Sunday, November 29, 2009

A surprisingly good Psych-Out from 1968

I recently saw a 1968 movie called Psych-Out about hippies in Haight-Ashbury called 1968, produced by Dick Clark. (Yes, the eternally young Dick Clark.) I think it's considered a bit of a "cult movie" and I expected it to be entertainingly hokey. But sometimes low expectations are an advantage. It's actually a pretty good film.

It stars Jack Nicholson as Stoney [groan], who has a psychedelic rock band called Mumblin' Jim that's trying to get a gig at the Fillmore, which is called the Ballroom in the flick. He meets a run-away named Jenny (Susan Strasberg) who's searching for her long-lost brother Steve (Bruce Dern) who she believes is in the Haight. Strasberg was 29 or 30 when the movie was made, though she has to look younger for the part. Since Jenny is described as a runaway, presumably she was no older than 17. Here's Jenny meeting her first flower child in San Francisco as she arrives in town on the bus:

I was a little surprised at how familiar the scenery looks. Although since I've lived in the Bay Area most of my life, I guess I shouldn't be. Shoot, I even go to the annual free bluegrass concerts that have happened in Golden Gate Park every October for the last few years. For that matter, I went to the Summer of Love 40th anniversary event in 1967 held in the same place that the bluegrass concerts take place.

Psych-Out has pretty much all of the stock features you might expect: tie-dyed clothes, hippie coffee houses, dope and more dope, paisley designs, beads and crystals, gurus and hippie-sympathizing ministers, stiff cops, group living, a psychedelic sex with Nicholson and Strasberg. And, of course, the bad trips. Pretty spectacularly bad trips, actually. And groovy music.

Stoney (Jack Nicholson) and Jenny (Susan Strasberg)

But what saves it from being hokey is that the writers evidently made some effort to understand the hippie culture as it was at the moment, and the actors play the parts in a serious way, so that it doesn't come across as either a moral instruction tale or as camp. And while it may still have the capacity to scandalize conservative cultural warriors - shoot, even Disney pablum can do that!- it's certainly not a propaganda film for the alternative hippie lifestyle, either. You do get a sense that the characters in the film are looking for more personal and collective freedom than they were finding in "straight" society. (Straight meant non-hippie at that time.) That there were looking for a life with more sense of living in the moment and a greater appreciation of joy in life.

But a character named Dave played by Dean Stockwell has the role in the movie of being a kind of devil's advocate to Stoney as well as a rival for Jenny's affections. At one point, Stoney is about to sneak off to sleep with a groupie but has to explain his absence to Jenny. Dave confronts him with the fact that he either has to stick with his "do your own thing" ethos or with his value of being honest and direct, but can't do both. Stoney winds up lying to Jenny about where he's going. But the scene is played as though this was a serious conversation between two people who were both committed to certain alternative ways of living. Dave doesn't come off as a simple hippie moralist, and Jack Nicholson's Stoney doesn't come off as a manipulative hypocrite.

The movie doesn't demonize the drug culture. But it also makes it clear that there are definite risks involved. Jenny has the mother of all bad trips with flames spurting out of the ground at her and so forth. She winds up right in the middle of Golden Gate Bridge at night in heavy traffic. You don't get the idea that it was a pleasant experience for her.

Another reason the movie doesn't come off as hokey is that it doesn't stick with stereotypes. In one scene, Stoney and two of his band members are helping Jenny search for her brother and they wind up in a junkyard surrounded by street punks. One of the hippie guys is in the middle of an LSD trip. The street punks assume that the hippies are gutless peace-and-love types and start getting aggressive with them. And then the hippies just beat the crap out of the punks. The guy tripping sits out the first part of the fight smiling and saying, "Peace, man!" But then he picks up a thick board and joins in the fight, thinking he's fighting a knight and a dragon. At the end of the fight when the punks are lying unconscious in the dirt, he hugs his club smiling and says, "It was beautiful." This is the funniest scene in the film to me just because it plays so deliberately against the stereotype.

Jenny, in line with the screen conventions of the time, had to cower in fear while the guys did the fighting. There were already some popular culture images like the TV shows The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers where women were allowed to kick butt themselves. But the age of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was still a ways off.

One of the first scenes is a reminder that long before Starbucks, the hippies had used coffeehouses as a social meeting place.

One of the special features on the DVD is a short about the making of the film, called "Love and Haight". [groan] It features the eternally young Dick Clark from several years ago, before his stroke, talking about making a film. In the process, he makes this comment, which is pretty psychedelic itself:

I've always been a square individual. I mean, I've attracted a very strange group of friends, from Hell's Angels to junkies and psychopaths and a lot of other people. For some reason or other, they're attracted to me, knowing that I'm not of them.
I'm still trying to get my head around the image of Dick Clark hanging out with the junkies and psychopaths.

The Web site of San Francisco's artsy-alternative Red Vic Theater quotes Michael Weldon from the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film calling Psych-Out the "(t)he best Haight-Ashbury drug film".

Someone has posted at least major parts of the movie on You Tube. No telling how long it will be there.

I got another period movie from NetFlix, Getting Straight (1970). I made it through about the first ten minutes and that was all I could take. The hokey stereotypes and the script were so nails-on-the-blackboard bad it was amazing. A real contrast to Psych-Out.

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