without wavering! On this fourth day, the red light that is the purity of the element of fire dawns. At this time, from the red western world of Sukhavati, the red Lord Amitabha appears before you seated on a peacock throne, carrying a lotus, in union with his consort Pandaravasini, attended by the male Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri and the female Bodhisattvas Gita and Aloka — a group of six Buddha deities in a background of rainbows and lights. The red light of Discriminating wisdom, purity of the conceptual aggregate, red and piercing, dazzling and clear, adorned with drops and droplets, shines from the heart of the Amitabha couple, precisely penetrating your heart center, unbearable to see with your eyes. Do not fear it! At the same time a soft yellow light of the pretan realm shines before you, penetrating your heart in parallel with the wisdom light. Do not indulge in it! Abandon clinging and longing! At that time, under the influence of fierce passion, you panic and are terrified by that brilliant, energetic red light, and you want to flee it. You feel a liking for that soft yellow light of the pretan realms and you approach it.
In aesthetics then, if not highly specific if esoteric religious dogmatism, Noé’s film manages to depict the flashing rainbow lights of the Between realm described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
But this adaptation begs yet another question: Is it a coincidence that ancient Tibetan death wisdom would anticipate the psychedelic drug experience so closely?
The answer is “No”. In fact, this wisdom comes to us via a vehicle that was created in the 20th century to package and sell it to Western audiences.
It may come as a surprise that, in Tibet, there never was a “book of the dead”.
The Story of The Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between
Sometime in the 8th century CE, a bright meteor streamed to Earth. It plunged into a lotus pond in the region now called Pakistan. Where it fell, a giant lotus sprouted. When the lotus opened, it revealed a radiantly perfect boy seated amidst a rainbow of dazzling auras.
When asked from whence he came, the radiant boy replied, “My mother is wisdom, my father compassion, my country the Dharma of reality.”
His name was Padma Sambhava, and his rainbow meteor issued from the tongue of Amitabha Buddha in the Western Pure Land of Bliss. Padma was an Emanation Body Buddha incarnation, and he could travel the Between at will, and was sent to Earth to teach humans wisdom so as to alleviate their suffering endless reincarnations. Padma dictated his wisdom to his Tibetan consort, who dutifully wrote it down in a series of books numberless in volume.
Padma then hid these books throughout Tibet, under mountains, inside rocks, and even in the minds of adepts yet to be born, to be discovered when mankind needed them. His work complete, he transported himself to the Copper Glory Mountain, a paradise on Earth located somewhere west of India. He remains there to this day with his two yogini consorts, the Tibetan Yeshe Tsogyal and the Indian princess Mandarava, living perpetually in enlightened ménage à trois.
Over the centuries, there arose a group of honourable treasure-revealers who would hunt for and discover Padma’s books of wisdom. Gifted with super powers, including clairvoyance and X-ray vision, these men and women were believed to be reincarnations of aspects of Padma Sambhava himself; he prophesied the birth of his most famous spiritual progeny, a treasure-revealer named Karma Lingpa.
In the 14th century, Lingpa discovered a collection of Padma’s texts in a cave on the Gampodar Mountain in Tibet. He called his discovery Profound Teaching, Natural Liberation Through Contemplating the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, and explained that it was a guide to “lucid dying” that would help lead the souls of the recently dead to enter either better incarnations or, best case scenario, in the final perceived reality of Nirvana; literally, “blown out”, like a candle flame.
Lingpa’s book was greatly appreciated by monks and adepts and over time it was copied and distributed throughout the region. Parallel treatises and commentaries arose that were often mingled with the original books, creating a palimpsestic cycle of texts as well as mandalas that are read as texts.
Around 1680, a treasure-revealer named Rigzin Nyima Drakpa began organizing these texts associated with Lingpa into a book titled Natural Liberation Through Understanding of the Between, part of a tradition of texts known as Bardo Todöl, and consists of 17 separate chapters comprised of approximately 275 folios.
Only 108 of these folios, approximately seven chapters, form the work that eventually became known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Their transmutation and transmission is largely due to the effort of one man, an American named W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
Evans-Wentz was deeply influenced by the occult Theosophical Society, which was founded in part by a woman who called herself Madame Blavatsky. For the Theosophists, ancient cultures, such as Greek, Egyptian, and Indian, and the sunken continent of Atlantis, held esoteric truths that modern science and monotheistic religions had obscured. They held séances and contacted spirits. For them, Tibet was a great repository of ancient wisdom. When Evans-Wentz traveled to India, he did so as a Theosophist seeking lost knowledge.
Evans-Wentz himself never entered Tibet. In 1919, in Darjeeling, he bought a collection of Tibetan block prints from a British soldier named Major W.L. Campbell who had traveled in Tibet following the British invasion in 1903. The language of the prints was Gyantse, a language that Evans-Wentz could not read. He asked Kazi Dawa Samdup, English teacher at the Maharaja’s Boarding School for Boys in Gangtok, Sikkim, Northwest India, to translate the prints.
As David S. Lopez, Jr. succinctly states in his study The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2011), “What is known is the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the product of their collaboration.”
It was published in 1927. It has since sold more than 500,000 copies. Evans-Wentz copped the title from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was much admired by the Theosophists. That title in turn derives from the title Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter of an 1842 German translation of a collection of Egyptian papyri that describes the journey of the souls (there are seven) after death. The original Egyptian title is Utterances of Emergence During the Day.
Several editions of Evans-Wentz edition were published in the 20th century. The third, published in 1957, included a preface by cult psychologist Carl G. Jung, translated from an original German essay written in 1935. As Lopez demonstrates, Jung’s essay neatly subsumes the esoteric Tibetan wisdom of the original book into his own philosophic-psychological system.
When Leary, a psychologist by training, wrote his death book trip guide in 1964, it was partly Jung’s influence to which he was responding. The book features a “tribute” to Jung; and Leary sums of Jung’s interpretation: “Metaphysical assertions, however, are statements of the psyche, and are therefore psychological.”
Leary’s version of the book is a hybrid of Jungian psychology and his own electric Kool-Aid acid philosophy. It is in turn this hybridized version of the book that Noé was responding to when he made Enter the Void.
What we get in the film is this version of The Book of the Dead that contains strains of Evans-Wentz’s Theosophy, Jung’s psychology, and Leary’s LSD philosophy. This slurry is then run through the kaleidoscopic cinematic imagination of the director, who pumps it out into a motion-graphics laden version of Tokyo by night.
Whether or not the contorted and distinctly Western provenance of the so-called spiritually that Noé uses as the spine for his floating ghost movie somehow invalidates its authenticity is a question for individual viewers to decide, but without access to the history given above, the question itself cannot even be correctly framed.
This throws us from the warrant of the film to the hypothesis, which is that the director can satisfactorily depict the sensations and mental experience of a trip on acid and DMT. In this criterion of judgement, he succeeded overwhelmingly.
Rejoice in Your Demise
The problem with Noé’s film is far more fundamental to filmmaking that the razzmatazz of the psychedelic visuals. It’s difficult to relate to the main character and his life. A drug-dealing, orphaned, teen-aged American living in Tokyo in a semi-incestuous relationship with a hot stripper sister is someone I am not. Nor is it someone I want to be for more than an hour or so. Oscar’s two-hour 22-minute drug-induced death trip is not one I am anxious to repeat. I hazard that most viewers who are not drug-dealing, orphaned, teen-aged Americans living in Tokyo in a semi-incestuous relationships with hot stripper sisters will feel the same.
So we are left balanced between cinematic visions and narcotic realities. The films offer experience without fear of prosecution or nasty comedowns, but they will always be mediated by directors’ egos and technological gadgetry. They tend to lack spirituality.
No one will force you to watch Enter the Void. You can always choose not to take psychedelic drugs. But you will die.
As Thurman writes in his translation, “So in dealing with death let us honor the spirit of the Book of Natural Liberation at least by trying to do the right thing by having a good time! May all enjoy happiness and the best of luck!”
Right on, brother.