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Under the Influence

Was it the free love, the politics, or the acid that made films of the '60s so trippy?

The Summer of Love that gives its name to the Whitney's current survey of '60s psychedelic art was always a fantasy—indeed, the LSD-fueled gathering of the tribes in San Francisco was the moment when fantasy ran rampant.

Everything then was Now. The late '60s brought the 20th century's last utopian, future-oriented vanguard. Videotape was poised to supplant 16mm film; the notion of "expanded cinema" superseded that of "underground movies." Andy Warhol bridged the gap when he began screening his films on walls, ceilings, and people as part of his "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" shows. Some imagined that such total immersion would create a new art of mind-altering sensory bombardment—instead it was effectively massified at the disco.

Other visionaries, taking their cues from Ken Kesey's mixed-media "Acid Tests," imagined that the next step in total cinema might be pharmaceutical. Why shoot a movie when you could manufacture a pill and have a vision projected inside your head? In the meantime, there were 16mm films designed to cleanse the doors of perception.

James Whitney's Lapis (1963-1966), 16 mm film transferred to HD Digital Cinema, color, sound; 10 mins.
image: Estate of John and James Whitney, copyright 2007
James Whitney's Lapis (1963-1966), 16 mm film transferred to HD Digital Cinema, color, sound; 10 mins.

Details

Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era
Through September 16, Whitney Museum

Some psychedelic movies were environmental. One of the earliest, James Whitney's computer-generated Lapis (1963-66), gets its own gallery in the "Summer of Love" exhibit. A raga-scored Brownian-motion mandala with concentric force-fields that might be understood as an expanding- contracting model of the universe, Lapis is sufficiently hypnotic to neutralize the pounding chirp of "Tomorrow Never Knows" emanating from a neighboring installation. Jordan Belson's Samadhi (1966-67) also rates a gallery. Described by its maker as "a documentary of the human soul," the film's lime-green, electric-tangerine melting-molten abstractions variously suggest a mysteriously concentrated aurora borealis or a luridly vaporous eclipse.

Objects for contemplation, Lapis and Samadhi are the purest of psychedelic movies. The Whitney's daily film program offers other examples—John Stehura's Cibernetik 5.3 (1965-69), a farrago of pulsing noise and oscilloscope patterns, and the zappy Rorschach blobs of Pat O'Neill's 7362 (1965-67). But few head movies were completely abstract. The solarized patterns in Chas Wyndham's Airborn (1968) are periodically resolved as rock 'n' roiling orange-and-purple mushroom clouds. And, however kozmic, many of the era's films are Manichean spectacles, a war in heaven featuring the era's two key icons: The B-52 death bomber is countered by the positive energy of the gyrating hippie chick who, emerging from the moire—patterned scribble-scrabble in Stan VanDerBeek's 1970 "electronic collage" Film Form No.1, is an obligatory trope in virtually every head film.

Paul Sharits's Piece Mandala/End War (1966) is the show's most realized psychedelic synthesis—a stroboscopic flicker film in which a naked couple shifts positions on a repetitive series of color fields. A lesser example, Jerry Abram's Eyetoon (1968) is a mishmash of superimpositions, animations, and pixilated country roads that ends with the belligerent cri de coeur, Fuck For Peace. Made without rules, Eyetoon is quintessential hippie art. Freedom in the '60s definitely included the freedom to make bad movies. If there was a psychedelic film aesthetic, it was just that image "flow" trumped montage, and music ruled.

Kenneth Anger's 1963 Scorpio Rising was the first underground movie to appropriate Top 40 pop. Four years later, rock was a holy sacrament and rock musicians were shamans. Bob Cowan's 1968 Rockflow features a gaggle of glamorous solo dancers fluttering their fringes to the Chambers Brothers's sockadelic "In the Midnight Hour." A more legendary film, Robert Nelson's suavely fragmented Grateful Dead (1967) documents the band performing "Sitting on Top of the World." Nelson not only pulverizes the image but the music as well. Full of brain-jarring, same-image superimpositions, Nelson's DMT Hard Day's Night actually cleared the Whitney screening room.

A few movies, grouped together here under the rubric "Acid Visions," purport to represent the LSD experience. Are these trips meant to be universal or individual? Storm de Hirsch's double-screen Third Eye Butterfly (1968) dutifully sets eight images to a percussive jazz score; John Hawkin's impressively psychotic LSD Wall (1965) is a claymation that, obsessively mixing Navajo patterns with blatant sexual metaphors, introduces itself as "some observations made while sitting on a public toilet in the Times Square subway station while under the influence of a certain hallucinogen."

Some psychedelic documentaries celebrate the self; others blatantly impose the maker's subjectivity on the scene. Ben Van Meter's mondo freeform SF Trips Festival, An Opening (1968) uses a gallery show to advance—or perhaps parody—the epoch's prevailing East Coast—West Coast dialectic, expressing a wholesome hippie distaste for the echt degenerate Warhol, whose Elizabeth Taylor silkscreen is superimposed into obliteration. Jud Yalkut's Turn, Turn, Turn (1965-66) is a super verite—mess, with the filmmaker pivoting around some sort of kinetic art show. (Every be-in love-in group-grope demo included some nerd with a camera—sometimes even me.)

The Whitney devotes an entire program to Peter Whitehead's Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967), a kicky explosion that celebrates the mad midday frugging of Carnaby Street "dollygirls," along with body painting, peace marches, and female fans storming the stage where Mick Jagger sings "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?" But the supreme evocation of late '60s mishigas is Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969). This fetishistic exercise in countercultural chaos is as dense an assemblage as Scorpio Rising, but, populated by all manner of would-be sorcerers and set to Jagger's grating sound loop, it's a more sinister experience. The scene switches back and forth between San Francisco, London, and the recurring image of a helicopter disgorging an endless flow of U.S. troops onto a Vietnamese rice paddy. Anger isn't making a movie so much as casting a spell—it's the art of mind over matter.

The academic equivalent to Invocation of My Demon Brother is Larry Jordan's The Sacred Art of Tibet (1972), a commissioned film, in which electronic growling overwhelms explanatory voiceover and the artworks themselves are "animated" through aggressive zooming and flash-frame superimposition. Reality is a "magic show," the narrator informs us. And magical thinking was then perceived as a form of political action. (The Summer of Love was actually the Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Newark and Detroit burned while the Haight preened in the klieg lights of total media attention.) Thus the Whitney's "War, Protest, and Counterculture" program includes Piece Mandala/End the War as well as the show's preeminent mind-fuck acid-flashback, Third World Newsreel's classic rabble-rouser cf1 America (1969).

The apparitions in this rough and ready riot-compilation, racing through classic rock chestnuts "Gimme Shelter" and "Fortunate Son" to climax with the keening crescendo of Steppenwolf's heavy-metal concerto dirge "Monster/Suicide/America," are more fantastic than the monsters of Tibet Buddhism. Not just Black Panthers but ultra-left Viet-vets proclaim themselves "hip to imperialism." Those gyrating chicks are in the street. And who are the white high school revolutionaries earnestly rapping about "capitalist run-of-the-mill bullshit"? What pill made them say that?

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