You leave never missing a beat
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Aug 19, 2011
"Who was Ken Kesey?" That's the question posed by narrator Stanley Tucci at the beginning of a fitfully attention-holding if ultimately frustrating documentary about one chapter in the life of the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" author and counterculture hero. By the end of "Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place," you'll have one answer: "A straight-up-the-middle-of-the-road citizen who just happens to be an acid head."
Although these words come from the horse's mouth - and are a pretty apt description of the buttoned-down burnout, all things considered - there's nothing straight up the middle of the road about the film, which reconstructs Kesey's infamous, drug-fueled 1964 trip from California to New York in a bus named "Further." Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is the best-known chronicle of the journey, which was one part house party on wheels and one part performance art.
Pieced together from long-abandoned footage shot during the trip by Kesey and various passengers (collectively known as the Merry Pranksters), the film is the best that documentarians Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney could do with the roughly 40 hours of shaky 16mm film and un-synched sound recordings left by a crew that was, for much of the time, stoned out of its gourd. Photographed with all the artfulness of a sub-par home movie, "Magic Trip" alternates between claustrophobic shots of the bus interior - featuring people with such apt nicknames as Stark Naked and Zonker - and pit-stop scenes of those same people slathering themselves with roadside pond scum and watching paint swirl in water.
It isn't exactly boring. But it's hard being the designated driver at someone else's bacchanal. At times, there's a nutty fun to the proceedings. Listening to audio snippets of Neal "Sir Speed Limit" Cassady - the manic inspiration for Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty in "On the Road" and the bus driver for much of the journey - is fascinating, if hard to follow. His verbal diarrhea was so inexhaustible that Pranksters had to sit next to him in shifts.
Other highlights (pun intended) include a stop at writer Larry McMurtry's Houston home, during which the aforementioned Stark Naked (a.k.a. Kathy Casano) goes missing and has to be hospitalized in the aftermath of a bad trip. She, along with several others who bailed out earlier, never made it to New York.
Moviegoers, on the other hand, have no such luck. Although "Magic Trip" lasts only an hour and 45 minutes, cabin fever starts to kick in well before that. It's a problem with the source material that the filmmakers were keenly aware of. "If you had to watch all 40 hours, it would be like something out of 'Clockwork Orange,' " Gibney recently told the New York Times. "They'd have to prop your eyelids open."
It never gets quite that bad here. But there's a fundamental disconnect between the high-flying Pranksters and their earthbound audience that keeps the documentary from ever wholly engaging us. If they're the ones who are wasted, why are we the ones who feel like we're wasting our time?
Contains obscenity, drug use and nudity.