A conversation with the makers of a new documentary about the seminal bus voyage
Until now, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test has been the definitive depiction of the famous school bus trip across America taken by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in 1964.
But there’s a worthy companion piece to Wolfe’s seminal work of new journalism: Magic Trip, a new documentary entirely comprised of little-seen contemporaneous 16mm footage and audio recordings by Kesey and the Pranksters.
Meticulously restored and put together by filmmakers Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney, without relying on the crutch of perspective from contemporary talking heads, the film presents the LSD-loving pioneers who spawned ’60s counterculture in their own words and images. In an email exchange, Elliwood and Gibney, an occasional contributor to The Atlantic, offer their thoughts on the project.
What inspired you to take on the daunting challenge of making this film?
Alison Ellwood: We first heard about the footage when we read an article by Robert Stone in The New Yorker. Once we saw the footage, it was a no brainer. No one had ever seen most of this material. Something about it spoke to me — pulled me into it.
Alex Gibney: The footage — the idea that there was so much footage and that it might be used to create a kind of archival vérité portrait of this mythic moment.
What can we stand to learn from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters? What makes them relevant today?
AG: This is a tough question. In some ways, Kesey and the Pranksters are hard to remove from their time. The year the bus trip was taken — 1964 — was a year with one foot in the ’50s and one foot in the ’60s to come. Kesey himself felt that the trip might be a kind of agent provocateur for those along the side of the road who were consumed by fear (the shadow of the bomb, the McCarthy era and the recent assassination of John F. Kennedy). He believed in magic and in a definitively American yearning for freedom. That's part of what the bus trip was about: a siren's song to those strapped to the mast to come out and play. Of course, in Greek mythology, the sweet sound of the sirens caused many ships to run aground on the rocks. So too, the freedoms of the ’60s can seem a kind of lunacy today. Indeed, they ran aground at Altamont as early as 1969.
But as easy as it is to dismiss the bus trip (and when you look at the loony antics on film it's even easier) there is also something to admire. Kesey was an explorer — with writing, performance art and hallucinogens. In retrospect, explorers can look silly as we can see, with the benefit of maps written later, all their false starts, wrong turns and bumbling into dead ends. But they also help to blaze trails. The ’50s and the early ’60s (look at Mad Men) were a pretty rigid time. The country was rich but the weight of conformity was heavy. It's hard to even imagine how structured that world was. Today, we are the beneficiaries of cultural freedoms and expanded thinking … that wouldn't be possible without the explorers. (Even Lee Atwater ended up playing the electric guitar!)
It's also important to remember that Kesey and the Pranksters didn't have a rule book. That sadly would come later and was much parodied by Wolfe, [Joan] Didion, et al. They were making it up as they went along. Indeed, there is a lot about the bus ride that really isn't anything more profound than a frat house road trip. (And, because of that, the police didn't seem to mind: they couldn't even imagine the idea of LSD and never thought to arrest [Neal] Cassady even though he didn't have a valid driver's license.) But in the everyday chaos of this party on wheels, there is a lesson too about how history gets written. Kesey may have given up on literature for movie cameras (he was much better at operating the typewriter) but even as the bus was hurtling down the road, with a rambling speed freak at the wheel, Kesey the storyteller was hard at work imagining how this bus ride could pass into legend. And it did.
Kesey also says in the film that those seeking freedom from social conventions are born to lose. Sooner or later, we all have to make a living. Yet those noble losers force accommodations and personal freedoms that are important.
To those who take social injustice seriously, there is little concern in this story for civil rights, America's military overreach or the divisions between rich and poor. Through that lens, the trip can look self-indulgent and silly. But, as Kesey would remind us — and I would agree — it's also important to play and explore. Without giving ourselves over, from time to time, to the unrestrained forces of imagination, we are doomed to all become agents of the Department of Homeland Security, passing through an endless series of airport screening lines. That's something that seems relevant, and worth thinking about, today.
In making the film, how conscious were you of Tom Wolfe's book?
AG: We were conscious of avoiding Wolfe's book. He wrote a groundbreaking, inventive book and he had his say. But it's also a fact that he wasn't on the bus. We wanted this version of the trip to be seen from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. So we used the voices of Kesey and the pranksters to be the undependable narrators. In a way, we put the footage together as two films — one was the Prankster trip as told by them, the other was our arrangement of voices and context to say something we wanted to say about embracing the contradictions of that time.
What most surprised you about the footage and the characters therein?
AE: The footage wasn’t particularly well shot. However, they did do a good job at exposures. Considering they were messed up a lot of the time, it’s a miracle they got anything at all. I guess what most surprised me was their innocence and patriotism. They weren’t long haired anti-establishment types. They believed in America. They believed things could be better.
What's poignant or otherwise notable about Kesey and the Pranksters being clean-cut American acid heads, which would today seem contradictory?
AE: It only seems contradictory from our historical vantage point — we know what the ’60s became. But in 1964, the ’60s were very much still the ’50s. Cary Grant was a big fan of acid. Aldous Huxley had written Doors of Perception in 1954. Neither of those guys would be described as anything other than “clean-cut.” Frankly, I think gay Republicans are far more contradictory.