Oct 17, 2012


 Out of all the experimental psychedelic avant-garde films to come out during the 1960s, affluent yet debauched druggy Conrad Rooks’ curious semi-autobiographical work Chappaqua (1966) – a cinematic work featuring a schizophrenic array of color, black-and-white, and sepia tone imagery – is king. An heir to the Avon Products cosmetic gold mine, richie Rooks must have of had a lot of free time on his hands to indulge in the finer controlled substances in life because by the time he was 18-years-old, he had already became an eclectic dope fiend; partaking in alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and virtually any other highly addictive narcotic pleasures on a day-to-day basis. Luckily for Rooks, he was a wealthy proto-flower-child of the 1960s and was able to travel to Europa to tryout an experimental "sleeping cure" at a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, which was quite successful and, somewhat outstandingly, cured him of his merry malady for life. In his eccentric and exotic cinematic work Chappaqua – a nonlinear quasi-travelogue full of frightful phantasmagoric flashbacks, hallucinatory moments in a clinic, and various encounters with strangers both strange and spectacular – Rooks recounts his life shortly before and at the point of the cure. Featuring such high-profile hippies, junkies, and musicians as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ravi Shankar, Ornette Coleman, Swami Satchidananda, Moondog, Ed Sanders, and Rita Renoir, among other celebrated degenerates and glorified charlatans of the 1960s, Chappaqua is a virtual "Who's Who" of trendy counter-culture gurus and outsider artists. With tons of cash to blow and a childhood where he was practically brought up in movie theaters, stating, “my mother used to leave me in one of the three local cinemas for the afternoon. Sometimes I went to all three in a day….And that sort of forced film culture stayed with me, so that from then on I always thought in terms of a story being told by the association of images,” thus it was only the natural progression that Rook would day become a filmmaker. As the descent of American pioneers who settled in Virginia in 1622 and spent much time with American Indians, Rooks felt a special kinship with the redman, hence the original of the title of his film Chappaqua, which derives from the Wappinger (a nation of the Algonquian Indians) word for “Laurel Swamp"; a sacred place of running water where one goes to bury the dead.  The word 'Chappaqua' also had a special double-meaning for Rook as it was also the title of a poem he wrote, as well the name of the area of upstate New York where the auteur spent most of his life.  Indeed, on top of featuring Rooks' rich white boy talk on Injun mysticism, Chappaqua also features Indian Hindi and American junky metaphysics of the convoluted and seemingly confused Burroughs-esque persuasion, thereupon making the film a heretical and often hysterical heteroclite counter-cultural cocktail of the most marvelously mongrelized persuasion.   Innately labyrinthine in both structure and theme, Chappaqua, like Jean Cocteau's candid drug diary Opium: The Diary of a Cure (1958), is a work that – whether intentional or not – makes a convincing case for both the pros and cons of illicit drug use, albeit in an exceedingly ethereal, histrionic, and abstract manner that is meant to speak to the soul as opposed to the intellect.

 Starting his career in film as the co-owner of a short-lived production called Exploit Films that released softcore sexploitation films with risqué titles as White Slavers and Girls Incorporated, Rooks was eventually swindled by his dubious partner, who vanished without a trance with both, “the money and the girls.” According to legend, Rooks even taught Andy Warhol how to load a film camera, but judging by the pop-artist's early films, his efforts must have been in vain. As testified by his celluloid magnum opus Chappaqua, it was not the soulless joy he experienced while engaging in hedonistic sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that would inspire Rooks' artistic creativity, but the tormenting tribulations and psychological phantasms that such unchecked abuse would sow in his personal life. Determined not to relapse back into drug abuse again, Rooks soon realized that by creating Chappaqua, he would be able to keep his demons in check. Using his inheritance and money borrowed from friends and family members, Rooks was able to produce the film for less than half a million dollars, which is not bad considering the professionalism behind this feature-length avant-garde film overflowing with so many iconic figures that it is a virtual visual holy scripture of counter-culture prophets, priests, and other unholy holy men. Almost made up of entirely improvised footage which was shot by utilizing three different cinematographers in places all around the world (Ceylon, England, France, India, Mexico, and 48 American states), Rooks did not assemble the stream-of-conscious narrative ‘structure’ to Chappaqua until deeply studying and interpreting all of the footage after it was already captured. For the press-book for Chappaqua, William S. Burroughs wrote the following description of the film: “There is a hiatus between blocks of association, rents as it were in the fabric of reality through which we glimpse the old myths that were here before the white man came, and will be after he is gone, a brief inglorious actor washed off the stage in the waters of silence. Rooks has brought to the screen the immediate experience of silent beauty conveyed in the Peyote vision – older Gods waiting impassively at the end of the line.” Indeed, Chappaqua is about as esoteric and poetic as Burroughs' press puffery, and like the novels of the belated Beat writer, the film transcends the generally fine-line between horror and hallucination, dream and reality, conscious and unconscious, and – ultimately – heaven and hell. 

 Featuring hypnotizing hippie bloodsuckers, exotic human goddesses, cadaver-like junky spirits (Burroughs as ‘Opium Jones’), and gurus and melody makers under the influence in an awe-inspiring universe assembled by Conrad Rooks through more of spiritual intuition than the intellect, Chappaqua is a metaphysical horror film for those individuals that are more afraid of their own mind under the influence than some retarded mute with a machete and a Halloween mask. Indeed, Chappaqua is one of the few examples where I would take heed of nutty professor Timothy Leary’s popular counter-culture phrase, "Turn on, tune in, drop out" as the film offers some of the more positive attributes of psychedelics without the debilitating brain damage. As advertised in the press-book for the film, Chappaqua is ultimately a film about the “transformation of the main character thru ritual magic and exorcism of the evil spirit,” with protagonist Russel Harwick (Conrad Rooks) as the possessed and clinic doctor Dr. Benoit (Jean-Louis Barrault) as the postmodern exorcist, thereupon making the work, despite its sometimes surrealist imagery, a singularly and somewhat embarrassingly personal work about a man in different stages of despair, angst, and eventual transcendental rebirth.  Autobiographical elements aside, Chappaqua is a spine-tingling cinematic work featuring a bodacious buffet of kaleidoscopic imagery like no other film created before nor after it.  Conrad Rooks would only direct one more film after Chappaqua, Siddhartha (1972) – a loose adaptation of German writer Hermann Hesse's novel of the same name – which is no surprise considering both works feature a young protagonist as they find themselves with an existential journey of sorts.  It should be noted that – being a fan of W.S. Burrough's writings – Rooks bought the film right for the novel Naked Lunch (1959) in 1962 and originally intended to adapt it for the silver-screen, but the seemingly impossible task would later go to David Cronenberg.  In my opinion, Rooks did a much better job depicting the often miserable and sometimes maniacal life of a discombobulated junky than Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch (1991), but, then again, Canadian auteur was never hip to Cocteau's kick.  Like Burroughs, Rooks was a trust fund enfant terrible who probably never did a real day of work in his entire life, thus making Chappaqua a testament to the fact that even opulent opium fiends can make positive contributions to society.

-Ty E

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