REVIEW: Magic Trip Documents Ken Kesey's Psychedelic Bus Tour Across America
Ken Kesey felt that the novel was no match for what was happening around him in 1964. After rising to literary prominence with his debut, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in 1962, Kesey wrote Sometimes a Great Notion, a union-busting saga set in an Oregon logging town. Due in New York for the book's publication, which coincided with the World's Fair happening there, Kesey decided to make an event of the trip, and to document the proceedings with a creative instrument more suited to the quickening times: A 16-millimeter camera.
The footage of the drive from California to the East Coast -- made in a school bus swirled with psychedelic starter-kit designs and accompanied by an assortment of friends and virtual strangers -- sat boxed up in a basement after a round of private showings and a few attempts at editing. The game-changing documentary Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters" envisioned never came together.
Directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood set out to complete the task with the benefit and befogging nostalgia of hindsight. After Kesey's death in 2001, the footage -- over 100 hours total -- was turned over to archivists at UCLA, who worked to restore it, and Magic Trip is made up almost entirely of that footage, with the exception of a few animated segments and archival clips. It's a heroic effort to justify Kesey's instinct about designing, casting and filming a road trip to capture a pivotal moment in American culture. It's also a pretty definitive argument for the supremacy of literature when it comes to mythologizing pivotal moments in American culture.
Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test documents the same trip and its aftermath, and became one of the early "nonfiction novels" associated with the New Journalism movement that sprang up to translate the times. Wolfe had a number of advantages over Magic Trip, including a dominant point of view, relief from the pressure of making reams of footage of a bus full of tripping, budding hippies seem interesting, and the creative freedom to continue making Beat muse Neal Cassady look like something other than a complete and utter, gnaw-off-your-own-foot nightmare.
The choice to stick with the footage was a bold one, especially since much of the sound is unusable and a true "direct cinema" salvage is impossible. Most of the images are startlingly clear, and a chronology is set up to match the voice-over, which is derived from old interviews with Kesey and, less successfully, old interview transcripts with the Pranksters "performed" by actors. Stanley Tucci serves as interlocutor, posing questions about the trip that are "answered" by the participants, another unfortunate structural choice. The "you are there"/"they were there" approach is limited both by the content of the footage and the convolution of the narrative devices, and around the time the bus hits New Orleans, desperation for distance and a guiding perspective sets in.
I'd say you had to be there, but over the course of Magic Trip we learn that the majority of the people who were there didn't want to be there. One bailed before they were 30 minutes out of their starting point, several others couldn't wait for it to end. The combination of the recovered footage of the trip and the alternately gilded and crabby reflections on it reveal the tenuous grip of so many of our cultural myths. Though Kesey is an especially thoughtful and articulate presence -- recordings from his first trip on LSD as part of a CIA experiment are the high point of the film -- to 21st-century eyes his journey has the drummed-up feel of a self-regarding publicity circus. The group began wearing red and white striped "team" shirts and gave each other goofy warrior nicknames, but one of their number is dumped at the first sign of trouble, and another is left behind -- ha ha -- and no one notices. Romances flare up and out, and casual betrayals seethe like campsite embers as the group continues their slouch toward Astoria. Drugs are required for fun and communal feeling, and oh my God when will that meth-head Cassady shut his trap already.
The truest moment in Magic Trip takes place after the predictably anti-climactic arrival in New York, where Kesey and Co. are snubbed by Timothy Leary, Jack Kerouac shows up to nurse a tall boy, and one more girlfriend is stolen for the road. Back in California, the group gathers to watch raw film from the trip as a party takes shape around them, so that we are watching footage of people watching footage from the footage we just watched. You can almost hear the boastful embellishing, the beginning of a story taking shape. Second to Kesey's medically supervised LSD dose, it's the most intriguing part of the documentary, and suggests the mysterious filtration process by which lasting myths are made of events that are fairly ordinary to the naked eye. The film stayed raw for a reason: Since it served as an accessory to invention both during and after the trip, its purpose was more or less spent.