At one point, Dirty Pictures transports us to Burning Man, where we watch a pack of free spirits cruising around the desert in flame-spewing tentacle-mobiles. Which is exactly the kind of blissy neon bacchanalia that springs to mind when we think of recreational Ecstasy use. But what started it all?
Here, filmmaker Étienne Sauret gives us an endearing portrait of Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the man who first popularized MDMA. A former Dow Chemical drug developer who went off the reservation long ago, Shulgin continues his homebrew experiments to this day.
Quiet, thoughtful, and meandering, Dirty Pictures shows him puttering in his woodshed lab (a wild alchemist’s tangle), getting raided by the DEA, and hanging out with his fellow subversive chemists. A celebration of invention rather than a pro-drug screed — the “dirty pictures” are actually the molecular diagrams Shulgin lovingly draws on the outside of his chemical vials — the film is worth getting ecstatic about.