Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Great Acid Cinema: PSYCH-OUT

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. Your enjoyment will depend on age, drug experience vs. innocence ratio, and capacity to endure the kind of stoned "we're all one" philosophy that's so deep when you first hear it and say it, then is tiresome and then horrifyingly naive. Though my own experience in this kind of scene was in upstate NY in the late 80s, we played this kind of stuff as Mumblin' Jim, the band fronted by Jack Nicholson here, 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 if you swap it out his humbler-than-thou sanctimony for gleeful early-stage alcoholism), carrying STP-laced fruit punch around like its just another drink and arguing with the band's lead singer-guitarist, Stony (Jack Nicholson --that's so totally Dave), while simultaneously play-stealing his girl, Susan Strasberg (that was totally Beth, though we were just close friends). 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 clique (set and setting, baby)! 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 recently-opened sunshine people engaging in self-righteous communal idealism,, the psychedelic love bead and budding branch pull focus magic of Lazlo Kovacs through the shimmering beads and leaves making deaf mute tourist Susan Strasberg into a love child overnight, and we're contact high and beside her all the way. All we have to do is surrender our 21st century jaundice long enough (all those terrible long hair wigs) to let the dope do it's thing.

What I love most though is that after the wild magical love-connection night, the hallucinating weirdos and their Mirella Machu and Linday Gaye Scott flower children shaking their tambourines, 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!"--and the dream is over.

Lastly, the film is essential for truly nailing the psychedelic experience, which can be beautiful and creatively transformative the first time, and a skin-crawling nightmare the next (when you expect it to beautiful and transmformative it's often just tediously overwhelming)-- 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 but constantly bouncing back and forth between those two points. To me it sums itself up perfectly: the scene when a STP-addled Warren (Henry Jaglom) is found "freaking out in the gallery" and hallucinates all his friends are undead monsters with melting faces and wigs akimbo. 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. Jaglom's terrific at capturing that existential soul-shredding terror and his paranoia at the slowly advancing friends is made quite palpable even sober as a judge.

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, and to wear two wigs at the same time.

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 I would also imply is recovered from during STP-fueled breakthrough; 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. One wonders if it was in the original script--why else would that lengthy scene of the Seeker talking to Stony about in the gallery be there? But what we got, it's still pretty fucking great.

And no squares anywhere in the film, man, aside from Garry Marshall as a sweaty narc.

(PS 5/29/17): NOTES ON THE OLIVE BLU-RAY (with missing footage restored)

In the new footage we see the guitarist tripping his face off in his wife's lap, with eyes closed and open hallucinating gyrating naked women in body paint merging with psychedelic wallpapers. Of course in the age of FCP we could do this much better --it's sexist but it IS the kind of thing one hallucinates, EXCEPT it's always tied into the breath, as all the chakras are going full bore so instead of sexuality being like a locked basement where one is either repressed OR having sex, one has their sex drive enveloped and incorporated into their whole self (nothing is repressed - just trying to leads to a bad trip, man). I've written copiously about those behind the eye gyrating body hallucinations, usually coming while you're trying to sleep... calling you. Since all their optical effects had to be done kind of haphazardly in the pre-digital era - overlap some images and print it, etc. - it's understandable if this doesn't come out exactly right --the idea is there so that if you've experienced it you know what it's trying for. Like I say, sexist as it is, it's the truth about the average closed-eye hallucination of a healthy heterosexual male in his early 20s dosing his face off.

 Of course on the other hand... the older I get, the more they ALL start to seem like squares. This last viewing I had, the hippie commune house they lived in seemed like a nightmare. I would HATE to spend even a minute in there - to remember the filth of my own old bandmate hippy house in Syracuse, the last one, rather than the first, glorious one on 515 Allen St. The philosophical discussions that sound so profound when you're high and between the ages of 16-21; the contact high of tripping, playful, gorgeous people all celebrating their getting 'experienced' and stepping out of the plastic fantastic Madison Avenue 9-5 trip into an open, loving, communal sphere of pretty and smart people with good teeth. I'm glad I got to experience it, but going back would be like having to put on wet dirty clothes after finally getting dry out of the rain. Dave, who used to be my avatar in the scene (my band had a weird parallel reflection in this film) now seems insufferable. And good lord the music is bad, and the cast is soooo white, except for always welcome MACK, Max Julien as the drummer. Max, if you're reading this, Quentin Tarantino has been looking for you for years! You need to call your agent!


  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


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