Nonfiction film: The acid test of retrieving 1960s road-trip footage
Novelist Ken Kesey, who penned “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and his compatriots the Merry Band of Pranksters didn’t have a clue how to operate a 16-millimeter movie camera or a Nagra audio recorder. But that didn’t stop them from trying to make a movie out of their fabled 1964 LSD-fueled cross-country road trip from La Honda, Calif., to the New York World’s Fair, which Tom Wolfe famously wrote about in his book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Kesey, his Pranksters and Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady captured some 40 hours of filmed footage and sound recording during their venture on a fluorescent-painted school bus they called “Further.” Among those also taking the trip were Kesey’s best friend, Ken Babbs, who had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, and pregnant law professor Jane Burton, nicknamed “Generally Famished.”
Over the decades, Kesey, who died in 2001, attempted to edit the footage into a documentary but was never able to fashion his feature film. Eventually, the material ended up in cardboard boxes in the muddy barn of the Oregon farm owned by Zane Kesey, the author’s son.
Now, thanks to extensive restoration efforts, documentarians Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have realized Kesey’s dream. The pair’s latest film, “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place,” opened Friday at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. It offers an illuminating first-person look into the excursion, widely acknowledged as a cornerstone of the decade’s psychedelic movement.
Oscar-winning Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Ellwood learned about the footage in 2005 while they were at the Sundance Film Festival with their documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” They came across an article from the New Yorker magazine by novelist and former Prankster Robert Stone that mentioned the existence of the footage, Ellwood said. .
She and Gibney have long been attracted to subjects with strong political, even controversial, overtones — whether about the apparent institutionalizing of torture as part of the war on terror in “Taxi to the Dark Side” or how the corruption at “Enron” rippled through the greater economy.
But the pair also has a history with the counterculture: Their film “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” explored the legacy of the journalist and provocateur.
Ellwood said she and her directing partner felt certain that with the footage Kesey and the Pranksters shot, the trip could be brought to life. Zane Kesey lent his support, and the filmmakers secured a grant from the Film Foundation to help pay for the footage to be brought to the UCLA Film & Television Archive to be restored in 2007.
The physical condition of the material presented a significant challenge, according to UCLA preservationist Nancy Mysel. “When we got our hands on the film it was muddy, severely faded and worn,” she said. “Kesey over the years attempted to edit the film, so the footage had been cut and recut. The original film was often held together with masking tape and duct tape.”
Mysel and two others began working on the material in 2008 and completed the restoration in 2009. They wound through all the canisters of film, then painstakingly cleaned the frames by hand to rid them of mud and other dirt, repairing all nicks and tears before doing a digital transfer.
“From an archival standpoint, we wanted to maintain the integrity of the material and preserve Kesey’s edited sequences,” Mysel said. Because the footage had faded over the years, “we used digital technology to recover the faded color. We also used digital technology to bring out some of the images that were obscured by extreme over- and underexposure since this was not photographed by professional filmmakers. We wanted to maintain the integrity of the amateur filmmakers.”
There were also many problems with the audio, given that those amateur filmmakers were tripping on acid when they were making the tapes, said Don Fleming, the associate director of the Alan Lomax Archive in New York, who completed the audio restoration and previously worked with Ellwood and Gibney on “Gonzo.” “They would change the speed [of the tape] as they were going on the bus, or they would turn it over and tape on the other side in an odd place.”
“The Nagra speeds fluctuated and the recorder was often running on the bus’ generator,” added Ellwood. “Every time the bus changed gears, you would get a warble.”
Ellwood and Gibney worked on “Magic Trip” on and off for three years, and Ellwood admitted it was a huge challenge to assemble a coherent film out of the 40 hours of drug-fueled shenanigans — “but there was a chronology to the trip and what happened,” she said.
What helped were audio interviews conducted with the Pranksters 12 years after the trip, which turned up in Zane Kesey’s barn. “Ken was working on a screenplay called ‘The Further Inquiry,’” said Ellwood. “He had a friend of his sit down with the remaining Pranksters and show them the footage and do an interview. There were eight interviews done. … We had transcripts of all eight.”
They hired Stanley Tucci to narrate the documentary and act as the Pranksters’ “interviewer,” incorporating the audio from those interview sessions done in the 1970s into the finished film.
Ellwood says that “Magic Trip” offers a slice of history, a look at when the 1960s really began. Of all the archival material, she said she was particularly struck by the significance of one moment. On the way back from New York, Kesey and the Pranksters are traveling through Yellowstone and Kesey notices a sign reading “Beware of the Bear.”
For the writer who was keenly interested in opening up the public’s consciousness, liberating people from the sense of panic beginning to seep into broader culture, the message was one he took exception to.
“Something clicked in him,” Ellwood said. “He said that used to mean ‘beware of the bear’ and now it means ‘be afraid of the bear.’ It was the whole mentality of 1964, which was very much [an outgrowth] of the ‘50s. There was a fear of the bomb, JFK had been assassinated and Vietnam was gearing up. It was the era of ‘Mad Men,’ and there was an underlying fear. Kesey was like ‘Get out of the bunkers. Don’t be afraid.’”
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