The Trip (1967)

Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda

Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda

Back in the sixties, no American filmmaker understood his audience better than Roger Corman. Starting his career in the fifties, Corman understood early that the key to success was to cash in on whatever trend was popular at the moment. Whatever people were paying to see, whether it was gunslingers, juvenile delinquents or monsters from outer space, he was always willing to oblige. But in the sixties he began moving away from sci-fi and teen flicks, finding inspiration instead by looking at the changes that America was going through. And aside from a single commercial failure*, he seemed to have an infallible instinct for what would excite young audiences. While the Hollywood studios flailed around frantically, spending fabulous sums of money on bloated epics, Corman read the mood of the country and made a series of low-budget features that connected with moviegoers, especially young moviegoers, in a way that nobody had before.

The Trip is one of his smartest, sharpest films. Though he wasn’t into drugs himself, Corman understood that drug experiences were central to the counterculture movement. In a way it seems he may have even anticipated the drug culture with features like The Masque of the Red Death and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, which included delirious, hallucinogenic imagery. Corman understood that a shift in consciousness had taken place. As a commercial filmmaker, he was interested in exploiting current trends, but as an artist, he was also interested in exploring the changes that were happening in the world around him.

The first draft of the script was by Charles Griffith, who had already written numerous Corman films, including Not of this Earth, Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Angels. But apparently the director wasn’t satisfied with Griffith’s screenplay and handed the job to Jack Nicholson, who received sole credit. The script is pretty unconventional. There’s no plot, at least not in the usual sense. Corman avoids the melodramatic structures that had served him so well for years. He doesn’t need them because he’s not trying to deliver a message about drugs. He just wants to immerse the audience in an experience. From the beginning of the film to the end, we simply stay with the main character while he’s tripping on acid.

Corman starts off with a shot that sets the tone for the movie. We see a beautiful young couple embracing against a blue sky. Then the woman speaks, and we realize that she’s reciting an ad slogan. The camera pulls back to reveal that the couple is standing in the middle of the ocean. We then see two men perched on some rocks by a camera. The director yells cut. We’re at the beach, watching a commercial being filmed. The director, Paul, is satisfied with the shot and tells his crew to bring the couple back to the shore. Opening the film with a surreal image of an idealized couple is not accidental. Paul is shortly confronted by his wife, who is angry that he missed an appointment to sign divorce papers. It’s clear that Paul isn’t happy about splitting up with his wife, but it’s also clear that he’s interested in getting together with other women.

This sets up the dynamic for the film, the conflict that will shape Paul’s hallucinations once he drops acid. His friend John is going to act as his guide while he’s tripping, staying with him to make sure that everything goes well. They go to John’s home in the Hollywood Hills, a large, comfortable house decorated with an array of psychedelic colors and op-art patterns. When the acid first starts coming on, Paul is childlike, enchanted by everything he sees. Simple objects suddenly seem incredibly beautiful. We see Paul roaming through the house, enthusing about the living energy he sees around him, and these scenes are intercut with subjective images of Paul’s visions.

In this imaginary landscape Paul encounters all sorts of strange things. His wife appears, but there are other women, too, and it seems that the conflict between love and desire is very much on his mind. We see two riders on horseback, completely covered by black cloaks with hoods. At first they seem to be figures in a landscape, but suddenly they’re pursuing our hero and he runs into a cave filled with mist. As the film goes on, Paul’s hallucinations become darker and more complex. He starts getting very paranoid, and when John leaves the room for a moment, Paul bolts from the house, running down the side of the hill to the Sunset Strip. Somehow Paul manages to negotiate the colorful chaos of the Strip at night, though he does have a couple close calls. Finally he meets a woman in a club and goes back to her home to spend the night. When he wakes up the next morning, the LSD has worn off, leaving him wondering what has happened. He dropped acid to gain insight, but he’s unsure if he’s learned anything at all.

Corman gives us a striking snapshot of LA in the late sixties. From the illusionistic opening at the beach, to John’s colorful hillside home, to the happy frenzy of the Sunset Strip at night. The Trip doesn’t just document the locations, it also captures the state of mind of the hipster crowd in LA at that time. Everything’s cool, everything’s mellow, everything’s groovy. Until the cops show up, and then you just run like hell. By this point in his career Corman had become an extremely capable filmmaker, able to produce interesting, intense movies on very tight budgets. He was always concerned about holding the audiences’ attention, so there’s usually a fair amount of action and a certain amount of sex. But his best films were also visually expressive, and he knew how to create potent, compelling images. I wish that he’d invested a little more time and money in The Trip, because some of Paul’s visions seem to have a cut-rate quality, and some scenes could have benefitted from a little rewriting and a few more takes. To their credit, Nicholson and Corman are tackling some serious themes. I feel like they could have dug a little deeper, taken it a little farther. Still, Corman was not out to deliver a message, and the movie is honest in that Paul doesn’t claim to have any more answers after taking acid than before. It is maddening, though, that AIP changed the ending, superimposing something like shattered glass over Paul’s face in the final shot to imply that he’d been damaged by the experience. It’s a nasty scar on a film that is otherwise an imaginative and engaging look at a moment in American culture. It’s a rare example of a commercial film that’s willing to engage the counterculture on its own terms.

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* The Intruder, a sharp, tough little movie about racial prejudice.

Posted on September 20, 2013, in Los Angeles and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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