"A Failure of Insight"
MAGIC TRIP: KEN KESEY’S SEARCH FOR A KOOL PLACE is a fascinating documentary about the birth of the 1960s counter-culture or hippie movement, focusing on a psychedelic cross-country road trip by Ken Kesey, one of the movement’s founders, and his “Merry Band of Pranksters.” MAGIC TRIP is an incredible historical document full of rare footage, but it only hints at the dark side in the drug-fueled, immoral hippie lifestyle originated by Kesey and his friends and fellow travelers.
MAGIC TRIP: KEN KESEY’S SEARCH FOR A KOOL PLACE is a fascinating documentary about the birth of the hippie movement in the 1960s. It contains original color footage of counter-culture icon Ken Kesey and his personal band of friends and followers, aka “the Merry Pranksters,” the key people who started the hippie movement in the 1960s. Of course, that movement also included radical, immoral, Anti-American, and often Anti-Christian, left-wing ideologies, a penchant for orgiastic sex, and a whole lot of drugs. MAGIC TRIP doesn’t get into much of the politics, but it does show the impact of the 1960s drug culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution. Eventually, even Kesey, the leader of this erstwhile proto-movement, retreated from the anything goes lifestyle to raise his children with his wife (away from the maddening crowd) on their farm.
With some narration and interview audio to fill in the gaps, the movie shows how Kesey, the famed author of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1962), had been part of the CIA’s experimental drug program at Stanford University in 1959. As a result, Kesey started taking the psychedelic drug LSD on his own, at about the same time he started writing CUCKOO’S NEST.
Inspired by the Beatnik movement led by Jack Kerouac, homosexual poet Allen Ginsberg and others, Kesey attracted a renegade band of counter-culture, drug-taking “truth-seekers.” Alcohol was also part of the mix.
When the publication of his next book required him to appear in New York in 1964, Kesey and his “Merry Band of Pranksters” set off from Northern California on a legendary, LSD-fuelled cross country road trip to the New York World’s Fair in a school bus nicknamed “Further.” Driving the bus was 38-year-old Neal Cassady, the real life iconic “speed freak” who traveled with Jack Kerouac during the road trips mentioned in Kerouac’s acclaimed Beatnik novel ON THE ROAD. Cassady also painted the psychedelic, LSD-inspired bright colors on the school bus. Kesey and the Pranksters took along several film cameras to record their trip. The movie uses excerpts from that footage to tell their story.
MAGIC TRIP shows how the idea for the trip developed in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. It says Kesey and his friends hoped that the World’s Fair might give them some clues to how the future could be framed. What they found, however, was a future inspired by America’s conservative, corporate culture of the 1950s, the very thing that they and the “Beatnik Generation” were rebelling against in the first place.
Some of the people left the bus trip, not the least of which was Kathy Casamo, nicknamed “Stark Naked,” who was picked up by police in Texas when, in an LSD haze, she wandered the streets with nothing on other than her birthday suit. A friend came to Texas and flew her back to San Francisco.
In New York, Cassady introduced Kesey and the Pranksters to his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, with whom Cassady had a 20-year homosexual affair (along with marriages to three women and four children). One of Kesey’s female friends recalls that, at 42, Kerouac seemed old to her, and he didn’t enjoy the counter-culture humor of Kesey’s friends. A shot of Kerouac at a party they held after they got to New York shows him with a scowl on his face while drinking a beer. Ginsberg, however, became part of the group and, later, one of the strongest supporters of both the hippie movement and the 1960s antiwar movement, which grew out of the Soviet-funded left-wing pacifist movement against nuclear weapons. Ginsberg also introduced Kesey and his friends to Timothy Leary, who also promoted LSD, but the movie says Leary wasn’t interested in what the Pranksters were doing because his work with LSD was meant to be scientific, not recreational.* In contrast to Ginsberg, Kerouac was raised Catholic, his diaries for ON THE ROAD are full of Christian symbols and appeals to Jesus (although he also flirted with Buddhism, which, along with James Joyce, inspired his writing style), and he was staunchly Anti-Communist to the point that he even rooted for Joe McCarthy while watching TV one day in 1954 and smoking marijuana (Fellows, Mark, “The Apocalypse of Jack Kerouac: Meditations on the 30th Anniversary of his Death,” Culture Wars Magazine, November 1999).
According to this movie, on the way back from New York, Kesey and the remaining Pranksters kept indulging in drugs and even had an orgy, though Kesey was married with children. At one point, jealousy reared its head when Kesey became interested in one guy’s girlfriend.
Back in Northern California, Kesey and his friends began showing their footage of the psychedelic trip at alcohol and drug-fueled parties. The parties included music from the band that later became The Grateful Dead. Kesey advertised the parties with flyers asking, “Can you pass the acid [the nickname for LSD] test?” The birth of the hippie movement was born!
In 1965, Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession. He eventually did a stint in jail and, as part of his probation, spoke against using LSD. MAGIC TRIP, however, shows clips of Kesey speaking in a roundabout fashion about it. For instance, in one scene, the movie shows him holding a “graduation” ceremony for people who have “graduated” from using LSD. The movie ironically notes that some of the people couldn’t graduate, because they couldn’t pass the acid test.
Toward the end of MAGIC TRIP, a later interview with Kesey has him saying that he eventually had to kick out all the hippie hangers-on from his farm when he found a candle still burning in his barn, with lots of hay around it. The hippie movement had eventually become too dangerous even for its primary guru!
MAGIC TRIP is an incredible document of the birth of the hippie movement. The color images of the bus trip organized by Kesey and Neal Cassady shows that, amid the free-wheeling drug use and sexual experimentation, the Merry Pranksters were really just a bunch of adults acting and fooling around like children. Writes former prankster and novelist Robert Stone, “The Road was the revered icon of our generation. . . . It signified optimism, joyous expectation, an anticipation of the best in possibility. It embraced risk in an attitude of faith that looked forward to the advancement of everything within us that was nobler, more generous, more just. . . . The LSD we took as a tonic of psychic liberation turned out to have been developed by CIA researchers as a weapon of the Cold War. We had gone to a party in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and we filled the world with funny colors. But, the prank was on us. . . . Our expectations were too high, our demands excessive, things were harder than we expected.”
Although MAGIC TRIP: KEN KESEY’S SEARCH FOR A KOOL PLACE hints at the dark side of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the hippie movement (e.g., jealousy, self-indulgence, narcissism, addiction, utopian thinking, betrayal, laziness, etc.), it fails to give viewers true insight into the dead end they represented. Nor does it comment on the fact that, apparently, Ken Kesey’s ultimate idea of a really “kool place” was with his wife and children. Instead, it lets viewers make up their own minds. That might have been okay if the movie had done more than just hint at the dark side, but actually probed a little deeper. Consequently, while the original footage displayed provides an important first-hand document of an era and a lifestyle, the movie may encourage other people, including impressionable youths, to take up the misguided drug-inspired notions and intentions of Kesey and his friends, followers and fellow travelers.
Eventually, the only really good thing that grew out of the hippie movement was the Jesus movement, which led many Baby Boomers to re-discover the eternal biblical truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the true embodiment of love; he’s the only real change agent that can truly expand your consciousness and make you “nobler, more generous, more just.”
* Tom Snyder, editor of MOVIEGUIDE®, tried to interview Timothy Leary in the early 1990s at a New Age conference in San Francisco where Leary was speaking. “When I tried to question him about the Anti-Christian beliefs in his talk,” Snyder says, “he was totally incoherent. I just assumed that his use of drugs had addled his brains.”
(RoRoRo, PaPaPa, B, PCPC, Acap, Ho, RH, LLL, V, S, NN, AA, DDD, MM) Very strong Romantic worldview with very strong pagan elements in a documentary about some of the founders of the hippie movement in the 1960s, with some cautionary but undeveloped hints about the dark side of that lifestyle, plus some politically correct, Anti-American, anti-capitalist content, homosexual content and references, including a bit of revisionist history where the CIA is blamed for unintentionally starting the spread of LSD; about 23 obscenities, three strong profanities and seven light profanities; brief references to Vietnam War, Kennedy assassination and death; light references to fornication, adultery, masturbation, having an orgy, and homosexuality; upper female nudity in two scenes, rear male nudity in one scene and many scenes with upper male nudity; alcohol use and drunkenness; smoking and many positive references to taking LSD when it was legal and some to marijuana and using speed; and, jealousy, utopian thinking, people deliberately drop paint into pond and make the first tie-dyed T-shirt, Dupont number from 1964 World’s Fair shown touting “better living through chemistry,” and rebellion against authority.
MAGIC TRIP: KEN KESEY’S SEARCH FOR A KOOL PLACE is a fascinating documentary about the birth of the 1960s hippie movement. It shows original color footage of counter-culture icon Ken Kesey and his band of friends and followers, aka “the Merry Pranksters,” the key people who started the hippie movement in the 1960s. In 1964, Kesey and his friends organized an LSD-fueled cross-country road trip in a school bus painted psychedelic colors by Neal Cassady, one of the founders of the Beatnik Movement. Their goal was to visit the World’s Fair in New York, which, they hoped, would give them positive visions of the future.
MAGIC TRIP is an incredible document of the birth of the hippie movement. The color images of the bus trip shows that, amid the free-wheeling drug use and sexual experimentation, the Merry Pranksters were really just a bunch of adults acting and playing like children. MAGIC TRIP hints at the dark side of the hippie movement, but it’s a lopsided, obscenity-laced view that may encourage other people, including impressionable youths, to take up the misguided, drug-inspired notions of Kesey and his friends, followers and fellow travelers.