Monday, November 10, 2008

Weighing In: The Trip

1967 was a good year for the movies. Films like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn), The Graduate (Mike Nichols), Who's That Knocking At My Door (Martin Scorsese) and Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg) brought about a new era of Hollywood, and names like Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman went from relative obscurity to industry A- listers. But between these gems – and I mean, very between – lies an unpolished stone; a film that put another group of young, unknown actors on the radar. The Trip (1967), was arguably Hollywood's first mainstream acknowledgment of the burgeoning 60's counterculture/psychedelic scene. While it is generally accepted that Bonnie and Clyde ushered in the "New Hollywood" movement, The Trip was in its own right, a pretty groundbreaking film itself -- at least as far as B movies go. And while it didn't contain the innovative camera work, spewing blood and gratuitous violence -- all which have become industry standards -- like its contemporary Bonnie and Clyde, it did however supply a generous helping of pot smoking, topless dancers, Owsley-like visual effects, and maybe even -- and I'm reaching here -- a subtle nod to the French New Wave. But more seriously, The Trip unquestionably helped pave the way for films like Easy Rider, which itself played a critical role in developing the "New Hollywood" era.

The Trip was produced and directed by B movie extraordinaire, Roger Corman (The Terror, The Edgar Allan Poe canon) and the screenplay was written by a then relatively unknown frequent guest star of The Andy Griffith Show named Jack Nicholson. The film begins with Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) in the midst of an existential crisis after a recent (or soon to be) break-up with his unfaithful lover, Sally (Susan Strasberg). In search of "answers," Paul hooks up with pal John (Bruce Dern) whose role is part drug advocate, part spiritual mentor. John, nice guy that he is, introduces Paul to a world of promiscuous women, wacked-out hippies and as the title suggests, every psychedelic drug known to man (at least at the time). After all, that's what friends are for, right?

In one cheeky early scene, Paul has a random, brief encounter with a blond nymphomaniac who excitedly strokes a very phallic strelitzia -- a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of what's in store for Paul should he decide to just say "yes." This is Corman exploitation at its finest. We then meet Max (Dennis Hopper), the resident dope dealer and ringleader of the local hippie clan. Between his outlandish getup and his effortless ability to roll the perfect joint, it's hard to imagine that Hopper wasn't stoned during the entirety of the film's production.* After Paul sits in on a group toke session, he finally musters up enough courage to drop his first tab of acid under John's supervision. A blatant reference to the then recent Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows" (which itself quotes LSD guru Timothy Leary), John re-assures Paul to "turn off your mind, and relax, and then float down-stream." (Makes you wonder if Nicholson purposely named his two leading men "John" and "Paul" for a reason...)

It is at this point, however, that the film loses any semblance of conceivable plot structure and slowly melts into one continual orgasm of psychedelic goop. The main problem is that most of the scenes depicting Paul's trip come off as just plain corny by today's standards. Take for example a few of Paul's reactions while on LSD: a childish fascination with an orange or an obsession with a laundromat dryer. There is also a bizarre scene where a fully nude Paul freaks out in a swimming pool and is subdued by John in a melodramatic homoerotic exchange. Was this really supposed to entice people to experiment with psychedelics? We are then reunited with Max (who at this point is starting to resemble a Hammer Films Count Dracula) and Paul is subjected to a (fantasy?) pseudo-inquisition where a kaleidoscopic collage of pop schlock, including images of Timothy Leary, Sophia Loren, L.B.J., Jesus, an oven (yes, an oven), and a one-dollar bill, bombard the screen. Maybe this was considered "deep" stuff in 1967, but I have hunch it had more to do with being stoned out your mind while watching the film than it did with any hidden messages. Finally, after an evening of aimless wandering and enough bad hallucinations to scare someone sober for life, we reach the climax of Paul's trip: a montage of flashbacks, satanic imagery, carnival folk, death-mounted horses, and of course, Dennis Hopper smoking an endless stash weed. The trip is over.

At long last, Paul ends up in the sack with a random one-night-stand named Glenn (Salli Sachse) and we are subjected to a rather disappointing lovemaking scene -- especially for a B movie. Paul then awakens and walks out to the balcony where he meditatively faces the sea. Then, in a brief moment of philosophical curiosity (again, I'm reaching), Glenn asks Paul whether he's learned anything from his experience (or something to that effect) to which he simply responds: "Tomorrow." But what I found most interesting in the entire film was the last shot: Corman zooms in on Paul's face, freezes the image, and then cracks it to pieces. I couldn't help but recall the poignant final scene of Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) where a young Antoine Doinel similarly looks to sea and ponders his own uncertain future. In the now famous shot, Truffaut zooms in and freezes on Antoine's face in almost identical fashion. Coincidence? Maybe. But, Corman was no dummy. I'd like to think this was his tip-of-the-hat to a contemporary for whom there was a mutual respect.**

So where does The Trip leave us? Is it smarter than it appears with its glaring references to good music, pop icons and maybe even film history? Probably not. But what I can promise is 85 minutes chock full of tripped-out strobe lights, body-paint, loads of recreational drug use and some damn good shots of Peter Fonda's bare ass. And besides, you get to watch Dennis Hopper roll one hell of a doobie!

*Internet lore suggests that Nicholson, Fonda, Hopper and Corman all took LSD prior to making the film as part of their "preparation." Why am I not surprised by this.

**At the time, Corman, along with American B movies in general, were highly praised by the writers of the renowned French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema -- writers who included Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol.

--D.S., Weightstaff

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

totally enjoyed the comic relief in the review...will check this oldie but goodie out again.