Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood's film Magic Bus examines one of those brief moments of idealism and mythology, when writer Ken Kesey decided to take a group of men and women, his 'Merry Pranksters', across America, from West to East in a 1939 International Harvester school bus and to the shining beacon of post-war American optimism, the 1964 World's Fair. As much as the film chimes with DeGroot's claim that the door of idealism closed, the film is also about the opening of those Huxlian 'doors of perception' as it traces Kesey's involvement in drug trials of LSD and how, as former Kesey associate and 'prankster' Robert Stone reveals, this "psychic liberation turned out to have been developed by CIA researchers as a weapon of the Cold War."
The psychedelic visions conjured up in Tom Wolfe's reportage of the trip in 1968, the much vaunted 'new journalism' of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, are countered by the documentary's depiction of the group as a rag-bag collection of rather middle-class, preppy types decked out in uniforms of red, white and blue. Their aspirations and ideals are chaotic, their political principles are often frivolous and at worst tainted by ignorance of the social upheavals going on around them. The glamour turns out to be rather tarnished.
The film opens with the claim that the early 1960s was still very much an extension of the 1950s - with America simultaneously bedazzled and bewildered by mass consumerism and nuclear-age anxieties - and suggests that Kesey "lit the fuse" for what became the manufactured 'flower children' version of the 1960s. Kesey is depicted as a happily married, all-American boy and a highly respected athlete and Stanford graduate. A number of key points emerge here in the narration (by Stanley Tucci) where the observation: "he loved the magic trick of speaking through other people" not only underlines the importance of his very successful early career as a writer with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, but also his role as 'guru' to the group who joined him on that bus trip to the World's Fair.
Allegedly, Kesey packed in writing because he felt making films and tapes was more productive. Judging by the state of the footage that he and the Merry Pranksters produced on their trip, it does make you wonder why he bothered. As Tucci's narrator notes, the footage was beset with "technical problems". Notably, none of them knew how to use the masses of film and sound recording equipment that was taken aboard the bus to document the voyage of discovery and, for most of the time, many of them were too stoned to even be bothered. Over 100 hours of footage and un-synced audio, with only some of it shown at the Pranksters post-bus trip 'acid test' parties but most of it collecting dust in Kesey's Oregon barn until now, reconstructs the journey in the film.
"gave us a new way to look at America and it stirred us up"It was while Kesey was in New York attending the 1963 Broadway run of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that he and his friends saw the construction of the World's Fair site and decided they would like to come see it upon completion. Gibney and Ellwood contextualise this with the shocking assassination of Kennedy, the symbolic loss of innocence that Kesey and his cohorts would set out, but ultimately fail, to preserve in their journey to experience the "American landscape...the heartscape."
Ex-marine Ken Babbs, art student Paula Sundstren, pregnant Standford philosophy professor Jane Burton, Page Browning, Mike Hagen, Chloe Scott, George Walker, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt and Cathryn Casamo all joined Kesey on the trip to New York in the repainted bus. Many of them were re-named, so Jane became 'Generally Famished', Paula was renamed 'Gretchin Fetchin', Cathryn was 'Stark Naked' and Hagen known as 'Mal Function'. Kesey also acknowledges that Jack Kerouac's On the Road, "gave us a new way to look at America and it stirred us up" and there's some great TV footage included of Kerouac reading the book. Kerouac's character Dean Moriarty was modelled on Neal Cassady, a speed freak who rather alarmingly ends up driving the bus on the East bound leg. As one of the Pranksters observes, "Wow, he looks like my dad. And my dad is going to drive the bus."
The ramshackle journey commences with the bus running out of gas just outside Kesey's house and then breaking down at La Honda. Jane Burton recalls it as being "the exact opposite of a pleasure palace" and as the trip continues some the women decide that the rather misogynistic tensions and drug-fueled paranoia are too much to cope with, resulting in several of them abandoning the bus at various points in the odyssey. On arrival in Los Angeles, Kesey presciently acknowledges the death of an old Hollywood that it is unable to keep the door closed on "the possibility of us doing anything new." He sees the trip as a way to define the soul of America in 1964 and to "open up like a camera and see it clearly for a moment."
Perhaps Kesey didn't quite realise how open that camera would be and that this experiment would include casualties like Cathryn Casamo who would end up in a psychiatric hospital. It was also an experiment informed by Kesey's LSD experiences and one of the film's most interesting sections is a recounting of his participation in the CIA's MK-ULTRA programme at Stanford. He was paid $25 a day to take LSD, to allegedly test the drug as a treatment for insanity and depression, and Gibey and Ellwood mix a recording of Kesey's experiences with animation and archive footage to describe his experiences. He would later lace a bottle of orange juice with the drug and introduce the Merry Pranksters to another kind of trip when the bus is temporarily stalled by a lake in Arizona.
When the bus pulls into Arizona, the home state of controversial right wing conservative Barry Goldwater, who was then running against Johnson for the presidency, driving the bus in reverse down a street is the extent of their displeasure at Goldwater's opposition of the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his aggression towards the Soviets and the Chinese. Later in the film, the bus arrives in New Orleans and the Pranksters, as Mark Stafford notes: "dive in a lake outside New Orleans before realising, with mounting paranoia, that they are the only white guys there, swimming in the wrong part of a racially segregated lake." Their reaction, as he continues, is to sheepishly turn tail, gather their things and get back on the bus.
One of the underlying themes that Magic Trip only partially articulates is the idea that while Kesey and his friends may well have "lit the fuse" for the libertarian excesses of the hippie movement, from which a counter-culture would eventually propel forward various civil rights movements into the next decade, the ultimate result of this would be a return to conservative values espoused by Ronald Reagan's governorship of California in 1967 and his presidency in the 1980s. It's amusing that Reagan pops up during the film when the establishment is seen to react hysterically over the LSD experience and just as popular media, in the form of the Dragnet episode shown here, reacts against the perceived threat from drug culture.
"a loaded gun impossible to aim"However, the 'bad trip' so frequently associated with LSD intake is not shied away from and it is rather disturbing how after a visit with Kesey's friend, writer Larry McMurtry, 'Stark Naked' is arrested after she goes missing. You feel a bit sorry for McMurtry as a bus load of proto-hippies turns up on his doorstep and proceed to take over his house. She is karted off to a hospital and the last we hear is that a friend rescues her and takes her back to San Francisco. An unpleasant aspect of this episode, apart from her mental breakdown after her 'acid test', is the arrogance of certain male companions who declare "we sort of abandoned her" and that "anybody that couldn't hold their shit together" was deemed unfit to continue. It seemed to fuel paranoia about who was going to be left behind next and left uncriticised the rather demeaning view of women that the men in the group had. By the time they meet up with Ken Babbs' Vietnam veteran friend, even the pregnant 'Generally Famished' is beginning to feel that their trip is turning into a bit of a folly. I think anyone would be worried if your driver was a babbling, speed freak like Neal Cassady and your companions were stoned out of their heads. The gradual unravelling of the group and the disappointment with the World's Fair underlines Kesey's eventual rejection of the liberating nature of his 'acid test' as "a loaded gun impossible to aim."
The ironic footage of a Dupont presentation 'Better Living Through Chemistry' at the World's Fair provides a corporate and consumerist counterpoint to the freedom of the Pranksters and to their eventual meeting with Dr. Timothy Leary whose approach to investigating the benefits of hallucinogens such as LSD is far more sober than their own. The footage of the Fair is fascinating just from a cultural standpoint. One section depicts General Motors' Futurama II ride which envisages a science fiction world of the future where it was proposed we might even live underwater. The end of the 1960s was not just a far cry from the Disneyfied materialist life of the future as seen at the World's Fair but was also nothing like the vision the Pranksters and Leary wanted. Kesey ended up in jail and retired to his Oregon farm and Leary was discredited as the economic downturn at the end of the decade "combined with Nixon's election to office on a 'law and order', anti-counterculture platform, dealt Sixties utopians a double dose of harsh reality" according to Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle in Imagine Nation: the American Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s. As Robert Stone, visiting the World's Fair and seeing its futurist dream, aptly puts it, "It was over before it began."
The last half hour of the film covers the return journey from New York, leaving Cassady and others behind, an hallucinogenic trip next to an idyllic lake in Canada captured in vibrant 16mm footage, and the subsequent tensions on the bus as the seven couples aboard indulged in 'free love'. It also offers Kesey to comment on his optimistically utopian ideas and that these ideas acknowledge "Goldwater and his bunch are scared... there's something happening that is scaring these people" as footage of the Pranksters picking and arranging flowers is intercut with the infamous 'Daisy' Democrat ad, of the little girl dismantling a flower as a nuclear bomb goes off, that Johnson ran against Goldwater in the 1964 US presidential campaign. Again this reflects DeGroot's idea that political and corporate America were afraid of "what might enter" the culture and here too Reagan is seen as "terribly frightened by LSD" and Dragnet's Joe Friday is on the case too, arresting blue and yellow painted hippies on prime time television.
Although Kesey wanted to be rid of the whole bus trip experience, it lived on through 30 hour screenings of the material that had been recorded across America. Saturday night 'acid-tests' became a regular occurence and eventually the Grateful Dead became their back up band. In 1965, Kesey organised the Acid Test Graduation, a big reunion party for everyone the Pranksters had ever initiated, to be held at an abandoned San Francisco pie factory. For him, it was time to go "beyond acid," and he told his fellow Pranksters, "it's no longer 'Can you pass the Acid Test?,' but 'Did you pass the Acid Test?'" However, he was then busted by the police for marijuana possession and here this is revealed through great news footage, samples of the beautiful pages of his jail journal and his willingness to trade-off on the two-year sentence. "You don't get anything free, everything bruises something," he told a reporter when asked if his drug experiences had come with a cost. After serving his time Kesey retreated further into family life in Oregon and struggled to write as the hippie counterculture grew and then withered around him.
Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place
A&E Indie Films / Phoenix Wiley 2011
StudioCanal Blu Ray OPTBD 2027 / Released November 28th 2011 / Ratio: 1.85:1 / Dolby Digital DTS 5.1 / Colour / Region B / Running Time: 107 mins / Cert:15