Tag Archives: Bruce Dern

CAPSULE: THE TRIP (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Salli Sachse,

PLOT: A director of commercials headed for a divorce takes LSD hoping for insight into his life; he gets it, while seeing plenty of pretty swirling colors and getting into trouble when he wanders away from his trip-sitter.

Still from The Trip (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Trip is a trendsetting lysergic journey, but it’s weirdness suffers because it takes itself too seriously, and handles itself too competently. Compare the derangement of 1968’s Skidoo, which, by casting the past-their-prime Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Carol Channing as the turned-on, comes at the acid fad from a bizarrely oblique angle.

COMMENTS: One of the vanguard films exploring (or exploiting) the LSD craze of the mid to late 1960s, The Trip was a seriously-intended and visually pioneering film from an unlikely source (B-movie impresario Roger Corman, previously best known for monster cheapies and Poe adaptations). While prior films—Movie Star, American Style or; LSD, I Hate You, Hallucination Generation, and even 1959’s The Tingler—had dealt with the effects of this remarkably cinematic drug, The Trip feels like the start of the psychedelic cycle. Despite a disclaimer pasted to the front of the first reel by the producers (“the illegal manufacture and distribution of these drugs is dangerous and can have fatal consequences”), the film’s tone is intended to be objective and non-judgmental. Inevitably, however, it feels very pro-drug; who wouldn’t want to have the insides of their eyelids temporarily tie-dyed while going on a fantastic interior adventure like Peter Fonda, safe in the knowledge that Bruce Dern will bring you back to Earth with a shot of Thorazine if things get too intense? True to its serious intent, the movie proposes the paradigm of LSD as a self-psychotherapeutic tool rather than LSD as an opportunity to chat with God or LSD as the ultimate party drug—though, if the film is to be believed, it can also get you laid by groovy disinhibited chicks.

Little of what happens in The Trip occurs outside of Fonda’s skull. We are quickly introduced to his character, a dude on the fringes of the establishment but hip enough to have Dennis Hopper as his connection, and within fifteen minutes he’s setting off pharmaceutical fireworks inside his cranium. The Trip settles into a rhythm of subjective hallucination montages followed by returns to normalcy as we check in on the blissed-out (or paranoid) Fonda from the perspective of a neutral observer. Fonda sees pasty-faced death figures on a beach, meets with a hallucinated guru played by Hopper inside the tinseled carnival of his mind, and makes love to Strasberg and Sachse while  projected paisleys play across their nude bodies. Fractured images assault us in speedy montages that whirl by in a psychedelic blur. The liquid light and solarization effects seem kitschy and cliched today, but they were cutting edge (though inexpensive) at the time. Fonda’s acting while straight isn’t impressive, but his stoned temperament is believable, particularly when he wanders into a laundromat and is awestruck by a Whirlpool washing machine. What psychological depth the film might have is suggested rather than achieved; we don’t know enough about Fonda to relate to his self-discovery, and there are no shocking psychological insights. In that way, The Trip seems more like a sketch or a template for what an artistically successful trip film might eventually look like. But there’s an energy and an anarchy to this pioneering effort that makes it watchable despite its flaws, and it’s Corman’s most experimental film—and one of his best.

The screenplay was by acid enthusiast and future Academy Award winner . Feeling that he could not direct the film competently otherwise, Corman (along with most of the rest of the cast, minus health-nut Bruce Dern) dropped LSD before filming. The Trip is overdue for a decent Blu-ray release, but it can still be found on an old double-sided DVD release along with Psych-Out. The disc has several featurettes and a Corman commentary, and although the picture is good, the soundtrack could be clearer. If buying the overpriced out-of-print double feature is too much of a plastic hassle, The Trip can be rented on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Corman has simply resorted to a long succession of familiar cinematic images, accompanied by weird music and sounds.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PSYCH-OUT (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Rush

FEATURING: , , , Max Julien, Adam Roarke, 

PLOT: A deaf runaway goes to Haight-Ashbury in search of her burnout brother, who has sent her a postcard reading “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.”

Still from Psych_Out (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few hallucination scenes supply a bit of weirdness, but essentially this is just an earnest pro-hippie exploitation film.

COMMENTS: I like the vintage newspaper ad copy for Psych-Out—“listen to the sound of purple!”, “they’ll ask for a dime with hungry eyes… but they’ll give you love—for NOTHING!”—much better than the actual film. The movie is a 1968 rush job tossed into the market to exploit the audience’s salacious interest in the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll ethos of San Francisco’s flower children. The story of young Jenny’s search for her acid-casualty brother takes a back seat to a tour of Haight-Ashbury locales and culture. You get love beads, pot smoking, freakouts, happenings, chaste orgies, bead-stringing, bogus zen philosophy (“everything is part of everything else”) delivered by a guy in a Navajo headband, concerts at the Filmore East, the Strawberry Alarm Clock providing a fairly groovy soundtrack, and more pink and yellow paisley than you’d see in binge-watching session of “Laugh In.” Strasberg plays the wide-eyed ingenue lost in the den of friendly sin, Nicholson is musician/love interest aptly named “Stoney,” Max Julien (the future pimp of The Mack) is a drummer who hallucinates that he’s a knight, Dean Stockwell is Nicholson’s hippie conscience (he warns Stoney that success is “all just one big plastic hassle”), and Bruce Dern is the mad messiah of Haight Street. There are a few fun psychedelic scenes—one guy sees his friends as zombies and tries to cut off his own hand with a power saw, while Strasberg’s final fiery crash-and-burn STP trip is almost worth the wait—but mostly the film makes unfettered freedom and hedonism look kind of tedious, like a drug trip that starts off fun but just won’t end.

The script details are sloppy. Lots of plot points don’t make sense, like why a gang of straits is so eager to devote their time hunting down “the Seeker” when he’s no more offensive than any other street freak preacher. Strasberg’s Jenny has the most perfect diction you’ve ever heard from a deaf person. Jenny is also underage—otherwise her mother wouldn’t be able to send cops after her as a runaway—a fact whose moral implications the script ignores when throwing her in bed with various unshowered hippies. Overall, Psych-Out fails as standard entertainment, and delivers little in the way of weirdness or overt exploitation (the film has some blurry, blissed-out  suggested sex, but is nudity-free). At the time, it was a novel look at a subculture that was weird to outsiders, but today its only value is as a curiosity of hippie kitsch. It will come over either as camp or nostalgia, depending on your age. High on kaleidoscope lenses but low on plotting, this psychedelic capsule has lost most of its potency over the past five decades.

Jack Nicholson’s original script for Psych-Out was deemed too experimental, and Richard Rush had it re-written by a team of screenwriters; Nicholson kept the lead role of Stoney, which he wrote for himself. The great Lazslo Kovacs (who got his start in low-budget exploitation films like this one) oversaw the cinematography. Psych-Out was produced by clean-cut American Bandstand/New Year’s Rockin’ Eve impresario Dick Clark (!) It was re-released on Blu-ray (to better appreciate the pretty colors) in 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an above average programmer about San Francisco hippies. Thin story line – girl seeking lost brother – is sufficient as the medium for a series of incidents, including drug-induced hallucinations, all directed in excellent fashion by Richard Rush.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

WILL PENNY (1968)

From 1956 on, actor  kept an actor’s journal, which he published in two volumes, in 1976 and 1996. These are some of the most fascinating and valuable behind-the-scene writings published on the subject of studio filmmaking. In addition to these writings, Heston was also an exceptional and underrated visual artist. Often, when actors turn to painting, the result is less than memorable, and can even be downright painful. One thinks of Henry Fonda’s vapid watercolors or the recent, execrable “world leader” portraits by George Bush as painful examples. Heston’s visual art was an extension of his journals. His pen and ink drawings of makeup artists, stuntmen, cameramen, and technicians celebrated the unsung blue-collar workers. I was fortunate enough to attend a small showing of Heston’s extensive work and it remains of the most compellingly unique exhibits I have attended to date.

The story of the making of Will Penny (1968) is a standout entry in Heston’s “The Actor’s Life: Journals.” Heston was handed an incomplete script. Under normal conditions, the actor would have refused to read an unfinished screenplay, but Heston was so taken with the fragment that he immediately expressed interest in taking on the role of the aging, illiterate cowboy Will Penny. Heston was then informed that the writer, Tom Gries, was insistent on directing. When Heston inquired on Gries’ directing experience, he found it consisted of “a couple of television programs.” Heston put up a mild protest, but quickly changed his mind upon learning that Gries’ demand was unconditional. While it is fortunate that Heston compromised in what turned out to be one of his best and most underrated roles, his skepticism about Gries’ lack of experience had some validity.

The central performances and an intelligent, sensitive script are the strengths of Will Penny; however, Gries’ television-like visual direction and an embarrassingly melodramatic performance from  are noticeable flaws. As excellent as Heston’s work is here, Joan Hackett is even better. She imbues her part with an unglamorous freshness (Heston amusingly related that several actresses turned down the role upon reading the description of Catherine as plain). Heston later counted Hackett as the best of his leading ladies, and for good reason.

Will Penny is not a Wyatt Earp type. He does not bravely face down the enemy to clean up a corrupt town. Rather, he is a fifty-year-old cowhand who works with cattle. It’s all he knows. He doesn’t even know how to write his name. When he gets into a fight with a younger co-worker, Penny uses a frying pan “because I use my hands to work.” When a trail job ends, Penny finds himself traveling with a young Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe in hopes of finding work. Majors is a bit of a nonentity here, but Zerbe gives a very good performance as a recently transplanted, thickly accented European immigrant who awkwardly shoots himself and then milks every ounce of sympathy he can.

Still from Will Penny (1968)Zerbe and Majors try to steal an elk from demented preacher Quint (Pleasance) and his sons (one of who is played by  in one of his worst and most cartoonish performances). Penny is inadvertently drawn into the conflict, which will have eventual and horrific consequences.The three men temporarily part company when Penny lands a seasonal job as a line rider. Penny finds his shack occupied by squatters in the person of Catherine (Hackett) and her young son (Jon Francis).

The romance between Penny and Catherine is authentic. They do not wind up in each others’ arms within thirty seconds. It is the building of the relationship between the two that gives Will Penny its substance. Even the inevitable conflict between Penny and Quint is in service of the understated chemistry between Heston and Hackett.

While Gries’ does not have the cinematic visual flair of the best directors, his strength lies in characterization and elegant writing. This was Gries’ first feature film. His subsequent films were mere assignments, lacking the personal vision of Will Penny.

LIST CANDIDATE: TWIXT (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco, Tom Waits

PLOT: Horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is in decline, hacking out formulaic product and going on book tours to nowhere places, like the town of Swan Valley. The local sheriff (Bruce Dern) tells him about an unsolved massacre that took place in the town years ago, suggesting a collaboration on a book, which Hall doesn’t take seriously—until he starts dreaming of a young girl, V (Elle Fanning), who may be connected with the murders, and may be either a ghost or a vampire; and of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who becomes a spiritual muse the deeper Hall delves into the mystery.

Still from Twixt (2011)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What gives the film an aura of weirdness is its visual style, elements of which recall earlier Coppola films (mainly the more experimental ones like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart), along with the elements of autobiography that thread through the film. While it may be a bit too early to declare this as Essential Coppola, there are rewards to be found here for the adventurous moviegoer.

COMMENTS: Twixt has had a tortured time getting out to an audience; originally scheduled for release in late 2011 after several festival screenings and Comic Con hype, the movie has been released in France and England and only recently made its domestic premiere in San Francisco, with no concrete word (as of this writing) as to wider release in the U.S. Which is not that surprising, considering that most of the domestic reviews pretty much ripped the film to shreds. To a certain extent, they have a point—most of those reviews have commented on the murkiness of the narrative, which Coppola has stated had its origins in a dream. Most of those reviewers probably think that Coppola’s best creative days are behind him, or that he needs to return to more commercial fare to be ‘relevant’ again. It’s probably very telling that what North American distributors and critics have seen as a problem, Europe has eagerly embraced (especially France, where critics have acclaimed the film).

Twixt is a messy concoction, and for most audiences who are used to storylines where everything is clearly presented and all the twistedness will eventually be straightened out by the time the end credits roll, it won’t be a fun ride. Coppola describes it as “one part Gothic Romance, one part personal film and one part the kind of horror film I began my career with,” which is a pretty packed sandwich—not everything will fit neatly there. However, those concerned with neatness will conveniently overlook good performances by Kilmer, Dern and Chapin and some intriguing autobiographical references.

Twixt is available on R2 DVD and Blu-Ray. Again, no word as of yet when it will be available on R1 disc.

UPDATE 12/28/2015: In 2013, Twixt was released on R1 Blu-Ray by 20th Century Fox with excellent picture quality and sound. It’s light on extras, but what’s included is very interesting – a documentary on the making of the film shot by Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, prior to her feature film debut with Palo Alto (2014).

Twixt official site

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily [Coppola’s] silliest work… a mishmash of absurd horror tropes with a gush of blood…”–Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)