Tom (1972)

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Institution: Internet Archive
Collection: Prelinger Archives

Running time: 18m 52s
Source film:  16mm; color; sound
Year: 1972
Director: Peter Schnitzler
Production: State of Georgia Department of Education Film Library; Extension Media Center, UCLA; National Institute of Mental Health
Photography/Camera: Neil Reichline
Editor: Howard Lester
Sound: Alvin Tokunow
Production Manager: Edward Hutner
Production Assistants: Kathy, McGinnis, Gene Kopp

After spending several days as the primary subject of a cinéma vérité documentary — surfing, making pottery, and drinking hallucinogenic tea before a vision quest — is it possible to recede into the background of normal life and just move on? We’re unlikely to ever know what became of the long-haired, mustachioed focus of the 1972 film, Tom — he’d be in his early 70s today — but if his belief system held firm through his golden years, he’s probably somewhere in the hills of northern California, playing the flute in between ruminations on the meaning of life.

Tom is an American hippie in his early to mid-20s. There are aspects of his life that epitomize what many would regard as, and Tom himself might call, the “archetypal dropout existence.” He lives in what appears to be a “co-op” living arrangement in San Francisco and doesn’t seem to have steady work, though he makes and sells pottery to his circle of friends and acquaintances, and creates Tarot-themed printing woodblocks. (During an interview at an employment office, he reveals that he quit one recent job when he discovered they were selling the insecticide, DDT). He dabbles in music, likes animals, and is a proponent of psychedelic drugs. (Hallucinogenic mushrooms are the only organic psychedelic he hasn’t done). In an interesting parallel to his Catholic upbringing, he has an almost holy reverence for psychedelic experiences, which he calls “sacraments” on more than one occasion in the film. Due to the barrage of stimuli and its connectedness to nature, surfing also qualifies as psychedelic under his definition.

“I used to be a surfer, first and foremost. Now I might think, well, I’m really a mammal.”

The film closes with Tom and his friends drinking hallucinogenic tea (derived from either mescaline or peyote) before wandering outside to explore. Trips like these “expose you to levels of play that you wouldn’t be comfortable with otherwise,” according to Tom, and we see him and his friends painting shapes on each other’s faces, playing music, and sitting still in the woods.

Tom drinks tea
Tom drinks a special tea.

Similar to the other films in The Social Seminar series — of which there were five — this film examines its subject’s recreational drug use in the context of his or her full life without any explicit critique. Among all of the films, though, Tom may be the most focused on the drug experience, and the most revealing in the subject’s own philosophical rationale behind his drug or drugs of choice.

In a unique twist, director Peter Schnitzler appeared as “Walking Corpse” in Carnival of Souls, the sole feature film effort of Shake Hands with Danger director, Herk Harvey.  (Both men worked at the industrial film company, Centron Corporation in Lawrence, Kansas).


2 thoughts on “Tom (1972)”

  1. To update…Tom, my brother (I’m in the film briefly), is a well known artisan living on an island in the northwest and working with wood and inlay. Many homes and businesses are sold using his name and reputation from his fine interiors. He hasn’t changed that much, always a seeker,voracious reader, and perfectionist when it comes to art. He is a devoted father and grandfather and is an active member of the native american church.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Joanie. I’m thrilled that you stumbled upon us! Glad to hear that Tom is still creating and doing well, he seems like such an interesting person based on the film.


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