Bright Lights Film Journal

“She’s Gone to the ends of the universe…. on STP.” – Late Tonight, on TCM, do tape it, flower-bama

If you can’t remember, I’ll tell you, tonight is that greatest of all time travel movies, La Jatee (1961) at 1 AM EST on Turner Classic Movies. It’s short, it’s in French and black and white and it’s the inspiration for Twelve Monkeys, and brother, what else can you say after that?

Then, after that are two of the very best “head” movies ever made – Psych-Out (1968) and The Trip (1967). If you had to watch only one, make it Psych-Out, which features Jack Nicholson and Dean Stockwell as friendly rival hippy bandmates who tangle over a pretty deaf chick named Jenny (Susan Strasberg) and whether or not their band should be a huge success “like the airplane” – or stay true to their 1968 Haight Ashbury “free love and squalor” aesthetic. As the band’s leader, Stony (Nicholson) is more or less the same righteous prick he would play in Five Easy Pieces a few years later. Jenny expects him to be a “good boyfriend.” Hah! To console the distraught Jenny (she lip reads!), Dave (Stockwell, who wears a long black wig-Native American headband combination clearly lifted from some western) makes the mistake of splitting his STP-spiked kool aid with her; not the right dosage for a first-timer. “That’s really cool, Dave,” notes Stony sardonically, and they give chase through the crowded Hashbury streets. But the kid is all right. Despite the mind-bending terror, STP’s 24-hour nonstop peak gives her a chance to hear colors and see sounds, and finally unravel the damage done to her by her sadistic flashback mom and LSD-freak brother played (in heavy wig and beard) by Bruce Dern. The music sucks but the cinematography is by the great Lazlo Kovacs.

The Trip also has Dern who proves without a doubt he should be banned from any movie where people are trying to relax and groove. He’s got “closeted narc” written all over him, and the more he tries to be “gentle” the creepier he gets. Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon put it best in 1983: “Would you trust Bruce Dern as a guide?”

Peter Fonda plays a director of TV commercials on the brink of divorce (Susan Strasberg is the wife) who gets Dern to help him score some “tablets” from Dennis Hopper. Jack Nicholson wrote the script. Fonda freaks out and hallucinates his own death and Hopper returns riding a merry-go-round to judge his soul. The pads these people live in are super groovy and the ubiquitous Corman regulars roll right into the punches: Dick Miller as a Walter Paisley wannabe bartender, and Barbara Mourris as a girl who Fonda tries to “relate to” while hiding out in the laundromat.

The scenes with Fonda that actually have sound are the best, but a good third of the movie consists of not terribly psychedelic footage (shot by Hopper; he was assistant director to Corman) of Fonda wandering around Big Sur in various costumes left over from Corman’s Poe movies, all shot silent and scored to bad, bad BAD music from “The American Music Band.” Good lord! I originally reviewed The Trip and Psych-Out via a DVD review over on popmatters, and my editor changed a parenthetical statement I made about the music from: “Does anyone really want to hear bad dixieland jazz while coming down from an acid trip?” to “Does anyone really want to hear Dixieland jazz?” Apparently, she couldn’t get behind me presuming everyone has come off of trips before, but dig, man, it’s the vernacular.

Seriously, it sounds like the stuff they used to play over Buster Keaton shorts. Boing! What a drag, man. But all’s well that ends in bed, where Fonda winds up with a very groovy chick played by Sali Sachse. AIP made his head crack open before the credits, lest any teens get the right idea about freeing their minds, man. And set and setting are everything, don’t forget NOT to invite Bruce Dern. Amen, Praise Obama!