Ken Kesey was an all-American guy, a farm boy, a straight arrow, a good student, a high-school wrestler, a fraternity brother, as handsome and clean-cut as a milk-fed cherub. He eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Faye, for god’s sake. But while he was studying writing at Stanford University in the late 1950s, he wound up in laboratory studies going on at the school examining the effects of LSD, then a somewhat little-known compound tucked back on the pharmacological shelf. He went on soon after to write the classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but nothing about his career or his life was ever really the same after acid. In a very real sense, he became most of all a herald, spreading the word to generations both dying and rising about a new world of consciousness expansion and questioned reality coming in the 1960s. And as Allison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s fantastic new documentary Magic Trip (Magnolia DVD) recounts, he delivered his message via a multi-colored paint-slathered International Harvester school bus.
In addition to his herald duties, Kesey was also a would-be filmmaker. When he bought the old bus and fitted it out as an ad hoc RV for a cross-country drive to New York with a small troupe of his fellow early adopter acid-heads in 1964, he not only brought a jug of orange juice laced with high-powered LSD, he brought along 16mm cameras. Kesey and his so-called Merry Pranksters shot footage throughout their trip and worked for years at editing it into some coherent form before abandoning the footage. Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) and his long-time editor-turned-co-director Allison Ellwood tackled the mountain of forgotten footage and, in addition to new interviews and an arsenal of riotous graphics, bring the late writer’s cinematic ambition to the screen.
Indeed, Magic Trip manages the neat trick of offering a scrupulously coherent narrative of an unhinged time, while also visually exemplifying that deranged quality. Ellwood and Gibney add discrete layers of color and scribbles and subtitles and off-center talking heads to the Pranksters’ often distressed and unsynced footage. (They also craft an expressionist sequence recounting Kesey’s first Stanford-sponsored acid trip, constructed around a recording Kesey made during the process—simply astonishing.) You’re working on a contact high as Kesey and company ready the bus (recruiting no less a chauffeur than Neil Cassidy, the real-life speed-freak inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) and set out. Few mainstream Americans in 1964 had much of an inkling about psychedelic drugs or the cultural revolution such chemicals would soon foment, and so the Pranksters seemed to mostly surprise and baffle people, not unnerve them, as they rolled across the continent, sloshing around in a stew of personal self-discovery, shifting relationships, subcultural celebrity encounters (Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg), and maybe a little too much time together in close quarters. At the same time, the Pranksters were themselves not so far removed from so-called mainstream Americans themselves—the men were mostly clean-cut, and the women mostly kept their clothes on. Among the more surprising revelations of Magic Trip, other than the fact that many of the Pranksters are still alive and coherent, is that they were inward freaks, not outwardly freaky, and that is how real revolutions get started, my friends.
Not every dip back into the fairly recent past is so quaint. Back when it was released in 1974, French director Bertrand Blier’s debut film, Going Places, was a brash post-countercultural romp that made a star of beefy young Gerard Depardieu. Encountered on VHS during the ’80s, it seemed like a liberating study of masculine id and stunted adolescence. Watched again in its latest incarnation, on Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray, it opens with straight-up sexual harassment verging on assault.
Part of the movie’s point is that Depardieu’s Jean-Claude and his compatriot, Pierrot (the late Patrick Dewaere), probably should be locked up as their feral twentysomething aimlessness and appetite for sex send them on the run (literally) through the backstreets of various French towns. But even for someone with fond memories of seeing the film as a somewhat aimless twentysomething, it’s hard to find easy charm now in Depardieu and Dewaere’s leering sexual aggression toward random women, or in their treatment of their tag-along passive sexual plaything Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou), no matter how jaunty Stephane Grappelli’s violin-driven jazz score. Though the boys are dealt an ostensible hard lesson by their attempt to seduce a melancholy ex-con (Jeanne Moreau) and get their supposed comeuppance when the frigid Marie-Ange thaws thanks to an interloper, the outmoded sexual politics bleed through at every turn.
The French title of Going Places is Les Valseuses, which translates as “the waltzers,” which is French slang for testicles. It’s a much better title, and more apt, then and now. The film that made these Gallic beastie boys seem amusing and charmingly naïve is still there, still crammed with light slapstick, nudity, and cocksure ridiculousness. But like a lot of things, it isn’t as much fun as it used to be.