Monday, 11 November 2013

Making Me Blue All The Time: Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine

It’s 1978. The scene is a discotheque in a shopping mall. Flashing lights, bippety-boppety basslines, guys with big sideburns and even bigger shirt collars. Everybody’s dancing and having a good time. Except for one man. Huge, bald, and very angry, the music seems to have sent him into a psychotic rage. He clutches his ears and screams before thrashing out wildly at anyone near him. 

Outside, on the mall’s main concourse, a political rally is in progress. People start streaming out of the disco, past the prospective voters. “There’s a bald man in there and he’s going bat shit!” screams one man as he rushes past. “Disco blue,” goes the vocal refrain in a song by The Humane Society for the Preservation of Good Music, “You're making me blue all the time”.

With its low production values and its rampaging jock, this could almost be a stand-alone short made by DJs Steve Dahl and Gerry Meier as part of their “Disco Sucks” campaign. But in fact it’s a scene from a very odd late 70s horror film called Blue Sunshine, directed by Jeff Lieberman. The story concerns a series of violent murders, each one committed by a different person who, up until that point, had seemed like a perfectly normal, upstanding member of the community – except for their occasional shortness of temper, their inexplicable headaches, and a strange tendency for their hair to fall out. 

It transpires that all the killers were at Stanford together ten years earlier. And all of them had bought some ‘experimental’ strain of LSD called ‘Blue Sunshine’ from a guy called Edward Flemming (played by Mark Goddard) who is now running for congress. One man, a Cornell graduate named Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), falsely accused of one of the crimes, is out to uncover the whole sordid affair.

Throughout the 70s, another Cornell graduate and former U.S. State Department employee called John D. Marks had been publishing a series of books highly critical of the CIA and its ‘cult of intelligence’. While Lieberman’s film was in production, Marks was turning reams of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act into a best-selling book called The Search for the Manchurian Candidate about the CIA’s experiments using LSD.

Amongst the laboratories Marks exposed as complicit in the CIA’s top secret MKULTRA project, was the psychology lab at Stanford. There it was that a young Ken Kesey, a student at the time, would volunteer and get his first taste of the drug he would later spread across the USA in a multi-coloured bus marked FURTHUR. “No one could enter the world of psychedelics without first passing, unawares,  through doors opened by the Agency," wrote Marks. "It would become a supreme irony that the CIA’s enormous search for weapons among drugs … would wind up helping to create the wandering uncontrollable minds of the counterculture.”

Shooting before the book came out, it’s unlikely that Lieberman was aware of Marks’s revelations and he doesn’t push his story quite that far. In the end, the aspiring congressman Flemming is just another ex-hippie ex-dealer now gone straight and heading for the upper echelons of American society, like so many other baby boomers around that time. Still the film packs the eerie paranoid punch of early Cronenberg and mid-70s Pakula. With its odd mix of political thriller and psychedelic horror, it’s hard for contemporary viewers not to think of MK ULTRA.

And it remains a curious cinematic monument to the death of the hippie dream. All the principal characters are of an age to have left college around ’68. The protagonist, Zipkin, is an outsider precisely because he’s the only one who hasn’t gone straight, cut his hair, and got a respectable job. But it’s hard to know whether, in Lieberman’s eyes, that makes him a hero or anti-hero. As Kim Newman puts it in his Nightmare Movies, “Lieberman sums up the spirit of 1968 when he has one potential freak out confess that the break-up of the Beatles affected her more than the break-up of her marriage. The flower children have become the Living Dead.”

The scene in the disco was apparently frequently used as a projected backdrop when bands like The Ramones played at CBGBs. Steve Severin and Robert Smith named their one-off duo record after the film (Severin, apparently was a fan). But the film has plenty to recommend it to music lovers on its own merits, with a very interesting score – full of Xenakis-y string glissandi and creepy pitched percussion – by Charles Gross.

Gross would later work on some pretty big films (Turner & Hooch, Air America, etc.), but this was one of his first features. Back in the 50s, he had studied under Darius Milhaud at Mills College, at around the same time that Milhaud’s other pupils, Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, were starting their (pre-San Francisco Tape Music Center) ‘Sonics’ concerts series at Mills which would give works by Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros their first performances. Milhaud had also taught Xenakis himself, a few years earlier in France.

Finally, Blue Sunshine can be seen as part of a trilogy of great mall films of the late 1970s. At the beginning of the decade, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had regarded the rise of shopping centres with wide-eyed optimism for all the ‘choice’ they offered consumers. But by 1978, certain cracks were beginning to appear in the veneer of this utopian gaze. Dawn of the Dead had made literal the trop of zombified mindless consumers. Two years earlier, the dystopian Logan’s Run had suggested that, in the future, everything will look like the Mall of America.

Blue Sunshine spends its final act showdown in a mall. It’s the place where all the film’s themes come together. A shopping mall, the film seems to be saying, is a place uniquely inhospitable to someone in the throes of a really bad acid flashback.