Dirty Pictures, dir. Étienne Saure, BAMcinemafest, June 11
Describing the work of Alexander Shulgin to the uninitiated is not an easy task. A friend of mine summed it up by calling Alexander Shulgin the “George Washington Carver of psychedelic drugs.” If phenethylamines were peanuts, Shulgin is Carver-like indeed—taking a simple molecule and processing it into an endless array of stimulants, empathogens, entactogens, antidepressants, anorectics, neurotoxins and, most importantly, psychedelics. Shulgin has invented more new psychedelic drugs than any chemist in history, many of which have escaped his lab to gain enormous popularity on the street. Yet until the mid-1990s he was almost completely unknown and even now remains obscure—but that’s gradually changing.
2010 has been quite the year for Alexander Shulgin and his psychedelic psychotherapist wife Ann; they were deified by Alex Grey in a portrait depicting them and their vascular anatomy as they affectionately fondle a winged-MDMA molecule. The unveiling of the portrait took place at an honorary dinner in San Jose—which was something akin to an episode of This Is Your Life—with speakers thanking Shulgin for his improved amphetamine syntheses that facilitated the mass distribution of LSD in the 1960s. Furthermore, Shulgin has triumphantly finished his latest book, entitled The Shulgin Index, a psychedelic version of The Merck Index, more than a decade in the making. 2009 brought the release of Dirty Pictures, an exhaustive biopic documentary of the Shulgins and their work.
The Shulgins are uncomfortable with this attention and have done their best to maintain a low profile. They have also made it clear that after the release of Dirty Pictures, they will no longer speak to journalists, portraitists, or documentarians of any sort—for most viewers this film will be their first glimpse of the Shulgins and, quite unfortunately, it will also be their last. The stakes are high for a documentary about one of the world’s greatest and most beloved chemists—made by a director who is coming from outside the psychedelic scene and until he started filming had no idea who Shulgin was—so it’s an enormous relief that the film, through some astonishing interviews and salvaged archival material, is a great success.
In her kitchen, sitting before a bowl of Turkish Delight, Ann says, “If you can’t make love on a drug then there is something not quite right,” and so Dirty Pictures begins. Ann Shulgin’s writings present her courtship and sex with Alexander Shulgin in explicit detail—a description of ingesting 5 mg of DOM, tying the thinly fictionalized “Shura Borodan” to a bed with nylon cords, performing fellatio on him and teasing his “very sensitive nipples” whilst listening to the Brandenburg concerti—sets the tone for most of their first book Pihkal. A good film could be made by simply listening to Ann Shulgin recount her various sexual psychedelic sexcapades (at least I would watch it). Sauret goes further and incorporates a diverse cast of supporting characters, from those working directly with the Shulgins in their home to other figures in the field of psychedelic chemistry, including David Nichols, a psychedelic chemist every bit as brilliant and accomplished as Shulgin, who chose to work entirely within the system from his lab at Purdue University.
Perhaps the film’s most remarkable character is Bob Sager, a retired D.E.A. agent and chemist, whose job often entailed raiding and arresting the operators of clandestine drug labs. Sager readily admits that the psychotherapeutic use of MDMA had a tremendously positive impact on his life, and then goes on to say “Yeah [the DEA] was a good agency and they were all dedicated… they believed in what they were doing…but it changed,” at which point he goes silent and looks as if he is about to cry. “I don’t think we did a whole lot of good…” For a D.E.A. agent to come forward and acknowledge his life’s work as a failure is remarkably courageous. Sager’s admission reminds us that DEA officers are not the agents of Satan one reflexively thinks, but instead are misguided people doing their best to stop a problem they don’t understand and, of course, failing spectacularly.
And then there is Ted. Last summer I vividly recall meeting Alexander Shulgin’s son Ted and asking him what he did for a living—he looked me right in the eye and did not say a single word in response. Summarily, the subject was changed. Sauret is able to open Ted up and he emerges as an incredibly sympathetic character, the son of a genius, doing what he can to escape his father’s legacy. How do you rebel when your father is already the most rebellious man in chemistry? You sell hardware and raise chickens. Ted explains “I didn’t want my life to be a carbon of his… I didn’t want to be compared against…I didn’t want anything to do with his world…I deal in nuts and bolts, hydraulic adaptors of all different kinds and structures things that you cannot find at the normal hardware store.” This could hardly be more perfect. Ted speaks in front of a wall of small compartments filled with specialized bolts and industrial fasteners, which perfectly mirror his father’s walls of meticulously labeled chemical vials.
While the mainstream media feeds on stories of druggies castrating themselves, jumping out windows, and burning out their retinas staring at the sun, Shulgin has always stood as a glowing example of psychedelic maturity. His methodology, the way he meticulously titrates his dosages, his social grace, his playing viola with D.E.A. agents and former U.S. presidents at establishment stronghold Bohemian Grove, makes Shulgin come across as fearless and totally in control. Yet he has had a number of scares in his career, including an occasion when Ann entered a dissociative fugue state after ingesting desoxy-mescaline, as well as series of catastrophic trials with poisonous N-tetramethy tryptamines. And various other experiments resulting in catatonia, seizures, amnesia—ad nauseam. Shulgin sums its up: “You must be careful because sometimes you bend something that doesn’t unbend.”
Yet there is still a magical confidence apparent when he describes his work, which betrays the fact that he is also teetering on a razor-thin line between felonious manufacturing of Schedule I drugs and legal investigation of structure activity relationships. Amidst his animated theories regarding the evolution of endogenous psychedelics we get unspoken glimpses of Shulgin’s weariness. Even when his experimentation was sanctioned by the D.E.A., there was a tangible fear that his work might be destroyed by the government, just as the F.D.A. had chosen to burn the controversial research of Wilhem Reich. It was ultimately this fear that motivated him to make his research publicly available in the mid-90s. Ted illuminates the situation: “When I was in high school my father was never speaking on the telephone. He wanted to be in person, in private. He always thought the phones might be tapped and I never questioned that they might be tapped. It’s just that I couldn’t think of why they were wishing to persecute my father.”
And then comes the most heart-rending footage in the film. Shulgin in his lab listening to classical radio, dancing around separatory funnels in alchemical delight with a fireplace roaring beside him. Suddenly we see a team of Contra Costa police officers invading his lab yelling: “We got fire in here! We got ethyl ether in here! We want you outta here!” Listening to Shulgin stubbornly ask the police: “Did my wife invite you here?” is truly heartbreaking, enough to make my eyes well up with tears. The cop yells back: “All we’re gonna do is try to figure out what you’re doin’ in there and if what you’re doin’ is legal!” One cop grabs his arm while the others keep their distance as if merely looking at him might give rise to spontaneous hallucinations. And so it is, a chemist who should be awarded the Nobel Prize is condescendingly escorted into a police cruiser (where there may or may not be a heavy metal guitar riff screaming from the car stereo). It’s like watching Galileo being arrested by a mustachioed meathead wearing Oakleys on a neck dongle.
With these past contretemps with the police in mind, it is utterly astounding that Sauret was able to capture the Shulgins at home tripping, on what I can assume with reasonable certainty is 5-MeO-DALT. Beaming Ann says, “I’m almost at a +++.” To contextualize this, it’s like footage of George Washington Carver eating a peanut butter sandwich. We see a slightly glowing Shulgin winding his hands around an invisible object, and stirring the air with his pointer finger. Ann explains, “Ah, he’s trying to figure something out,” and it is these scenes that make Dirty Pictures such a success. Sauret captured some of the rarest and most secret moments, from the Shulgins in the throws of psychedelic experience to the back seat of a police cruiser. Although there are no sex scenes, the flavor of the Shulgins work is captured with great fidelity. My view of the film is too myopic to say whether it will have appeal for a general audience; that is, an audience ambivalent about psychedelics, but whether you have ingested the good doctor’s creations or not, Dirty Pictures illustrates the passion for exploration of the unknown that the Shulgins embody.
HAMILTON MORRIS is a frequent contributor to Vice and Harper's Magazine and the host of the webseries Hamilton's Pharmacopeia .