The Road to Enlightenment on the Magic Bus

By 1964, Ken Kesey had already written two novels that helped define his generation. He was also convinced that the writers of his time wouldn’t be working with anything as conventional as a pen, as he put it. He turned to film.

Kesey’s solution was to find a schoolbus. He appointed On the Road gonzo Neal Cassady to drive it, and he filled it with photogenic kids in order to make a movie of the bus’s journey from the west Coast to New York.

Oct. 1996, San Francisco, California, USA --- Portrait of Ken Kesey --- Image by© Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS

Oh – and they all took LSD for most of the ride.

Alex Gibney, who co-directed with his editor Alison Ellwood, is something of a doc factory. His films tend to be informative, with a strong sense of cinema (which most docs lack), but the films often seem not so much unfinished as incomplete.  The story goes far beyond the movie.

Not here. The whole notion of Magic Trip is of a work in progress – the journey itself, but also the beginning of a generation, seen as it’s observing itself. There’s a time capsule effect here, but less than one might have expected. Production values of the original footage are surprisingly good, given that no one involved knew how to operate a camera. The kids who climbed aboard look as they could be kids now – no crazy hair or clothes to make juvenile political statements. The landscape is dated – all the more reason for us to look at it.

And looking at the color images of beautiful youth – even Cassady looks good – you might forget that the Merry Pranksters’ trip was only five years after Robert Frank made the journey around the country that became the influential book of photographs, The Americans. Frank’s images in black and white are often mournful reminders of a missed opportunity, signs of a promise that wasn’t kept to citizens of a wealthy superpower.

Frank’s subjects tend to tolerate the picture-taking, as if they’re not sure what Frank was doing. Frank, who seemed to be trespassing on places where people were unaware of the image-making revolution all around them, was arrested in Arkansas, where cops thought that a guy with a camera and an accent had to be doing something wrong.

October 1966, outside the Warehouse, Harriet Street, South of Market, San Francisco, California, USA --- Ken Kesey --- Image by© Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS

Magic Bus shows something different. Cassady, thanks to heavy doses of speed, could talk anybody in or out of anything. He didn’t have to talk cops out of giving the bus tickets, because the vehicle couldn’t move fast enough to break the speed limit. And the bus brought fun where it went. Even in New York, locals known for their nastiness smiled and waved at the multo-colored vehicle. Bear in mind that this was psychedelia, and it was 1964. And it wasn’t any weirder than the World’s Fair at the time, a celebration of kitsch futurism.

The Pranksters recorded their own commentaries on the footage, which Gibney and Ellwood distilled down to feature length, commissioning animators to assemble fragments into a collage that accompanies the “action,” which always tends toward comedy. In Phoenix, the tripped out Pranksters paint “A Vote for Goldwater is a Vote for Fun” on the side of the bus, and drive it in reverse down the street.  Those were the days when Barry Goldwater said he wanted to “lob one into the Men’s Room at the Kremlin.”  Americans voted against that kind of rhetoric, not for it, as they seem to do now.  Goldwater would later go to court to win a judgment against a journalist who called him “insane.” In case your jaw is dropping, remember that a jury acquitted O. J. Simpson.

On the road to Houston, trucks that usually passed the Pranksters’ slow-moving bus drive behind it. One of the young women, nicknamed Stark Naked, took off her clothes and stood on a platform facing the traffic behind them.

In New Orleans, the Pranksters go to Lake Pontchartrain, where they do what they did  everywhere else – they take acid. This is the Civil Rights Era, and they barely notice that the beach on the lake is all black.

“Shit – we just integrated this beach,” one of them says, before they run back to the bus. Who said history wasn’t the product of blind forces?

The Pranksters even stumble into some wisdom on their trip. Heroes, they learn, rarely meet one’s expectations, an important thing to learn when you’re 21 or 22. Boozy Kerouac was just “an old guy” when they met him, unlike Allen Ginsberg, who joined in the fun. Acid guru Timothy Leary snubbed the group when they visited the estate where he lived in upstate New York.  It was Leary’s loss.

They never finish the film that they’re making, cause for the recognition of another insight – it was about the ride, not the product.

Third insight offered by Kesey (not that this is a catechism) – you take drugs in order to stop taking drugs. This was advice that he followed, trekking up to a farm in Oregon where he spent the rest of his life.

There is still plenty to learn from the man, especially for filmmakers. It should teach them not to assume that what they’re doing is original.

Magic Trip, depending on who’s watching it, can be nostalgia or novelty. For everyone, it’s a look back at independent filmmaking before the lawyers and the marketing departments took over.  If you were on the bus, those were the good old days.

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