Too much, the magic bus
ASPEN – Alison Ellwood floats the idea that “Magic Trip,” the documentary she co-directed about the 1964 cross-country sojourn by novelist Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, sheds light on present-day America. “We’re in a similar time. We still have right-wing extremists saying similar things, saying scary things. And that was a time when Barry Goldwater was running for president,” said Ellwood, who co-directed “Magic Trip” with Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”), from her home on Plum Island, off the northern tip of Massachusetts.But it’s hard to deny that, despite any parallels between the politics of 1964 and 2011, “Magic Trip” captures an utterly unique moment. When Kesey, the author of the radical, visionary 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and his collection of actors, artists, filmmakers and inspired crazies, it was the arrival of a new look and a new outlook, a new way of talking and behaving (and of new drugs: Kesey’s mind had been sparked by LSD, which he had been given in tests administered by the CIA). In a 1939 school bus, dubbed Further, driven from home base in La Honda, Calif., to the World’s Fair in New York City, Kesey rolled through America, and no matter where they stopped, in cities or rural roadsides, people stared in amazement, wondering what exactly this alien race was, where they had come from, what their mission was.”They thought it was maybe a spaceship or something,” Ellwood said. “And this was so out there, it was like a spaceship.”One of the biggest drawbacks of the digital age is that the element of surprise is gone. By the time you settle into your seat at the movie theater or the new restaurant in town, the reviews, ads and blog entries have inevitably cracked your consciousness. You know what you’re in for. But Kesey & Co. came with no advance warning at all; as “Magic Trip” notes, even the police generally gave a cautious, if baffled, wave at the bus, having not a clue what sort of laws the Pranksters might be breaking. This was 1964 – the Beatles, on their landmark “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance in February, still had mop-tops and dark suits; the Civil Rights Act was just then being signed into law – and “the ’60s,” in all their game-changing, youth-oriented, psychedelic glory, were just beginning to sprout. “People didn’t think that we were hippies or drug freaks, because it wasn’t in the news yet,” one Prankster says.”They were the first thing that burst out in a totally new way,” said Ellwood, who was 3 when Further was taking the Southern route – Arizona, Texas, Louisiana – across America. “We’re so connected, constantly, now. But they’d roll into town and people had never seen anything like it before. Not even remotely close.”Strange, then, that in a time where we have instant, easy access to everything, the scenes of Kesey have remained all but unseen. It’s not that the footage doesn’t exist; “Magic Trip” makes clear that filming everything that went on around the bus – Neal Cassady speed-rapping as he drove, an encounter with Larry McMurtry at the writer’s home in suburban Texas, dipping into ponds and lakes, the frequent mechanical mishaps, the theater and philosophy that was everyday life on Further – was of the highest priority. Their intent wasn’t just to exist weirdly, but to make a film of it.”Ken said that Shakespeare, if he were around today, wouldn’t be using a quill pen,” Ellwood noted. “Ken wanted to do something different, break barriers, wanted an interaction. And the Pranksters shared in that – they were actors. They wanted an expression.”Yet, the footage, colorful and historical as it is, has barely made it out into the world. Kesey himself, along with Pranksters George Walker and Ken Babbs, took a crack at turning the raw material into a watchable film. Kesey’s son, Zane, took a stab. Those efforts resulted in little more than self-distributed videos.”Exactly what they were trying to do was hard to know,” Ellwood said, describing the experimental aesthetic of those projects. “I don’t think even they would suggest that they had tried to make a story out of it. When you watch these films, unless you were already initiated, you couldn’t follow them, know what they were all about. I think they were just too close to it. They couldn’t see it from an outsider’s perspective.”Ellwood and Gibney learned, via a 2005 New Yorker article, of the continued existence of the film, in the care of Zane Kesey, and Fey, Ken’s widow. The film, packed away long ago in Kesey’s barn, was not in top shape – “We were warned by two cinematographers not to go near it,” Ellwood said – but she and Gibney got financing from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation to restore the video, and from the History Channel to work on the audio.”Magic Trip,” which is narrated by actor Stanley Tucci, and which premiered at the Sundance Festival in January, mostly lets the footage roll. The directors lay a light hand on the documentary; the use of such techniques as talking heads to put the vintage scenes in context is minimal.”We abandoned a traditional approach,” Ellwood said. “We just wanted to see people get on the bus and stay on the bus.”But the film makes its own case: Kesey and Cassady and the rest, who went by such tags as Generally Famished, Zonker and dis-Mount, fueled by LSD, the legacy of the Beatniks, the assassination of Kennedy, were onto a new way of living. And their trip didn’t end with the bus ride. Parked back in California, the Pranksters hitched up with another group of local misfits – Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, et al., who would soon dub themselves the Grateful Dead – to throw a series of parties known as the Acid Tests, kicking off the San Francisco psychedelic scene.”I see the time they came out of, in 1964, was very much rooted in the ’50s,” Ellwood said. “It was a very black and white world, with undertones of fear and paranoia – the bomb, JFK killed. On the surface it was a very conformist time, but underneath, it wasn’t.”Ken and the Pranksters were saying, Get out of the bunker, don’t conform,” Ellwood said. “I’m hoping people come out with a similar sense.”email@example.com
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