From test tube to trippy
‘Dirty Pictures’ a portrait of chemist who
Sasha Shulgin is brilliant chemist, renowned in the field and adored by a legion of fans.
But he is no textbook white-labcoat science man. Shulgin, with his shock of white hair and bottle-cluttered lab, has followed a wildly unconventional path that veered early and far from the traditional trajectory of a chemist.
Shulgin specializes in psychedelics and their effects on the human mind. He is credited with discovering MDMA — later known as the street drug ecstasy — and over the course of decades synthesized and personally tested hundreds of mind-altering drugs with his wife, Ann. The pair does similar work with natural psychedelics found in mushrooms and cacti, and grows a cacti garden on their property.
Shulgin and his wife are the subjects of “Dirty Pictures,” a film by Etienne Sauret. The film shows Friday and Sunday at Mountainfilm, and the pair will be in Telluride for the festival.
It might be easy to think of this elderly chemist as a drug-lover, but the reality is more complex. Shulgin is impelled by a deep fascination with compounds and what they do to the mind, a sincere curiosity about psychedelics and how they could actually help humans.
He wonders: Why do humans have receptors for psychedelics in our brains? What is the mind? What does it look like? Could a human live and survive in a permanent state of bliss? Can drugs allow humans to communicate with a part of themselves that is otherwise closed off?
His mind is ever-whirring with these thoughts, uttered randomly as he totters around his dark, makeshift lab, mixing and synthesizing strange-looking compounds with furrowed brow.
His wife, Ann, a lay therapist, is a similarly compelling character. She muses casually about the connection between the natural intoxication of love and psychedelic drugs while cooking dinner, and at one point in the film tells the camera: “If we can’t make love on a drug, then something is … not right.”
Sauret said that while the film is about many things, it’s not about drugs.
“Really the film is about humanity, it is about relationship, it is about spirituality. It is about some people who are trying to do better for humanity.” He said.
And, he added, it’s about one exceptional relationship: the partnership of Sasha and Ann, an endearing thing to witness indeed.
“That’s an angle to the film that I certainly did not expect. To see two people who really listen and really do care for each other,” Sauret said. “In a way, it’s a love story.”
Sauret made the film over five years, spending hours with the Shulgins and traveling around the country to interview other chemists in the field, many of whom are good friends with Shulgin.
The film is told through the Shulgins, through scientists in labs, through images of Burning Man and raves and historic clips.
The media has dubbed Shulgin “the godfather of ecstasy” and police have raided his lab.
But for Shulgin, the controversy doesn’t stop him. And there is no concrete goal in sight. He is simply thirsty for information, curious with a singular, mad-scientist focus.
“It’s an absolutely marvelous continuous process of discovery,” he says in the film.
By Katie Klingsporn
Published: Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:07 PM CDT
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‘Dirty Pictures’ a portrait of chemist who discovered MDMA