Alexander Shulgin, aka Sasha Shulgin, is a grandfatherly genius - a brilliant chemist with wonderfully wild eyebrows and white hair, and a gentle, funny soul with a giant smile and time for all of his fans. Yes, a chemist with fans. Formerly an employee at Dow, Shulgin's chemical experiments inadvertently led him to the discovery of MDMA's effects. (The drug itself was discovered by a German chemist at Merck but discarded as useless.) His continuing experiments, both in the lab and on himself and a handful of loved ones, have led to the discovery of countless psychotropic compounds, and a wealth of knowledge that scientists and psychopharmacologists will be studying for a long time to come. He and his wife Ann are the authors of PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and TiHKAL: A Continuation, which are both semi-autobiographical and also scientific, with extensive information in the second half of each book on how to synthesize the compounds Shulgin has created and the couple writes about. Despite Shulgin's dislike of the term, for better or worse, his most famous creation is known as Ecstasy.
The documentary about Shulgin, Dirty Pictures, recently screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its BAMcinemaFEST program. Directed by Etienne Sauret, the doc features in-depth interviews with the Shulgins, and an assortment of both friends and colleagues (or, in some cases, people who are both friends and colleagues). The majority of the people interviewed are leaders in the field of scientific research of psychoactive and/or psychedelic compounds on the brain as used in psychopharmacology, as with the young Dr. William Fantegrossi, Purdue University's Dr. David Nichols, and Johns Hopkins' Dr. Roland Griffiths. Also interviewed are Ted Shulgin, the so-called rebel son of Sasha, and longtime friend and former DEA agent Bob Sager, among others.
The interviews were incredibly difficult to get, and it took a long time for Sauret to gain the trust of the Shulgins themselves, Sager, and others, who opened up their hearts and their homes to the filmmaker in the course of the five years it took to make the film. Such tenacity is admirable. Sager himself was brave enough to disclose his disappointment with the work he did in the DEA and the institution itself - no small feat emotionally, it is obvious. The scenes of him with the Shulgins are fascinating and tender, and their friendship could be the topic of its own book or documentary itself. There were plenty other potential subjects who could not appear in the documentary for fear of professional or personal repercussions.
Sauret has unprecedented access to the Shulgins in their home and in Sasha's lab, which looks more like a charming hobbit hole than a place of science. (Sasha is still a registered chemist with the DEA and produces countless new compounds in his lab.) He follows them to Burning Man, where Shulgin is crowned king, to a party at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, Alex Grey's art gallery, and a variety of unnamed conferences. There is also remarkable footage of news reels and even a Phil Donahue clip about Ecstasy, where one woman in the audience says she used it to make peace with her terminal cancer.
Unfortunately, the final product could have used a much stronger hand in the editing process. Granted that Sauret spent five years on the film, and that the Shulgins themselves are fascinating subjects, it's understandable that it would be hard to narrow down what to include and what not to include. It's unfortunate that Dirty Pictures showed more of an emphasis on Burning Man and rave culture than institutes like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Associated for Psychedelic Studies), where researchers study the effects of psychedelics, MDMA, and medical marijuana on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, anxiety, depression, and other problems. At least one interlude of the Shulgins at a conference was from a MAPS conference in New York City where people gather to discuss in all seriousness the effects of his discoveries and the progress being made in this field. It's juxtaposed with clips of the Shulgins and Nichols at a party at Alex Grey's art gallery, black light painting included.
Dirty Pictures avoids some important issues, such as the state of Shulgin's health and the daily frustrations he faces as he ages. After a bout of pneumonia, Shulgin has no short-term memory. He is also mostly blind. The interviews were done before his illness; it would have been more or less impossible to do them now. Even now, Shulgin works with another chemist, Paul Daley, to create new compounds and finish two "doorstop" books on his chemical research and ideas for other compounds he hasn't had time to create yet. In the Q&A, Daley indicated how fast they were working to finish the book, but the reason why lingers.
Dirty Pictures has been well received by people who follow the work of Shulgin and his colleagues closely, even though (or perhaps especially because) many of the stories are from the Shulgins' books. It will also be interesting to people who aren't familiar at all with this world but would like to expand their horizons, as it were. Still, it's unclear what the narrative thrust of the documentary is and left me somewhat unsatisfied. Is Dirty Pictures about the Shulgins themselves and their relationship? Is it about his contributions to modern science and the promise of his compounds' effects on psychiatry? Is it about the ripple effect of his work on society? Although these questions remain unanswered, I do hope that the DVD will include the priceless footage of the Shulgins and their friends and colleagues as extras.