Ken Kesey's "Magic Trip" on film
My friend Graham Kennedy showed four of his photographs, inscribed with words describing some of the reasons he's leaving Toronto and moving to St. John's, Nfld. this summer, at Toronto's Oz Gallery (134 Ossington Ave.) on Saturday night.
Photos from Anthony Macri and David Todon also adorned the walls for the exhibition, which had its opening reception last night and runs until May 29. I caught up with Graham, discussed his work and found out he was a big Ken Kesey fan as we chatted over a beer before it was time to head off and see my first film of the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
"Magic Trip" is director/producer Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood's portrait of author Ken Kesey ("One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Sometimes A Great Notion") and his Merry Pranksters as they took an acid-fuelled trip across the United States in a brightly painted 1939 International Harvester school bus dubbed "Further" to visit the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.
The trip was filmed by the Pranksters on 16-millimetre cameras that none of them knew how to use properly, and the more than 100 hours that was shot never synched with the accompanying audiotape, so much of it has remained unseen until now. Using this raw footage in combination with occasional re-enactments, the award-winning filmmakers have brought this "Magic Trip" to life for those of us who've only previously read about it.
Kesey's first experimentation with LSD took place as part of 1960 clinical tests at Stanford University, while he was an aspiring Olympic wrestler, for which he was paid $25 a day. Audio excerpts of what he was feeling and seeing during those tests are included in the film, and he enjoyed the sensation so much that his interest in acid soon became far greater than his original intent of trying to help the medical community find a cure for insanity.
Novelist Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" opened Kesey up to new ideas as much as drugs, and Neil Cassady (who the character Dean Moriarty from the book was based on) was invited to drive "Further" from Kesey's La Honda, Calif. residence to New York City. Copious amounts of speed kept Cassady behind the wheel and talking incessantly while other Pranksters consumed LSD in equally large volumes.
Mini profiles of the Pranksters who set out on the bus — including Ken Babbs, Jane Burton, Page Browning, George Walker, Mike Hagen, Ron Bevirt, John Babbs, Paula Sundstren (also known as "Gretchen Fetchin" and "Slime Queen") and "Stark Naked," who wandered off, was arrested and put under psychiatric surveillance during a stop in Houston — add context to the story. Some of the surviving members also add their thoughts about what they can remember from the adventure.
But it's the footage that really makes the movie. Watching these people (a couple of years before the term hippie was coined) ride on top of the bus as it rolled down the highway, and stopping along the way to trip out in a variety of locales, is what most historians or the merely curious will want to see. The 90-minute film provides a number of opportunities to play voyeur.
When the Pranksters ultimately make it to New York, they're generally disappointed by the World's Fair and meeting beat icons Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg and east coast psychedelic drug guru Timothy Leary. The Moody Blues' psychedelic "Legend of a Mind" (which includes the line "Timothy Leary's dead") and other songs create an appropriate and entertaining soundtrack to put the film in even better context.
Cassady didn't make the return trip to La Honda, so the other male Pranksters took turns driving — and apparently swapping partners with some of the wives and girlfriends who were on the bus. Kesey and other Pranksters hosted several "Acid Test" parties, many of them featuring performances by The Grateful Dead, until LSD was outlawed in 1966.
Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession in 1965 and spent five months in jail before he moved to his family farm in Oregon, where he spent the rest of his life before passing away in 2001 at age 66. He never really lived up to the promise shown in his first two novels. Whether that can be blamed on all of the LSD he took remains a matter of debate.
You don't have to be an acid head to enjoy this "Magic Trip."