They were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.
There is a mythology that surrounds the 1960s, thanks to that volatile period being romanticized. We envision young people, their faces painted with flowers and peace signs, bravely protesting an unpopular war; some believing they changed the world with poster boards and catchy slogans. These images are seared into our minds, as this protest-fueled period divided a nation. We have forgotten however, that most of these images come from the latter part of the decade, the early ’60s resembled the ’50s more than it did the peace movement.
The early part of the 1960s was inhabited by a group of young men and women in their late twenties and early thirties who also shunned the world of their parents and are considered by some to be the link between the beatniks of the’50s and the hippies of ’60s. This is the middle ground where Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” was floundering when he and a few friends decided in 1964 to convert an old school bus into a home away from home and travel from California to New York to attend the World’s Fair.
Based on the words and recordings of Ken Kesey, Magic Trip is a documentary chronicling this cross country journey and it gives us a keen sense of what this experience was truly like: a drug-addled sex-filled romp of disorganization that lost its way even before it got started. As it turns out this “Merry Band of Pranksters,” as they liked to be called, were nothing more than a group of rebellious pseudo-adults trying, like the hippies and beatniks, to buck the traditions of their parents and forge a new path that bared no resemblance to what they felt was the stuffy existence they grew up in. It was, like most of the mythology of the ’60s, a trip that was nothing more than adolescent ideology dressed up in a quest for enlightenment.
With a 16mm color camera in tow and a whole mess of drugs, they make their way to New York but along the way realize that the journey had become more important than the destination. With footage and interviews that have gone virtually unseen or heard for more than 40 years, we experience with Kesey and his cohorts a trip marred by the excessive use of acid and LSD and complicated by the casual sexual affairs of the participants. A genuine ’60s experience long before the flower power movement became a universal symbol of the era.
Most of us had our rebellious bus trip of sorts, maybe it wasn’t literally on a bus, but a time in our lives where we’ve had to veer off course in order to ‘find’ out who we truly should be. For me, I would say my ‘bus trip’ happened during the same age range as Kesey and his friends, in my late twenties; a time when life becomes more than just hanging out with friends and figuring out which party you’re going to attend in the upcoming weekend. You realize you are no longer a young irresponsible teen, with time to figure things out. No, you are an adult whether you like it or not, and people begin to expect you to be responsible. All of a sudden those dreams you thought you had all the time in the world to accomplish, seem less likely to happen. You look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘now what?’
Kesey’s ‘now what’ moment resulted in him traipsing across the country in a bus with some of his best buds to experience America; the one last hurrah before full onset adulthood kicked in. But this trip was rocky from the very beginning and the sign that it wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be happened even before they began their adventure. As they pull out of the driveway in a colorfully painted school bus, the pranksters run out of gas just a few feet from Kesey’s home. His quest to see the country didn’t just go off the rails, it was never securely on them to begin with. The main reason for this — drugs. I know, that’s what the ’60s were all about, but Magic Bus shows clearly how that accepted form of recreation was a destructive force in the lives of some otherwise intelligent individuals. The drugs interfered with the journey, they didn’t enhance the experience.
LSD and acid had become a part of Kesey’s identity, one that he explains came into being after he volunteered for a government experiment involving the use of LSD. In one scene, we hear through old audio recordings, Kesey, who is obviously high, speaking in a slurred voice while being asked questions by some anonymous woman. While we listen to Kesey go on in this drug induced haze, onscreen we see random splashes of words and colors to coincide with what Kesey is saying. The scene goes on for far too long, but it did show the beginnings of a life that was shaped by this defining moment. Before this experiment, Kesey claims he never did drugs, or even drank; however, after the program was abruptly ended, he embraced the drug culture wholeheartedly. Kesey seemed to think the government was solely to blame for his fondness of drugs, and they do bear some responsibility but so does Mr. Kesey, who chose to continue using even though he knew there were adverse affects to LSD.
Kesey admired the pioneers of the beatnik culture and was excited when the Merry Band of Pranksters are granted a meet with their idols Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac. It is a less than stellar encounter, with the more established counter culture icons wanting nothing to do with the younger and wilder crowd. Timothy Leary doesn’t even come down to meet them when they arrived at his home. Kerouac and Ginsberg aren’t interested either, the two came to a party the Pranksters were throwing and Kerouac is distant, sitting alone with a drink in his hand and looking as if he’d rather be anyplace else than where he was. Ginsberg is a bit more social but he only had eyes for one of the Pranksters named Neal Cassady; the inspiration for Kerouac’s ‘Dean Moriarty’ in his classic beat novel “On the Road.” But Neal is part of the beatnik movement, and even his presence couldn’t bridge the gap between the new and the old. In the end Cassady remains behind, not returning to California on the school bus.
The Magic Trip is meant to be an adventure to spread love while exploring the nation. Kesey tries too hard however to be ground breaking and shocking. Everything about the trip was contrived, even down to the name of the bus; which he christens ‘Further,’ not ‘Farther’ as some people think it is. “Further,” says Kesey “is a bus, a philosophical concept, while farther is a measurement.” Kesey thought the concept of the name was obvious. Maybe the concept is obvious when you’re in a drug induced state but to a sober individual, it only sounds pretentious. Magic Trip is the ultimate public service announcement against the use of drugs and a discouragement to indiscriminate sex. Kesey may have been the author of one of the great American novels but his rebellious bus excursion was nothing more than the desperate act of a man wanting to matter. And who of us doesn’t want to feel as if we matter?
Magic Trip is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen format, with the audio output in Dolby Digital 5.1. Even though the film was shot nearly 50 years ago, it is in relatively good condition with very few blemishes. And knowing the context of when the documentary was originally filmed, no one should expect modern day high definition video or audio quality.
Directed by Alex Gibney (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer and Alison Ellwood (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Magic Trip may not be the philosophical wet dream it is intended to be, however, the conception of Gibney and Ellwood is carried out with a smartness and a clever quality that Kesey could’ve used on his initial trip. I love how they took the old footage and instead of interspersing video clip interviews from the Pranksters, all of the audio from those interviews is played over the original footage, giving us the feeling that we are right there with them on that hellish cross country trip. Gibney and Ellwood took this adventure, that seemed pointless in its entirety, and made it a film experience that is interesting and mostly entertaining.
I can totally relate to being at a crossroads in life, somewhere between that seemingly careless youthful period of your late teens and early twenties and that stage where thirty is hovering way too close. I liked Ken Kesey and his friends and felt a sense of camaraderie with a group of people who don’t quite fit in anywhere; not with the beatniks and also not with the hippies.
It’s hard to bring something new to a period in our nation’s history that has been examined and admired ad nauseam, but the view from Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters was different than most of the fawning ’60s documentaries we usually see. Gibney and Ellwood managed to make this film without adding their own personal agendas, merely presenting the footage and letting that and the interviews speak for themselves.
A final and powerful image from Magic Trip, is seeing the iconic bus covered in moss, pretty much forgotten on Kesey’s property. This former symbol of adventure and free living has gone from philosophical concept to a habitat for the creatures that now call ‘Further’ home. Kesey was the link between two huge movements, in the end however, he is a husband and father and realizes that this was where his journey had been leading him all along.
As Kesey said in an interview, “I’m a fairly reliable straight up the middle citizen who just happens to be an acid head.”
I give it a tie-dyed, Not Guilty.