Sunday, 9 August 2015



This documentary filmed and released in 1967 is a somewhat rambling but useful and sincere document of the times that were a-changing in San Francisco’s famous mecca of Haight-Ashbury. It’s valuable as an archive from the period rather than a rose-tinted retrospective, composed of great footage of the concerts and streets populated by the hippies at play and overlaid with voice-overs culled from the young and older disapproving authority figures alike.

One younger participant reflects honestly on the typical teenager who flocked to the district anxious to prove: “Now he is longer a neurotic juvenile. He’s a hippy. But you know what? He’s still a neurotic juvenile”. At the ‘height of Haight’ as it were, the area accommodated 200,000 people crammed into an area of only roughly ten blocks: ‘That’s about one person to every five or six feet. I think they have more space in China,’ he speculates.

We are shown concert footage of beaded, bandanna’d hippies grooving in the open, bathed indoors in the lava-lamp and Pink Floyd-esque psychedelic slide-shows of the time to the soundtrack of extended music by the Love Generation. We’re even treated to alluring body-painted cuties on display. It’s all here. There is even a sequence detailing their own charming American idea of Strawberry Fields (actually a Liverpool Salvation Army children’s home the Beatles’ John Lennon grew up near). To the hippies, it a peaceful country spot away from the city. “A gas” remarks one truth-seeker.

In hindsight, it’d be all too easy to simply mock the attitudes and expressions of the hippies as hopelessly na├»ve, and yet the overwhelming numbers who tried to understand and capture the counter-culture aspect is really quite moving. There has been no movement like it before or since to galvanise young people into an active, well-informed body willing to challenge their own perceptions and oppose the authorities’ traditional war-mongering and rules for rules’ sake. At one point during a concert, the camera picks out a slogan saying ‘LIKE FATHER. LIKE SON. LIKE HELL’.
The most oddly fascinating aspect of the film is the eavesdropping on hippy conversations in revealing, endearing and funny clips. “I was as a tree. I could be a tree”. The fuzzy attempts to explain a profound ‘trip’ and the unfathomable logic of late-night party conversations are relatable by anyone who remembers being young enough to clumsily articulate their new experiences. “The total absence of God and the total presence of God is really the same thing”.
“Do you wanna get rid of ego?”
“No, I just wanna transcend mine”.

After offering the Bible, Christ and Mohammed as inspirations to a troubled friend, one of the group admits: “I don’t know anything about them. I just know the feeling of ‘em”.
The reason they sound like Dennis Hopper or Woody Allen parody characters reciting bad dialogue is that this really is the received language the young used back then just to try to make sense of it all. “Just keep expanding your consciousness, man”. A young woman ends one stream-of-consciousness spiel about grooving with everyone with ‘What’s your birth sign?’ Actually, the Woody Allen comparison is even more apt later when she sounds exactly like Louise Lasser’s hilariously earnest but commitment-confused student in 1971’s BANANAS: “I can’t receive love as well. I can’t share…I put it in giving where it should be sharing”

There’s no arguing with the genuine engagement at the end though in scenes of political rally footage against the Vietnam war. Here, the clarity of passion is admirable. “Think of an alternative to killing” one young woman urges a soldier.
If only…

PSYCH-OUT (1968)

(89 minute 2003 DVD version)

In 1968, exploitation studio AIP released Richard Rush’s film PYSCH-OUT designed to catch the mood of counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury self-exploration. The previous year he made HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, another zeitgeist piece, (and would later make the brilliant THE STUNTMAN), and reunited with Jack Nicholson as his leading man to make a film examining the search for enlightenment through ‘better chemistry’ for the young people of the late ‘60s. It was also backed, improbable as it seems, by Dick Clark of ‘straight’ TV’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND. The original title was to have been THE LOVE CHILDREN which would certainly have been as aptly ‘60s a name as any other, but it changed to avoid misunderstandings that it dealt with illegitimacy.

PSYCH-OUT was issued on a double-bill DVD in 2003 alongside the other AIP drug movie THE TRIP, with which it shares the DNA in its LSD of psychedelic art, visuals and a worthy attempt to depict trip effects that means both films still, as far as I know, have never been shown on British TV.
(There is a 101-minute cut now available on Bluray but as I’m lead to believe it doesn’t make a substantial difference, I watched the 89 minute version)

Susan Strasberg plays a deaf girl, Jenny, who enters the hippie drug subculture looking for her brother Steve Davis, an artist. (Any resemblance to the snooker player will vaporise as soon as you see him) She is befriended by the pony-tailed Stoney (a prickly Nicholson) and his friends who agree to help her, whilst exploiting her charms a little as a conventional ‘chick’ for themselves.  The clothes, the feeling and the music are very much from the time as are the attitudes. Despite their radical ideas outside the mainstream, Stoney and his male pals still treat women as servile playthings which apparently was how it was even inside rebellious politicised organisations.

Before they head out on the search, Stoney’s friend Warren has to be helped down from his latest acid episode where he is flipping out in the kitchen. Under the influence, he imagines everyone as zombies and is horrified at the infection spreading to his own hand. In a move foreshadowing the drastic measures of Ash in THE EVIL DEAD, he makes to perform some mad impromptu surgery with an electric saw before they restrain him.

The only clue that Jenny has to her brother’s whereabouts is a cryptic message "Jess Saes: God is alive and well and living in a sugar cube" which leads them to a junk-yard tussle with some locals who disapprove of hippies.  She also discovers her brother goes under the name of the Seeker. When we do ultimately meet Steve, he’s an elusive wild-eyed Jesus freak played by Bruce Dern (who else? This is AIP).

Along the way, one of Stoney’s mates Dave (Dean Stockwell) puts the moves on her. Dave is a classic self-styled guru. He’s full of smug pronouncements on how to live outside the system: “One big plastic hassle” and poses as being free from the need for attachments, whilst not being quite detached enough to stop himself trying to get into her loon pants. Long-haired and head-banded, Stockwell convincingly captures the assumption of inner profundity whilst inspiring anyone to eschew passivism in favour of giving him a good kicking.

Jenny tries to go after Steve after Dave has foolishly invited her to try acid. She freaks out on the streets in pursuit of her brother, imagining running through apocalyptic fires in an effectively nightmarish sequence before being stranded in the middle of the Golden Gate bridge. Dave redeems himself by making the ultimate sacrifice to save her. In his touching final moments as he lies dying he muses: “Reality’s a deadly place. I hope this trip is a good one”. It’s a finely judged ending, showing the casualties of the counter-culture.

PSYCH-OUT is by no mean a great film, but it’s a significant movie of the period following the Summer Of Love, tackling the colossal infusion of new stimuli in a very uncertain period for the young – and winningly backed by the fabulous psychedelic songs of Strawberry Alarm Clock.

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