Cult Corner: The Trip

1967 – USA

Director: Roger Corman

Starring: Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Susan Strasberg, Salli Sachse

Words: Nathan Scatcherd

The Trip is a fascinating little oddity; written by Jack Nicholson (!) and directed by B-movie trash king Roger Corman, it is a quintessentially Sixties psychedelic experience, examining the relationship between the ideals of the buttoned up, middle class ‘straight’ life and the acid-dropping, sexually free hippie counterculture.
Paul (Fonda) is a TV advert director going through a divorce with his wife (Strasberg). On top of the obvious pain of divorce, Paul appears to be suffering a sense of existential longing, perhaps something of an identity crisis. He hooks up with some of his hippie friends and decides to take LSD for the first time, as a way of delving into his psyche and perhaps learning something profound about himself along the way.

From the moment Paul drops the tab, the film becomes the titular ‘trip’; an extended hallucinatory sequence examining Paul’s psychological hang-ups and, with perhaps surprising even-handedness, the pros and cons of acid (and, to an extent, drug use in general). The film opens with an almost laughably solemn PSA-style message about the dangers of LSD, setting up expectations of an overblown ‘drug panic’ movie of Reefer Madness proportions. However, The Trip is actually fairly nuanced and clear-headed in its willingness to portray both the good and bad aspects of hallucinogens and, indeed, the culture surrounding their use at that time. Hippies are not looked down on as burned out morons, nor are they venerated as heroic free spirits eking out an existence in a world corrupted by The Man. They are simply people who enjoy an ‘alternative lifestyle’, to borrow a stupid but useful phrase, and The Trip is refreshingly inclusive and realistic in its portrayal of the counterculture as being made up of more than just stereotypical unwashed, long haired yoofs in headbands. Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern play very different drug aficionados; Hopper’s Max is a perhaps more run of the mill flower child, whereas Dern’s sage-like John is as outwardly middle class as Paul. And yet, these characters are all friends – they exist in the same social circles, doing the same drugs, and it’s never treated as a big deal. In a lot of counter-culture films of this era in particular, there are almost comically antagonistic divisions between ‘freaks’ and ‘straights’, and that this film casually dismisses such boundaries makes it feel strangely progressive.

Inevitably, it had trouble with the BBFC (actually an entertaining story in itself, which you can read about in detail here –, especially as it was one of the first films to show LSD use specifically from the point of view of the person taking the trip. The swirling, kaleidoscopic visuals (aided by some deft editing and, in some scenes, cleverly employed body paint and lighting) are visual, tangible elements marking the film out as a ‘drug movie’, but it has a psychological depth beyond its desire to simply look as trippy as possible.
Paul’s exploration of his mind throws up some terrifically weird and atmospheric sequences, all full of symbolism of course. A standout scene features Paul subconsciously admonishing himself for being part of the advertising industry; his guilt at the material, illusory nature of his work and general lack of satisfaction in his life represented by Hopper’s Max in a judge’s robes, taking him to task for the choices he’s made in his life leading up to this moment of mental self-confrontation. And maybe this is purely down to a certain very personal, subjective viewpoint I couldn’t help bringing with me, but the film’s final few lines of dialogue struck me as being at once blackly funny and genuinely poignant.

The Trip is a natural fit for a double bill with Easy Rider, which would reunite Nicholson and Fonda two years later and offer its own heady, druggy look at the bleak morning after the flower power dream. The Trip in particular feels like a strange, obscure time capsule when watched today; appropriately lysergic and yet appealingly coherent, and faintly prophetic in its contemporary appraisal of the cultural turning point between the peace and love high of LSD and hippie culture, and the harsh comedown of the Nixon presidency to follow.