music friday: joni mitchell, “night ride home”
what i watched last week

magic trip (alex gibney and alison ellwood, 2011)

Magic Trip seems like the Holy Grail to us old-timers who recall the days of the Merry Pranksters. It’s a documentary about the famous bus trip the Pranksters took across the country in 1964. Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood had access to the dozens of hours of film and audio the Pranksters produced on that trip, and they’ve done quite a restoration job, all things considered. This is likely the best we’ll ever get of the Prankster bus movie, and if that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it that way.

Somewhere around here I have a VHS tape of an earlier version of the bus movie, made long before Gibney entered the picture. It’s haphazard and barely edited, but I couldn’t resist the chance to see the footage, no matter how jumbled it was. In fact, I thought that might be the appropriate way to experience it. But Gibney and Ellwood have come up with an actual movie. They’ve combined footage and audio from the past (that in itself was a major job, as the Pranksters never synced the sound and film), and used constant voiceovers. The voiceovers are interesting in that Gibney did not hunt down all of the living Pranksters to interview them, but instead used the old audio, and other interview material from the past, to help the viewer understand what is going on.

I don’t think this movie succeeds at presenting an all-inclusive history of the Pranksters, although perhaps that’s too much to ask. It’s another piece of the puzzle. It is also fascinating for those who have read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to see the actual people and events from that book (one thing that makes sense in retrospect, but that I had never thought of before, is that the Pranksters were all very good-looking people).

And then there is Neal Cassady. I have a son named Neal … he loves his name, I believe, and he was never named after anyone. Our son IS the real Neal. But there’s no question the name came to my mind because of Cassady. A few years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Cassady’s death, I wrote a long email to his wife, Carolyn, which read, in part:

The Neal I named my son after was a myth, of course ... I never knew him personally. And over time, reading your words among others, I came to realize that as with all myths embodied by real humans, the myth isn't the whole story, or even the main story. … [A]s I think back on your Neal today, and remember that he was a mythological character to us but a husband and father to you ... I know that the ongoing inspiration comes not only from the myths of the past, but also from the people who live in the here and now. As we continue on our life's path, we draw inspiration from many sources, the myths and the people behind the myths. Thank you for allowing your life to be a part of our myth. Thank you for showing us the life behind the myth.

She very kindly replied to my email … she didn’t know me, I had a tenuous connection to Barry Gifford, who had worked with her in the past, but mostly it was just me responding to an email address on a web site. It is clear, from reading what she and her and Neal’s children have written, that they wish people knew more about the person they lived with, not Dean Moriarty, not the guy who drove The Bus, but the father and husband who worked for the railroad. I suspect it’s the Prankster Cassady Myth that is most bothersome, although a large part of that myth grew out of the myth of Dean Moriarty.

Anyway, Cassady shows up all over Magic Trip, which makes sense since he drove the bus on the California-to-New York leg. As you watch him (and listen to him), and listen to the voiceovers, you get the feeling that Neal Cassady was a remarkable man who at that point in his life was taking too much speed, and trying too hard to live up to Dean Moriarty. At one point, someone (I think it’s Kesey) says Neal performed as requested, no matter what people asked, he tried to fulfill their dream, and so people kept asking for more and he kept giving more.

What I’m trying to say is that the Cassady of Wolfe’s book is an enjoyably wild eccentric, but the Cassady of Magic Trip is somehow a sadder figure.

You can see how obsessed I am with this material. I couldn’t even wait for Monday’s weekly “What I Watched Last Week” post to write about it. Hell, I couldn’t wait for the film to show up in theaters … I paid $10 to watch it On Demand the day it was released in that form. My obsessions don't make Magic Trip a good movie, but again, it is the best we could hope for.



I just want to thank you for sharing part of your letter to Carolyn. It is a beautifully expressed thank you, not just to Carolyn and Neal, but all mythological figures who also are real human beings.

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