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Psychedelic Cinema: MIFF's hyperaesthetic head-trips

Jaymes Durante

Surveying the Melbourne International Film Festival's Psychedelic! program stream is like falling headfirst down an audiovisual rabbit hole, straight into a world in which the rules of cinema don't apply. From the purely abstract to the comically camp, the retrospective boasts a breadth so vast that it challenges the definition of the psychedelic itself. How do you reel in and define something that's so slippery and expansive, and that can exist in seemingly infinite permutations?

Psychedelic art has centuries-old roots too deep to tug at here, but the history of psychedelic film form is far more self-evident. While one can find experimentation in early cartoons (see Felix the Cat take a trip in Dines and Pines, for starters) and direct-to-celluloid experimental cinema, the real precedent for later bursts of counter-cultural gloriousness lies with one of the USA’s most revered capitalist figureheads: Walt Disney. Disney-produced films such as Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland buried a mind-altering message within a package palatable to kids, and Disney himself pushed his animators to explore the boundaries of the animated form – in part influenced by his own rumoured experiments with mescaline. Most obviously, the “technicolor pachyderms” of Dumbo’s famous ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ sequence undoubtedly inspired later generations of artists to explore the limitlessness of film form.

While Disney is understandably absent from MIFF’s Psychedelic! program, the festival boasts an excess of transgressive hedonism, horse-born mythological superheroes, Eastern philosophy, febrile fever-dreams, woozy anarchy and lurid transmissions from other people’s LSD-addled minds. The fifteen-film selection – including shorts from Ben Rivers and Ken Jacobs, as well as an immersive audiovisual experience by Sally Golding – brings together works from Hungary, Italy, Czechoslovakia and the heartlands of Western capitalism: the USA. Bob Rafelson’s Head is about as abstruse as Americana gets – a manic, incoherent meditation on race, war and American cultural imperialism, written by none other than one-time aspiring screenwriter Jack Nicholson.

Head’s self-conscious head-trip was released within the same month in 1968 as another flowery and self-reflexive work by the band that the Monkees were created to imitate. With Yellow Submarine, the Beatles challenged adults to indulge in a child-like fable about Meanies let loose in the mythical Pepperland, told with animation that takes full advantage of its physics-defying form, and cumulating in that famous paean to psychedelic drugs, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’.

And yet, despite its elephantine status at the forefront of psychedelic animation, Yellow Submarine is perhaps outdone at MIFF by little-known Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics’s Feherlofia, based on a woodland folk tale. With a strong sense of camp and strange sexual undertones underlying its innocent surface, Feherlofia makes for a potently confounding experience. With no shortage of phallic and vaginal imagery, the animation licks and curls around the screen, bounding with colour as the scenes morph and mutate in lieu of conventional cutting.

For those with an irrepressible urge for pure hedonism but who could do without all the subtext, Carmelo Bene’s Salome is a smutty festival highlight. Bene’s delightfully chintzy mélange of flesh, jewels and Italian B-movie aesthetics is set upon a black velvety backdrop, getting tipsy on its own vinous formula until it climaxes in an irreverent change of scenery. A glowy apostate Jesus attempts to nail himself to the cross, and, of course, fails miserably in a frustrated fit of nailed-down limbs.

Screening alongside Salome is Pierre Clementi’s Visa De Censure No.X, a rarely-seen avant-garde curio that implodes very quickly into a repeated sequence of pulsating kaleido-fractal patterns and footage of nudists. Attempting, somewhat foolishly, to replicate the experience of lysergic acid, Clementi successfully pulls the influences of the psychedelic art movement into one ravenous exhibition. There’s the usual flower power peace-and-love, but what intrigues is a serious strain of jazz and pop, as well as a repetition of mandalas and refrains pilfered from Eastern philosophy.

MIFF artistic director Michelle Carey, who led the charge with this retrospective, says that the decision transpired naturally from her aesthetic inclinations for lurid colour over stark-black minimalism. “I love viscerally intense experiences, especially in the cinema – loud music, throbbing bass, saturated colour, repeated patterns, poetic dialogue. Psychedelia it was!” But she is happy to admit that the selection asks as many questions about what constitutes the psychedelic as it provides answers. “Psychedelic is hard to define. I see it as an aesthetic form that pushes beyond the realm of the ‘real’ into an idealised, hyperaesthetic representation of the world.” There’s already a snag to that description, too. “You could say, with that definition, that Pedro Costa’s Horse Money could be psychedelic, which I don’t consider it to be.”

The question, then, becomes how to limit the psychedelic so that its definition doesn’t encapsulate films that linger on a knife’s edge between simply abstract or experimental and purely psychedelic. It’s a question that seems to answer itself: In the vernacular of psychedelic art, the word ‘limit’ doesn’t often arise. There’s no psychedelic manifesto or rulebook at hand, and so the measure of a film’s psychedelic credibility largely rests on its own terms. “It was precisely this idea of looking at how different filmmakers, genres and eras use ‘the psychedelic’ to tell their story or convey their idea that underpinned the curation,” says Carey. “I wanted a bit of everything – from pop culture through to animation, the avant-garde, experimental and contemporary head-trip stuff.”

Today, says Carey, the psychedelic is very much alive, and it’s more than just a nostalgic recession into the past: “The last fifteen years has seen a resurgence in the psychedelic, with a slightly tribal edge.” Citing artist Nathan Gray, fashion label Romance Was Born and music videos by Danny Perez for Animal Collective and MIA, Carey’s point transcends the cinema, but even a cursory glance over this year’s full MIFF program reveals a deeply felt psychedelic influence in film, too. From an hallucinatory sequence in The Duke of Burgundy that calls back to the experimental cinema of Stan Brakhage, through to Guy Maddin’s ode to forgotten cinema in the trippy celluloid meltdown of The Forbidden Room, a strain of the psychedelic appears just as effective a tool for contemporary filmmakers to evoke a sense of the visceral and overwhelming as it was in its 1960s halcyon days; Gaspar Noé’s gut-punchingly visceral quest for spiritual redemption in the divisive Enter the Void will easily allay any doubt.

Attempting to define the psychedelic as an aesthetic or a movement or a style ultimately amounts to chasing your own tail around in circles. Easy answers are contradicted by outlier films that add yet another qualifier to the mix. The obvious example from MIFF’s program is Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, which is more concerned with a political reality than metaphysical mindspace, but which co-opts elements of the psychedelic in order to achieve its radically progressive aims.

In the end, all of this critical nitpicking seems wildly counter-intuitive to the films themselves, which expound on the expansion of experience and thought rather than restrictive embargoes on what does or doesn’t qualify as psychedelic. In a way, it’s less a style or an aesthetic or a movement than a vague, self-repeating mantra, adapted by artists with a common intent: Free your mind, man. It’s easier said than done. Carey’s retrospective is one hell of a trip; it’s cinema as its most dizzying, defiant and intoxicating.

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus features