Sunday, September 23, 2007
Tune In, Trip Out
I had a chance to go on THE TRIP this afternoon, having not seen it in at least a decade. Roger Corman’s psychedelic classic, filmed from a Jack Nicholson screenplay, is hopelessly dated, yet intentionally so, as Corman wanted to perfectly capture a particular moment in time and space—specifically, the Southern California counterculture circa 1967. It’s hard to believe this was filmed during my lifetime (I was born in ’67), because it appears to capture an alien environment far removed from today’s Neocon-based reality.
The plot, what exists of it, is simple enough. Paul Grove (Peter Fonda), a director of television commercials facing depression because of his impending divorce from wife Sally (Susan Strasberg) and guilt because of the “sellout” status of his profession, talks things over with his psychologist buddy John (Bruce Dern). John’s remedy is to stop by a wildly painted hippie pad, score some LSD from pusher Max (Dennis Hopper), take it back to John’s house in the Hollywood hills, and send Paul on a “trip” with John serving as his guide to ensure he stays safe.
Paul sees lots of brilliantly colored lights, topless dancing women, a medieval dwarf, white horses being ridden on a beach by mysterious hooded figures, and a foggy Bronson Caverns. About halfway through his all-night trip, John turns his back for a moment, freeing Paul to split into the night and wander around the Sunset Strip in a druggy haze, pestering a straight woman (Barboura Morris) in a Laundromat and hooking up with sexy Salli Sachse.
Somehow, Corman managed to shoot a lot of random weird footage on a three-week schedule, almost all of it on actual locations. His mission was simple—to depict on film (as closely as it is possible to) an actual acid trip and do it in a neutral manner. Although Corman occasionally throws a bummer or two into Paul’s journey, THE TRIP is basically a 79-minute commercial for lysergic acid diethylamide, including instructions (provided by John) on how to prepare for a trip. Corman took LSD himself to prepare for producing this film, and his “research” shows in THE TRIP’s attention to detail. Of course, Nicholson, Hopper and Fonda were experienced drug takers who lent verisimilitude to the film’s depiction of the Sunset Strip scene. Ironically, Dern, an athlete who never smoked or did any form of hallucinogenic drug in his life, gives the movie’s best performance as Fonda’s calming influence.
I liked this movie quite a bit when I was younger, though my own experience in the drug scene is positively Dernian. I still like it, but for different reasons. The ‘60s hippie scene appears laughable to my eyes; I appreciate the love-everybody-and-who-gives-a-damn-how-long-my-hair-is aspects, but laying around all day getting high and screwing are tremendous wastes of time. However, Corman’s direction of THE TRIP is quite accomplished—possibly his finest work behind a camera. Who knows how much influence he had on his cast, who knew more about the culture than he, but the performances are fine all around, and Corman’s blocking and camerawork (veteran Arch Dalzell was the cinematographer), give THE TRIP an expansive look. The use of colored gels and psychedelic lighting are what gave THE TRIP its notoriety, but the way Corman frames his shots and moves his actors within them contributes to the movie’s fragmented nature.
THE TRIP is, to quote Corman, “pure cinema”—art that could only exist in the form of a motion picture, as its pleasures are almost solely visual. No story to follow nor heavy subtext to ponder (though there is some mild symbolism that means little), THE TRIP works when you allow it to wash over you, as you would an actual acid trip. Also with Dick Miller, Luana Anders, Angelo Rossitto, Michael Nader, Beach Dickerson and Michael Blodgett. The American Music Band handles the scoring. Corman had a falling out with AIP heads Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson over the literal and figurative disclaimers the studio placed at the beginning and end of THE TRIP (indicated by its imposing poster). Though he continued to direct for AIP, his output dropped sharply, and Corman began running his own studio, New World, just a few years later.