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Have a Good Trip Demystifies Psychedelics

Netflix’s documentary captures the newfound acceptability of mind-altering substances.

Courtesy of Netflix
Blake Anderson, Adam Devine in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics”

In 1955, Aldous Huxley, author and early champion of the psychedelic experience, returned to reality after the effects of 400 milligrams of mescaline had settled, brimming with, “the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.” Recounting the experience to Humphry Osmond, the English-Canadian psychiatrist who ran a psychedelic research laboratory out of Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Mental Hospital, Huxley almost reflexively backpedaled—like someone who knew they’d said something silly and was shamefully trying to save face: “The words, of course, have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle.”

It’s a problem that has bedeviled even the most gifted chroniclers of the psychedelic experience, Huxley among them. Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling How to Change Your Mind (a book that, almost single-handedly, has reinvested psychedelics with renewed seriousness and freshly minted mainstream acceptability), had his own struggles recounting his “LSD epiphany about the supreme importance of love” without “dilating on the delicate line between profundity and banality.” It’s a recurring paradox in psychedelic literature: the desire to describe an experience that, by its very nature, beggars description.

Have a Good Trip, a frothy and funny new Netflix original documentary, attempts to smash (or simply ignore) this paradox by offering a parade of interviews with famous individuals recounting their own psychedelic adventures. The late Carrie Fisher describes the embarrassment of being caught tripping in the Seychelles by a tour group of gawking Star Wars fans; Sting relates the radiant horror of assisting in a calf birthing while peaking on mescaline; rapper A$AP Rocky reports, with chilled-out nonchalance, taking acid and watching a rainbow explode from his member during orgasm. Accompanied by lively, candy-colored animations, these anecdotes cut against the more conventional wisdom that listening to other people’s “trip reports” is usually a massive chore, like hearing someone prattle on about a dream they had.

The film, however, runs up against a different problem. Packed with visual clichés—rainbows and mandalas and dancing bears and infinitely recursive kaleidoscopic geometry—it brings a hearty smattering of irony to the discussion of altered states. It opens with a montage of clips from educational films and vintage government anti-drug campaigns (“There’s nothing grown up or sophisticated about taking an LSD trip at all,” bleats then Governor Ronald Reagan), then cuts into its own mock-institutional framing device, in which a lab-coated scientist played by comedian Nick Offerman offers an abridged history of psychedelics.

Irony, of course, is the main line to Have A Good Trip’s target audience: nostalgic Gen Xers and elder millennials whose interest in high-power hallucinogens has likely been piqued by the so-called psychedelic renaissance. There is, I suspect, a certain level of knowing irony in other quarters of the psychedelic revival, be it in the popularity of neo-psychedelic rock bands like Tame Impala or King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (whose names alone suggest forked tongues firmly in cheek) or the elevation of pilled Grateful Dead tie-dye tour shirts to pricy, haute couture attire. Modern psychedelic explorers engage with the culture but avoid the effusions of earnestness that made the fizzled cultural revolutions of the boomer generation feel so embarrassing. The third eye is awakened and already rolling.

But can you really remove sincerity from the psychedelic experience, which has long been vaunted for its ability to facilitate beautiful insights about the power of capital-l Love; insights that may scan like mush when the drugs’ effects have faded but feel, in that exalted moment, absolutely real? And more to the point, should you want to? After all, one of the characteristics of the psychedelic trip is its capacity to obliterate what Pollan calls “the pitiless glare of irony.” It’s that feeling of “openness” or a universal “oneness” that reoccurs in psychedelic literature, cinema, and even the woolly anecdotes of friends. Irony has become a de facto cultural defense mechanism and is rendered vulnerable by drugs renowned for opening (or totally shattering) our psychic defenses.

Irony is perhaps useful in tempering a bit of the cultural bitterness associated with the movements of psychedelia’s last major saturation period: the 1960s. Psychedelic drugs fueled the artistic and political upheavals of America in the “Age of Aquarius,” which collapsed under the bummer-trip heaviness of Altamont, the Manson murders, and the national trauma of the Vietnam War. As author Tom O’Neill puts it in Chaos, his recent history that rethinks the era, “The decade’s subversive spirit had come on with too much fervor. Some reckoning was bound to come, or so it seemed in retrospect; the latent violence couldn’t contain itself forever.” This cultural comedown is often framed, in distinctly druggy terms, as a form of punishment for the ecstasies that preceded it—like a long, blue Monday of the American spirit.

The psychedelic revival’s ironic edge cuts some of this, allowing the curious-minded to savor the hallucinatory fruits of the era without getting swept up in its politics, which, as we all know, were tainted and stupid and hopelessly naïve. (New reporting about the period, including O’Neill’s book, strongly suggests that this sense of hopelessness and naïveté was a deliberate strategy by the powers-that-be to neutralize the energized leftist movements of the 1960s, but that’s another discussion altogether.) A veil of wizened, weary cynicism permits engagement in psychedelia without having to feel all that engaged with its history or its deeper, metaphysical implications.

There’s one sequence in Have a Good Trip that perfectly encapsulates this aesthetic of cynical distance. Actor Rob Cordry, of The Daily Show and Hot Tub Time Machine fame, tells a story about looking at himself in a mirror while tripping. He relates how, in this moment, he realized he was connected with a larger firmament of the universe and that his body was just an earthly shell, concealing some considerably more precious cargo. It’s an almost disarmingly earnest anecdote that slashes against many of the documentary’s more gleefully messed-up yarns. But the filmmakers deflate the story’s significance, by portraying Cordry (played by Paul Scheer) inside a large seashell.

Elsewhere in contemporary psychedelia, however, things aren’t quite as despairing. A group led by artist and activist Ido Hartogsohn recently launched the Psychedelic Video Museum. It’s an online portal collecting about 4,000 videos indexing various conceptions of psychedelia, from Emile Cohl’s The Hasher’s Delirium (a 1910 film depicting the effects of hashish) to bizarre, colorful animations from Hungary and Croatia, to a distinctly psychedelic-inspired 2013 Chinese government propaganda video. Beyond being a worthwhile rabbit hole to tumble down for a few hours, the collection showcases the manifold ways in which the psychedelic experience has been visually interpreted, across cultures, across whole centuries. It reveals the sort of sarcastic kitsch that predominates so much modern psychedelia as only one way of representing the experience among a range of more inventive, sincere, and profoundly strange alternatives.

The newfound acceptability of tripping out, as a clinically effective (in the words of wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow) “healing modality” risks eclipsing something of the strangeness that has long drawn inquisitive pathfinders into the psychedelic underground. These days, the ’60s-vintage government-subsidized educational films about kids on LSD flying out of windows are difficult to take seriously. Maybe someday we’ll feel the same about new agey videos of upper-middle-class managerial professionals swathed in L.L. Bean fleeces writhing through psilocybin retreats in order to juice up their “nature-connectedness score” (which is, apparently, a real thing).

Beyond its inherent qualities—that potential to facilitate major, life-changing revelations—the psychedelic experience is prized, in part, because it resists incorporation into not only systems of authority but our common understanding of reality itself. It offers an alternative not merely in terms of lifestyle but metaphysics. These drugs are deeply, meaningfully weird.

If nothing else, Have a Good Trip recenters this weirdness in our current reconception of psychedelia. As Nick Offerman’s lab scientist puts it: “Drugs can be dangerous, but they can also be hilarious.” The phrasing is a bit glib, but it speaks to the promise of ecstasy and revelation, of unveiling an uncanniness hidden behind day-to-day reality, that draws many people to these drugs. Like: Who knew Diedrich Bader, the horse-faced American actor best known for playing Drew Carey’s dim-witted best buddy for the better part of a decade on an ABC weeknight sitcom, fancied himself a seasoned psychonaut? In the sheer breadth of its interviewees, the film suggests that there are plenty of curious individuals in pursuit of that ineffable experience that, in the words of Timothy Leary, “extends beyond the language you know and the culture in which you exist.”