Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bouncer at the Gates of Love: REVOLUTION (1968)

"What we're seeing is a basic change in the evolutionary progress of mankind - something only priests and monks were into until a very long time ago, and that is consciousness expansion." 

So notes an unnamed head in Jack O'Connell's REVOLUTION (1968), a crazy, narrator-free documentary about the Haight Ashbury community that still glimmers with a bid of LSD sparkle even today. And O'Connell's right. The evolutionary progress of man was changed... and in 1968 we were yet to take the first of our steps toward changing it back.

It's hard to imagine a moment remotely similar in the history of the human race to the years between 1966 and 1969. LSD was still semi-legal and becoming hugely popular, as much a middle class rage as Twitter is now, turning an entire demographic from self-absorbed mopes into eastern spirituality-embracing free spirits (Twitter would be perhaps vice versa). And not only the young kids but adventurous parents were jumping into the fire and disappearing from the 9-5 fidelity-based spousal system. Kids began to grow up in communes instead of two car garages; group marriages and swinging weren't just for freaks; LSD was everywhere--in clinical psychiatrist offices, research, and middle American homes; Owsley gave out thousands of pure 'purples' (from which "Purple Haze" gets its name) as free samples at Monterey Pop. Tastemakers were jumping onboard right and left. One hit and your whole life opened up like a flower you never even knew had been closed your entire life up to the now.

Evolution sped up on psychedelics. No matter what your age, it was pretty 'hip' in the upper and middle classes to at least have tried it, even if it was just so you had something to talk about during your Thursday night bridge game. Having that 'experience' made you cool, like skydiving or bungee jumping (or cocaine) in the 1980s, or ecstasy in the 90s.

So along comes REVOLUTION, about which the always insightful Flickhead writes:
In the free spirit of the times, [filmmaker] O’Connell doesn’t bother with conventions like linear construction or identifying subtitles. Themes and locations shift at whim, interview subjects go unidentified. Anonymous faces provide scant commentary on David Smith’s Free Clinic, and The Diggers’ Free Store and free food program, both deserving more time and respect. As does the mystery existentialist envisioning a cash-free future run by computers necessitating the need for a pot-smoking leisure class. But these shortcomings don’t diminish some otherwise perceptive passages in Revolution, the most nostalgic of which concern the reach for a communal utopia, one the counterculture — countering greed, materialism, superficiality — believed would erase ego from the equation, to render the desire for personal reward obsolete…  (cont.)
Damn right, Flickhead. What the fuck happened to the pursuit of egolessness? With music by the Steve Miller Band (freshly formed), Country Joe and the Fish, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, we get some ideas of how to pick up the egoless thread. Watching today, the crunchy psychedelic guitars are a most welcome presence in one's living room (dig, the "living"... room) even if you're not paying full attention to the kids onscreen or the squares gawking from the sidelines at the never-ending parade of panhandlers along the Haight.

Whoa man. I'm totally tripping after seeing it. Pupils dilated in the mirror of the image of someone 20-years old and foxy, dancing like a girl who just found freedom, who just stepped out her shell... a girl named... Today.

No man, that's like her name. She changed her name to Today, because that's all we have. That's everything there is. Far out. Her big LSD trip--captured by O'Connell from start to finish--anchors the whole second half of the film: she begs for change in a really attractive, clean looking brown and light green poncho; she climbs trees and frolics in the park; she drives up the coast to dig the old growth redwoods; there's more squiggly light shows. Flowers! Flowers! She strokes an apple --it's breathing! Someone eats a banana. Some dude paints some crazy colors. She lies in the grass with two girlfriends, giggling hysterically. Even with the 21st century's rose tint-free glasses you can see the auric waves as her whole body sighs in relief as five hundred years of socio-genetic programming is short-circuited and overcome with a single white pill and good set and setting.

Unfolding with one eye on the exploitation market, it could be argued on some level that REVOLUTION was meant less to wake the people up from their westernized stupor and more to turn on the raincoat brigade, all those lusty adults curious about the supposedly limitless free love available. Hence there's a lengthy naked dance troupe going nuts under liquid psychedelic lights to Country Joe and the Fish's most psychedelic instrumental, "Section 43" (below). But such a prurience is addressed in the film, too, as the Sexual Freedom League explains that only couples are allowed into the orgy to keep the numbers even (so dirty old men don't overrun the scene and turn it into the end of Requiem for a Dream).

In a way, it's sad the SFL has to do that, such rule-making is the first unraveling thread on freedom's poncho. As someone who's done decades of grieving for the loss of the countercultural revolutionary dream, I've always had a resolved hatred for male sexual aggression for just this reason. You can't have a free utopia with members who are obsessed with sex. It's like being an over-eating pig at a communal picnic and you didn't even bring anything--not even a jug of wine. But America's trained men to be hungry ghosts when it comes to sex -- I guess you need to have a lot of it before you can see the forest for the trees. Look at Siddhartha! Or Mick Jagger! They orgied it up, but they were rich and attractive. No one wants to sleep with ugly raincoat pervs, so the problem just gets worse. Oh well, as long as they pay to see it, because bulbs for the projectors are frickin' expensive.

Decades later watching all this on our laptops we can either grin cynically at all the naive spiritual tomfoolery or we can cry in thinking what we lost. The counterculture failed, or maybe it didn't. I used to argue this point with my guitarist all the time. He said no, the counterculture was alive, it had been integrated--driven underground perhaps--but all the stronger for being more exclusive. I argued that we failed, we blew it. But now of course I'm in AA with the old men and my guitarist's in Ibiza with jet-set supermodels, so there you go.

REVOLUTION keeps up the even-keeled in its discussion, even into the thick of the tripping, interviewing cocktail hour executive types relaying the pre-trip adult opinion, cops, and hospital doctors who deal with the bad trip freak-outs. Many of the adults think the  hippies are just slumming middle class college dropouts. Change the world through love and spiritual union if you can--power to the flower!--but damn get a job or stop using public bathrooms to wash your sandals! The rest of us work to pay taxes so those bathrooms can stay clean --that's the adult's message. The doctor talks about LSD casualties in the hospital, as if it's the drug's fault and not the hospital's! I wanted to scream at the screen: "Bro! the people who brought these poor kids to your gleaming white sanitary gulag are the problem. A tripping person has no place in a hospital - they belong in the garden, with the sunflowers, or on the roof deck, sunbathing in their body paint and funny hats. Being strapped in a hospital straitjacket is no way to come out of a downward spiral. Blame the youth again for though they don't pay taxes or acknowledge the relevance of the establishment, the minute something goes wrong on their acid trips they demand the hospital take their twitching friend off their hands.

Another interesting moment comes when a hippie leader (the one discussed by Flickhead above) discusses the rise of "cybernation," or the increased use of computers, resulting in something called: "massive compulsory leisure." The realization that "this job could be better done by a machine" becomes the prelude to dropping out: "Many, I think, need to learn to do nothing."

He also thinks "LSD should be used to reveal the divine, it's no accident that it entered the world right at the time nuclear fission did." He adds, "If you deny yourself access to that kind of experience, to that kind of energy, then you are simply a fool!" Word, brother. But what about if you continue to take it, over and over, every day, until you're a gibbering mess sitting in a puddle behind the stage at a Phish show? Don't say it didn't happen.

I remember feeling all lysergically connected to this kind of youthful hippie revolutionary moment, back in 1987 when I lucked into an instant loving relationship with my future bandmates and a cadre of beautiful, brilliant, blazing hippie chicks, and I feel deeply sorry for kids who may not have had such a 'trip,' for it truly changed my life forever. But after awhile even I realized LSD was like reading the same travel brochure over and over. Eventually you have to try and get there, like, permanently, the hard way, via meditation and good deeds, and (alas) AA meetings. My gorgeous Connecticut hippies got married and had mutant kids and I got sober and then stopped going to AA and now I white knuckle in an antisocial rapture like Max Von Sydow not selling his art by the yard in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. The revolution never quite happened for me, no matter how many trips I took. "But we have the music," and the hopes for a next generation of snotty youth to latch onto something bigger than themselves even if the adults tell them its dangerous.

Hopefully, this time, they'll figure out a way to shut out the pervs, tourists, and freeloaders who inevitably cohere around such a righteous fire like metal shavings to a beautiful magnet.

That's the ultimate problem with utopias... to really do them right you need to have brutal ways to keep the dirty old men out of the garden - or you need to keep evolving so fast the losers can't catch up. Exclusivity and a high vantage point are needed, as is a bouncer, a gate-keeper, otherwise, forget it. And if you need a bouncer at the gates of dawn, what kind of utopia is that? It may look a lot like 2012.

There was sequel made to check up on Today Malone and see what those hippies 'grew up' to be, it's called THE HIPPIE REVOLUTION, from 1996. Avoid it! Who wants to see a flower child get old? If you must witness such tragedy, check out my tale of time traveling psychedelic gumshoes and the desire to return to that high water mark when LSD almost changed the entire world overnight for the better -- HIPPY IN A HELLBASKET.

Not available on DVD but 'out there' if you know where to look--like everything, man, it streams, dig?--REVOLUTION is from a different time, one where the word "revolution" hadn't yet been co-opted by the media to sell its fall line-up and dance-dance video games. I bet now even the word 'revolution' is trademarked by The Beatles-Macintosh Inc. What can you do about it? Capitalism controls the very words out of our mouths. No way to fight it, that's what we say today, no way to stop the corporate leeches. They're already in our bloodstream. But the hippies didn't know that, and in 1967-8 they did something about it, until they got sleepy. And they forgot what they were supposed to be fighting against. And needed to go home and get money from their corporate dads so they could buy Dead tickets and red feather boas. This is their story


  1. Meditations and AA meetings... Twitter and Facebook... mediocre (at best) pop music... the sheer conformity of the internet (notice how so few "professional" film critics these days run contrary to one another -- and they all want to have sex with Terrence Malick)... you'd think a counterculture simply couldn't exist right now, but one does, at least between my ears for the better part of the day... yes, smoking weed on occasion, still finding pearls in the lyrics of Syd Barrett... not falling for the corporate bullshit... why, I had lunch with someone in their sixties this weekend who quoted freely from Abbie Hoffman... I feel your conundrum, Erich, and want to bang supermodels in Ibiza... endless thanks for noticing my review... working on the blog is today's equivalant of an underground paper, especially when The Higher Ups look down their noses at me... "Owsley was a saint!" yelled Max Julien in PSYCH-OUT, which I watched in the Living room... I'll give HIPPY IN A HELLBASKET a gander tomorrow after I light up a bone...

  2. Bless you brother Ray, and thanks. Puddle Town Tom was the Under
    ground. Have you seen Tree of Life? I almost want to just so I can truly Emperor No Clothes old Terrence Malick. Owsley WAS a saint, and Malick is a pretentious hack still trying to live up to the Badlands promise.