WHAT IS AN ACID WESTERN?
First, let’s talk about acid.
WHAT IS ACID?
- Acid is a recreational drug. It rose to popularity in the 1960s due to psychotropic effects such as euphoria, intense hallucinations, and a sense that the user has attained a higher consciousness and access to spirituality.
- Acid is a corrosive substance that attacks whatever it touches, burning on contact, leaving behind a hissing puddle where once there was something familiar.
GREAT. SO WHAT IS AN ACID WESTERN?
First, let’s talk about Westerns.
FINE. WHAT IS A WESTERN?
“Western” refers to a film traditionally depicting 19th century life on the American frontier.
Westerns are as old as movies themselves. Some of the earliest moving images showed Annie Oakley and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody sharpshooting. The first film to use modern editing techniques was the silent Western The Great Train Robbery. During the nuclear panic of the 1950s, Westerns became the dominant genre thanks to their straightforward morality—good men in white hats defeated bad men in black ones—and escapist tales of virtuous citizens defending their homes from depraved marauders.
Westerns are comfort food. They’re modern myths. They’re one of the few uniquely American art forms. Westerns tell us who were are, who we were, and who we might hope to be.
GOT IT. SO WHAT IS AN ACID WESTERN?
All that stuff I just said? Fuck it up.
That’s the long and the short of it. The parameters of “Acid Western” are pretty loose, especially since the term wasn’t fully defined until several decades after its most prominent examples. It was first used (off-hand and dismissively) by Pauline Kael in 1971, but it was first identified as a genre in 1996 by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who went on to define it as “revisionist Westerns in which American history is reinterpreted to make room for peyote visions and related hallucinogenic experiences” that “overturn or ironically revise the relevant generic norms.”
Rosenbaum’s list of examples is freewheeling. He includes Monte Hellman’s contemporary road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop. He includes post-apocalyptic stories like Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa. He includes Alex Cox’s Walker, which takes place in Nicaragua. It’s a list emblematic of the line, increasingly memetic in film culture, “If you think about it, it’s REALLY a Western.” 1
My personal list of Acid Westerns is shorter, with two parameters:
- I like my Acid Westerns to take place in the 19th century American West (or some hallucinatory version thereof). Basically, I like my Westerns to be Westerns. I’m traditional like that.
- I like my Acid Westerns to be concerned, in some way or another, with religion and spirituality.
There are examples that violate my second rule—Monte Hellman’s The Shooting is hallucinatory enough that I’d canonize it—but my personal quartet of true Acid Westerns is united by a key element: filmmakers wrestling with and adapting religious traditions, synthesizing the spirit of the Wild West with the spirit of 1960s psychedelic culture.
A NOTE ON 1960s PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE
From the sanskrit verses that crept into The Beatles’ music after they discovered hallucinogens, to the cathedral where a berobed Eric Clapton shreds on an electric guitar as he leads disabled worshippers to a eucharist of pills and whiskey at the neon altar of Marilyn Monroe in Ken Russell’s Tommy, religious iconography was entwined with the psychedelic art of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it’s worth taking a minute to look at the roots.
In the late ‘50s, Huston Smith had literally written the book on world religion2, but he wanted to experience a mystical event himself. His friend Aldous Huxley introduced him to Timothy Leary, at that time a respectable psychologist studying hallucinogens at Harvard. Smith tripped with Leary in the legendary 1962 “Good Friday Experiment,” and upon sobering up, Smith announced, “It’s all true.” Together, Smith and Leary “turned on” other theologians, and by the end of the decade, Time magazine was reporting that tripping could provide visions akin to those of ancient mystics and saints. These drugs weren’t just a simulation of religious epiphany, they were the gateway mankind had sought for centuries. These drugs were a ticket to meet God.
Far out, man.
Let’s talk about some movies.
EL TOPO (1970)
El Topo is not a religious film.
That’s what the trailer claims. This film, a serious voice explains, “contains all religions.”
El Topo invented the midnight movie. For close to a year, it sold out word-of-mouth screenings in Chelsea, which The New York Times covered as “a secret rite of some importance” for a cult that included counterculture icons like John Lennon. “They’ve come to see the light,” The Village Voice reported of these acolytes.
“El Topo is not a Western,” the trailer claims. “It goes far beyond any Western.” But from the first frame, showing a black-clad gunslinger riding across a vast desert, it’s constructed from Western imagery. Something’s off, though—the gunslinger holds a black umbrella to shield the nude 7-year-old boy riding with him.
In short, this ain’t your daddy’s Western. It’s a transgressive upending of genre norms, featuring stomach-turning violence and sexuality that would have been shockingly aberrant to ‘70s audiences (and many 2017 ones), and a subterranean society inbred to the point of disability. It’s a film concerned more with imagery than plot, as our gunslinger, El Topo, battles four “great gun masters” in dreamlike, painterly tableaus—one is attended by a legless man strapped to the back of an armless man; another lounges in a canyon, clad in layers of fur, alongside an African lion.
All of which serves as backdrop for the spiritual musings of writer/director/star Alejandro Jodorowksy3. As the second master mentors El Topo, the montage is accompanied by a monologue that I’ll quote in full to convey the scope we’re dealing with:
You shoot to find yourself. I shoot to disappear. Perfection is losing yourself. And to lose yourself, you have to love. You don’t love. You destroy. You murder. And no one loves you, because when you think are giving, you are really taking away. I’ve surrendered myself to [my mother]. I’ve given her everything. She is within me. Her infinite love fills me. Whatever I do and say is dictated and sanctified by her. I detest anything that is mine because it removes me from her Divine Presence.
So whether it’s a religious film may be up for debate, but it’s unquestionably a mystical one, a mash-up of western religious iconography (crucifixes abound, from a skinned sheep pinned to a wall to El Topo throwing his arms wide and crying, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”), eastern religious iconography (the first master meditates cross-legged wearing a Nichiren Buddhist necklace), pagan imagery (this uncanny desert is described as a spiral, a symbol carved into tombs in Ireland thousands of years BCE), and occultist rituals (the second master’s mother reads tarot cards to predict El Topo’s arrival) all steeped in Jodorowsky’s deranged subconscious.
A director could choose any genre for this pan-religious fantasia. But something feels natural about Jodorowsky’s appropriation of classic Western tropes. The American West in the 19th century was a wild space devoid of boundaries and rules, the desert a blank canvas where settlers could create a new society in whatever image they chose.
If you’re Alejandro Jodorowsky in the late ‘60s, hoping to push mankind towards ultimate enlightenment through an alchemical blend of global spirituality, then Hollywood legends of new frontiers seem like an ideal playset to build your hybridized theology.
A NOTE ON GUNS
Valiant knights dueled with swords. Cowboys dueled with guns. In Westerns, a gun is an extension of a man’s will and strength. It’s a tool of power and protection, of intimidation and security. A man’s gun is worthy of solemn respect and loving care.
It’s also not too difficult to see guns as representing dicks.
Zachariah was billed as “the first Electric Western,” and after it recouped half its budget, it became the only one.
And that’s too bad, because while it’s a flawed film, it’s also a deeply charming one. A sort of Walt Disney’s El Topo, it tells a similar story of a gunslinger meeting challenges and learning lessons across a phantasmagorical vision of the frontier. But this Acid Western is the brainchild not of a Zen Chilean madman but of the American comedy troupe, The Firesign Theatre. Give or take a topless go-go dancer, this may be the only Acid Western that’s fun for the whole family.
It’s also a loose adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which details a Hindu youth’s quest for enlightenment. It’s also a musical featuring Country Joe and the Fish as incompetent bank robbers who play electric rock, and The James Gang as backup for a gunslinger played by Elvin Jones, who follows a shootout with a blistering two-minute drum solo (these anachronisms going unaddressed). Last but not least, it’s a barely-subtextual love story between two men (one of them played by an impossibly beautiful 21-year-old Don Johnson).
It’s a tough sell today, and would have been even more so in 1971, when The New York Times accused it of “propagandizing homosexual love.” It’s a film that embraces the counterculture, from nodding towards the generation gap (“You call this dumb stupid noise MUSIC?” a bar patron snarls at the “weirdos” enjoying Country Joe and the Fish) to an ending in which our heroes throw away their guns after learning the joys of a peaceful existence.
The parallels to Siddhartha both clarify and confuse Zachariah’s goals. In Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment, he faces spiritual, physical, and material temptations, before finding peace in the holy word Om and awakening to the timeless cycles that unify the world. The story is entwined with Buddhist philosophy, but there’s no reason its themes couldn’t be applied to a Western framework.
But Zachariah stumbles. The filmmakers try to make use of our mythic associations with gunslingers, but what guns represent is never clear. As Siddhartha seeks spiritual awakening, Zachariah seeks mastery as a gunfighter4. Learning to use his weapon is equated with a path to higher consciousness—maybe we must understand our inner forces before we can control them.
But by the midpoint, Zachariah has realized the futility of violence and abandoned his quest, a huge divergence from Siddhartha’s arc. Siddhartha’s journey is a noble one, while Zachariah’s is humbling. Siddhartha is also narratively economic, while Zachariah takes a narrative cul de sac with the brief appearance of a seductress whose fetish for gunslingers either equates the degeneracy of one type of gunplay with another, or exemplifies the homosexual propaganda that got The New York Times so worked up.
The stories land in similar places—Zachariah’s mentor teaches him that the world is “changing all the time. The mountain keeps a record of it, page by page. Everything in nature leaves its mark.” Meanwhile, Siddhartha’s mentor teaches him that “the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean, and in the mountains.” Everything is connected, a concept resonant to both Buddhist philosophy and the Age of Aquarius. But one story manages to convey it far more efficiently than the other.
Maybe trying to make a mainstream Acid Western was folly. Or maybe while they wrote, the Firesign Theater was “really into farming,” as Zachariah describes himself when lighting a joint. Too much farming can lead to a scattered plot.
A NOTE ON WESTERNS AND COUNTERCULTURE
One of the best ideas in Zachariah is the equation of rock bands with outlaws, and it’s not a unique notion. Western iconography had a minor renaissance in the pop art of the Vietnam era—if you see yourself as a disruptive renegade, then America’s lawless legends are perfect idols. Buckskin coats were worn by a tripping Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, and a hustling Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Girls in beaded headbands cheered from the crowd as Cher swayed in turquoise chains, and Jim Morrison gyrated in a concho belt. Andy Warhol appropriated Western iconography to X-rated effect in his homosexploitation feature Lonesome Cowboys5.
Young people wanted to run counter to their parents’ culture, and stealing dad’s favorite genre and splattering it with drugs and sex was a perfect way to do it. But there was a fetishization to the appropriation, too. Much as they wanted to smash their parents’ idols, they had been sitting at Dad’s feet as he watched Gunsmoke. Spend enough of your childhood basking in that glow, you can’t help building some nostalgia.
Who doesn’t want to be a cowboy?
GREASER’S PALACE (1972)
It’s charitable to call Greaser’s Palace a movie. Robert Downey Sr.6 wrote a script, and hired actors to perform it, but the results push the definition of storytelling about as far as you can without ending up in Dadaist anti-narrative.
The premise is simpler than those of El Topo and Zachariah: A capricious baron rules over a New Mexico town, but his power is challenged by the arrival of a charismatic young man who performs miracles while preaching love. It’s a good story. You might call it the greatest ever told.
The devil’s in the details, though, and this baron’s name is Seaweedhead, his town is stalked by a surly bed-sheet ghost who burns people with cigars, and the messiah is a zoot-suited singer named Jesse who arrives by parachute bearing warnings of a monster named Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana.
If El Topo feels like the art of a cracked visionary, Greaser’s Palace feels like the distracted mutterings of a distressed mind. It’s a raw movie marked by silence and grunts; Pythonesque humor (after Jesse heals a cripple, the man drops his crutch and crawls off cheering, “I can crawl again!”); and transgressive interludes without narrative purpose, as when Jesse visits a Mexican dwarf and his wife Spitunia, who wears a nightgown and bonnet, and, we’re assured by her husband, “has a very nice clit,” despite being played by a bearded man in late middle age.
While other Acid Westerns blend theologies, Greaser’s Palace is explicitly a passion play, and it features striking revisions of Christian concepts. Jesse repeatedly resurrects Seaweedhead’s son (killed each time by an irritated Seaweedhead), after which the son reports, “I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile!” This seems to satisfy the townsfolk’s desperation to know if there’s life after death, but by the final resurrection, Seadweedhead’s son is tired of this afterlife and content to live on Earth, a surprisingly coherent message for an anarchic film. And it all ends on a typically strange but curiously beautiful note, as Jesse and the surly ghost meet in the desert for a darkly comic illustration of the trinity:
JESSE: Where’s father?
GHOST: Who knows?
JESSE: I don’t want to leave. I wish I were you.
GHOST: Nobody knows who I am. And nobody cares, either.
Westerns again prove a sturdy framework for a religious tale. New Mexico’s wastelands resemble the Middle East locations of standard Biblical epics, and a community creating itself out of rough wood and ferocious violence stands in well for ancient cultures scrabbling towards modern society.
Amidst settlers who seem driven half-mad by exposure and whiskey, a white-gloved showman dancing soft-shoe in the middle of a lake seems as natural as anything else. With a hallucinatory story that threatens to collapse at any moment, but provocative religious ideas made even more effective through a frontier lens, the Acid Western may have found its groove.
A NOTE ON THE NEXT 24 YEARS
And then, even by Rosenbaum’s definition, the Acid Western mostly went dormant. Maybe the counterculture grew up. Maybe psychedelics weren’t the jolt horse operas needed to survive. Maybe nothing gold can stay.
DEAD MAN (1996)
Dead Man retroactively invented the Acid Western. When Rosenbaum defined the term, it was in his Chicago Reader review of this film he called “the fulfillment of a cherished counterculture dream.” After two and a half decades, writer/director Jim Jarmusch had arrived to create a film with the spirit of this most scattered and nebulous of traditions, but a level of skill and craft that dares to provide an Acid Western that’s actually watchable.
While never made explicit, there’s a common interpretation that Dead Man takes place in a liminal stage between death and afterlife. At the outset, protagonist William Blake arrives in the savage frontier town of Machine—a name evocative of “ghost in the machine,” a term referring to the soul inside a body—where he’s promptly shot and blacks out. He’s revived by Nobody, a Native American man who guides him on a hallucinatory journey through a forest that seems to exist on the edge of reason, heading towards “the bridge made of waters” where Blake will travel to “the next level of the world.”
Native American spirituality is explicitly woven into Dean Man’s plot, but the story resonates with centuries of global ideas concerning the soul’s passage to the afterlife. The character of Nobody calls to mind Virgil, Dante’s guide through inferno and purgatory en route to paradise; the bridge made of waters evokes the River Styx, with the tobacco Blake seemingly requires before his journey recalling the coins owed to the ferryman. The film can even be seen as a reworking of The Tibetan Book of the Dead7—or Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State—designed to be read to souls as they navigate the gulf between death and rebirth, much as Nobody provides constant instructions to Blake as he makes his journey.
If Dead Man does take place in this liminal space, then the Western is an ideal vehicle. In the 1870s, America was in a liminal phase of its own, reconstructing after the trauma of the Civil War, striving towards a unified identity. The frontier was a liminal space between wilderness and civilization, as we see when Blake enters Machine, a tapestry of grime, disease, and al fresco blowjobs. The characters Blake encounters in the woods hover between sanity and lunacy—fur traders argue over whose turn it is to sodomize a guest, while a bounty hunter murders his colleague for the crime of irritation before feasting on his body. The American West at the dusk of the 19th century was a world hovering precariously between oblivion and some uncertain future.
“You are leaving this world,” The Tibetan Book of the Dead reads. “Do not cling to this life! Even if you remain attached and clinging, you do not have the power to stay.”
SEARCHERS AND SEEKERS
In the 19th century, there was a great migration. Waves of searchers poured west, yearning for something better, something they knew was there even if they couldn’t quite envision it.
In the 20th, there was another. These seekers, who wore flowers in their hair on the way to the promised land of San Francisco, carried acid, and a slim book written by Timothy Leary two years after he introduced Huston Smith to God: The Psychedelic Experience – A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Rather than instructions for the soul as it began a journey, these were instructions for the mind as it began a trip.
“This is now the hour of death and rebirth,” Leary wrote.
Acid was heading west. And acid changes whatever it touches.
“This is the ceaseless transformation of energy.”
Not far away, fading box office had put the Western on life support. Hollywood scrambled to keep the dream of the white-hatted hero alive. The godfathers of the genre grappled with strange new terms and ideas—revisionist Western. Antihero. Moral ambiguity.
“Do not fear it. Surrender to it.”
Not far away, though, the chemical reactions were already beginning. El Topo was putting on his black hat. Everything was about to change.
- A sampling I’ve encountered: Breaking Bad (OK, but don’t you just mean it’s a crime story set in the West?); Logan (sure, as much as a futuristic superhero movie can be a Western); Star Wars (fine, it uses Western tropes, but if you rank it as #1 on your Top Westerns list, I can’t take you in good faith); The Dark Knight Rises (cited as a remake “in a way” of Unforgiven, and sorry, that’s a bridge too far). In a True West Magazine interview, Walter Hill was asked if 48 Hrs. is a Western, to which he responded, “All movies are Westerns,” which is either food for thought, or an exhausted filmmaker throwing up his hands.
- The World’s Religions, over three million copies sold
- Though I find his work interesting, it should never go unsaid that Jodorowsky has not just admitted, but boasted that the sexual assault El Topo commits on his onscreen companion was unsimulated. It’s a revolting disclosure that casts a pall over the artistic merit of the film. Little information is available on his costar (Mara Lorenzio, who has no other film credits) except that Jodorowsky “found [her] by accident” in Mexico, and that she was a rape survivor. But as he says with virtually no apparent self-awareness in the official tie-in book: “When I wanted to do the rape scene, I explained to her that I was going to hit her and rape her….I said, ‘I’m not going to rehearse. There will be only one take because it will be impossible to repeat’….And I really…I really…I really raped her. And she screamed….Fantastic scene. A very, very strong scene.”
- The film’s ultimate gunfighter is Job Cain, a name drawn from two Biblical characters marked by suffering and guilt, which suggests the inner toll taken by killing
- Working title: The Glory of Fuck
- A notable trivia item: Greaser’s Palace features a 7-year-old Robert Downey Jr. in his second on-screen appearance, playing the (more crucial than it sounds, albeit wordless) role of “Small boy in covered wagon,” two years after his debut in his father’s film Pound.
- Blake is shot after spending the night with a woman named Thel, which translates in Tibetan to “seal,” as in what happens to his fate after their encounter. There’s a good chance this isn’t significant, but I combed through Tibetan-to-English dictionaries so you better believe I’m mentioning it.