The Sixties in the Mirror, Part I

Ben Russell, Trypps #7 (Badlands)

trypping the badlands fantastic.

Ben Russell’s experimental film series Trypps explores “trance, travel, and psychedelic ethnographies.” Russell claims to be interested in the possibilities of “cinema as a site for transcendence,” and indeed, Trypps #7 (Badlands), which is on view at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, begins with the viewer watching a woman embarking on what appears to be an LSD trip in the Badlands National Park.

The film is one long shot, without any conventional storytelling apparent, but it reminds one of more famous 1960s psychedelic films: the desert love scene in Zabriskie Point, the hallucinatory New Orleans segment of Easy Rider, and perhaps also, as Jason Foumberg points out in a thoughtful essay on recent work in Chicago that takes up the legacy of the 1960s counterculture, Robert Smithson’s experimental art film Spiral Jetty film, which happens, conveniently, to be on view one floor above Trypps #7 at the MCA.

A loud gong rings out occasionally in Trypps #7, but there is a sense of the grand quietness of the natural landscape found in the Badlands. We stare at a young woman, the large blue sky behind her. Her long strands of black hair lift up in the wind, as if they were stray threads of a spider web or, more sinisterly, snakes on Medusa’s head. Her bangs stretch across her forehead like a solid wall. The woman’s facial expression slowly changes, the muscles around her mouth tensing and releasing, her eyes growing distant, dreamy, trance-like.

It is at once delightful and a bit frightening to see that she stands at the edge of a cliff, buttes and drops, pinnacles and bluffs behind her. She looks confident and open to experience, but also closed off to the camera, as if she is less interested in connecting with the viewer than pursuing her own visionary path of interior revelation. The pleasures of this trip—I mean, trypp—feel as if they should be hers alone. They are none of our business.

Indeed, the film’s first half raises questions about the camera as male gaze, and indeed about the vexed gender politics of the counterculture. Watching the woman is fascinating, but also feels like an intrusion. What are we doing here? This is voyeurism. Does she want us watching her? Uneasy questions linger around what seems to be a moment of extraordinary beauty.

Then, suddenly, the camera starts to nod up and down, as if a wind has dramatically picked up. The viewer feels disoriented. We see the woman’s feet, then zoom up above her head. She smiles, then disappears.

The camera now takes us on a vertiginous spin and you realize that the lens is somehow looking into a mirror that is spinning on a horizontal axle. A crack appears across the lens. We see the desert, the dramatic drop into a valley, the Great Plains blue sky above, the dirt at our feet.

The mirror keeps spinning. The landscape shrinks and expands as the mirror turns. The lens speeds up, slows down. A flower on a hillside. Different colors. Shadows. Light. A sudden wisp of white cloud. In focus and out.

The interiority of the massive exterior chamber of the Badlands has become our own. There is a moment where, the woman gone, one worries that she has fallen off the side of the cliff. But then even this concern gives way to the feeling that we are no longer watching, but have taken LSD ourselves. We are with the woman, not voyeurs but participants, perhaps even partners in crime.

Self, other, dust, dirt: the world spins in a mirror. Russell never once, in all this reflective magic, reveals the camera itself or any other participants. Instead, we enter into the swirl of trypping across the Badlands, whose overwhelming natural beauty is accentuated by the uncertain perspective produced by the film technique.

I would not describe it exactly as an experience of the sublime, but rather something more personal and approachable. The film is quietly grand, which allows Trypps #7 to avoid becoming a hackneyed representation of the hallucinogenic acid trip. It is about experience, not about proselytizing about experience. This is quite an accomplishment.

We begin the film by staring at a woman through a camera lens, quite removed from her ecstatic internal experiences. We end at the perimeter of a butte, where Russell leaves us hanging, dangling on hinges, no longer watching from a distance but entered into the vast, endless, uncertain terrain of perception itself.

TRYPPS #7 (BADLANDS) from Ben Russell on Vimeo.


See: The Sixties in the Mirror, Part II, on Sam Durant’s Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock), 1998.

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