Saturday, May 10, 2014

Conrad Rooks - Chappaqua

Chappaqua, the legendary 1966 film, written and directed by Conrad Rooks (Rooks not Brooks - sic), now available, in its entirety, on You Tube [2014 update - they come and they go, Chappaqua is no longer available in its entirety on You Tube], is this weekend's Allen Ginsberg Project focus.  

As Jack Sargeant, in his essential account in Naked Lens - Beat Cinema points out: 

"Rooks began to experiment with alcohol in his teens and later with drugs [a variety of drugs], to which he became addicted" [as he declares quite explicitly in the opening credits]. "As a result of his father's sudden death in 1962 [his father was millionaire, Russel Rooks, one of the founders of the hugely-successful Avon cosmetics company], "(he) was "shocked into the futility of an existence dependent on alcohol and drugs". (He) undertook a thirty-day sleep-cure at a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland [in the film, transposed to Paris], in order to free himself of his addictions. The experiences of this cure inform(s) the "narrative" of his film..while the possibility of relapsing into drug addiction create(s) an urgency which motivated (his) desire to finish (it), partly in order to avoid a possible regression. Chappaqua was financed primarily with Rooks' inheritance and money borrowed from his family and friends and the final budget was estimated at $450,000" 
- "a particularly expensive piece of occupational therapy", as the New York Times reviewer at the time wryly pointed out, but, apparently, a successful one ("Its author today [1967] is dry, straight and happy"). 

It is, then, semi-autobiographical (altho' the blurring of reality and fantasy is very much at the heart of what's happening here - psychedelic "flashback"). Rooks plays (not too professionally, it has to be pointed out), his thinly-veiled alter-ego, "Russel Harwick". The "plot", in so far as there is a "plot", is Harwick's journey to the sanatorium, his terrors and his hallucinations and his experience of the (finally successful) cure. What saves the film, in fact, makes it transcendent (one critic has called it "an underground jewel in film history"), is the ravishing cinematography (especially the black-and-white photography - altho' a whole smorgasbord of filmic techniques, notably multiple super-impositions, are used - the New York Times reviewer saw this, oddly, as one of the film's shortcomings - "the film's fatal technical virtuosity"). 

The two geniuses behind the film are Harry Smith and Robert Frank. The latter, (talking with Jack Sargeant about the idiosyncracy of Rooks and the experience of working with
(or rather, for) him):
"..the guy (Rooks) was interesting, he was a real... Yeah, he was a real nut ..but at least he was…he was completely out of everything, he had so much money to spend. It could have been a good film, a really strong film, but he wouldn't use the footage I shot of him and he was the story"… "he took out, you know, really strong scenes with him, which showed hin as a.. this extraordinay insane man that he really was."…" (it) was easy because I had, really, freedom to do what I wanted to do. I mean, he just said. "let's go and rent a chateau and get women in there and ice that steams up and makes "smoke", you know, pretty free. He would go.. every time it was over, he would go to Jamaica or India and he would always say afterwards "okay" and take out his big fountain pen and he'd write me a check and say: "You're a bastard! I'll never work with you again". Then he'd call me up after a month and he'd show up in India and say, "let's go to Ceylon", something like that.. He was a very unhappy man, he couldn't concentrate and pursue a thought. He'd open up a magazine and start to say, "oh, lets go to Oregon where the big trees are and get a bambi running around the trees".. he had this.. he was an interesting guy.. many people like that movie. I don't know…" 

The other hook of the film (it won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1966) was the stellar "counter-cultural" cast - cameos by Allen (dubbed "the Messiah", he and Peter (Orlovsky) are seen chanting at the very beginning of the film), William Burroughs ("Opium Jones", a richly ironic part), Ed Sanders and The Fugs (the memorable sugar cubes LSD opening scene - no coincidence that the song they're playing is "I Couldn't Get High") - not to mention,  Moondog (snatched from the streets of New York and flown out to Montana), Swami Satchidananda, (Rooks' subsequent guru, a pacifying figure, a figure of exemplary transcendent calm, in the movie), Ornette Coleman and Ravi Shankar 
The film's soundtrack, originally a commission for Ornette Coleman, proved to be so beautiful and stimulating  Rooks feared it might overpower/overwhelm the visuals and it
was jettisoned and released independently as a seperate album (a taste of that may be had here). The original soundtrack was composed by another of his mentors, spiritual guides and close friends, Ravi Shankar (that original soundtrack may be listened to here). 

Carl Abrahamsson's "Conrad Rooks - Chappaqua and Beyond" (incorporating a long and revealing interview with the filmmaker (first published in 2007, revised in 2011) should, on no account, be missed, (extraordinary tales, an extraordinary life), and is, in fact, essential reading,  

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