Magic Trip (Magnolia Pictures, NR)

If you have any interest in the period you’ll want to see it, but you’ll need a high tolerance for below-amateur-level footage that often displays bad behavior by people inflated with a sense of their own self-importance.



The road trip seems to be imprinted in the DNA of American movies: from The Grapes of Wrath to Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise this genre has given us some of our most culturally defining films. Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters seemed to understand this because when they set off on their legendary 1964 cross-country journey in the psychedelically-painted school bus they documented it extensively on film and audiotape.

Unfortunately no one on the bus bothered to learn how to use the cameras or sound equipment beforehand and the result was hundred of hours of 16mm footage, often shaky and out of focus and with unsynched audio. A big mess, in other words, which defeated multiple attempts to create a coherent film from it. So while you may be familiar with accounts of this trip (Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is probably the most famous) the footage documenting it has remained largely unseen.

Until now, that is. Kesey et al.’s archival footage was preserved and restored by the UCLA film archives and Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood took their best shot at turning it into a proper documentary. The result is Magic Trip, which combines many film clips recorded by the Pranksters with interviews recorded years later as the Pranksters viewed the footage of themselves. Other archival materials are used to set up the historical context and the voices you hear are actors reading the interview transcripts, with questions interpolated by Stanley Tucci, so that the whole film feels like a collage which deliberately blurs the lines between historical artifacts and later interpretations.

If anyone could make a success of this endeavor it’s Gibney and Ellwood, who in the past have brought clarity to such thorny issues as the Enron scandal and the twisted world of Jack Abramoff. I’m not sure anyone could do a better job at turning the Pranksters’ heap o’ stuff into a watchable film, but I’m also not sure that Magic Trip is really all that good. Granted, if you have any interest in the period you’ll want to see it, but you’ll need a high tolerance for below-amateur-level footage that often displays bad behavior by people inflated with a sense of their own self-importance.

Most of Magic Trip is occupied with the eastern leg of the journey (end destination: New York City and the World’s Fair) and besides Kesey and Neal Casady you’ve probably never heard of anyone who was on the bus during this time while many of those associated with it in our collective memory (Alan Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac) were only briefly involved after the bus arrived in New York. The return journey west is granted much less screen time and the energy of the whole endeavor gradually peters out making the trip feel like the end rather than the beginning of something. Even Kesey finally had enough, realizing that entertaining endless bands of hangers-on was not conducive to his writing productivity nor to his duties as a father (and for the record, he never wrote anything half as successful as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Sometimes A Great Notion, both written before the trip, in the rest of his career).

Gibney and Ellwood oversell the importance of the Merry Pranksters and their trip, claiming that it marked the real start of the 1960s. Right, a bunch of white guys (there were a few women on the bus, but it was definitely the guys’ trip) doing drugs and otherwise clowning around was much more important than all the work which was required to pass civil rights legislation or to develop the birth control pill. And was the 1964 trip all that influential at the time, or does it only seem so in retrospect with the 1968 publication of Tom Wolfe’s book? There’s no evidence in this film that the Pranksters had much influence on anyone but themselves at the time.

Magic Trip works better in small increments than it does as a whole. At first it’s really interesting to see archival clips of Neal Casady acting up (he apparently spent the entire east-bound journey high on speed) but that gets old pretty fast. Then you recall that Casady is known for sleeping with famous people rather than for any particular accomplishments of his own and you start to wonder how much time you really want to spend in his company, especially when he has his shirt on. It’s impossible to exaggerate how wearying it is to watch endless clips of badly-shot home movies of people who really have no claim on your attention while trying to convince yourself that what you are seeing is historically important. Gibney and Ellwood do a lot of creative visual things with the film, including an animated representation of an acid trip, and the soundtrack is well-chosen, but the whole exercise becomes a chore long before the trip is over. | Sarah Boslaugh


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