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DIRECTED BY: Conrad Rooks

FEATURING: Conrad Rooks, Jean-Louis Barrault, William S. Burroughs, Paula Pritchett

PLOT: A wealthy young American travels to Europe to receive treatment for his alcohol and drug addiction, fighting his urges, reflecting on his hedonistic past, and dreaming of more tranquil times.

Still from Chappaqua (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: With a sometimes-poetic, sometimes-pretentious look at the travails of drug addiction and a fervent dedication to nonlinear storytelling, Chappaqua is messy but unusually sure of itself. There’s little doubt that first-time filmmaker Rooks got exactly the movie he wanted, and that movie is a surreal anti-narrative that by turns puzzles, annoys, and astonishes.

COMMENTS: The opening crawl is essentially the hero’s confession: in an effort to combat the alcoholism that began at the age of 14, our protagonist—Russsel Harwick, the alter ego of writer-director Rooks—turned to an impressive number of alternatives, including marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, peyote, psilocybin and LSD. It’s the peyote that offers hope of breaking the cycle of rotating addiction, as a nightmare convinces him he’s hit rock bottom and leads him to seek a cure. Enjoy this moment; it’s the last time in Chappaqua where anyone makes an effort to explain what’s going on.

Chappaqua is Conrad Rooks’ barely disguised autobiographical account of his own struggles with drugs and drink, and he is bracingly frank about the depths to which he fell. He is selfish, rude, prone to breaking rules, and pathetic in pursuit of his next fix. We get to see what it’s like to operate in a drug-induced fog through such tools as an unsteady handheld camera, comical shifts in tone and perspective, and even a shocking black and white posterized vision of Manhattan. As a visualist, Rooks is rich with ideas. On the other hand, Russel is kind of unbearable to be around. (When he tussles with Burroughs in the writer’s cameo as an intake counselor, I half-hoped that Burroughs might pull a page out of his own history and shoot him.)

And yes, it’s that William S. Burroughs. Rooks hung out in New York with a number of future leading lights of the counterculture, and has said that he made Chappaqua after efforts to bring Naked Lunch to the screen fell through. But Burroughs is still a big part of this film even aside from his cameo, as Rooks used the author’s cut-up technique, deliberately editing out of order and throwing scenes in at random places, sometimes overlaid atop other scenes.

How Conrad Rooks came to be in the company of the likes of Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (a fellow cameo beneficiary, annoying crowds by the Central Park reservoir by chanting and playing a harmonium) is a major component of any discussion of Chappaqua. An heir to the fortune of one of the founders of the Avon cosmetics company, Rooks’ wealth was both an excuse and a means to get hooked on a litany of substances and hobnob with a more accomplished community of fellow drug users. That same fortune enabled him to jet to Europe for something called a “sleeping cure” (Rooks asserted that it was completely successful and that he never returned to his vices again), and then it ensured that he could drop several hundred thousand bucks dramatizing the whole adventure. Incidentally, this combination of wealth and connections also permitted him to hire notorious avant-garde free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman (cameoing as a peyote user) to compose the music, and then ditch Coleman’s score and replace him with Ravi Shankar (yet another cameo, essentially as himself). (Another fun surprise: the credit for “Consultant – Phil Glass.” Yes, that one. It appears that Chappaqua facilitated the first meeting between the great sitarist and the future master of minimalism.)

For an amateur who bought his way into filmmaking, Rooks shows some genuine talent. He provokes laughs of recognition, as when an office turns out to be an ice rink, or when a chauffeur suddenly changes places with his difficult passenger. He also crafts scenes that are curiously prophetic, anticipating indelible images from films yet-to-be, such as his strolls down New York streets that summon the future ghosts of Midnight Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever. But he also has a derivative streak, which he practically admits when he says that his “logic was the logic of American movies,” dismounting from his motorcycle and strutting down 42nd Street costumed as from The Wild One. Other such lengthy movie quotations, like a re-envisioning of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (with as a gangster) seem more about aping styles than getting into the protagonist’s head.

Part of what’s so frustrating is that Russel’s misery is clear, as is his fervent hope for a more settled existence. But there’s absolutely no sense of how he got to a better place. We never see his doctor do anything other than ask him questions and let him do whatever he likes. It’s a strange memoir indeed that dwells on the dark parts but skips right over the part about triumphing over one’s demons. It means that, for as much as Rooks is open about darker days, he hasn’t actually told us anything else about himself. There’s no there there. Rooks wants brownie points for becoming a better person, but he hasn’t really shown his work. 

This is probably why I respected the curated logic of Chappaqua, but actively didn’t like it. Rooks was clearly deeply affected by his experience, but that didn’t translate into anything very interesting to any audience member who isn’t Conrad Rooks. And then, in a completely unexpected turn, the film concludes with a scene of startling power: Russel kisses his nurse goodbye and boards a helicopter for the trip home, and as the aircraft circles the tower atop the chateau, Russel spies… himself, wearing a hospital gown and waving frantically from the highest balcony. Shankar’s music swells while the Russel-left-behind climbs dangerously higher, and it’s a more potent piece of cinema than Rooks seemed capable of imagining. Chappaqua is an indisputably self-indulgent piece of cinema, and lives on mostly as a peculiar document of its time. But a lot of filmmakers would count themselves lucky to pull off a closing statement as powerful as the one Rooks chanced upon his first time out. 


“’Chappaqua’s’ experimental, avant-garde style — quick cuts, multiple exposures, jarring transitions from color to black and white, bizarre camera angles — produces a brilliant staginess but also a harrowing intimacy. On one level it’s perfect nonsense, but on another it is alarming and strangely liberating.”–Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle (repertory screning)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tally Isham, who describes it as “Pretty much a non-narrative, tripped-out movie about addiction featuring the legendary WS Burroughs.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


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