There are few things I spent as long pondering as a first year film student than the cinematic representation of drug experiences. Drugs provide a fertile ground for the exploration of a unique cinematic perspective -- romance, violence, betrayal, revenge... these age old extremes of human experience are the bread and butter of dramatic experience. For centuries they have provided us with stories, narrativised examinations of ourselves and our environments. As a kinetic visual medium, cinema has flourished in representing the real material world with a verisimilitude that no other medium could hope to match, and although surrealism cast a short shadow over the early years of cinema, realism and naturalism has dominated the the majority of film production.
In the 1960’s, drug culture exploded. Altered perceptions were in and cinema began to remember that even the camera, a machine, is subjective and that these altered drug experiences are an opportunity to evolve the cinematic tools at filmmaker’s disposal when representing these non-naturalistic but still-real experiences. But how you choose to represent drug experiences through film gets to the heart of how and what you perceive cinema to be. There are two basic modes of expressing experience of any kind through film. It’s a matter of externalising the internal, but this can be done through the actor’s performance and dialogue, a naturalistic approach, or through a more expressionistic approach using the cinematography, the performers and the mise-en-scene to create an expression of what’s occurring internally through the external world the character inhabits.
The Trip is one of the first ‘acid movies’. Written by Jack Nicholson , starring Peter Fonda as a straight-laced TV commercial director looking to, in the parlance of the times, ‘drop out.’ As we all know, California in the Sixties was deep in hippies, and the film’s approach to its chosen subject can only really be appreciated if viewed through the tinted spectacles of the time. The post-war generation was just finding its feet, breaking away from their parents and their values, embracing drugs and new philosophies with a naive but admirable fervour. Early in the film, Fonda’s character states that he’s taking LSD for insight, a common answer at the time, I suppose. Widespread drug taking was new, and acid in particular was very much associated with spiritualism and investigation of the self. In some ways, I suppose there are parallels to be drawn between drugs and cinema. Both the camera and drugs seem to offer a semi-objective and very modern way to examine ourselves. It’s also interesting to consider that in postwar America as cinema was becoming the medium of the masses, psychology was becoming the pop science, LSD with its visual psychedelia and its promise of revealing the mechanics of the unconscious seems to fit the period perfectly.
LSD was definitely held in high esteem by the hippies, and The Trip manages to quite truthfully depict the effects of the drug on the individual through some of Fonda’s dialogue and actions. Although he seems to be able to summon more dexterity and control of his words than most, and doesn’t retreat to the floor, assaulted by fits of dancing giggles half as often as he should, his dialogue does wander through some interesting acidy tangents as he spouts classic hippie acid love jive, which I imagine was really customary at the time. This is, however, counterbalanced by scenes that attempt to engage in the second technique I discussed above, the more expressionistic approach to representation. In one sequence the film cuts from Fonda sipping water in his mentor's suitably psychedelically decorated house to a shot of him drinking from a bowl provided by a midget who's dressed like I imagine the burger guy does at one of those American renaissance fairs, while in the background a semi-naked girl stands with her face painted like a tiger. Fonda is then pursued by what appear to be two of the ringwraiths from Lord Of The Rings, but manages to escape into a dry ice cave before collapsing in a desert. Throughout the sequence Fonda is dressed in a baggy white shirt and Spartacus sandals. Now maybe I’ve been ripped off a lot, but I’ve never had an acid experience that's come close to the extreme and fantastically solid hallucinations that we’re invited to imagine Fonda experiences here. I’ve been reduced to tears by trying to cross a busy road or withdraw money from a cashpoint, but I’ve never found myself living in scenes that foreshadow Jodorowsky’s acid epic Holy Mountain (minus the genital mutilation and animal fornication).
At this point, Fonda’s character begins to freak out (as you would) and sets off alone into the city. This is where I think the film finds its feet and begins to really do something worth doing. I’ve always thought (as the above examples of a busy road and a cashpoint show) that rather than going off into the wilderness to examine yourself and your emotions on acid, you should dive headfirst into the maelstrom of a metropolis. Here is where acid’s best and only discourse is born, the absurdity of the mundane. My favourite scene in the film, and the one I find it hardest to imagine isn’t inspired by a real experience, is when Fonda’s character finds himself in a all night laundrette, a place of function. Moving slowly and somewhat apprehensively he approaches a dryer and touches it, exclaiming at the incredibility of it. He then attempts to free the washing by opening the door of a washing machine, letting it breathe. The action of trying to free washing from a machine says more to me about the perspective acid provides than the pseudo-fantastical sequences or the dialogue in which Fonda exclaims that life is dripping from an orange onto his hand.
The Trip makes an admirable attempt at a variety of techniques in expressing the experience of taking LSD, and although it is the naturalistic approach that manages to present the audience with the most truthful and recognisable representation of tripping, the more expressionistic techniques tell us a lot about the time and about how LSD was perceived then. Cynical and experienced trippers may laugh at the fantastical phantasmagoria but what it’s important to remember when faced with the kaleidoscope lights, midgets and ringwraiths is that, although these sections may not share anything in common with your own drug experiences, they undeniably show how LSD was seen as a radical and revolutionary break from tradition. The post-war generation was trying to break down as many boundaries as it could, pushing aesthetic in fashion, art and music as far away from grey reality as possible. The perception as LSD as a tool for self-exploration and as an enabler of more radical approaches to sex, culture and society tells us how keen they were to change and alter not just their internal reality but the external world. It’s also important to remember that this was the first generation to be experimenting with such radical aesthetics and ideas on such a scale. Now that the psychedelic aesthetic has been thoroughly absorbed into culture, maybe LSD doesn’t provoke such fantastical visions, and maybe drugs no longer seem to offer a revolutionary and philosophical perspective, but we should value The Trip as a unique artifact of culture and of a particular time when the tide turned on aesthetic, on morality, on society and tradition.