Under the Influence

Nearly 40 years ago, lenser Conrad Rooks rounded up a team that included Allen Ginsberg, Man Ray and Robert Frank to shoot a psychedelic classic [This story first appeared in V Life's December '05 issue.]

“They’re a bit frightened of me,” Conrad Rooks told the press in 1967, “but they shouldn’t be.”

Rooks was referring to Universal, the heavyweight studio led by Lew Wasserman, which had bought the distribution rights to his hallucinatory ’66 film, “Chappaqua,” after it won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

With its disturbing flashback sequences, fragmented visual style and blurring of the real and imagined, the film was destined to become a psychedelic classic, even if studio executives didn’t quite know how to market it to the blooming counterculture.

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Loosely based on Rooks’ life, “Chappaqua” tells the story of an ailing heroin addict suffering from withdrawal in a French sanitarium. Rooks, the fortunate son of the president of Avon Products, spent $500,000 out of pocket to shoot scenes in India, Thailand and the Yucatan, and rounded up a crew that included Robert Frank as cinematographer, Ravi Shankar as composer, along with Philip Glass as music supervisor, and Man Ray as an adviser. Its cast boasted William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who appeared chanting mantras with Peter Orlovsky in Central Park. Rooks, of course, starred as the thinly veiled recovering addict.

U’s marketing solution was to send it to Regional Film Distributors, a subsidiary concentrating on “specialized films.” But despite many solid reviews (Variety said it gave unity to the “surfacing of the fantasies, ecstasy, misery and suffering of an addict”), Regional failed to give it much exposure. So after U recovered advertising costs, Rooks bought it back.

“(Lew’s) distributors thought he had lost his mind,” Rooks said. “I realized fairly rapidly that I had better buy back the 50 prints his machine had ordered; he agreed, and we parted on good terms.”

The film’s release in Britain was delayed until ’68 because of a blanket ban on so-called “drug films.” Rooks went on to make one more film, “Siddhartha” (1972), before moving to Thailand permanently.

Despite its rocky beginnings, “Chappaqua’s” visual brew of surrealistic imagery, as well as its remarkable ensemble of cultural icons, earned it a faithful following among proponents of (and dabblers in) mind expansion. Now the influence of the psychedelic era can be seen on contemporary artists working in painting, sculpture and film at a new show called “Ecstasy” (MOCA, Los Angeles) through February 20, 2006.

But even as MOCA celebrates work influenced by experimental drugs, a genre to which “Chappaqua” made a significant contribution, Rooks has said it’s a challenge for him to watch his film.

“Generally, I walk out,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “It’s pretty difficult imagining how nutty I was.”

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