1966 is often mentioned as being an intermediate year, since it not only marks the appropriation of the counterculture by the mainstream media, but also reaffirms the collective loss of innocence that had previously emerged in 1963 following Kennedy’s assassination. So it makes perfect sense Conrad Rooks' debut film Chappaqua was conceived during this crucial period, opening a filmic and conceptual precedent that would be revisited numerous times before the decade’s end.

The fateful portrait of the inevitable post-hippie doom takes its distinguishable colours from a slight European-driven light that would somewhat become a standard for other disenchanted testimonials of the kind, from Charles Duchaussois’ drug-fuelled memoirs Flash ou le Grand Voyage (1971), to René Barjavel’s Les Chemins de Katmandou (The Pleasure Pit, 1969), adapted to the screen by André Cayatte and starring Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.

Shot and initially released in 1966, Chappaqua is premature in both its aesthetics and its theme: in its aesthetics, because it features a sensory-driven filming and editing that wouldn’t be fully explored before the following year (at least in full-length films), when L.S.D. trip emulation became itself an over(ab)used niche exploitation genre; and in its theme due to 1966 still being very early for depicting with such clarity and wisdom the fall from grace of the so-called love generation.

Agreed, William Burroughs (who appears in the movie along with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg) had already established his work and persona as one of the main flags of the dark side of drug abuse the previous decade, publishing Junky and Naked Lunch in 1953 and 1959 respectively; but the 1960s drug culture, which initially seemed beneficial in its pink-coloured surface due to deriving mainly from the use of apparently harmless and “positive” drugs like marijuana and hallucinogens, was to suffer a huge shift in its later years. With its tougher and rougher side becoming increasingly visible through the banalisation of speed and heroin, it aided in the emergence of a twisted side of the so-called Age of Aquarius, as Gary Lachman duly contextualises in his book Turn Off Your Mind.

Chappaqua is also a prophetic film of sorts that at the same time helps us understand the passage from the Beat to the Psychedelic generation better. It resuscitates the former to allow it one last non-parodic breath by evoking its connections to Buddhism, Native American issues (see the title of the film itself), and Orientalism, picking up from this last influence and building a bridge to psychedelia from there, something that is obvious even through the use of Ravi Shankar’s music (Ornette Coleman had initially been commissioned to write the soundtrack but Rooks thought the music was too good and would eventually overshadow the film).

But this is not the only passage we perceive in the film. The Euro-driven background that makes for the comparison (at least narratively) with Duchaussois’ best-seller is felt through a perpetual geographical tandem (Duchaussois’ story takes place between Europe and Asia) that results from the story’s American point de départ contrasting with the protagonist’s cure in a Paris-based clinic. The US can then be seen as the land of sweet yet inevitable perdition, from where it is imperative to escape for reasons as obvious as pure and simple survival, while Europe is evoked as a tougher yet necessary place where all the imagery collected throughout his drug experiences will be brought up again by his subconscious during the sleep cure he is subjected to. This allows for an unprecedented dream/hallucination blur that is injected with extra vigour through the vicissitudes of drug withdrawal, calling for the use of all technical resources available at the time in an attempt to emulate it as faithfully as possible. This is one of the main reasons Chappaqua is so unique. It’s not its script, or its premise, or even its acting; it’s the gathering of these factors with an auratic approach to the intertwining of two countercultural movements and depicting this symbiotic process while a totemic, almost anonymous personal story, runs in the background and serves as a catalyser.

The wings of Russel Harwick (Rooks) allied to his top hat also help to underline the neo-goth sentiment that transpires throughout the film: the first reference that comes to mind is Edgar Allan Poe, himself a dark character of American mystery fiction, but also — and with the aid of the upper-mentioned US/Europe connection — Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and the fin de siècle decadence, a time when opium and absinthe flowed freely and a growing interest in spiritualities from other cultures and the processes of the psyche gave birth to a romanticisation of madness. This is the ultimate beatification of the junkie, something that is visible throughout the ensemble of the works of the Beat Generation, that see him as a free agent, liberated from the conditioning of the society and — more importantly — of his own mind. Chappaqua is indeed a hymn to insanity, for it is a sacralisation of psychoactive substances at the same time it is paradoxically a cautionary tale as well. It reflects on the ability of the collective unconscious to undergo such profound changes in its mental processes while it denounces these same changes as vital in the healing process of the collective neurotic mind, as Norman O. Brown would put it himself.

Rooks’ character, although autobiographical, is transversal and abstract enough to embody not only a generation but a whole civilisation itself; it shows how twisted the relationships we build with others and with our own psyche have become, how the insatiable thirst for disoriented fulfilment has led the western society to seek comfort and numbness in addiction (be it consumerism, drugs, TV, or any other), and it offers a glimpse of the imminent downfall. An excellent exercise in prophecy, Chappaqua is an often overlooked reflection on the moment we passed our own limits and started feeding almost exclusively on selective nostalgia.