Chappaqua (Conrad Rooks, 1967)

by Douglas Buck March 8, 2019 4 minutes (951 words) 35mm Cinémathèque québécoise

‘My name is russel harwick
I began this diary
as a record of my experiences
while suffering from alcoholism.
I began drinking
when I was 14 moderately
at first on vacation
from school among friends.
By 15 I was suffering
from delirium tremens (alcoholic fits).
at 19 I found marijuana, hashish,
cocaine or heroin kept me off alcohol
for a limited time.
my pattern became a night marish
maze of shifting
addiction alcohol then drugs,
finally I was
introduced to hallucigenics peyote,
psilopsybin and l.s.d. 25
under the influence of peyote I had a vision
i tried to forget it returning to drink,
but the memory haunted me
… ‘

Starting with the above writings from the fictional Harwick in his make-believe diary (misspellings and grammatical lapses included), with the words revealed in a scroll accompanied by the sounds of a whistling train travelling through a station (the film is nothing if not heavy on the symbolism), it becomes pretty clear quite quickly that the drugged-addled alcoholic globetrotting 60’s style hippie hipster stumbling about New York City wearing his favourite cowboy hat before ending up in an elite private clinic outside Paris awash in hallucinations as he goes cold turkey and attempts a ‘sleep cure’, is the self-created alter-ego for writer/director Rooks himself (with him actually playing the part washing away any niggling doubt).

Rooks debut feature comes as no surprise when you consider he’s an heir to the staggering Avon fortune; it’s a wildly indulgent portrait of someone born with a silver spoon in his paw and, having achieved nothing particularly noteworthy to speak of, tries to create something important out of his empty self-destructive drug and alcohol addicted life by attaching it to the 60’s ‘search for spirituality’ counterculture movement of the time, even better when you can use the influence of your staggering wealth by getting important celebrated literary figures of both the 50’s Beat Generation and the counterculture that followed as heroin-icon William Burroughs and anti-war poet Allen Ginsberg — as well as the underground Fugs — to cameo in your film (there’s also the surprising appearance, pre-television mega-stardom as Mr. Roarke’s diminutive assistant Tatoo yelling ‘Boss! The plane! The plane!’ each week on ABC’s “Fantasy Island”, Hervé Villechaize, as a ‘Little Person’ in one of Harwick’s random, drugged-out withdrawal imaginings, who ends up getting gunned down, St Valentine Massacre style, along with Burroughs’ drug-dealing Opium Jones by the sweating Harwick himself).

With a sitar score by none other than Beatles George Harrison’s favourite guru Ravi Shankar (that’s after Rooks listened to an entire score commissioned by none other than legendary jazz musician Ornette Coleman only to go ‘… nahhh… next!’), with it supervised by little ol’ Phillip Glass, to up the trippy factor of all the experimental collage and superimposition style editing, the random choices between black & white and color 16mm footage (bumped up to 35mm for this print) and the whimsical referencing to the NY town of Chappaqua and its Native American heritage (playing it as an easy and naive symbol for a drug-free spiritual paradise), I wouldn’t call Chappaqua a painful experience (at just under 80 minutes, it doesn’t really wear out its welcome), but it’s nowhere near as mind-altering and meditative as it would like to believe it is (well, in that way, I guess you could say it certainly represented a lot of that 1967 hippie ‘Summer of Love’). Beyond all the bells and whistles, including the attempts at elliptical narrative flourishes, it doesn’t feel like the work of someone much out of film school (though with that someone being rich enough to get a lot of cool counterculture figures to say hello in it).

Though the final impressive shot of Chappaqua, with Rooks’ wildly dancing Harwick, apparently finished with his therapy and now freed from his addictions (at least that’s what I think the circular narrative showing him leaving the clinic in different ways in two scenes in a row is supposed to mean), with the actor literally taking life and limb in hand and climbing to the highest clock tower peak of an impressive mansion estate in the country, captured by a helicopter swirling around it, leads me to wanna read up a little more on the production to determine exactly how dangerous that shot was.

While it’s not particularly surprising at all that Rooks would follow up this over-done experimental trippy cinematic indulgence five years later with not only a feature film adaption of a work by Herman Hesse, a writer who posthumously, with his focus on ‘spiritual searches for self-enlightenment’, would become a sort of cause célèbre within the counterculture movement (in large part because of excited writings by wide-grinning LSD guru Timothy Leary), but of Siddhartha published in 1951 being the one chosen, telling of a rich Indian boy ‘suffering’ through the emptiness of privileged physical indulgences – poor kid — in order to finally realize a path towards discovering greater meaning in life, it was a bit eye-opening to learn it received decent reviews upon release. Then again, when you have the cache and means to bring Ingmar Bergman’s own Sven Nykvist over to India to shoot it for you, guess it would be pretty hard not to have the film at least look properly transcendent.

With its focus on addiction and cinematic literalizing of druggie hallucinations, the film seemed a natural as part of the CQ’s recent alternately harrowingly grim and wildly entertaining ‘Toxicos’ series, especially as it would have been a nice entry veering a bit off the expected path. Not sure why it wasn’t, especially with it playing so close in time.

Chappaqua (Conrad Rooks, 1967)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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