Photo credit: longan drink

Much of the press Sebastián Silva’s move “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012” has gotten this summer has focused on the film’s female lead, Gaby Hoffmann, and the fact that she did not require a merkin or other artificial follicular embellishment for her nude scenes.

All the publicity I saw about this flick through July and most of August was “pubes this” and “pubes that.” And watch out, Haskell! They’re real!

I guess it’s fair game for cinema commentary. It’s certainly not the first bit of pubes news to hit the Hollywood beat. Amy Landecker scored at least one Huffington Post feature about her St. Louis Park, Minnesota backyard nude sunbathing scene in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” in 2009, for which she did wear a merkin. (Incidentally, Amy Landecker, as Chicago radio fans of a certain age might remember, is the daughter of veteran Windy City DJ John Records Landecker – and, yes, “Records” really is his middle name, he’ll have you know.)

I’m hair friendly – really, I’m whatever you want to do about it or not friendly – but that alone wasn’t enough to spark much interest in “Crystal Fairy,” until a friend forwarded a link to the trailer video on YouTube, and I watched it. That’s when it sank in that the movie wasn’t just about a hairy hippie chick and a smooth skinny Michael Cera, it was about the San Pedro cactus. THE San Pedro cactus. Of course, of course, the “magical cactus” from the title couldn’t be any other but the San Pedro cactus.

“Oh yes,” I said, with arched eyebrow, to my computer screen. “I know that cactus.”

“Crystal Fairy” is sort of an emotional coming of age movie, I guess. Michael Cera plays a twitchy, uptight American hanging out and partying in Chile, dropping Aldous Huxley quotes and complaining about the poor quality of the locally available drugs. With three brothers – played by the filmmaker’s real brothers – Cera travels in search of the fabled San Pedro cactus – the mescaline cactus. Along the way Gaby Hoffmann’s Crystal Fairy joins the group, and … stuff happens. I won’t give much more away – and if you haven’t seen the trailer, I recommend not watching it, because it reveals too much, in my opinion.

Michael Cera. Born June 7, 1988 in Brampton, Ontario, Canada.

Good grief. That was not very long ago.

When Michael Cera was about one year old, I was enjoying my fourth of five years of college in the middle of a vast Midwestern cornfield. There was no such thing as the Internet as we now know it, so I was still getting a lot of information via the mail. A bit like the title character in William Gaddis’s novel J R, I spent hours every week sending away for stuff – brochures, catalogs, newsletters, anything vaguely weird that I could get for free. Unlike JR Vansant, though, my tastes ran not to capitalism, but to esoterica and other forms of nerdery and geekitude.

At some point through this mail-order weirdness I came into a little paperback book called Legal Highs, by Adam Gottlieb. The book purported to describe all sorts of ways a mind could get blown without breaking any laws. Most of it was nutmeg, morning glory seeds, other bullshit like that, which you could tell from the description was bad news – “Contraindication: liver and kidney damage,” etc. I recall one entry – datura – being gleefully called out by the snaggle-bearded host of the PBS show “Victory Garden,” Roger Swain, for being “very hallucinogenic!” when he spotted a specimen blooming in someone’s greenhouse.

Then there was “San Pedro cactus.” There didn’t seem to be anything bad about it. It was a natural source of the psychedelic alkaloid 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine, commonly known as mescaline. It had long been used ceremonially by Native Americans. It was not listed as a controlled substance.

And it was available domestically, via mail-order from a number of botanical catalogs.

People can feel pretty free to knock the 1980s, but I’ll say this to them: In the 1980s we did not have to travel to Chile for San Pedro cactus; we could get it delivered by mail. Right in the middle of Cornpone, Illinois.

Long story short (I don’t remember the details, but I think it took some effort), a couple of us idiots worked together to find an order form for some cactus grower out in Arizona or California, which sold cuttings that gardeners could graft onto some other kind of cactus. So we had a big cutting of San Pedro sent to the then-current address of Casa del Stronger Than Dirt, for about $18 or $20, including shipping and handling, paid for by personal check or money order, I forget which. Maybe COD. (It was the 1980s, man, everyone ordered psychedelic drugs COD right to their front door, all the time. I’m telling you!)

So it showed up, without a hitch, this beautiful polygonal green sacred slab. The next Saturday, four or five of us gathered to … well, we weren’t 100% sure of what we were supposed to do with the thing. We spent a lot of energy obtaining it; I guess we kind of figured that would be the hard part and the rest would be easy.

Someone decided we should cut it up and boil it and make tea out of it. We chopped the cactus up and put it in a big pot with water and simmered away for an hour or two. It reeked like moldy socks. And we were getting very bored, listening to this stinky soup bubbling on the stove.

I don’t know why this was the case, but I remember the lighting being very harsh. And the music being wrong, just wrong. I remember pacing around and getting very short tempered. “This is not how this should be!” People were telling me to relax, and I was saying things like “How can I relax? This is the cactus! We have the cactus now! We have to do it right! The cactus!”

Two, two and a half hours pass, and someone decided fuck it, it was time. So we shut off the gas burner and started ladling the fluorescent yellow-green broth into cups. One whiff, and we all thought, “Maybe this would be better on ice.” So we tried that. Nobody could get more than a sip down. It was the bitterest thing any of us had ever tasted. Ear wax tasted like ice cream in comparison.

“OK, maybe it needs some sugar.” So we dumped some sugar in there and stirred it around. Now it was just as radioactive green, just as horribly bitter, and gritty.

So we gave up. I don’t think anyone got more than three ounces down their throats. Needless to say, nobody got off.

The very next day, I took that stupid Legal Highs book and threw it in the barbecue grill and set it on fire and burned it.

Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss is one of the many aliases used by a Tom Long of Chicago, Illinois (not to be confused with other Tom Longs of Chicago or elsewhere). Tom was active in xerox zine culture from the late ’80s through the early ’00s under the Colicky Baby Records and Tapes imprint, and several examples of Tom’s mail art periodicals are filed deeply and safely away at the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department in Iowa City and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York City. Every so often he posts things at http://colicky.blogspot.com.

One Comment on “Hair of the Cactus: Sebastián Silva’s “Crystal Fairy,” or, You Can’t Spell “OCD” Without “COD”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: