Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Trip

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Trip

Ah, to be caught in the crosshairs of history, to exist at that moment where one set of cultural values, aesthetics, and sensibilities, snapped into another. By virtue of its period (1967), its pedigree (Roger Corman, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper), and its subject (lysergic acid diethylamide), The Trip is that hoariest of artifacts: a time capsule. Time capsules are highly misunderstood and unappreciated. They are often approached as if their "period" nature imprisoned them, rendered them immobile and irrelevant: come look at the mosquito trapped in amber! Yet as Jurassic Park reminded us, a mosquito trapped in amber can unleash infinite possibilities. The true value of a time capsule is not that it allows us to indulge in condescending nostalgia or kitschy camp but that it offers us that rare window into a time and place which, by simultaneously connecting us to something real and exciting but keeping enough of a distance so that we're hyperaware, opens up into the universe at large. Appropriately enough, then, this particular time capsule is actually about the expansion of consciousness. Form, meet content, under the aegis of history.


If The Trip is in the crosshairs of history, that's because the sixties, in particular, were in the crosshairs too. Much is made of this era as "the birth of the modern" (or postmodern, if you choose) but what's so striking about those years, especially in the mid-to-early-late sixties, is the way that old and new, familiar and foreign, tradition and discovery, exist side by side for a few brief shining moments. The aura that the sixties still exudes is comparable to that of a dying star, the supernova before the terrifying emptiness of the black hole. If it was the birth of the new which seemed so thrilling at the time, it is the glorious death - or at least the transmutation - of the old which moves us today. What do I mean by this? It's the way Yellow Submarine reconfigures Fred and Ginger as cosmic light dancer in some acid-fueled jukebox in the sky, or The Graduate places its suburban, suited antihero in a youth culture sliding into something unfamiliar scored to the plaintive Greek chorus of Simon & Garfunkel. It's Bob Dylan singing about Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower, or the aforementioned duo (that's Simon & Garfunkel, not Pound & Eliot) wondering where Joe DiMaggio has gone. It's the hippies pastiching frontiersmen and Indians, and the Space Age coinciding with the Age of Aquarius. It's the wisdom of the ages, the still-felt folklore and mythology of America, the fading pop culture tropes of 20th century yesteryear, the deep-rooted anxieties of the era (civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam), and the passionate euphoria of the moment colliding, fighting, dancing, fucking, exploding into one another in a glorious collage of all we'd known and all we hoped to know, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of history only to dissipate after a few glorious moments, falling to the ground like dying embers, then chalky dust, then nothing at all.

In filmic terms, it's that shot near the end of Easy Rider's opening, the one that tightens your gut with anticipation of visionary and sonic wonders to come. No dialogue, no music, just the sound of clucking chickens and later roaring airplanes. Everything we see speaks of this moment, the late sixties, aesthetically and socially. A drug deal. A telephoto lens, a constant use of the zoom. A leather jacket with an American flag stitched onto the back, shades on all and sundry. Rhythmic, then arhythmic cutting. Abrasive sound design, but no words need be spoken. And even an appearance by Phil Spector, don of transcendent kiddie pop music, already a kind of godfather to the Scene, showing up to sniff some white powder and nod his head approvingly. And then, that moment.

The camera's set back, further than it has been, in a wide shot of the car as Hopper opens the door and Fonda steps out. The shot is closer to something we'd see in an older film, it feels like a dignified master, the kind that would linger in the seventies, underpinning the modernism with a sense of classical restraint. At the same time the Steppenwolf guitar kicks in, "Pusher Man" fills the soundtrack with the liberating chords of pop. Yes, it draws on Kenneth Anger, and looks forward to Scorsese and countless films and TV series to come. But it retains its own power, because it stands at the crossroads and it knows it. Hopper, Fonda...these were men who came out of Old Hollywood to form the New. Dennis Hopper had supporting roles in big 50s films like Giant and Rebel Without a Cause. These films in themselves were transitions (the Golden Age had already passed away) but they still surfed on the flotsam and jetsam of the old studio system and aesthetic, and once the dividing line arrived, they belonged to the past. And Fonda, of course, was Fonda. Peter, the son of Henry, brother or Hanoi Jane, fellow tripper of the Beatles (they thought him uncool, and Lennon wrote "She Said She Said" to mock Peter's reflections on mortality). He was able to cross that line trailing memories and associations of that increasingly distant past behind his step.

These two, with Jack Nicholson (who would emerge as the Clark Gable of the New Hollywood), would create Easy Rider in '69, as much a valedictory as a celebration of the fleeting era. In 1967, they were still under the tutelage of Roger Corman, and it was under his direction that they collaborated on The Trip. Corman of course was not Old Hollywood, nor was he quite New. He existed outside of the system, and his parallel universe of drive-ins and cheapo exploitation flicks served as a kind of plague bacillus, to borrow Winston Churchill's words, cultivated on the margins and then injected into a weakened Hollywood. Corman's films existed in a milieu which was restricted, in large part, by the audience's inferences. Though his films were indeed cheaply produced and often silly, they could've been great art and nobody would have noticed. Marginalized by their distribution, advertisement, and pedigree, they existed in their own safe zone, not the same one that mainstream Hollywood existed in, but the borders were secure and you knew where you were in each place.

Which is what makes The Trip such an intriguing phenomenon. On one hand, an exploitation flick, commissioned and directed by Corman to tap into the swelling "head" culture of the youth. Looked at from the outside, drugs are just another fad, like motorcycles, or beach blanket bingo. Corman had apparently tripped once (before or after this film was made I don't know) but he was hardly a part of the counterculture, given his age and occupation. Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson (who wrote The Trip), meanwhile, were all a bit older than the teenagers on Haight street but they got the hip crowd. The confluence of Corman's conventional B movie superstructure, and the termitic knowingness of his actors and writer (and perhaps Corman himself, when he didn't have his business hat on) creates a work in which several different things are going on at once; it's several movies in one.

He borrows costumes and props from his horror productions, to produce visions which could easily be seen as hamhanded stagings of supposed psychedlic illuminations. And they are, in part. But the actors (and the music, a mixture of Eastern-sound exotica, jazz, and rock music by The Electric Flag) are hip and sincere, in their way...so the result is an odd confluence of exploitation, investigation, and demonstration. The film's approach is formally compelling because it shifts between the action inside Fonda's head - hyperedited street scenes, slow moody caravans of black-hooded figures, carnivalesque potpourri of recent history ("Bay of Pigs!") and pop culture - and the more sterile, removed look of his actual conditions - an encounter with a woman in a laundromat seen entirely from her bored, tired perspective, Fonda's ramblings and ravings in the room observed soberly under the tutelage of guide Bruce Dern. (As Erich Kuersten puts it, Dern "should be banned from any movie where people are trying to relax and groove. He's got 'closeted narc' written all over him, and the more he tries to be 'gentle' the creepier he gets." But that's another story.)

So just as the film's history and story places it at the crossroads of culture and the crosshairs of history, so its own structure and style keep it divided between a square mentality and a not-quite-tapped-into yet still evocative counter-mindset. As such, it's a fascinating cross-breed of drive-in movie marketing, art film experimentation, and the lingering traces of a mainstream sensibility. As Fonda is fed his acid, he doesn't know what to expect, nor where the trip will take him (he hopes to examine the dissolution of his marriage, though he doesn't achieve much insight here that we can share). And we, in the audience, can step into the time capsule but, with an open mind and enough remove to partially know what we're seeing, there's no telling where it will take us.

2 comments:

Dean Treadway said...

I don't think THE TRIP is a great movie, but it's an important one. Knowing a little about the subject, I don't believe Roger Corman had taken that tab of acid before the movie's release. That's one of the movie's problems; the trip sequence is not realistic. Tripping looks nothing like how its portrayed. In fact, few movies have overtly portrayed realistically the effects of LSD. Only movies like 2001, YELLOW SUBMARINE, HOLY MOUNTAIN, and HEAD are accurate in achieving any approachig the heady effects of LSD. HEAD was also a Jack Nicholson-penned script, this time produced by Raybert Productions (run by THE MONKEES TV mastermind, director Bob Rafelson, and EASY RIDER co-producer Bert Schnieder). This chaotic movie perhaps comes closest to mirroring the experience of LSD--not, however, the cosmic look of a trip.

Still, THE TRIP would be a good double bill with HEAD. Together, they might each work together better. And on its own, it does stand as a peculiar document of an incredibly experimental, soul-seeking period in history.

MovieMan0283 said...

Not having tripped, I still suspected as much as you said. Still, as you acknowledge it is a fascinating "peculiar document."