Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Trip / Psych-Out (DVD)

When the makers of 1968's counterculture cheapie Psych-Out arrived in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district for some location shooting, the locals greeted them with such hostility and obstruction that the producers had to hire Hells Angels to keep the peace. With all the cameras invading town for a quick cash-in on the "Summer Of Love," the residents had reason to suspect the filmmakers, who would seem to have exploitative motives at the very least, if they weren't more insidious Establishment reactionaries. Ideally packaged as a "Midnite Movie" double feature of low-budget AIP productions about the LSD experience, Psych-Out and Roger Corman's 1967 The Trip provide a fascinating case study of the tricky relationship between film and the youth movement in the '60s. In selling the counterculture back to itself, the films' underlying attitudes run the full spectrum from identification to contempt, and they both get away with opposing subversions: The Trip is a full-blown psychedelic odyssey that many accused of being a "user's manual" for LSD, in spite of the hilarious tacked-on bookends of an anti-drug disclaimer at the beginning and a broken-mirror effect at the end. Psych-Out, on the other hand, wraps a cautionary tale in faux-authentic hippie rags, giving its audience just enough groovy sensation–including musical performances by The Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds–to smuggle in an uptight moral on the heavy consequences of drug use. (Guess which one was produced by Dick Clark?) In the informative 15-minute featurette on The Trip's disc, which also comes with an equally worthwhile commentary track, Corman confesses that he did some method research in preparation for the film. Having never dropped acid before, he and his crew headed to Big Sur for a weekend as carefully scheduled as a Corman call sheet, allowing each person to trip with rotating "guides" to usher them safely through the experience. Corman freely admits he had a wonderful time, floating in a sunset sky on a jewel-encrusted ship one moment and looking deep into the center of the Earth the next, but as a conscientious filmmaker, he also wanted to be honest about bad trips. Based on a Jack Nicholson script (which by all accounts was obsessively detailed in its visual ideas and symbolic paraphernalia), The Trip may be the longest high in film history, but its kaleidoscope eyes take a remarkably ambiguous journey through sensual wonderment and abstract horrors. The simple premise of commercial director and Corman alter ego Peter Fonda getting led through his first LSD trip by gentle guide Bruce Dern takes roughly the same amount of time to set up as an acid tablet would to take effect. But viewers inclined to follow the film's guidance are in for a bumpy ride, because for every scene of, say, the radiant life flowing off an orange ("It's like the sun in my hands, man"), Corman follows with bad vibes and images that intensify Fonda's anxieties about women and death. Coming from a self-admitted "square" like American Bandstand's Dick Clark, whose hands-on touch included personally cutting adhesives to cover the women's nipples in a group-sex montage, Psych-Out's freaky climax has more in common with the conservative hysteria of Reefer Madness. After accidentally dropping two tabs of "S.T.P.," sexy babe-in-the-woods Susan Strasberg, a deaf runaway who came to San Francisco in search of her lost brother (Dern again, as a burnout known as "The Seeker"), flees through the city with flames bursting all around her and somehow winds up in the middle of speeding traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. Though an amusingly dated and noxious compendium of counterculture clichés, Psych-Out does offer the singular pleasure of future three-time Oscar winner Nicholson playing "Stoney," the charismatic frontman of an up-and-coming psychedelic rock band called Mumblin' Jim. Only a star of his caliber could make such beautiful noise without moving a finger on the guitar.


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