‘A LOVELY SORT OF DEATH…!’
With Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, and Dennis Hopper
(1967 American International Productions,
DVD: MGM Home Entertainment, 2004)
23 February 1940-16 August 2019
It’s impossible to emulate a dead hero. They’re forever out of reach. Dennis Hopper started his career with a part in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ (1955), and spent his life in awe of James Dean. Living heroes let you down. Dean himself was in awe of Marlon Brando, especially his cool biker role in ‘The Wild One’ (1953), riding that big Triumph Thunderbird 6T. There’s a story that when Dean learned Brando was to be there at a Hollywood party he was due to attend, he went in the full perfecto-style motor-cycle jacket and tilted cap ‘Wild One’ gear, in an attempt to impress his idol. But Brando had moved on. He was less than pleased. ‘Who’s this guy wearing my last year’s wardrobe?’ he sniped, ‘you’d better get him to a doctor, he’s very sick’. James Dean didn’t live long enough to betray his image. Had he lived he might have wound up doing a US Soap, or failing into mid-life tedium. As a cool-looking corpse he set an impossible standard for Hopper to follow. And hip tends to shift and assume new forms.
Peter Fonda, the son of a wealthy acting dynasty, seems an unlikely ‘Captain America’ hippie hero. But the self-styled ‘American Dreamer’ had already figured in Corman’s cycle of dope and biker flicks, taking the central role in ‘The Wild Angels’ (1966), from which his dialogue was sampled by Primal Scream. He was a mover on the bourgeoning counter-culture scene. John Lennon based his ‘Revolver’ song “She Said She Said” on Fonda, after meeting him at a LA poolside party where Fonda repeatedly related his acid-tripping experience, about how ‘I know what it’s like to be a dead’. A line he uses here. So there was already a potent talent-pool simmering even before shooting began. Like earlier drug-exploitation movies ‘The Trip’ opens with an escape clause pre-credit disclaimer, a warning of ‘great concern to us all’ about the use of ‘mind-bending chemicals’. In the light of what follows this is obviously a legal fig-leaf to deflect accusation. Much as ‘Reefer Madness’ (1936) had started out as a Church-sponsored morality tale, and wound up on the exploitation movie-circuit.
So is ‘The Trip’ dangerous? Is it likely to subvert vulnerable minds? After all, it was rejected by the British Board of Film Classification four times – in 1967, 1971, 1980 and 1988, before it was finally screened by Film Four in 2002, and not granted an uncut DVD certificate until June 2004. The three protagonists responsible for ‘The Trip’ – Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson, would lift cult underground into massive overground with ‘Easy Rider’ a few years later. But this slight opportunistic and – objectively, rather silly movie is not consciously a dry run for what is to come. It’s striving for gravitas, but winds up mostly psychsploitation trend-mugging. Yet in its odd way it is sincere, an attempt to express intangible changes that were effecting and transfiguring their lives, individually and collectively, and would continue to do so in their separate future trajectories. With Hopper in particular as the awkward outlaw rebel that James Dean never lived to be.
‘THE TRIP: A BIG THRILL
IN A LITTLE PILL’
‘THE TRIP’ (1967, American International Pictures) Produced and Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Jack Nicholson. With Peter Fonda (as Paul Groves), Susan Strasberg (Sally Groves, Paul’s wife), Bruce Dern (LSD guide John), Dennis Hopper (Max) and Salli Sachse (Glenn, Paul’s girlfriend), plus Barboura Morris, Judy Lang, Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf) and Luana Anders (as the waitress). An uncredited Peter Bogdanovich can be glimpsed at the party. Special Psychedelic Effects created by Charlatan Productions Inc. Music score credited to The American Music Band, but actually Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield. Running Time: 1hr 16mins/ 85-minutes. DVD: MGM Home Entertainment, 2004
Originally featured on website:
‘VIDEOVISTA’ (UK – September 2010)
and published in:
‘THE SUPPLEMENT Issue 53’ (November 2010)