“Corman’s film is not fine art; more precisely, it’s not refined art. But it is possibly the purest cinematic exercise ever to come out of Hollywood. Here, for the first time to my knowledge, Hollywood gives us a truly cinematic experience: a visual film, structured literally of pictures that move”
Gene Youngblood, legendary reviewer and cultural theorist who died in April 2021, began a series of film reviews in the in the LA Free Press in 1967. Many of these reviews formed the basis of parts of his book ‘Expanded Cinema‘ which is now seen widely as a foundational document of post-psychedelic cinema. Blackmass Movies is proud to begin the process of collecting Youngblood’s reviews in one place for the first time. Youngblood’s TV interview with a young George Lucas is here.
There is something about the act of love that is uniquely and naturally cinematic. I have long believed that the potentially most powerful, most emotional, most visually expressive, most beautiful and most “truthful” movie possible is a fuck film. But I’ve never seen the kind of movie I’m talking about.
Roger Corman’s new film, “The Trip,” contains two sex scenes that I would place among the very finest in the history of cinema — foreign or domestic. That it comes directly out of Hollywood’s commercialized and unionized bureaucracy is an occasion for rejoicing: I never thought I’d be moved to praise a Hollywood film with the whole-hearted enthusiasm I feel for this one.
I hasten to add that my admiration, though qualified, is certainly not limited to the sex scenes. This is a thoroughly enjoyable commercial movie.
Because of its elements of sight, sound and motion, the film is the only art form capable of approximating the sexual experience, of venturing subjectively into the act of love, which is, after all, the most subjective thing we can do. And the physical properties of cinema are uniquely suited to the task: cutting can be paced to match the tempo of sexual excitation and gratification; the camera can fill the screen with closeups, just as one’s eyes perceive only in close-up during sex; the hand-held camera can move as fluidly and erratically as the body moves; the montage can match the fragmented sensation of sex.
The only successful attempts I have seen at coming to terms with sex have been in the New American Cinema – Emshwiller and Brakhage — and in isolated European films, Antonioni’s “Red Desert” for one. Corman owes the success of his scenes largely to Emshwiller and Brakhage. In fact, the whole of “The Trip” would not have been possible without the New American Cinema, just as Detroit today would not exist without the backyard hotrodders of yesterday. Corman is no innovator, but he’s an acute observer and learns his lessons well.
One of Peter Fonda’s first flashes after popping an LSD cap is a sexual flash. He imagines himself nude on an expansive bed, making love to his estranged wife (Susan Strasberg) as his new fiance reclines nude beside them, watching. (Fonda later makes love to both women at once, in his imagination.)
The writhing, intertwined bodies are bathed in Bob Beck’s psychedelic light effects, a technique that heightens the eroticism. The line patterns encircle and define the nude bodies, giving them shape, dimension an d volume, much like contour drawings. It is the same erotic effect achieved through nylons, garters, panties, etc. in girlie magazines — articles that accentuate and magnify the shape of the body. The advantage of the light show is, of course, the movement of the body within this sea of geometry and color. (A lengthier example is Beck’s own short film “The Psychedelics,” which recently was shown at the Cinematheque.)
In this already highly erotic environment, Corman’s camera closes in, becomes involved with the subject as it has never before in Hollywood. It follows a hand slipping down a back and over twisting buttocks; it flashes on mouths hungrily seeking mouths and breasts; it closes in on navels, knees, toes — the camera becomes an instrument of love. In a swelling series of flash-fast crescendi and diminuendi, the montage builds to the moment of climax, sweeping over the rhythm of his buttocks, dwelling on her ecstacy-blurred face, her clutching fingers, her arching back, her curling toes until: cut. Quiet. We are suddenly out of Fonda’s acid imagination and back in the Hollywood Hills pad where he has just turned on and is talking to a friend.
There is the temptation, but certainly not the need, to interpret this movie. There are obvious influences, deliberate references to other films: The New American Cinema, Fellini, Bergman, even other Corman movies. But to conclude, as some have, that this constitutes a “confession” of artistic compromise on Corman’s part is pure academic conjecture, useless in the enjoyment of the film, and quite possibly erroneous.
There is no evidence in the first place that Corman has any outstanding talent to compromise, and that he may think he does is only humorous. Also, the references to other films may be seen as a step forward for Hollywood—quoting from the European cinema that has so surpassed and shamed it; recognizing, for the first time, that there is a common body of cinematic literature that CAN be quoted, as Jean-Luc Godard has been doing for years. Also, I would think it only natural for a hip young man to flash on movies under the effect of LSD — aren’t movies one of the major preoccupations of modern young people?
No, don’t try to interpret “The Trip.” (To evaluate its effectiveness as a chronicle of the LSD experience is ridiculous.) Art is technique: the Greek root “techne” means art. Without technique, without giving form to some intangible “content,” art does not exist. The act of making art is the act of giving palpable shape to one’s ideas. The weight of the ideas remains separate from the mode of expression. Thus, if there is any “knowledge” to be gained through art, it is the experience of the form or style of knowing the subject, rather than a knowledge of the subject itself. You can explain what a work of art is “about,” but you can’t explain what it “is.”
In fine art, the style-content duality is resolved: form and content merge; the content IS the style, and vice-versa. True, the crux of such an artistic experience is delicately balanced, subjective and subtle, but that is why it’ s called FINE art.
Corman’s film is not fine art; more precisely, it’s not refined art. But it is possibly the purest cinematic exercise ever to come out of Hollywood. Here, for the first time to my knowledge, Hollywood gives us a truly cinematic experience: a visual film, structured literally of pictures that move; a montage that is brisk and relatively arbitrary; a story line that is appreciably abstract, and, most important, a film that pays tribute to the power of the image over the word — this from an industry in which most movies are merely photographed radio scripts.
This is not to say that Corman’s and Beck’s images are touched with genius: they leave much to be desired in comparison with truly great films. But then they aren’t the usual picture-postcard pulp we’re fed in trash like “The Sound of Music.” While Corman’s images are weakly experimental, they are not consciously arty. There’s a refreshing artlessness about this film, despite its convoluted surface. It doesn’t come on half as pretentious, for example, as Claude Lelouch’s Scopitone-in-disguise, “A Man and A Woman.” Corman is wise enough not to pretend he’s making an “art film” when everyone knows he’s just cashing in on the LSD angle for an excuse to go into cinematics in an industry that thinks cinema is a script or an actor.
And Corman is wise enough also, to my surprise, not to harrangue against LSD usage, however justified such an approach may have been. There is a disclaimer-type foreword at the beginning of the film, and a silly bit of business at the end — a freeze-frame shot of Fonda is suddenly cracked like broken glass — but apart from these obviously forced gimmicks Corman takes no overt position on the subject. This is simply a beautiful movie about a fellow who takes an acid trip—with all its ups and downs.