Dr. Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin is one of the 20th century’s greatest research chemists, a quirky genius that works out of a makeshift lab in the aging bungalow he shares with his wife in the hills above San Francisco. Why does such a genius live in relative obscurity? Because his life’s work is devoted to the study and production of psychedelic/hallucinogenic drugs, which he tests on himself, his wife and a small contingent of equally adventurous friends. He keeps each drug, along with meticulous notes on its production and effects, shelved for further exploration, each vial marked with a "dirty picture," Shulgin’s personal name for the diagrams of each drug’s chemical makeup he uses on the vial.
This documentary attempts to detail Shulgin’s life work and the effect this research has had on the field of psychiatry, as well as Shulgin’s personal life. Shulgin is perhaps most famous with popularizing MDMA, the scientific acronym for what most of us commonly refer to as "ecstasy", which was shown to him in 1967 by a graduate student he was advising. Already famous in chemistry circles for his exploration of psychedelic drugs, his experience with MDMA began a personal journey that led him to leave Dow, the chemical conglomerate, and strike off on his own to explore the effects and possible medical uses of these kinds of drugs. He was respected enough to be able to obtain a Schedule I license from the DEA–effectively allowing him to obtain for purposes of research any drug, legal or otherwise, he needed for experimentation–until being busted by that organization in 1994.
Now in his late eighties, Shulgin continues his work with the aid of a handful of friends while traveling the globe and attending various parties and raves organized in his honor by users of psychedelics. While the life and work of Shulgin seems a fascinating topic for a documentary, unfortunately, the information I have just included in my review came from outside research, not from Dirty Pictures, director Etienne Sauret’s attempt at a documentary. Numerous problems abound with this film.
One of the main problems is the lack of information to be found in Dirty Pictures. Broken into snippets of interviews and various other clips, the film alternates between bland depictions of the home life of an elderly couple (Shulgin is now in his eighties), their travels to various raves where they are treated like royalty, and various scientists–including Shulgin and his wife–expounding on the location of the mind or the possibility of the existence of a person’s soul. And while Sauret briefly touches upon Shulgin’s life, nothing of note is covered in any length that would help the viewer understand either this man’s life and work history or his true goals. For instance, there are a couple of very brief scenes lasting only a handful of seconds that show police raiding Shulgin’s home, but there is never any explanation for what brought this raid to bear and what the police were looking for.
The film is peppered with brief mentions of important events, but unless the viewer is curious enough to do a bit of further research into this man and his work, one would never know that certain events became defining periods in Shulgin’s life or the field of psychedelic research. An example is the extremely brief mention of the publishing of two books that took the chemistry circle by storm. Some hailed the books as breakthroughs in the field of psychedelic research. But the DEA, after raiding drugs labs across the U.S., found that the books were basically being used as cookbooks for various types of drugs. Instead of focusing on important events during Shulgin’s career, we are treated to extensive shots of trains going by (a metaphor for Shulgin’s early Ecstasy experimentation, but we don’t need this pounded home time and time again), shots of Shulgin and his wife at home performing mundane tasks such as cooking and feeding the roosters, far too many scenes of Shulgin being treated as a guru by stoned ravers in the desert, and endless streams of doctors and scientists attempting to argue over deep subjects like the location of the soul. The film never really traces Shulgin’s career and only vaguely attempts to answer why Shulgin has devoted his life to the study of psychedelics.
What could have been a fascinating and informative documentary ends up being choppy, less than informative and, at times, monotonous. Dirty Pictures is being released by Breaking Glass Pictures. For more information, go to breakingglasspictures.com.