Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bitches Be Trippin': TOAD ROAD, A FIELD IN ENGLAND


I've always taken a hard line stance that idiots (and minors, of course) shouldn't use drugs. Drugs should only be taken by artists, truth-seekers, visionaries and never for dumb burn-out kicks... Seeing all the great drugs wasted on the snickering young in the 2012 indie Toad Road made me remember back to the young age when I could only get high, or even get hold of a beer, by driving around with metalhead Central Jersey burn-outs. Cool as some of them were I could have done without the damage to my car, or the snickering idiot who lit us up a joint, got us high, then announced said joint was laced with PCP. Driving the 20 miles home from that encounter took approximately three years of amok time trapped in a blue-light and white fog prism (or prison), wherein, among other things, I could dim or brighten street lights with my mind. And I hated the music those metalheads played. I'd bring Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" along on our endless rides to nowhere, thinking they'd dig it but for them it was Maiden, Dio, and Ozzy. End of discussion.

 I ditched them senior year of high school when I discovered the Clash and punk rock - which was all about cocaine, whiskey, and slam-dancing at the Trenton club City Gardens' all-ages punk shows: The Ramones, Iggy Pop, X, the Replacements, and Husker Du, but still I wasn't satisfied. I needed psychedelics. My college freshman year punk contingent were scared of acid, tried to warn me off it, but I felt the calling of a higher power, a spirit was beckoning, so I ditched the punks as abruptly as I'd ditched the metalheads, and became a hippie, and there, enduring endless Dead concert tapes, the LSD and shrooms ran wild and free. I was cured, all right.

But what a burnout-and-lightweight-strewn path I left behind --so many people who never should have tried drugs at all or at least not until college but they never went; they were just too damn stoned and dumb. Seeing Jason Banker's 2012 film Toad Road recently reminded me that the blithe openness about psychedelics on this site might do more harm than good in the short term and worse, expose a truth I've hidden even from myself, that my whole holy enlightenment shortcut-seeking trip masks just another garden variety waste case burn-out, because you see, I'm probably one of those idiots who shouldn't do drugs.


All through my travels I've seen people, especially the very young and Piscean, get way into psychedelics far too fast, too deep, chasing some white rabbit truth through twisting trails right into rehab, jail, or the slab.  It reminds me of that question posed to Anne Wiazemski in Godard's Sympathy for the Devil (1967) "Do you consider drugs a form of spiritual gambling?" ("oui"). Spiritual seekers never listen to advice from anyone who's already chased that rainbow and maybe they shouldn't (the "I did acid and it changed my life but you shouldn't because I already did so you're welcome"). One such doomed truth-seeker, in Toad Road, is Sarah (Sarah Anne Jones), a young wastrel too cute to be wasting time with the scruffy band of marauders she's chosen. An older member, James (James Davidson) meanwhile is getting counseling and shortly turns into a preachy buzzkill, which is too bad considering Davidson isn't the usual mumblecore anemic smarm merchant. He could go do something grand, but he's too in love with Sarah, he thinks, and that's his excuse to follow her down that hole, lecturing that she doesn't have to do drugs to have a good time, but he'll still hang out if she does because he has to 'protect' her.

Sarah will have none of it. She wants to go the Fulci distance, tripping her way through the seven gates of Hell via the legendary PA haunted mile, Toad Road, where one might, as they say in The Beyond, "face the sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored."



Sadly, the real Sarah Anne Jones died in real life shortly after the film's premiere, though I got the sense of a fractured kind of ghoulish 'coming true' of the storyline that hints-- even if she died after the film was completed---that she was MIA on set a lot, ala Marilyn Monroe during the never-completed Something's Got to Give (1962). Maybe this was just exactly as Banker envisioned or maybe I missed something. Like so many cinematic trips I got talked into taking by the Village Voice, Toad Road feels like it had a chance to do something wild and blew it. Maybe that's her fault, or his, or mine. Maybe it's just that my whole idea of something wild is warped. 


But the music is good, the photography tight and clever, and when it all hinges on the frail Sarah, her insanely tiny legs hugged by tight hipster pants, it works. She has a great way with throwing her shoulders around, and her thick long hair coupled to her waif thinness makes her seem like a willowy older sister to Valerie, the Czech who had the Week of Wonders. If you know the druggie scene you know this type of girl and probably fell in love with her at some point: H
er damaged sweetness and her unrelenting drive to explore the void were a haunting combination. Maybe you wrote a poetry book, or album about her, like that girl Holly for Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady): "Holly's inconsolable / unhinged and uncontrollable / cuz we can't get as high as we got / on that first night." If you know the type you shiver when you hear that song, shiver with her memory and the chill of never getting that first night glow back, the torture of being in love with someone you are powerless to save, and so you love them all the more for doing you the favor of vanishing while things are still good, so they freeze the memory for you that way... until you clock their Facebook profile 20 years later and see their their haggard, time-worn, fleshy complacent suburban mom faces. I would have enjoyed the Toad more if they had maybe gone a little meta about that kind of memory, shooting-wise, as without it the Picnic at Hanging Rock element never really gels with the muted realism (imagine if the girls really did disappear during filming but they didn't want to admit it so they changed the film to hide their absence). Still it's a promising feature film start for former documentarian of the youth music and 'culture' scene, Jason Banker, and I love the dark and beguiling poster series...

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I also like the art and posters for Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (2013), a much more psychedelic recall shiver-inducing film, in gorgeous black and white, which draws from old woodcuts and psychedelic posters from mid-60s Britain, correctly recognizing their common psilocybe cubensis roots, the mushroom common to cosmic alchemists of the 17th century and Zen hipsters tripping at outdoor music fests alike, possibly in the very same field, merging with each other's future and past ghosts via the ancient futuristic space spore fungus.






Field chronicles the manly transformation of a wussy assistant alchemist, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) from a coward hiding behind a wall of shrubbery during a furious offscreen battle to his ultimate triumphant return from the land beyond. During the time between he pals with a savvy deserter (Julian Barrett), a dimwitted wanderer (Richard Glover), and a fourth man (Peter Fernando) with a mysterious agenda, and this quartet set off in a series of fascinating tableaux across one of the huge rolling hedgerow-crossed fields of England in search of an ale house. What could go wrong?


Set sometime during the English Civil War of the late 1600s, Wheatley does right what most historical dramatists don't: the clothes look like they fit the actors and that they've been wearing them for about twenty years without a bath --as was the fashion-- and the pistols and muskets all need to be patiently reloaded with powder and ball after every shot, which is how it was, but here it seems to be an actual reality they're used to rather than a constant surprise as it is in most films set in the era. This results in some hilarious shouted exchanges as warring men hide in the grass to reload during lengthy gunfights. Digging for treasure is involved too, and a shady Irish bastard of an alchemist, O'Neil (Michael Smiley), his assistant Cutler (Ryan Pope), a psilocybe mushroom circle, a black sun, and some of the best use of sudden wind gusts since, um, 1925's The Wind, or ever. The acting is uniformly pointed, Amy Smart's dialogue rich in period slang, robust expletives, hilarious asides and tangents, forgotten alchemical science, sly deadpan joke illustrations of the way men befriend one another in times of trouble, and lastly the way a mouthful of the right mushroom can turn a meek scholar into a lion, after a strange and perhaps alienating pupa state of course.

The men never leave the field, are never seen indoors, and there's almost no one in the cast but these five men (no women), but Field in England never feels dull or Jarmusch idle. Jim White's slowly building score moves from a single, sturdy military drum beat into a full blown sonic mind-melting reminiscent of Bobby Beausoleil's score for Lucifer Rising. There's also an invigorating kind of mortality-sneering masculinity vibe ala Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Interesting than that Field was written by a woman! Aye, and lensed by a woman (Laurie Rose) and produced by two women (Anna Higgs, Claire Jones) and a man...




Great as the existential Sartre-Godot-Aristophanes-style robust gallows humor is, and the weird mystical angles with ropes into the alternate realities, etc., the peak aspect comes from a unique recreation of a ground zero time-distilled psilocybin freak-out wherein, buzzing and soaring in and around its droning center, the score sirens out across a series of overlapping strobes and mirror splitting, and you might say yeah yeah, that mirror effect hasn't been fresh since Led Zeppelin's Song Remains the Same, (I even used it in Queen of Disks) but you're wrong! Shit is fresh! And the strobe cutting is so seizure-inducing it comes with a warning label, but 'tis no stoner fucking about but a calculated specific effect. Wheatley and Amy Jump, who co-edited the film, alternate split second imagery until new shapes emerge that breathe and pulse. On one hand it's nothing too different than what one might shoot with their friends on mushrooms in the graveyard as I did (and Syd Barrett before me) in the early fall of 1987 - there's no unusual sight or diegetic sound (I was thinking for sure they'd switch film stock to color for the tripping parts, ala Wizard of Oz or Awakening of the Beast) but the strobing overlapping images create a truly psychedelic effect, the two or more images cohering into one buzzing throbbing molecular NOW waiting for us all just outside the veil, ala William Blake or the old school alchemist woodcuts. A thin fiberoptic line between waking life and the collective archetypal unconscious is frayed for a moment rare, and the black hole sun overlap between waking and dreaming is exposed afresh, and the union of birth and death, past and future, real and unreal, speeds up our perceptions fast enough they slow way down and death's hidden-from-the-sober-living flag unfurls for all three of your agog eyes and the psychedelic peak across linear time's usually uncrossable river is at last crossed... by a film no less. And when one returns to the other, sane bank of sanity one is renewed a third eye Popeye coming back from the dead and now completely made of atomic spinach.



In short, A Field in England shows us the reverberating core that tripping outdoors should unveil. It all but illuminates Oberon and Titania watching gamely from their transdimensional bower. Even though Wheatley's film leaves plenty of room to doubt the reality of these visions, Field also shows what we've missed by denigrating the ancient arts. Maybe one day we'll learn knocking on wood grounds the body's accumulated current, or that salt tossed over the shoulder dissipates negative ions and that negative disembodied intelligences might be dispelled through these tactics. One day western science will seem vain in its denial of the existence of things beyond its ability to measure. If we want to wait for the modern science to catch up to our ancient past version, we'll be sitting in the waiting room 'til we're cobwebbed skeletons. Any science not up to the task must be left behind in completion of said task. There are many sciences for many realities, but don't tell 'science' that... it'll be too busy trying to burn you at the stake to listen. It learned that trick from the Catholics. 

Alas, this is also why it falls to the psychedelic warrior braves to sometimes party with the burn-outs just to get high enough to learn how to escape them and their crap music. Psychedelics would have immense benefits to the human race if used in rites of passage both into adulthood and out of life. Just the briefest voyage beyond the ego is sometimes enough to help one's whole outlook transform. A Field in England shows that before the ridiculous illegality of certain kinds of mushrooms, their presence in a field was enough to make reality's fabric at least partially transparent even to the simplest of metalheads. 



Alas, Toad Road shows the downside of all that, that such threading can rip weaker fabric long before it endows them with zippers, especially with some lovestruck moths chewing away its once stout fibre. So fuck off, James! You make bad trips happen by hanging around talking about how drugs are bad mmm-kay. The Beyond accommodates no kibitzers. Point your camera down into the dark sea if you want to know our destination, but don't expect to see the disappearing Sarah, the one life your sad raft ain't fast enough to rescue, the one already claimed by whatever dark god's been eyeing her from the get-go. So let the lens flare as she falls down to the beautiful swamps of black socket blankness, down the toad-secretion road through the bottleneck beautiful empty, the big sleep that will not come without first hours of almost-sex, cottonmouth kissing, rummaging through drawers and under couches for any dropped pills, scraping resins from bongs and Nyquil dried on a baking sheet and snorted (a trick told me by the PCP joint guy), guzzling mom's vanilla extract to stop the shakes after all else was gone, lying in bed trying to sleep with the gray dawn light buzzing in the ears, hallucinating mom's scolding voice in the sound of running water, the black-and-white patterns inside-of-the-eyelids: roses, skulls, hearts, then finally... the harsh buzz saw sound of the rest of the world stirring into its daily grind.

We wake, ever presuming we're the same person as the night before, but with Oberon's flower nectar off our eyes we're just toast crumbling beneath the spread bullshit butter of sanity, threading through God's breakfast mandible sprockets in a 35mm scream.

1 comment:

  1. I have always loved to read about the drug culture - Huxley, Watts, Robert Anton Wilson, it doesn't matter, I've always swallowed it all.

    A few years ago, though, I saw a clip of Leary taken shortly before he died. He said this: "I take every kind of drug there is at least once a year just to prove I'm not a wimp."

    That pretty much broke my heart.

    I thought no, he can't say that. What this guy was doing was about breaking through the mundane rut of consensus reality and becoming one with Reality!

    Nothing's that simple.

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