As I sat watching the terrific documentary “The Sunshine Makers” that opens on Friday at the Village East in New York, the phrase “Breaking Good” kept running through my mind since the film was about two men who became LSD manufacturers in the 1960s only to change the world rather than make money. Since scientists today have rediscovered the benefits of LSD, including its ability to reduce anxiety in terminal cancer patients, the two–Nick Sands and Tim Scully–were certainly on to something.
Born in 1941, Sands took mescaline 20 years later when he was a Brooklyn College undergrad. Like many people around that time (including me), psychedelics were the perfect accompaniment to Eastern religion and other forms of mysticism that appealed to many young people turned off by what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.
This led him to become a regular at a mansion in Millbrook, New York owned by Billy Hitchcock that had become the LSD temple of Timothy Leary. Millbrook was about a half hour’s drive from Bard College and I had heard through the grapevine that Bard students had been spending time there in “psychology experiments”. Even if I had been invited to take part, I doubt that it would have interested me since my drugs of choice were marijuana and hashish that were cheap and plentiful at the time.
Eventually Sands hooked up with a Berkeley mathematical physics major named Tim Scully who was born in 1944 and just 5 months older than me. Scully became the Walter White of their operation largely on the strengths of his brilliance in all things scientific including chemistry. Wikipedia states that “In his junior year of high school, Scully completed a small linear accelerator in the school science lab (he was trying to make gold atoms from mercury) which was pictured in a 1961 edition of the Oakland Tribune.”
I imagine that everybody who sees this film will be swept off their feet but it had a heightened resonance with me. There is a certain poignancy in seeing geezers like these reflecting on their misspent (or spent perhaps) youth as you see home movies from when they were in their twenties. Sands, an Adonis in his youth, is now a slow-moving walrus-like figure who still retains a glint in his eye and a quick wit. Scully, as rail-thin as he was in his youth, is completely bald and wrinkled. But neither man shows the slightest regret in breaking the law just as I have no regret in taking part in my own kind of lawless behavior.
I only had one experience with LSD, just two months before joining the Trotskyist movement. I went to my friend Chip’s apartment on the opposite end of the floor in my West 92nd building to drop acid while he and his wife smoked pot and served as my anchor in case things got out of hand. After swallowing a sugar cube, I didn’t notice anything happening for the first 15 minutes but then the strangest thing. A rather tacky landscape on the wall depicting a fish jumping out of a lake surrounded by mountains became—how should I put it—animated. The water began rippling and the fish kept jumping out of the water. How are you doing that, I asked Chip, positive in my mind that the painting was a “novelty” he bought in Times Square that could be activated by a remote control he had concealed in his hand. Open your hand, I demanded, let me see the remote control. When he opened both hands, I couldn’t believe it. I was hallucinating. For the next two hours, I watched what amounted to Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” on the living room walls but that was about it. It might have been a deeply spiritual experience for Sands and Scully but for me, it was just entertainment.
Sands and Scully were partners with Oswald Stanley who died in 2011. His words are heard throughout the film as are Billy Hitchcock’s but neither are seen on screen for reasons not given. Stanley is far better known than the others largely through his connections to Ken Kesey, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. When I say connection, I mean that both spiritually as well as in the more conventional drug trafficking sense.
The film also includes interviews with the women in Sands and Scully’s lives who, like them, are as rebellious as ever even if they look like your grandmother. In fact, it is the boldness and refusal to conform in all of these characters that makes this film so appealing. If the key to a successful documentary is “casting” the right people, British director Cosmo Feilding Mellen struck gold with these elder statesmen of the psychedelic revolution.
Mellen is the son of Amanda Feilding, whose family is descended from the House of Habsburg that came to England in the 14th Century. Like many in the British upper class, she became a renegade in her youth. And like Sands and Scully, she experimented with mind-altering substances in her youth and even conducted a trepanation on herself in 1970, a discredited procedure that consists of drilling a hole in your head for medical reasons. (She used a dentist’s drill.) Her goal was to see if it could affect her consciousness. Today, she is far more responsible as the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation that advocates for a more humane drug policy and investigates the use of psychoactive drugs for beneficial purposes.
In a profile on the Feildings in the London Times (behind a paywall but give me a shout if you want a copy), Cosmo reminisces on his youth:
Most kids find their parents embarrassing at some point, but it was definitely more pronounced for me. I was christened Cosmo Birdie for a start. The thing people knew about my parents was that they were druggies who drilled holes in their heads. [In her twenties, Amanda carried out the ancient practice of trepanation, which people believed could improve health and wellbeing.] As I got older, I developed a huge respect for what Mum stands for, but trust me, there was no cachet in it as a kid. She’s quite bohemian and has a pronounced posh voice. I can remember her coming to pick me up at school and shouting: “Cooee Bubba!” Not really what you want.
There will always be an England.
“The Modern Jungle” is documentary that will be shown at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on January 20th. Since I doubt that any of my readers except those living in Utah will be able to make the screening, I urge you to look for it if it opens eventually at your local art theater or on VOD.
Set in a village in southern Mexico largely populated by the Zoque Indians, it is a respectful but unsettling account of the lives of two elderly Zoques who live in rudimentary huts, a man named Juan Juarez Rodríguez and a woman named Carmen Echevarría Lopez. Their lives are circumscribed by daily routines of chopping wood for their stoves and gathering corn from nearby fields. Their lives are probably close to the ones lived by their ancestors a hundred years ago, even if it has been impinged upon by the forces of global capitalism and the Mexican landowning class. It was that class that killed Carmen’s husband 45 years before the film was made and that makes both her and Juan’s so difficult today. Even if much of the Zoque land has been swindled from beneath their feet, they still feel the pressures of landlords who would like to see them and the rest of the Zoques gone.
At first blush, I thought the film would be similar to those that I have seen in the past about Indians fending off the rich but there are some wrinkles. Juan is determined that he be paid for his services as a subject in a film that he expects to make money. In several cringe-worth scenes he haggles with director Charles Fairbanks over his pay. It will remind you that in such ethnographic films going back to “Nanook of the North”—the original—the filmmaker has the upper hand. It is to Fairbanks’s credit that he acknowledges this in very revealing footage. (The film is co-directed by Saul Kak, a Zoque Indian who did the translation.) He puts it this way in the press notes:
Here and elsewhere, THE MODERN JUNGLE is also about documentary. As it portrays cross-cultural encounters structured by and through the camera, our film doesn’t shy away from the messy interpersonal, economic, and social repercussions of filming in impoverished communities. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm describes how the author of nonfiction tends to represent himself differently than all other characters: “He forms the exception to the rule that nothing may be invented. The ‘I’ of journalism” [and, I contend, documentary]:
…is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way––the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
In contrast to this convention, I wanted to depict ‘the documentary director’ as a complex and flawed character, despite ‘his’ (that is, my) best intentions. Likewise, I wanted to show that making this film had real repercussions on the lives of its main characters. It became evident, while filming, that I too am an intruder, an outside force, a symptom of globalization in the world of Juan and Carmen. So, to make an honest film about their encounters with modernity, it seemed necessary to subvert this convention and address the ways we negotiate the power of representation.
Kudos to Fairbanks and Kak for making a film with a difference.