I feel like a bit of an asshole giving a negative review of The Terence McKenna Omnibus 2012 when its creators went to well-intentioned, laborious lengths to put together a collection of McKenna video excerpts without being paid a single red cent for their efforts. I would have graciously kept my negative assessment of the result to myself except that I was asked to review this. Parts of it are cleverly done. It would probably be cool to have it on in the background at a party in someone’s industrial-looking loft where old couches and excess bong hits were exerting a gravitational pull toward the passive absorption of McKenna thought bling in shuffle mode with video effects. To actually review something like this, however, becomes meaningful only when we see it as yet another representative of what I call surrealism fatigue—a mediocre aesthetic that has come to be ubiquitous and increasingly clichéd and boring.
Before I get into the problem of surrealism fatigue, a quick note about the McKenna content presented in the Omnibus. There is a lot of emphasis on Terence’s discredited Time Wave 2000 software and theory. It seems like the compilers were not even aware that they were embarrassing Terence by emphasizing Time Wave and especially during 2012, the year of its probable complete disconfirmation. Terence was already being embarrassed by Time Wave in the spring of 1996 when it predicted this huge descent into novelty that didn’t happen. I talked to Terence about the flaws in Time Wave in the late spring of 1996 and wrote about that here: A Mutant Convergence—How John Major Jenkins, Jonathan Zap and Terence McKenna Met During a Weekend of High Strangeness in 1996.
The Omnibus actually includes an excerpt where Terence describes Time Wave as “my greatest trick.” Unfortunately, it was the greatest trick that Terence played on himself. Terence, like many other esoteric researchers, did not sufficiently recognize the trickster aspect of the unconscious. He did not realize that following the mushroom goddess speaking in his head was not necessarily more reliable than someone following the voice of Jesus or Yahweh speaking in their head. I write about this classic pitfall, and Terence’s relationship to 2012 here: Carnival 2012—A Psychological Study of the 2012 Phenomenon and the 22 Classic Pitfalls and Blind Spots of Esoteric Research. The ideas underlying the false specifics of the Time Wave theory (seasons of time where habit and novelty fluctuate) were important and brilliant, but to show Terence expounding about the Time Wave software is like someone posting online a photo you hoped was lost forever of you dressed up in 1970s disco attire. They are embarrassing the man, and not even aware that they are highlighting an embarrassment. Terence’s image has probably taken enough hits in 2012 and I tried to put those in perspective here: On the Disillusioning Revelations about Terence McKenna. I have also written much about why we should continue to think of Terence as a visionary genius and devote considerable space to his crucial ideas in my recent book, Crossing the Event Horizon—Human Metamorphosis and the Singularity Archetype.
The problem with surrealist anything—film, video, painting, story, etc. is that it has to be done by a master to be any good. Screenplay and story structure guru Bob McKee explained this in one of his screenplay seminars I attended in the Eighties. Classic story structure is classic because it works with universal aspects of human psychology. For an anti-structural story or movie to work takes a master. Going surreal in any art form usually takes exceptional skill. Before Salvador Dalí ever melted a clock, he could paint like a Renaissance master. If it wasn’t for his highly skilled and disciplined ability to render surreal forms with perfect draftsman-like accuracy, Dalí ‘s paintings would just be messes.
When it comes to surrealized movies and video, it usually takes a master to do them right. For every David Lynch out there, we can find thousands of film school students who use surrealism as a way to camouflage mediocrity and disguise an absence of content. People who are trying to prove themselves creatively fear mediocrity and often try to hide lack of technique and content from themselves and others by going surreal. It takes a lot of work to master even the basics of an art form. Efforts in that direction are likely to look like the beginner’s efforts that they are. A mediocre strategy is to shortcut learning the basics and attempt to hide lack of content with a veneer of surrealism. It takes some training to write in iambic pentameter, but to throw a bunch of words together with no particular structure—who dares say it’s not poetry? Not everyone can paint a skillful, representational portrait, but anyone can put a few geometric shapes on a canvass and call themselves an abstract expressionist. Some art forms are easier to use as a shortcut to artiness than others. For example, it’s hard to fake being a classical pianist. If you don’t have the skill to play Rachmaninoff, it will be painfully obvious to everybody. It’s easy, however, to put a camera around your neck and say you are a photographer.
When it comes to expressing profound ideas eloquently, Terence was a master. Terence was the best speaker of the English language I’ve ever encountered, and Alan Watts was the second best. Before either of these two pushed the language envelope to communicate profound ideas in uniquely eloquent ways, they had mastered the basics of eloquent speech. They were organized speakers who spoke in complete sentences and learned how to develop a theme and then carefully branch off of it without confusing their audience. If you listen to one of Terence’s extended raps, from a recording of an entire weekend seminar he taught at Omega to the Alien Dreamtime rap he did to go with the trance techno of Space Time Continuum, his speech is exquisitely structured. He transitions between ideas and subjects with a confident precision that is mesmerizing and that leads you on a journey of ideas, a journey that often takes you through a surreal cognitive landscape rendered with the precision of a Salvador Dalí.
One enormous flaw in the Omnibus is that the makers of it decide to do the surrealizing for Terence instead of allowing him to do it. Instead of using Terence’s numerous existing extended raps, they decided to string together excerpts and attempt some thematic unity by giving names to the different parts. Instead of the mesmerizing journey that only Terence could guide you through, their structure is more like a randomized cascade of Terence thought bling. There are individual sparkly things and exquisite sentences, but thematic continuity does not happen. Listening to his ideas in shuffle mode, even with so much familiarity with them, left me not sure if I was coming or going. It would be like someone producing a “Beethoven Omnibus” consisting of snippets of his symphonies, and concertos and so forth strung together not by Beethoven, but by the Omnibus makers. I’d rather listen to the complete symphonies structured the way Beethoven structured them. This is another refuge for mediocrity in post-modernist art—the endless retro, the endless remixing of the work of others. Once in a while it improves on the original, but mostly it just shows a lack of new ideas.
There are ways to use surrealism effectively without having to be a master of a medium. For example, my friend Mathael recently posted a video collage he made that is very effectively paired with a profound rap by Alan Watts: Art Collage #1 – OM Is Where The Heart Is. Mathael doesn’t make the mistake the Omnibus makes. He lets Watts do a continuous rap, and doesn’t try to remix his words via a cascade of excerpts. Like McKenna, Watts was a master of structuring his own talks, and Mathael doesn’t try to restructure them for him. Second, Mathael adds some original content in that the collage is his own creation rather than say shots of Terence speaking passed through a series of the usual filters and effects. Watts’ unedited words are mesmerizing, and Mathael’s collage runs in parallel. Although his collage wasn’t created to correspond moment-by-moment to what Watts is saying, it often seems to. Mathael has high-level computer skills, but doesn’t have formal training as an artist. He gets around this by using existing images, but you sense a thematically cohesive intelligence behind the arrangement of images.
Surrealism can be combined effectively with basic skills when the artist has original ideas and is precise and confident in their execution. I’ve already offended impartiality by using the work of a friend as an example, so I might as well go all in and use my dad’s paintings as my next illustration. If you scroll quickly through this gallery I threw together of some of my dad’s paintings (Nocturnal Images—The Paintings of Nathan Zap) you will see that his oil painting technique is fairly basic and he had no formal training. What he did have, however, was very original ideas that he expressed with confident precision. His images are bizarre, but not busy. He knew exactly what he wanted and that’s what he gives you. Sloppy surrealism is often busy, a piling on of randomly related details to obscure a lack of central themes.
Often, the most potent use of surrealism is when it is used sparingly. What made the old, black and white Twilight Zone episodes so powerful is that one surreal element would be added to otherwise highly realistic characters and situations. If you’re going to make a vampire movie, keep the rules of being a vampire consistent. If you’ve got vampires in your movie, maybe you shouldn’t mix in UFOs, Big Foot, and out-of-control nanotechnology as well. If you don’t know what you’re doing, and you start piling on surreal elements, your movie loses verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief becomes unwilling, and the viewer disassociates
Finally, if you are going to go surreal, try to avoid techniques that have been done so much that they are far more clichéd than surreal. We’ve all seen the filters that come with Apple’s Photo Booth and Instagram. We’ve all seen video images solarized and color shifted. If you’re going to take these standard effects and make them work, you’ve got to be really, really good because they’ve been done to death. If you are not Salvador Dalí and want to be a surrealist painter, it is probably best to avoid melted clocks. Don’t get me wrong, I like melted clocks as much as the next guy, but Salvador himself overdid them and made what was surreal in his classic painting, The Persistence of Memory, a dreadful Dalí cliché by the time he was churning out melted clock lithographs, etc. Similarly, the first fifty times I saw retro, staticky video effects that added cathode ray video distortions to digitized video, it seemed cool. Now that every other cable show on ancient aliens or whatever uses those same effects, what was once original is now a cliché. When Richard Linklater used rotoscope animation in his films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. it was cool and effective. However, when in 2005 the ad agency Euro RSCG Worldwide decided to launch seven years of “Talk to Chuck” TV commercials for Charles Schwab using the rotoscope technique (may those responsible suffer for eternity trapped in a Salvador Dalí painting), rotoscoping (at least for people who watch commercial television) was effectively ruined and unfortunately has to get tossed into the dustbin of surrealizing clichés along with melted clocks and cathode ray retro video effects. So if you’re going to take a visionary genius like Terence McKenna who, when asked what we could do to further evolutionary metamorphosis, said “Push the art pedal to the metal,” and seven years into Charles Schwab rotoscoped TV commercials you are going to do cheap, digital rotoscoping of Terence’s old videos, don’t be surprised if bored passengers are stepping off of your Omnibus.