Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Great Acid Cinema 13: PSYCH-OUT (1968)

This 1968 AIP classic has awesome documentary footage of the Haight-Asbury scene while it was at its zenith, framed through the shocked gaze of squares rubbernecking in tour buses like they're driving through an African safari preserve. As for the characters on the street and in the coffee houses, they're pretty damn authentic, at least as (sometimes) written and clothed and (sometimes) acted, if my own memories of playing in psychedelic rock band are correct, which is doubtful. Though we jammed in the late 80s, we played this kind of stuff, and worshipped the films and music of the Hashbury scene like it was our own bountiful bonkers Bethlehem (i.e. we were Deadheads). For me, more than anyone else in 'my tribe,' this movie captured our tribe's dynamics to a perfect tee, to the point it was almost scary.

There's the Dean Stockwell (top) pseudo-shaman, "beyond" being a good musician (that was totally me), carrying STP-laced fruit punch around like its just another drink and arguing with the band's smarmy lead singer-guitarist, Stony (Jack Nicholson --that's so totally Dave, right down to the smarmy grin), while simultaneously play-stealing his girl, Susan Strasberg (that was totally Beth); and her and I becoming partners in crime, talking about how annoying Dave could be while rummaging his drawers in search of secret stashes. Hippy Jeff the sculptor who lived in our attic is here played by Bruce Dern; Max by Adam Roarke. I could go down matching the cast but you probably would just skip over it. (Or go here), but! Ask yourself why the similarity, only one reason: acid makes you tarot-myth tribal! It assigns you a role in your group - the clown, the king, the shaman/wizard, princess, Morganna, Lancelot, Gawain... it's all there waiting to play out amongst your friends! It's in your DNA... the man, the phony establishment can't burn that out of you. They try, but not even you can reach those alchemical depths without a little boost from our machine elf friends behind the curtain, so trip them well!

Point is: PSYCH-OUT strikes a rare and right note of genuine people engaging in cautious lysergic idealism, like HAIR: the psychedelic love bead and budding branch pull focus magic of Lazlo Kovacs making deaf mute tourist Susan Strasberg into a love child overnight, and we're contact high and beside her all the way.

But then the film also shows the dirty morning after, when one tin soldier rides away without doing his share of the dishes, and instead of trying to pick the lice off himself, just names them ("that's Manny.")

The sad part is: once post-Vietnam disillusionment got rid of patriotism, countercultural "freedom" became the ad hoc refuge of a scoundrel, and then the C.H.U.Ds came west to the Haight like locusts: all the scabby uneducated midwestern meth addicts started stealing people's shit, grabbing girls and dragging them into alleys and yelling "gimme some a dat free love I done reeded about!"--and then you may as well move to Los Angeles. The dream is over.

At the end, when Stockwell is dying he says "I hope this next trip is a good one!" It was, man it was WOODSTOCK! And it wasn't man, it was GIMME SHELTER, and yet we rode on, man. We rode... on to EASY RIDER and up into the sky with the Byrds... to wait until the times started a-changing back. Now take him away for re-grooving!

Lastly, the film is essential for truly nailing the psychedelic experience, which can be beautiful and creativity-fueling one day, and a skin-crawling nightmare the next. And that's just one of PSYCH-OUT's keen observances. It's very rare and precious to have such an even-keeled look at the psychedelic age i.e. neither as blissful as Woodstock could be or as negative as Altamont wind up but constantly bouncing back and forth between those two points. To me it sums itself up perfectly: the scene when a STP-addled Warren is found "freaking out in the gallery" and hallucinates all his friends are undead Vietnam vets. They advance towards him, trying to get him to cool it and put down the power saw. And it's not long before he's trying to cut off his own hand--because for the first time, maybe ever, he sees it as it truly is: a decaying, half-blown away skeleton.

It's funny because it's terrifying. It's terrifying because it's true.

Bruce Dern as the Seeker, i.e. the first person (since the great Saul Femm) to
realize flames are actually cold, like knives.

In short, this film is the shit - a personal favorite. Alas, the MGM DVD seems to missing a reel, though maybe I was, you know, out of it, and just remember a reel that's not there. I would love to do a 'head's cut' one day and fix up some of the hallucinations, to add a giant close-up of that burning tin of Susan Strasberg's stuff as a child, which her evil mom threw in the furnace --and which led to her psychological deafness -- a condition which it's also implied is cured by her STP-fueled breakthrough, that she can now hear again after this mind-shredding return to the ground zero of her individuating trauma. Or to have her look in the mirror and see her face melting to reveal her taunting evil mother, that kind of shit - would have been awesome. But what we got, it's still pretty fucking great.

And no squares anywhere in the film, man, at least not outside the bus.


  1. Hope you're revisiting the Blu-Ray, which restores that reel missing from the previous MGM DVD release.

  2. I have it on order from Amazon even though I wasn't sure the reel would be there, so that's music to my ears - I think it's coming Mond or Tues