Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 12, 2011 1:02 pm 
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"FURTHER" WITH RIDERS AND VISITORS

You had to be there

The prolific documentary maker Alex Gibney's new one, Magic Trip, about Ken Kesey's 1964 psychedelic cross country bus ride with the group he organized and called the "Merry Pranksters," is a mixed bag. It's a grab-all, part film restoration, part cultural history, part road movie, part reality TV. Ultimately it doesn't provide a full enough context on events or patch together its old footage well enough (however meticulously it does so) to make a fully satisfying experience. Perhaps what happened wasn't all it was cracked up to be, or it's just not describable via period footage and voiceovers. It's more interesting to talk or think about than to watch. But there are moments and images that make this worth adding to a corner of the special file that includes the Woodstock and Newport films.

The object of Gibney's documentary is both to describe the Pranksters and their bus and to bring some kind of order to the 100 or so hours of 16mm color film footage that has been sitting around, with out-of-sync audiotapes, these many years. The result is a distillation, and we have no way of knowing whether these two hours are more essential than the other 98 or not. They do make some kind of sense, though the descriptions of the people, their nicknames (like "Stark Naked" or "Barely Present"), and their varied couplings, the hitches and breakdowns, the gambols in lake and mud, and the constant highs, accompanied by restored sound, excerpts from later interviews, and present day commentary, are on the whole more wearying than enlightening. Magic Trip is an imperfect recreation of experience, a dog-eared postcard from a gone time.

Kesey himself was a famous writer in 1964 and heralded as a godfather of the counterculture for his two bestsellers, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and for his spirited advocacy of mind-altering drugs. As a young man trying out for the Olympic wrestling team he had taken part in government experiments with LSD (later he learned they were run by the CIA), and became an advocate of the mind-expanding possibilities of psychedelics. Partly to promote them, he got hold of this bus and took a bunch of friends from the west coast to the New York World's Fair on a journey that seems to have been an almost unbroken stream of acid trips, with speed and cannabis in between, and lots of sex, with switching partners. Kesey said this experience was as good as writing: life had become his book. And though the writing didn't stop, after the bus trip, he published no more. He allows in a later interview (talking in 1989 to Terry Gross of National Public Radio) that this silence might mean LSD blasts your mind. That's one of the possibilities. But as Robert Stone describes Kesey he was "Master of the Revels" who was self-evidently an extraordinary individual, gifted with exceptional energy and drive and always great fun to be around. Kesey died in 2001. His voice here comes from the original films and 1980's interviews.

The vehicle was an International Harvester school bus repainted all over (and over and over) in bright colors, and riders are seen adding new touches en route with a spray can like graffiti artists. Kesey named the bus "Further." The voyage of Further was a trip literal and figurative, physical and spiritual. There was a hole cut in the top and a ramp up there, but while the bus looked spacious, when the people got in, it wasn't roomy at all. The Pranksters (some of whom comment from today in voiceover) are often seen disrobed and cavorting, and once "inventing" tie-dying (didn't that come from India?) using epoxy paint in a stream on a white T-shirt, but they are not much shown sleeping (maybe they didn't -- not Neal Cassady) or eating or relieving themselves. They often wear red, white, and blue striped clothes.

Gibney notes that the Pranksters were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies. But the journey had an era-spanning living legend as its figurehead. Its exclusive driver going east was none other than Neal Cassady, the once-handsome motormouth speed freak and former lover of Allen Ginsberg who was Jack Kerouac's model for Dean Moriarity in the emblematic Beat novel On the Road. People sat next to Cassady so he had somebody to talk to, but the way he rattles on, there's no conversation. Apart from his nonstop talk and work at the wheel, Cassady isn't good for much else. He's a speed burnout, still only 38 in '64 but looking much older. He was to be found dying by the railroad tracks in Mexico four years later. Cassady was a character and perhaps some kind of Beat spiritual source, but though he could spur people to wildness and drug and alcohol and nicotine excess, he was not the convivial inspiration to the group that Kesey was.

Neither Tom Wolfe nor Robert Stone was actually on this ride; the names of most of the handful of young men and women who were are not very familiar. But Wolfe described the bus and Kesey's experiments with psychedelics in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Stone, who did ride the bus around New York City when it got there, described Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in his 2007 memoir, Prime Green. Paul McCartney has acknowledged the influence of the Pranksters trip on the Magical Mystery Tour film. The Beatles may be a better picture than any other of the sweet appeal of Turning On, seen positively. Wolfe had nothing to do with drug experience (unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who lived it as well as wrote extensively of it), but Wolfe's book celebrates the sheer absurdity of Sixties excesses and recreates Kesey's enthusiasm for psychedelics from the outside, looking sympathetically in. As for the novelist Robert Stone, he has delved deeper into drug experience (with some degree of first-hand knowledge) than any in some of his fiction.

When they got east they looked up Timothy Leary at his posh International Foundation for Internal Freedom, co-run in Cambridge with Richard Alpert (the future Baba Ram Dass) and Leary would have nothing to do with them. He met only with Neal Cassady, upstairs. But Alpert was very friendly, they said. Further was best received in Harlem, where little boys ran along beside the bus. They also met up with Allen Ginsberg and Robert Stone. They had a great time at the World's Fair, perhaps realizing it was the last of its kind.

The drive back is rushed through; Neal Cassady had gone and the others took turns driving. In Oregon Kesey had them burn their bright striped Prankster clothes. But then they put such clothes on again for regular gatherings where people came to watch the films, listen to the stories, and be serenaded by the Grateful Dead: Jerry Garcia was an early friend of the group and they of his band in its early, formative days.

There is too much to explore here, and perhaps the book by Tom Wolfe, who didn't take the drugs, evokes the good and bad trips and spiritual journeys better than this movie, which tries to evoke an ineffable experience using damaged films and out-of-sync sound.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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