New Documentary Celebrates 1960s Hippie Culture
I'm too young to have been a hippie, but when I was a child in the mid-1960s, I do remember seeing a few of them. They were a magnificent sight, traipsing down the street, clad in raggedy jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, flashing peace signs. They'd let their long tresses wave in the breeze as they conversed in a lingo that was as impenetrable to squares as it was flamboyantly lyrical.
Even more, I remember the reaction of the straight-laced adults who stared at them in dismay, puzzlement and even anger. Were they just horribly spoiled brats, spawned by Dr. Spock's too-permissive child-rearing advice? Waifs whose minds had been melted by the drugs that the Beatles and those other insidious rock stars encouraged them to take? Or were they a mutant, regressive sub-species of humanity, created by the persistent effects of nuclear fallout? Whichever way, mainstream America viewed them as an aberration.
But Magic Trip, a new documentary from Alex Gibney and Alison Elwood, helps put the lie to that persistent misconception. In reality, the 1960s hippies were just another wave in the venerable American tradition of pioneers, dreamers and nonconformists that dates back well into the 1800s transcendentalists. It's pretty much forgotten that Henry David Thoreau was as much of a hero to hippies as Timothy Leary or John Lennon.
As one of the documentary's voices notes: "I thought this was as American as you could get, because we were exploring a new territory."
Magic Trip, now open in select theaters and available on-demand from some cable providers, focuses on Ken Kesey, the bohemian author of the classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He's a sort of 24-7 performance artist who used his life as a billboard for chemically enhanced mind expansion and the questioning of conventionality and authority. In 1964, Kesey and a group of similarly free-thinking friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters painted a rusty old American Harvester bus in psychedelic colors and drove it from Northern California to New York to make a scene at the World's Fair. That journey served as raw material for Tom Wolfe's bemused nonfiction account, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which director Gus Van Sant also has been trying for several years to develop for the big screen).
For years, Wolfe's contemporary account, which vacillates between reveling in and sneering at the Pranksters' weirdness, was the only real record available of the event. It was sort of a coming-out party for the hippie counterculture, then just beginning to sprout in the San Francisco area.
The new documentary, which utilizes reels of previously unseen film footage shot by the Pranksters themselves, provides another perspective, one filtered through nearly four decades of time and changes triggered in part by the hippie movement. The film footage is herky-jerky, and the amateur auteurs were too stoned or inept to get the sound right, so Gibney and Elwood compensate with retrospective interviews with the trip's participants.
New York Times film critic Stephen Holden gives Magic Trip a less-than-flattering review, citing what he calls "that unbridgeable distance between the stoned and the sober." Yet, Mick LaSalle's review in the The San Francisco Chronicle is considerably more positive, praising it for giving "the flavor of this signature event in the national consciousness," and the Huffington Post's Marshall Fine raves that "you don't have to be a Deadhead or a Ken Kesey-phile to find the fun and the wistfulness" in the film.
Magic Trip seems to be part of a resurgence of interest in 1960s hipsters: Upstate New York's Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, whose museum sports a fascinating permanent collection of material from the 1969 Woodstock Festival, is currently offering an exhibition called Strange Kozmic Experience: The Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Running through October 30, it includes rare artifacts and memorabilia from the rock stars, ranging from wardrobe items and musical instruments to Jim Morrison's never-before-exhibited journals and paintings by Joplin. And director Walter Salles' movie version of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation novel On The Road, a major influence on 1960s hippies, is finished and awaiting release in 2012. Here's an update on that project from San Francisco's The Beat Museum, a bookstore and memorabilia shop.
If you're interested in learning more about Ken Kesey, the University of Oregon has a collection of his papers and manuscripts. Also, here's an interview with his Baby Boomer son Zane, born in 1961, and a link to Zane's website, where he sells his own psychedelic artworks.
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