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The Trip has several good performances despite the dated nature of Jack Nicholson's rather good script. Everyone says 'groovy' at least 5 times each, which I must sadly report was perfectly accurate for the lingo of 1966/67. Peter Fonda isn't bad at all as the day-tripping advertising guy with a vague soul-sickness; this is before the drearily-affected persona that dominated his post- Easy Rider pictures. He's actually kind of square and has a friendly, innocent smile. Fonda does well with some of the scenes where he's describing his trip as it happens -- staring at an orange and perceiving an aura from it glowing and dripping down his arm. Dennis Hopper is a denizen of a crash pad 'stashed full of pot' who, when he becomes concerned about the cops, turns the Fonda Christ-figure back to the streets. This was pre- The Summer of Love mind you, so we see perhaps the first instance of an ultimate cliché: the panning shot that follows a joint being passed around a circle. 1
We also get a lot of pre-enlightened sex ideas. Fonda and friends refer to the ever-present gorgeous, smiling women as 'chicks' -- there are no unattractive women in the drug culture, I suppose. The whole point of experiencing life when high is to either hallucinate sex or really do it ... Paul isn't always sure which is which. He even hallucinates his estranged wife Sally (played by the underused, luminous Susan Strasberg of Picnic and Scream of Fear) having sex with none other than TV star Michael Blodgett. The problem issues of Groves' muddled life are sketched but barely examined. He doesn't want to leave Sally and he fears his life's work making advertising might be a trifle hollow at the core. The ideas are stated in Jack Nicholson's screenplay, and that's about it.
What Nicholson does do right are his relationship scenes, a series of promising one-on-one encounters. The bond between Paul and his pal / LSD enabler John, the excellent Bruce Dern is very believable. Dern should have played more sane people and fewer zonked-out psychos, because he's magnetic as Fonda's lysergic tour guide, lending unexpected sobriety and depth to the role. Nicholson's handling has a good touch, as when a simple smile from Dern elicits an exaggerated response from the hyper-sensitive Paul. Neither actor looks foolish and we stay sympathetic to their relationship even as Paul becomes emotionally unglued fumbling naked around the hilltop pad.
In his commentary Corman says he liked to hire actresses who starred for him before, but I'll bet that Nicholson wrote in the bits for his old pals Luana Anders and Barboura Morris. Morris' scene in the laundromat is impressive like something that belongs in Five Easy Pieces. Best of all conceptually is a scene where Fonda just wanders into an upscale house and watches TV with a sleepless little girl. 2
Corman's visuals aren't bad considering they came from a dime-store. Besides the perfunctory imitation of avant-garde editing styles, in this case used for shallow eye candy, he hired a light-show expert from the rock circuit to produce the hippie-trippy moiré patterns projected over naked bodies. It's one of the first bigscreen fusions of sex, drugs 'n' rock'n roll. The montage cutting is kinetic enough but the images Corman puts up on the screen are both dull and outdated. Visuals imitating (and swiped from) his Poe films crosscut with Bergmanesque ripoffs and more arbitrary material shot on the Big Sur beach, his favorite spot for sending some aspiring director (Bogdanovich, Hill, Coppola) to shoot padding for a film that comes up too short. The crew probably spent one evening on Sunset Boulevard shooting all the signage -- we even see a glimpse of Jay Ward's Bullwinkle statue from the East end of the strip. He has actual nudity in the film, in a club scene with painted topless dancers, a nice trick if he actually got them past the censor. Of course, the cameraman concentrates on the dancers' breasts, acknowledging that producer Corman knows what he needs for his exploitation audience.
The Trip deepened the schism between Corman and his AIP overlords who probably felt they needed the superstar director less as the decade wore on. They wanted his edgy subject matter but meddled with his pictures as they had never done previously. The meaningless disclaimer at the front of the film showed little but their own lack of faith in the movie, which must have launched 20,000 drug trips, good, bad and deadly. They took it upon themselves to impose a 'broken mirror' optical on the last shot of the previously ambiguous film (reminiscent of X, The Man with X-Ray Eyes), to give the ending a clear 'Fonda's screwed up' message. Again, Corman possibly prevaricates when he says AIP replaced a television image with static for vague purposes. Neither Corman or AIP would ever spend a nickel without a hard reason. The removal of the Vietnam battle scenes on tv (there's a shot blown up to crop out the monitor as well) must have been done because legal licensing was too expensive, or AIP wanted to avoid adding accusations of anti-Americanism to their reckless condoning of drug use.
As a time capsule, The Trip isn't bad. It certainly shows which oars Corman had in the water and which were up trying to row through the air. Its success brought on a followup film that Jack Nicholson wasn't allowed to write or direct, but did act in.
MGM has given The Trip some amusing extras. The docu has a silly title but is well-edited. Roger Corman is pretty funny describing his experimental LSD experience, especially the part where he became convinced he could see to the center of the Earth and create art from the inner world. His experience again falls into a convenient thematic groove with his last Science Fiction hit, X - The Man with X-Ray Eyes. That film's serum that increases vision may have been an analog for the heightened-perception claims made for LSD. Bruce Dern is on hand to claim he really was a square who knew nothing about drugs (possible). Bigtime cameraman Allen Daviau (E.T.) gleefully tells the story of the cutprice effects and how he got his first screen credit on the film.
The Corman's sparse commentary is not one of his best. He clearly doesn't have much to say and tends to drop lonely comments like, "It's hard to tell the Big Sur locations from Bronson Caverns." (oh yeah). His memory improves whenever an actress comes onscreen ... ah, to be a bachelor director in Hollywood in the sixties!
The 'psychedelic light box' is a tedious clump of trippy shots taken from the movie and strung together behind music. The reprinted American Cinematographer article on the film is welcome, but hard to read even on my 65" monitor. Nice going anyway, MGM.
The Trip had its fair share of legitimacy, but Dick Clark and Richard Rush's Psych-Out is a laughable and embarrassing attempt to cash in on the hippie craze. In his docu remarks on the disc Clark remembers that only a few months after The Summer of Love the commercialization of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco was so acute that when his crew tried to plunk their phony L.A. actors down in the streets they were met with active hostility.
Susan Strasberg has a much larger but unfortunately mute role here, yet having her around elevates the general watchability quotient. The hippie jargon is so thick and overdone, with everyone decked out in full flower-power regalia, that pros like Bruce Dern and Dean Stockwell look silly. The fun is seeing the fave actors of David Lynch and other latter-day directors make utter fools of themselves. Jack Nicholson's in a special category as he'd already been angling around AIP and Corman for more than a decade, attracting little positive attention for himself as an actor. Cry Baby Killer in 1958 and The Raven in 1963 earned him negative to dismal notices. He must have been the most persistent actor in town, or the luckiest, because Easy Rider came through for him like a gift from heaven.
Here he's a tie-died, head-banded lead guitarist for a group that does songs that sound almost exactly like big hits -- one number is a sound-alike for Hendrix's Purple Haze that must have embarrassed everyone. The Strawberry Alarm Clock is on board with a couple of tunes, including their Incense and Peppermints, a ripoff hippie anthem if there ever was one. The well-remembered The Seeds, who should have known better, are also heard and seen.
Nicholson and Strasberg outsmart the cops snooping on her trail, including a nerdy narc played by familiar TV actor and director Gary (Garry) Marshall. They also out-fight a trio of junkyard thugs -- hey, those peace-loving hippie dudes can really kick ass! Then the plot (reminiscent, but surely concidentally so, of The Seventh Victim) finally puts Susan in contact with her spaced-out brother, Bruce Dern, who shows up in a horse-mane wig for a tiny piece of screen time. Two reels longer than The Trip, as soon as the novelty of seeing the stars play flower children wears out, Psych-Out can't end soon enough. 3
MGM's remastering of this picture is the equal of The Trip; it's good to be able to cruise slowly over the fast-cut montages to see exactly what's in those flash cuts. Answer: nothing special. The accompanying docu has some okay interviews with Bruce ("Drugs? What drugs?") Dern and television sellout Dick Clark, who claims he was hands-on all the way.
As a record of the times and as fun entertainment this Acid Head double feature is a good pairing of a significant film and a cheap follow-up. Both presentations are of excellent quality. Savant had only previously seen The Trip in a censored and colorless television print.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Trip rates:
1. It needs to be pointed out that the closest Hollywood had come
at the time to depicting the counterculture was the wine festival orgy in 1966's Seconds - and that is really part of a totally different movement.
2. I'm sure most people younger than I still have more experience with drugs than I ever did, but running into some earnest but totally stoned person was a daily occurence in Los Angeles in the years '68 to '74 or so ... I'll never forget the day a guy came to my apartment door in his underwear asking if he could borrow a shoe for an experiment. He held one shoe he'd completely torn up, and needed another because he was certain he'd find something fantastic in it, if he could just look under the sole. So I identified with the Barboura Morris' character's situation in The Trip.
3. Psych-Out was probably the model for a National Lampoon Magazine
satire of the limitless cluelessness of Hollywood - a faux pressbook for a non-existent film called 'Right On!' starring all three Fondas as undercover straights penetrating the world of hippiedom for the FBI. The parody of Jane's inconsistent politics and Peter's vapid posturing was priceless.