Psychedelic by Andrew Martin | Pixabay
Psychedelic by Andrew Martin | Pixabay

What Roger Corman’s Psychedelic Film ‘The Trip’ Helps Us Realize

Roger Corman’s film about psychedelics and self-awareness, The Trip, turns 55 this summer, yet its message resonates to this day.

The Trip
Roger Corman
American International Pictures
31 August 1967 (US)

Summer 2022 marks the 55th anniversary of Roger Corman‘s The Trip. The 1967 drama launched a craze for acid films with frenetically edited and arbitrarily censored panoramas of free love and terrible dreams; Psych-Out (Richard Rush, 1968), Skidoo (Otto Preminger, 1968), and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) are among the best. Predictably, few of these films run longer than 90 minutes. You can only gape at trippy celluloid for so long. Regardless, with a renewed cinematic interest in the late-’60s zeitgeist over the past few years—see My Generation (David Batty, 2017), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), and Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, 2021)—this drugsploitation pioneer is more relevant than ever. Corman’s film of peace, love, and a superficially normalized subversion of social and political mores still leaves a warm taste in the mouth.

It goes like this: Paul Groves (Peter Fonda), a Hollywood ad director with a pair of clean sideburns and cleaner chinos, is too alienated to remember to sign divorce papers at the behest of his wife Sally (Susan Strasberg), clad in a nauseating shade of pink suit with a husky lilt to her voice. He repairs to the hilltop manse of John (Bruce Dern)—a kahuna-type in tenure-track tweed and a goatee—wanting to trip under his watch. Paul tells a blonde named Glenn (Salli Sachse, from American International Pictures’ beach party flicks) that he’s looking to understand himself. He scores 250 micrograms of LSD from Max (Dennis Hopper), a dealer in a hemp poncho loaded with HIPPIE POWER buttons, donkey beads, and teeth of ambiguous origin. For the next 70-minutes, he reels through a half-hallucinated haze of sex, death, and Lovecraftian fantasy.

Corman had just pulled $10 million and a name for Dern and Fonda with AIP’s biggest hit, The Wild Angels (1966), and wanted to milk the counter-cultural market for all it had. After abortive attempts by his usual writer Charles B. Griffith, Jack Nicholson stepped in, steeped in hallucinogens and a failing marriage. He urged Corman to tone down the language; the hippest jive is the soonest dated. Corman was content to let the film reflect its time. Despite the carping of old-guard critics like Bosley Crowther that it was “all a big put-on”, the film saw a massive profit, grossing $13.8 million against a budget of $100k. It was the 25th-hottest film of the year and the only American flick at Cannes (it played to overflowing hordes and standing ovations).

Corman, Nicholson, Strasberg, and Dern would follow it with the looser drama, Psych-Out, the next year, and Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson with a low-budget biker flick called Easy Rider the year after that. Film critic Jim Norton called The Trip the best LSD film of the late ’60s, ensuring an audience for the films that followed. It was banned in the UK in 1967, 1971, 1981, and 1988, only being passed for DVD release in 2004.

Corman wastes no opportunity to cram The Trip with what Corman does best: Paul pops the pill and he’s off in puff-sleeves and sandals, ranging cliffs, crossing deserts, and seeing the entirety of the world in a humble orange. He sees crosses on the mount (which are really just poles for Channel Thirteen hardware). He sees mirrors overlaid with lovers’ faces, pulsing, blinking, spinning trails. Our WASP daytripper is plumb beset by women, at various times trussed and set aflame by two cloaked horseback riders that turn out to be Sally and Glen; alternately making love to Sally and Glenn; haunted by images of Sally following suit with another man.

The riders herd him through fog into a castle, where he meets his hanging corpse. He finds himself in a circus of a courtroom, with Max presiding as the velour-robed judge. Paul mounts a cheery merry-go-round after an equally colorful electric chair and a dwarf indicts him as a narcissistic spokesman of a cruel and confused society. Max assails Paul about his work in advertising—Paul protests that it’s a living—and gawks when Paul pleads “not guilty”. Paul mumbles “wows” and is convinced that he has died.

John leaves for a few minutes to get Paul some apple juice. While he’s away, Paul hallucinates John’s bloody corpse and reels out onto Sunset Boulevard. The kaleidoscopic strobes and Mike Bloomfield score shift from the background to the fore. They meld seamlessly between Paul’s trip and the world around; Crowther complained that “all you are likely to take away… is a painful case of eye-strain and perhaps a detached retina.” Corman used over 2,500 cuts for this film. He hired light riggers for Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. As a result, The Trip is drenched with sensuous overload. It remains the prototype of what film critic Jim Morton deemed “garage surrealism”: color-treated, under-cranked, split-screen, strobe-cut, multiply-exposed fish lenses, and liquid light projections abound. They’re among the most living shots in Corman’s oeuvre.

Having fled his safe den, Paul wanders into a house and shares a glass of milk with a little girl. They watch a news bulletin about the wounded and dead in Vietnam until her father awakes from his nap to find the stranger in his house. Paul runs back onto the Strip, fleeing the fuzz called on him and assailed by his own trade—neon, slogans, and crowds. In a laundromat, he “really tries to connect” with a woman who would rather he fold her sheets. He sees Sally and Glenn in the dryer and freaks. He hides in a go-go club amid bodies, colors, pulsing, until a waitress recognizes his state: “What’s the matter with you guys? Isn’t the real word good enough for you?”

The cops arrive. He outruns them to Max’s dope den but is ousted when he reveals he is being pursued by the law. Again, he lurches down the Strip, eyes swimming with whiskey, fortified wine, and the cartoon character, Bullwinkle J. Moose. Glenn, who has been searching for him, picks him up and drives him to her beach house. At dawn, he stumbles from her bed, apparently a new man. He proclaims his love for her (and everyone else). It’s easy now, she says; wait until tomorrow. He resolves to consider this “tomorrow” thing. It’s as much evasion as a revelation, and it’s doubtful that he’s changed at all.

Nor has the film industry changed in spite of this groundbreaking film. The Trip opens with a pre-credit scroll and a bourbon-and-tequila-drenched voiceover warning the viewer that the film is a fictional representation of the catastrophe awaiting America should LSD use spread. During the scene with the girl and the milk, the TV screen is scrambled so that the announcer’s voice about Vietnam casualties is heard but the grim images are obscured. Post-production zoom-ins remove the TV from wide shots altogether. In the final freeze-frame, the TV screen cracks to shatter Peter Fonda’s face like glass (ostensibly to warn us that even a roll in the hay with Sachse’s Glenn won’t quell the lysergic agony). Corman disclaimed AIP’s intrusions. He deliberately left the film’s ending ambiguous, so that each viewer would see what she wanted to see, in spite of AIP’s interference.

The Trip amounts to what Nicholson deemed “the best movie Roger ever made, and that’s something,” and what film critic Judith Crist deemed “very little more than an hour-and-a-half commercial for LSD.” Having never done the stuff himself, Corman and Co. tripped in Big Sur, in shifts. Corman’s trip proved so complex that he hoped only to represent, not to reproduce it. Despite his role as seasoned guide, Dern alone wasn’t loaded—he was nearly an Olympic runner, and he never even drank. He asked Corman what the drug was like, for authenticity’s sake. Corman came down convinced that “There is no reason to exist in the real world.”

Indeed, Corman had such an intense realization about Hollywood’s interference in filmmaking during his trip that he filched the spectral freak-out scenes from his earlier Poe adaptations (the Poe Cycle, consisting of eight films) even reusing a painting from House of Usher (1960) for the medieval scene, to convey what he felt. Paul’s dread about his everyday life and his work in the advertising world, however, is delightfully unconvincing. His direst delirium and highest ecstasy are culled from the dregs of his ad-exec id.

The recycled, superimposed, and intercut signs veer from chemical nirvana to the point of parody: as Paul drops acid he turns on John’s TV and hears the Dixieland jingle of his own ad for Psyche Soap, “the only soap that makes you clean inside.” When Max informs Paul that he is one with, and part of, “an ever-expanding, loving, joyful, glorious and harmonious universe,” Paul counters that “nobody lives that way.” He can only reach this world through substance use, and when he returns to the world of others’ concerns he is no less self-absorbed and self-evasive than before.

Just 20-minutes into the trip, Paul says to John the most telling line in the film: “It’s hard to look at you when I feel so good.” Realizing that the dullness of everyday living is all in his mind, he comes no nearer, post-trip, to rise above the feeling. Dreams merely swell and distort the stuff of waking life. Fifty-five years after its premiere, The Trip is a pioneering testament to the sheer beauty of this distortion—how entrancing the vision as it is experienced, how flimsy its perception in the cold light of reality.


Sources

Cook, Tim. “Classic Review: The Trip (1967)”. La La Film. 11 April 2015.

Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: ‘The Trip’ on View at 2 Houses: Film Tries to Simulate Psychedelic Visions”. The New York Times. 24 August 1967.

Lindbergs, Kimberly. “New on Blu-Ray: Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)”. Cinebeats. 17 August 2019.

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