Monday, June 24, 2024

A lovely sort of death


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Jack Nicholson and Charles B. Griffith

Spoilers: moderate, somewhat inapplicable

The original theatrical release of The Trip, which was the only version available on home video until recently (and is in fact still the only version available for digital rental, at least on Amazon, which is sourced from an old DVD transfer), isn't actually that different than the "director's" cut of it (I don't know how involved the already-nonagenarian Roger Corman was in reconstructing his original intent for its blu-ray releases, but I assume somebody at least asked him).  They're so much the same, anyway, that I had to be prompted to remember that they were different.  The excisions of the theatrical version are basically unnoticeable and don't appear to have had anything to do with content; the genuinely distinctive differences are actually additions, a pair of hedges glued onto the beginning and ending of the movie by American International Pictures, out of justified fear of getting objections from the authorities that they'd produced what amounted to a feature-length endorsement for dropping acid.  (Maybe not all that astonishingly, though it still troubles me, it was censored altogether in Britain until 2004.)  I'll be honest, though: I might like the hedged, adulterated version more.  The addition at the end puts a giant animated "shatter" effect over its psychedelic hero's headwhich is not only silly, it's not even in keeping with anything that's happened in the movieand so I'm not sure the theatrical cut is worth it.  But the addition at the beginning is a squarely stentorian title crawl, to the effect that the use of LSD is just a terribly dangerous and irresponsible activity, even potentially fatal, and that its prevalence represents a matter of grave public concern; in other words, it kicks things off like what we're about to watch is a shrill PSA about all the drugged-up freaks who were about to topple Western civilization, and probably eat a baby or two in the process, akin to a fearmongering exploitation cheapie straight out of the 1930s.  And thus once you have seen The Trip, it can only be interpreted with the archest possible irony, for the movie Corman made and AIP released is one hundred percent a feature-length endorsement for dropping acid, like the movie was financed by Big Diethylamide.

Corman says that his goal was to be as objective as he could be, and not make any kind of advocacy piece, but since a truly "objective" look at drug use (and especially a drug like LSD) would, typically, just be following a fellow around doing their drugs and presumably enjoying their high, it's hard to see how any other outcome was likely if he really meant to be impartial, and from the evidence of his film, he did.  The worst thing our hero ever does in the entire movie is wander into a stranger's house, which is possibly scarier to the audience, in our apprehension that the movie's about to sail off the sensationalist cliff, but he causes no harm while he's there; accordingly, then, the most harmful thing our hero ever does is unload someone else's dryer several minutes before its time, and some of her linens get on a potentially dirty laundromat floor.  To get out ahead of your suspicion, if you're thinking "if that's the fraughtest behavior our guy gets up to throughout these 82 minutes of acid-munching mayhem, does anything even happen in this movie?", I should tell you, you're right: this is a singularly undramatic odyssey, or at least its drama is nearly entirely bound up in how acid helps our hero deal with a universally-relatable, albeit bush-league, psychic crisis.  And nonetheless I wonder if this movie where virtually nothing happens except inside our man's head isn't Corman's best movie anyway, in part because the sheer niceness of it demanded that he go balls right to wall on how to translate a relatively-uneventful acid trip into cinema, ensuring that his movie was still a worthwhile experience in itself.  It obviously worked: The Trip, I intuit, has fallen into semi-obscurity in these latter days (more a matter of references to "that drug movie Roger Corman made" than actually being seen, anyhow), but it was one of the signature movie events of the Summer of Love in the year of its release.  It was a huge success, raking in somewhere between $6 and $10 million (on a budget of $100,000), placing it firmly in the top thirty and potentially closer to the top twenty of the highest grossers of 1967.

How precisely this strange project germinated might be an answerable question in theory, but it's not an answer I have, I'm afraid; originally, it was going to be Corman's old production designer, Daniel Haller, directing it (he eventually got to use a well-judged dollop of the psychedelic language deployed here on his Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror), so I'm not even sure it originated with Corman himself.  The irresistible suspicion is that psychonaut Peter Fonda fed Corman acid after making The Wild Angels with him in 1966, and he was thus inspired.  (Fonda, of course, was inspired by each film in turn to make Easy Rider.)  For the record, Corman did indeed report "doing his research" in much this way, but for all I know The Trip's genesis is as prosaic as this: The Wild Angels' engagement with the counterculture was successful, whereupon Corman cast his gaze on other hip and happening counterculture trends, and found acid.  Fonda was just the natural casting choice for our voyager, which made casting Bruce Dern as his guide equally natural, to play with the resonance of their pairing the previous year, with characters about as far as possible from Heavenly Blues and The Loser but who still formed part of the grander tapestry of the California counterculture.  History also repeated with Charles B. Griffith's screenplay being overwritten again, this time by Jack Nicholson, and with that, at least we know why the thematic spine of the movie is what it is, with Nicholson writing through his separation from then-spouse Sandra Knight, and self-flagellating about it (thankfully without being necessarily self-indulgent about it, nor specifically autobiographical).  Maybe it stands for "love, sex, divorce."

And so The Trip arrived in August 1967, and its "plot," as such, I've already somewhat summarized; arguably, I've summarized its "story" even more completely.  In any case, we have our hero, TV commercial director Paul Groves (Fonda)given how much this whole movie is an ad for a pharmaceutical, I assume this was intentionaland, lately, Paul has been dragging his feet on his divorce, from his wife Sally (Susan Strasberg).  We gather that he's very sad about it, and feeling bummed about his pointless-seeming career as well as his pointless-seeming life.  For this he's engaged the services of his friend John (Dern) to babysit him while he drops some acid in John's glorious hippie hilltop mansion, and the active ingredient is acquired at the Psychedelic Temple run by John's friendly neighborhood guru/dealer, Max (Dennis Hopper).  At the Temple, amongst a dozen of Max's closest friends, Paul makes the acquaintance of a woman, Glenn (Salli Sachse), who figures into things, physically, a little later, but starts figuring into things, psychically, pretty much right away.  Back at John's house, Paul doses, and his Trip begins.

I don't know if The Trip could be accused of revolutionary filmmaking, despite the novelty of its subject matter, and probably the most revolutionary part of it is that previously-described forbearance, allowing for a more-or-less unique angle on drug use that, despite the film being a hit, didn't offer up a proper formula for repetition.  (Even the AIP hack-factory only ever made one obvious follow-up, the subsequent year's Psych-Out.)  It might not have had any direct predecessors to copy,* but psychedelic art, and its influence on cinema, was fairly well-established, including by Corman, who'd been doing psychedelic modules in his movies for years; needless to say, "the altered state montage" goes all the way back to the 20s and 30s.  Although usually in service of alcoholic fugue or intense internal psychological states, or just whirligig filigree to denote the madcap pace of modernism (or just for the hell of it), those techniques are certainly informing Corman here.  Likewise we can point to the graphic abstraction of Saul Bass, particularly as regards Bond movie prologues, not to even mention the current trend of Acid Nouveau poster art, along with other forms of pop art and op art, plus what one might call "proper" surrealism, with actively-staged imagery of metaphysical tableaux, as distinct from just fucking with the imagery's presentation.  (One of Corman's psychedelic effects artists, Peter Gardiner, had been working long enough to get a write-up in a July '67 TV Guide.)  I will offer this: it's conceivable that Corman actually personally invented the "slowly-spinning camera" language of a pot circle.  But Corman's strategic approach here, in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of Paul's trip, is to just do every psychedlic trick ever invented for movies, and then do them more than anybody ever had before, as much as 82 minutes can bear.

And so, starting off with some gentle kaleidoscopic and diffractive animation effects, we get basically every classically "psychedelic" effect you can think of, with, I believe, the curious exception of any wide-angle lensing (though Archie R. Dazell's photography is well-designed for the movie's purposes, with blown-up 35mm flat widescreen that affords even normalcy a slightly smeary, gaudy haziness).  But otherwise, we get just about everything: from slow motion (and sped-up motion), to bold color filters, to impossible and overbearing film collage, to extreme weirdness with the film's color processing that makes it look like Fonda has suddenly become a charcoal drawing wandering about a solarized city, to dissolves, to composited matte effects (though fewer than I think you'd expect, and the hallucinations in John's mirror amount to probably the chintziest things on display here), to the film's arguably most successful effect, the projection of patterned lights on the actors and sets.  It at least leads to one of its most successful individual gestures, an honestly very groovy sex scene with Fonda, Strasberg, and Sachse, which is, nevertheless, not a threesome.  It's not even a twosome, literally, but you'll see what I mean.  Because don't let me imply Corman is doing these things one-at-a-time.  He's mixing and matching with intense abandon; consider that sex scene (which is arguably let down by a presentation that feels slightly divorced from human sexual mechanics, but it is, after all, meant to be more softly erotic, in addition to just giving a lot of skin to throw lights on, and it achieves those goals).  It gets a whole kaleidoscopic treatment as well as cutting back and forth between Strasberg and Sachse, going towards the primary theme, Paul's mystical divorce proceedings.

And editing is probably a bigger deal than anything else: editors Ronald Sinclair and Dennis Jakob had their work cut the fuck out for them (Jakob is credited with "montage sequences"; I don't know what the hell that even means here, unless he did 90% of the film and Sinclair was practically vestigial), because while I can't find any statement to this effect, in 1967 The Trip had to at least be a contender for the most editing of any movie ever made, on a physical-filmstrip, shot-count basis.  (In this 82 minute movie, a five-figure shot count might not be off the table, and it's demonstrably into the high thousands, the majority of them lasting only a few frames.)  It can be assaultive (the collage attending Paul's gallivant upon the streets of L.A., just for one forceful example, but hardly a particularly special one here), but for the most part there's a lyricism to it, not so much with precise visual matches, but a flow of movement that probably represents tripping pretty well**, and for all that this is a creature of full-on psychedelia and montage, Corman's also arranged for concrete hallucinated imagery to cut forty times a minute back-and-forth to.  (Reminding me that, while it's not an "effect" per se, he's also using choreography and physically-impossible editing tricks, too, to get across Paul's more dissociative moments, with Fonda and others not always completely fixed in space.)

There's intercut verdant flower child glades, a desert of incomprehension, a fair amount of rock climbing on California seaside cliffs, during which I really hope Fonda had the sense to actually be sober, andwe've got a Corman, everyone!a decaying Poevian mansion, visited by arcane occult rites regarding Paul's corpse.  It's all accompanied by a strong prog-rock-y score courtesy The Electric Flag (doing business here under the ironic moniker, "The American Music Band"), which reinforces the rhythmic qualities of Corman's most sustained sequences, throbbing away under the flashing, sometimes-inscrutable imagery, but isn't afraid of being mordantly silly, either.  (Incidentally, the most inscrutable imagery, by a lot, involves blood and a baby's, or baby doll's, severed armnot that The Trip needs to feel "dangerous," but this is the one image in the film that definitely gets there.)  It's for this reason that the most concretely symbolic trip sequence (the only one with substantial dialogue) feels like an outlier, though I still adore it, as Paul wakes up in a carnivalesque heavenly bureaucracy and Hopper, now a counterculture angel ("I wish there was some hip way to tell you this, man..."), condemns his running dog capitalist ways and his career as an ad man, or, as he'd have it, a professional liar; somewhere in this scene, a little person shouts "Bay of Pigs!"  But there's a resistance to ever just putting Paul on a straight line towards enlightement: one of my favorite moments simply finds him investigating a closet, which, in his acid-soaked mind, turns out to have no metaphorical value, just a strobing hell of color filters and another fifty or sixty cuts.

What I haven't mentioned is that The Trip is funny, very possibly a comedy foremost, with Fonda and Dern doing far more work than my implication that they're mainly props for drug sequences has conveyed.  It's a little remarkable how long it takes to leave John's house, or his sideit's 47 minutes before Paul wanders off, and going back to what I said about the movie's resolute niceness, the reason for Paul's absconsion is that he sees John dead, and while Paul apparently thinks he did it, Corman is very keen to ensure that we see that this is only his hallucination, and John is fine, if rather nonplussed that his pal's run off in the time it took him to fetch some more apple juice from the kitchen.  Anyway, Dern is a terrific anchoring figure of good-natured objectivity: he's the driver of a lot of the film's humor, because Corman, for all his pyrotechnics, is in fact alternating between Paul's expanded perceptions and the more quotidian reality of Fonda goofily wandering around a room, and while it's incredibly affable about it, maybe the single biggest waywell beyond the psychedelic techniquethat you know that every principal involved in this movie was intimately familiar with drugs and people who do drugs is all the gentle mockery of Paul, a babyfaced dweeb who finds himself filled with wonder and awe over, e.g., the life force of an orange.  (And Fonda is doing it well, too: explaining it would surely ruin it while also doing it no justice, so let's just say I about fell off my couch during his "living room?" exchange with Dern.)

This phase of the filmFonda and Dern just sitting around being hippies while hallucinations occuris unfortunately so successful that, counter-intuitively, when Paul finally escapes out into the wild to wreak havoc on the squares and (notionally) place himself at risk of physical or legal consequences, the energy level actually goes down, and you can sort of feel how the movie's decompressed as it happens, more because it needs to happen for Corman to get to some of his visual ideas, than because it's better.  (Though never bad: I really enjoy Paul's infantile enthusiasm for laundry equipment, which triggered some fond childhood memories of my own regarding washing machine movement.)  It regains that energy once Glenn is back in the picture, at least, in time for an even bigger, burlier montage finale.  And there is a legitimate emotional current in The Trip: Paul's therapy is a triumph, and despite the admirable reluctance to fix his journey to any overdetermined allegory, Corman's seemingly-random selection of modes between abstraction, surrealism, symbolism, and mysticism winds up with a certain deceptive gracemostly, the movie is about love and sex, and about death, but the latter mostly as a metaphorto the extent I was, probably stupidly, surprised at exactly what the Nazgul-like grim riders that have been chasing Paul all around the cosmos turned out to be.  (I had, luckily, not seen the trailer, which just straight-up spoils that.)

And there's still an ambivalence to it, even in the midst of full-tilt LSD boosterism, recognizing that it is, ultimately, artificially-inducedPaul's solved his love problem today, but tomorrow, sober, it'll have to be different, and probably a whole lot harder.  The movie's just an artifact of the late 60s, in a sense, but then, practically all movies are "just" artifacts of their time; I might be too snobbish asserting there's nothing revolutionary here, because in its modest wayhell, by not even having any desire to bemaybe it is.  (And it does predate 2001 and 70s-era art film surrealism, after all.)  Not even only for its formal gusto, I adore this simple hippie lark.

Score: 10/10

*I find it difficult to believe it was genuinely unprecedented, either, but it seems to have been surprisingly untrammeled ground as of 1967.  William Castle's The Tingler has an LSD scene, if that even counts, and that seems to be it for "real" movies.
**I was unfortunately unable to do "research" for this review.

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