Breaking Glass // 2010 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // October 22nd, 2011
There are no casual experiments.
In 1912, German chemists first synthesized Methylenedioxymenthamphetamine as an intermediate step toward a blood coagulation drug. That chemical, shortened to MDMA, wasn't very interesting to those scientists and the compound was largely forgotten about. During the Cold War, American scientists began experimenting on the toxicity and psychoactive properties of many compounds, including MDMA. Their results were interesting, but most of that interest was in the counterculture. In the mid-1970s Dow chemist Alexander Shulgin got wind of its effects, synthesized himself in his lab, and started a process of self-experimentation with the drug. This journey of discovery led Shulgin to create hundreds of compounds to see how deeply he could travel into his mind. While much of his work stayed in the lab, his writings about MDMA did much to popularize the drug, which would come to be known on the street as Ecstacy.
Shulgin's journey is explored with fair detail in Etienne Sauret's documentary Dirty Pictures. The title refers to what Shulgin calls his identification system for his compounds, which are tiny drawings of the chemical makeup of each one scratched onto the vials. I'm no chemist but that seems like an awfully obscure way to mark stuff; he seems to know what he's doing, though, so who am I to argue. The documentary isn't nearly as substantial as it could be, focusing mostly on the human aspects of Shulgin, and not enough on the chemistry behind it. His story is told mainly through his own words, as well as those from those who worked with him, others in the field, and people who have indulged heavily in his findings. It gives a pretty complete picture of the man, but the film features so much opinion and few facts about MDMA itself that it comes off as a little shallow. The proponents of the drug are very touchy-feely about the subject, while opponents tend toward scare tactics about the dangers, so it's never clear who to trust.
Shulgin is a nutty guy who has partaken of his experiments for decades. His take on it has developed an air of tribal spiritualism and, while his chemical knowledge is astounding, he doesn't explain himself in those terms very well at all, especially for those not familiar with the substance or the feelings he describes. On the other end of the spectrum, we hear from another chemist who works in the same field, but without any firsthand knowledge of the substances. He is dismissive of the drugs and prefers to test these compounds on rats. How he thinks that this is more ethical than self-testing is a mystery to me, as is his reason for being in this ultra-specialized field to begin with, but he seems like a pretty conflicted character. If he has anything in common with Shulgin, it's his broad knowledge of chemistry coupled with a relative inability to explain himself.
Dirty Pictures is at once too much biography and not enough. We learn all sorts of minutia about Shulgin and his family, but almost nothing concrete about his work. We hear time and again how beneficial he is to the field, but then are left to watch him and his wife take pictures at outdoor raves. The history and the chemistry behind these issues are extremely interesting to me; watching kids trip is not. The politics surrounding Ecstacy and other such substances is even more fascinating, but we get nary a word about that beyond Shulgin's claim that the Constitution of the United States doesn't say anything about drug use. It doesn't say anything about seatbelt use, either, so I'm not sure how that argument is relevant. Nonetheless, there's nothing that is going to stop Shulgin from practicing what he preaches and, on a certain level, I can respect that.
Breaking Glass sent a screener for review of Dirty Pictures and I hope the final product is better than this. The image is poor, and the non-anamorphic transfer makes for a tiny windowbox to enjoy the film through. The persistent watermark on the screen is in the exact place that the interview subjects are identified, so I mostly have no idea who I heard from in the film. The sound is okay, with a little noise, but I didn't have any trouble understanding the people. There are no extras on the disc.
I really to wanted like Dirty Pictures; I'm interested in the subject and Shulgin has the potential to be a fascinating documentary character, as he's a total loon. The film, though, is too shallow to get to the heart of any of the issues, so I'm left to wonder about the point of it at all.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Breaking Glass
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site