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Laramie Movie Scope: Magic Trip

A cross-country acid trip in time

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 28, 2011 -- This documentary uses a lot of the 16mm color film shot during the famed 1964 cross-country trip by author Ken Kesey and his “Merry Band of Pranksters” in a psychedelic school bus named “Further.” One of the goals of that trip (described in Tom Wolfe's book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” and Ken Kesey's screenplay, “The Further Inquiry”) from California to New York (by way of New Orleans) was to make a movie. Up until now, few had seen this footage, and this is the first time it has been edited and put together in a well-organized way. Kesey showed it to friends in a rambling 30-hour-long chronological form years ago. This, thankfully, is much shorter.

Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion,” conceived of the trip as a mind-altering jaunt across the country to see the New York World's Fair. Enough people wanted to go on this trip, that they bought an old 1939 International Harvester school bus. They fixed up the bus for the trip with a top hatch and platform so people could ride on top, and a platform on the back for a generator and motorcycle. The bus was also equipped with sound and recording equipment. Although mechanically ancient, the bus successfully made it across the country and back. It is shown rusting away now at the Kesey property in Oregon.

Experimenting with drugs was a big part of the trip. The bus stopped at a house where drug guru Timothy Leary was staying, but Leary didn't like the boisterous nature of the group and refused to meet with them. The group also got a cold reception from Beat author Jack Kerouac, even though one of the bus riders, Neal Cassady, was the model for the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's book, “On the Road.” One famous member of the beat generation, Allen Ginsberg, did seem to embrace the Merry Band of Pranksters. Although Kesey's embrace of the mind-altering drug LSD is considered counter-culture, it was in fact rooted in experimental drug trials conducted by the United States government itself. The film makes the argument that the drug trials were actually conducted on behalf of the CIA. Kesey participated in the LSD drug trials as a college student.

The film details several times when everyone on the bus took LSD, sometimes in large amounts. One woman on the bus seems to have had a bad reaction to the LSD and was jailed. She later left the bus. There were various shifting sexual liaisons on the bus, some of which led to some friction among the travelers. One account had at least one occasion in which everyone was having sex at the same time on the bus. Cassady, described as a “speed freak” drove the bus most of the way out to New York, talking nonstop. He seemed to be hyperactive. He would die under mysterious circumstances four years later. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead appears in the film along with some Dead music, including the topical line “What a long strange trip it's been.”

One of the remarkable things about the Merry Band of Pranksters is that they were very physically fit by today's standards. None of them were fat (the men appear shirtless in a number of scenes). They had muscle definition and abs most people would kill for these days. It was a different time, before the time of junk food and sedentary lifestyles. It was a time you could live on the cheap and travel on the cheap. Gasoline cost less than 30 cents per gallon and food was cheap too. As a snapshot of America in those golden years, this film will be an eye-opener for some. These people were not hippies, this was before that time. Some were beatniks, but most fell in between the beats and the hippies. They flew the American Flag and proudly wore red, white and blue clothing.

I was in high school when this trip was filmed, so I remember that time well. To me at least, the 1960s were the best of times and the 1990s were great too, with the explosion of internet technology and its seemingly limitless possibilities. But other than those two decades, America has been sliding on a downhill run, and the downhill plunge has been accelerating exponentially since the beginning of the new millenium. Americans are getting fatter, more heartless and more selfish as the years roll by. This film represents happier times when the future seemed bright. The film goes on to depict events, including Kesey's arrest on marijuana charges, which occurred after the trip, but the film is best viewed as a time capsule of a particular time and a particular event, the trip. In that light, it works well enough. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)