July 11, 2013
"Peyote To LSD", 2008 documentary
Now Playing: Soundsations LP on Phalanx

This seems to be a TV production for the History Channel, but is available as a commercial DVD. I'm not sure what its production history is but it looks like it might have been a confused one. The bulk of it is a documentary based on Wade Davis' celebrated biography of the great ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Both Schultes and Davis are given plenty of space in my Psychedelia book, and there is indeed much of value in their respective stories, particularly for those with a penchant for Amazonian entheogens. A camera team follows Davis as he traces Schultes' steps from a Kiowa peyote ritual to daredevil exploits in the remotest part of the Amazon rainforest. The various psychedelic plant drugs that Schultes discovered or documented are shown in vivo and as used in rituals, while Davis professes his admiration for the great teacher.

This is all shot in a 'point and roll' manner, like a news feature, and there is no ambition whatsoever to engage the viewer in anything more than listening to Davis and watching natives. It's somewhat like the old education reels shown in class in high school--information adequately summarized. In addition to a bit of creative flair, the movie would have been served by drilling down in a couple of the native drug scenes encountered, instead of moving onwards after just a few introductory minutes. Davis arranges for rituals with various plant drugs, yet we are not shown or told anything about what goes on, instead in the next shot he's already getting into a jeep somewhere else.

Comments from Andrew Weil, Jonathan Ott, John Halpern, Jeremy Narby, Ralph Metzner and a few others are heard, but except for Weil it's just brief soundbites that could have been uttered by anyone, and the purpose is presumably to demonstrate Schultes' high standing in the psychedelic community. The greatest problem to me is the strange way that the DMT aspect is botched. There are several minutes about ayahuasca, but despite the recent production year the movie fails entirely to deal with the Western resurgence of DMT use, along with the increasingly strong ayahuasca wave of the past 20 years. I'm not even sure DMT or dimethyltryptamine was mentioned, which seems extremely odd in a documentary about a man who spent decades wrestling with the mysteries of ayahuasca. Conversely, much is made of Schultes' involvement with peyote research, a brief, early enterprise where the main scholarly responsibility soon fell upon Weston LaBarre, who is mentioned only in passing. A balanced view would reverse the time slots awarded to peyote and ayahuasca, or better yet, expand the ayahuasca segment to three times its length and included modern-day research, the Terence McKenna factor, and so on. From my view, the movie seems to have been edited by someone with a very poor understanding of the subject.

The Schultes/Wade backbone runs a little over an hour, but should have been longer. Instead a 90 minute playtime is created by inserting at various unstrategic points the standard story of LSD and the psychedelic 60s and all that crap you've heard a hundred times before. Any notion of the radical developments within the psychedelic field during the 1990s and 2000s seem to be unknown to the creators of this documentary, who instead summon up the dead horse of MK-Ultra experiments and Tim Leary's maverick ideas for another flogging. I actually had to double-check the '2008' production year because these "contextual" segments look to date from 1988 or so. A sequence of Albert Hofmann turning 100 finally convinced me.

How is it possible to make a psychedelic documentary in 2008 and not be aware of the massive wave of entheogenic awakening in progress since the late '80s? Who today needs to hear ancient info about "acid" and "the sixties" when a much broader and more profound exploration of psychedelic drugs, both organic and synthetic, is going on around the Western world?

I doubt Wade Davis is to blame for these uninformed and clichéd segments. If I were to guess, I'd say someone took a documentary that was almost exclusively about Schultes, cut out some plant drug stuff that should have been left in, and added a bunch of dated shit about LSD and hippies in order to make the movie easier to sell and promote.

I wish someone could hook up with Wade Davis for a real Schultes study, with camerawork, audio and editing that makes you feel the realness of the jungle and the madness of the yagé, passing along vital bits of info on the great man while the creativity uses its psychedelic theme in the proper manner.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 20:27 MEST

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