Boy meets boy meets pill meets Death!
The first boy in the above bizarre and inaccurate tag line is a disillusioned TV commercial director (Peter Fonda) in the midst of a divorce from a hot girl in a pink coat (Susan Strasberg). The boy he meets, the "guide" played by Bruce Dern, arranges the meeting with pill, for Fonda's first lysergic play date, bringing him to dealer Dennis Hopper's hippie pad to score ("Let's make it upstairs, man") and then up to Dern's place high in the Hollywood hills, which has been 'proofed' and bedecked with odd toys, and a book ofAllen Ginsberg poetry, so Fonda can drop and safely frolic. But Dern ends up hovering over poor Fonda, creeping him the fuck out. As Michael Weldon wrote "Would you trust Bruce Dern as a guide?"
Fonda then hallucinates a couple making love under a blanket of patterned light, 'dies' symbolically in a Big Sur cave stocked with leftover props from Corman's Poe films (and a dwarf, of course), tips out on an orange ("the energy is dripping all over my hand, man!") all while Dern tries to get him to touch his fingers.
Fonda eventually escapes Dern's clutches and the film picks up the pace; his nocturnal wanderings as he makes it down to the Strip are another psychedelic highlight - including breaking into a neighbor's house to watch TV, and freaking out a girl at the laundromat, all while (he imagines?) the cops are after him. Finally he makes it back to Hopper's pad and the hot blonde who came onto him whilst there.
In his big LSD peak moment, Fonda hallucinates his way into a plastic fantastic merry-go-round set filled with the carnival props leftover from Corman's films Carnival Rock and X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (reviewed here); Hopper and the dwarf preside over things and they all watch clips from Fonda's advertising reel so that Fonda can realize he's guilty... guilty...of poisoning the well of myth with his bland imagery. "Guilty... guilty," Fonda keeps saying. "Yeah, but don't wallow in it," Hopper chides, "because it's weak and pathetic!"
Susan Strasberg is only around in little bits here and there as the wife Fonda's about to divorce, but she's a maze of kittenish yearning and aching feminine sincerity and she makes you feel guilty and sad that you prefer LSD and painted go-go dancers to her simple charms. Anyone who ever broke a heart will feel Fonda's pangs and LSD really does amp up that feeling of you can't go home again, and you want to reach out to her --you can feel the sexual yearning and pink vibrations of nurturing maternal warmth emanating out at you in waves that turn your leg muscles to jelly.
And then there's all those hot, zonke- out love-vibing chicks, especially Salli Sachse as Glenn, a free-love far-out kitten who wanted originally to hang with Fonda back at the start of the film (it all occurs over the course of an afternoon and night) because she loves being around the energy of acid first-timers. She finds him at a bar and takes him home and when he mentions the police are looking for him she dismisses it, "I don't believe in police!" Hey far out, Glennn. Far out!
So it's free love central, but it's not free love in some grimy Ratzo Rizzo / Herschell Gordon Lewis way; it's free love in a cool pretty Fonda hipster next-stop EASY RIDER way, with serious acting and a real sense of drugged interconnectivity. If you were tall, young, successful, good-looking and free, paisley LA was yours. With her iron-blonde hair and nice car she whisks Fonda away to her swanky pad to cap off a perfect evening with some fading light-show sex, all set, unbearably, to stock recording-ish New Orleans jazz.
Yeah the music is super lame, from the oddly named "American Music Band." Some songs sound like something Corman fished out of the trash at a high school pep rally. It's the sort of thing Otto Preminger might put in SKIDOO. The absolute worst musical moment is that Dixieland jazz when Fonda's coming down, the kind of stuff Kevin Spacey might play to torture prisoners in THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. I love Dixieland jazz, don't get me wrong, but not when it's so generic. My guess is Corman grabbed it from a royalty-free sound library where it was used as the score for Harold Loyd silents that used to be on TV with 'BOinggg!'-style sound effects added.
There's also some other dull stretches of (silent, scored the AMB) SEVENTH SEAL-y footage which Dennis Hopper apparently shot on weekends out at Big Sur with Peter Fonda, a horse, and some props left over from THE RAVEN. They enact Fonda's trips of dying and being reborn in a coffin in a cave in a haze of medieval costumery... which would be fine if the music was interesting, like Pink Floyd or "Dark Star" or something... but not roller rink organ and kazoos. I mean it's 'psychedelic' but there's a thick, wavy line between a band that takes the ingredients of the jug band and makes something truly awesome like Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43" and American Music Band's 'trippy' SF sound.
The peak moment for me, in ALL FILM, is when the spooked Fonda hides in an all-night automated laundry and starts opening all the washers, as if he feels they need to breathe. Barbara Mouris, in curlers, is reading a magazine and waiting for her dryer to finish. She has been watching him and once he notices her he starts slowly closing the lids in fear, like he's trying to hide the secrets inside from her prying eyes. They start talking ("Let's, you know, really try and connect") but then Fonda sees a prettier girl trapped in her dryer and tries to free her, freaking out Barbara so she yells for help, which sends him on the run again.
It's telling that Bruce Dern never actually took acid before or after this film, and in the talking head interviews that accompany THE TRIP on DVD he alone seems really out of it, kind of unfocused and cranky, as be badmouths psychedelics. One day, not far from now, cooler heads in medicine will discover just how important a good acid trip is for preventing Alzheimers and countless other maladies and problems but back then it was considered a big risk and Dern bowed out because he was marathon runner. But considering the futility of living for longevity as opposed to the brief sprint to the flaming finish line of lysergic glory, especially in the show business, I would say he should have gone for it. Those who did are still going strong--coherence wise--and he's, quite frankly, a mess (at least in the documentary).
See, what the anti-drug ads don't tell you is that contempt prior to investigation is easy (with eyes closed). It takes guts to say yes and open up to the unknown. In the end no artist should abandon the pursuit of knowledge, the discovery of the depths of self, the furthering of craft in favor of mere longevity and health. Anything is worth the risk, for, as John Lennon sang, "all I can tell you is, it's all / show / biz."And if you believe that old lie about it mutating your genes, then you probably believe we won Vietnam.
See also my 2003 Popmatters review of the double feature with Psych-Out