DOXA 2012: The Substance—Albert Hofmann’s LSD is a polished history lesson
The Substance—Albert Hofmann’s LSD (Switzerland/Germany)
This polished history shows how a single molecule changed North American society in the 20th century’s second half, altering the state of whatever it touched: religion, politics, art, medicine, warfare.
It’s a story that’s been told many times before, but The Substance is concise, finely made, and presided over by the very man who discovered LSD’s cosmos-rattling effects back in 1943: the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, stunningly alert and eloquent here, despite being interviewed shortly before his 100th birthday.
In effect, the entire kaleidoscopic tale unfolds here under his gaze. It starts with Hofmann’s first, inadvertent trip (when he accidently dosed himself while doing research on blood-circulation medicine) and ends with truly moving accounts of the role now played by psychedelics in the treatment of anxiety and depression in patients with terminal illnesses.
On the way, we witness LSD’s strange arc through society, its euphoric revelations and serious bummers. Psychiatric researchers in the ’50s hail it as a wonder drug, before bizarre, often terrifying experiments by the CIA try it out as a tool for brainwashing, and the U.S. Army tests it as a potential weapon for rendering enemies temporarily insane. (Footage of American soldiers attempting and failing to march in formation while ripped on acid provides welcome comic relief from the darkness being toyed with.)
Inevitably, we arrive at the unique blend of idealism and fatuous self-promotion that was Timothy Leary, and watch the drug’s reputation crash along with the hippie movement itself—much to Hofmann’s disgust. It’s been a long time since Haight-Ashbury became just one more gentrified neighbourhood, but the effects of the bad trip that took place there over 40 years ago still linger.
DOXA presents The Substance—Albert Hofmann’s LSD on May 8 at 3:45 p.m. at Pacific Cinémathèque.
Watch the trailer for The Substance—Albert Hofmann’s LSD.