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 brunette in a pink coat (Susan Strasberg). The boy he meets, the "guide" for his first LSD trip, is played by Bruce Dern in full narc-creepy mode, arranges the meeting with pill. It's Fonda's first lysergic play date so it all has to be just right. First they swing by dealer Dennis Hopper's hippie pad to score ("Let's make it upstairs, man") and it's clear to any hep person just how weirdly un-hip (and all the more unhip for thinking how hip he is) and vaguely smarmy Bruce Dern is. After smoking a joint--passed along in a round robin format shot that's a clear inspiration for a similar shot in Hopper's Easy Rider--then split to Dern's place, high in the Hollywood hills, which has been 'proofed' and bedecked with odd gimcracks like oranges and a book of Allen Ginsberg poetry--so Fonda can drop and safely frolic. Soon enough, the eye mask comes on, the weird head trip music begins and Corman works his way up from long kaleidoscope sex light show grinding to a wordless mental excursion deep into Big Sur to wander in auld costumes from Corman Poe films, tangle with Angelo Rossitto in torture chamber clothes and face one's own immanent bad trip buried alive entombment - "just go ahead and die," Dern announces. I guess if you're a newbie that advice can sound pretty creepy, out of context in the movie trailer for example. But in this at least, he's right. Soon Dern is pulling him out of the swimming pool and seeming pretty nervous about letting Fonda loose outside, like he'll fall off the hill to his death (did people do that back then? Jeezus, how much were you kids taking??)
But Dern ends up hovering over him way too much, creeping Fonda --and us-- the fuck out. As Michael Weldon wrote "Would you trust Bruce Dern as a guide?" Silly Fonda turned down Salli Sachse as a partner (she asked to come along back at Hopper's pad because she thinks Fonda is beautiful, which he is, and that as far as first trips, she "really likes what happens to people, you know?"). Once home, Dern shows the capsules proudly - 250 micrograms apiece" as if he's an expert and not a narc? (No one, man. Not ever- would be that sure about the actual microgram count of an acid capsule - what does that even mean?) On the other hand he--for some reason known only to him, has Thorazine lying around - this is just in case Fonda has a bad trip. Yeah right, way to bum everyone out, Bruce. Fonda is not the one getting all creepy with trust issues and touching and micro-managing like it's baby's first steps and all he can really offer are words cautiously rearranged from "Tomorrow Never Knows." Creeepy. I don't care how long Fonda's maybe known him, Dern smells like a narc super duper and/or one of those guys who doesn't know he's gay so thinks it's just normal dude behavior to be so inappropriately invasive, or maybe it's kind of the same thing- each a 'spy in the house of love' so to speak. You know Dern has never used any of these phrases before and he can only thinly mask a kind of conservative contempt (which was why he was so perfect perhaps in Coming Home), and when he's all trying to get Fonda to put the black mask on I can't help but think of his creepy-deepy character coming on to the Barker boy in Bloody Mama. But he was less creepy there, believe it or not, because you at least knew he wasn't a narc.
Fonda then hallucinates some more, winds up in a Big Sur cave, hangs out on a merry-go-round with the dwarf ("Bay of Pigs") and Dern in a priest robe ("There are some preliminaries first, man"), and later trips out on an orange ("The energy is dripping all over my hand, man!") while Dern tries to touch fingers with him, and make sure he doesn't jump or drown. Dig man, these early acid eaters were a really square bunch! We never tripped with a guide. Though when I was (briefly) dealing I'd occasionally get called over to somebody who took too much having a super bad time. We didn't have THORAZINE lying around, man. We had to hang in there, like warriors. I was expert at talking them down WITHOUT resorting to Dern creepiness or tired cliche, which is why I became known as "the doctor" or what I called "psychedelic surgery."
"Never saw this before... Never saw this before," says Fonda, early on. "Never never saw that before!" Jack Nicholson did the script, and ain't no doubt he did his research! Fonda and Hopper too of course. Only Dern man, only Dern....
Fonda eventually escapes Dern's creepy clutches and the film picks up the pace; his nocturnal wanderings as he makes his way onto the Sunset Strip include breaking into a neighbor's house to watch TV and chill with a young child (freaking out the parents, who don't 'get it') and later freaking out a Barbara Mouris at the laundromat; all while (he imagines?) the cops are after him. Maybe they are - that's the joy and terror of a strong trip - you never can tell Finally he makes it back to Hopper's pad, winds up at a topless go-go bar for some reason, and is rescued by Salli Sachse--who doesnt't "believe in police," then takes him back to her place for some early morning coitus, and he says goodbye to his marriage, and bye-bye to the old world, and in his mind, bye-bye to normalcy... Tripping often accelerates these things. But he's still square - even telling her in the morning "Well, I love you," and she has to make sure he adds "and everybody else" - lest he miss the cosmic point and get all creepy.
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 while Fonda sits in an electric chair, and they all watch clips from Fonda's advertising reel so he can realize he's guilty... guilty...of poisoning the well of myth with his bland TV 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. LSD really does amp up that feeling of you can't go home again, and you want to reach out to her and pick up this wounded puppy who deserves so much better. You can feel the sexual yearning and pink vibrations of nurturing maternal warmth emanating in waves that turn your leg muscles to jelly. It's hard to believe this was made the year before PSYCH-OUT as she seems so much more mature here, like her father Lee, one of those actors who doesn't make a splash about how great they are because they are so perfectly embedded into their role, and it's only in close examination and hindsight where your mind is blown
And then there's all those hot, zonked-out love-vibing chicks, especially Sachse as the free-love far-out kitten who loves being around the energy of acid first-timers. "I don't believe in police!" Hey far out. Other Corman regulars aside from Mouris in the laundromat include Luana Anders as the waitress at the Go-Go bar and Katherine Walsh as Lu-Lu who makes out with Fonda at Hopper's later. "Hey, go easy, will ya, baby."
|Katherine Walsh as sexy Lulu (love those streaks!)|
So it's free love central, but it's not free love in some grimy Ratzo Rizzo / Herschell Gordon Lewis way, man. It's free love in a cool pretty Fonda hipster next-stop EASY RIDER way, with serious acting, every one young and gorgeous and with a real sense of drugged interconnectivity (except with Dern). If you were tall, young, successful, good-looking and not a scrounging dirtbag, or skeevy guide like Dern is here, then you got laid on the Strip, that's the moral. With her iron-blonde hair and groovy white convertible whisking Fonda away to her swanky pad to cap off a perfect evening with some fading light-show sex, Sachse is beyond what most of us dare hope for. As Hopper says of a girl he knows who takes Roybal (STP?) all the time, "can you imagine where that chick's head is at?" So there was a future to look forward to as a grade school kid in the 70s that would be gone before we got anywhere close enough to get more than a passing taste.
Alas, this movie is far from perfect. Who wants to begin to crash after a wild night like that while forced to endure stock recording kazoo-driven dixieland jazz? Coming from the oddly named "American Music Band," some tracks sound like Corman fished them out of the trash at a high school pep rally, the sort of thing Otto Preminger might put in SKIDOO, the kind of stuff Kevin Spacey might play to torture prisoners in THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. I love Louis Armstrong and Memphis Jug Band as much as the next stoner, don't get me wrong, but not when the same style is generic and tone deaf to the moment. 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. It was probably the last track on the record and he just forgot to turn it off.
Of course 1967 was a strange year for music: it went in twangy surf music on the rock end, the still controversial (post-folk revival) electric Dylan on the folk end, and soul on the black end, and by the end of it all the ends were one within the weaves of Sgt. Pepper and Hendrix. My guess, Hendrix wasn't on the scene just yet, or THE TRIP soundtrack might be really different. (Just compare the music used in EASY RIDER the following year, man oh man music makes a lot of difference in these things.)
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 today and yet, he alone, of the entire cast and crew seems like an acid casualty, i.e. kind of unfocused and cranky, as he badmouths psychedelics. One day, not far from now, cooler heads in medicine will discover just how important a good acid trip or twenty 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. Hah! Like it's going to weaken him! 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--all the other talking heads are still sharp as tacks 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 - misunderstanding all you see, bra). It takes guts to say yes and open up to the unknown, despite all your friends and relatives urging you not to. 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 any risk. And if you believe that old lie about it mutating your genes, then you probably will die from chemo-nausea-induced malnutrition because you're afraid to smoke weed, and also you're reading the wrong blog. Punters and narcs get the real Peter's head freeze frame fake lens crack!! Us? Let's make it upstairs, man. Just don't bring creepy guide and don't call me later if the walls bleed on you again. In the words of Fonda, "my body's gone, man." Wait until Dern's getting the apple juice, then split. Sachse awaits! Sachse away....
See also my 2003 Popmatters review of the double feature with Psych-Out