Eugene a kool place for ‘Magic Trip’ debut

Southern Willamette Valley residents, many of them bare-footed and tie-dyed, flocked to the McDonald Theater last Friday night to honor local legend and literary icon Ken Kesey.

Local pride and community brought together a mish-mash of Eugenians, Kesey-enthusiasts, proud Oregonians and casual fans for the Oregon premier of the film documentary “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search For a Kool Place.”

The film, directed by Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), explores the long-lost bus trip Kesey and the Merry Pranksters took in 1964 to visit the World’s Fair in New York City.

Gibney and editor Alison Ellwood unraveled miles of film that Kesey and friends had filmed during the bus trip. Kesey intentionally meant to turn it into a film of his own, but, as the movie indicates, the sound often didn’t match up, and after 40 years of trying to edit it, Kesey put it away.

Gibney and Ellwood did an amazing job of piecing together hundreds of hours of film and audio, resulting in a masterful documentary that doesn’t serve simply as a period piece or a biography of Kesey, but instead immortalizes a trip that in many ways defined an era.

Gibney, who attended the McDonald Theatre premiere, said: “What a delight it is to be here in Eugene. Ken Kesey’s town is a thrill beyond words.”

The film follows the Pranksters’ own accounts of their LSD-fueled trip on their brightly colored bus, from their start on the West Coast to the World’s Fair and back to Kesey’s farm in Oregon.

The Pranksters include some late-1950s and early-’60s icons, such as Kesey (otherwise known as Swashbuckler), Neal Cassady (the model for the character Dean Moriarty in “On the Road”), and novelist Robert Stone, as well others donning names like Stark Naked.

While the Merry Pranksters never could be typecast as either beatniks or hippies (or, as they stated, they “were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies), they defined the gap in between, the pre-hippie years when drug use, “free-loving” and words like “psychedelic” were beginning to surface.

Gibney interjected bits of history and historical references without overwhelming the story with facts or turning it into a period study. Gibney takes a subject like segregation in the south to highlight the cultural and social differences the Pranksters experienced along their trip, accidentally going to a “Colored only” swimming lake.

And in one particularly funny segment, Gibney animates a vocal recording of an LSD trip Kesey experienced during Stanford University’s LSD trials.

Gibney makes up for any lack of production value in the original film with colorful animation, period music and careful use of the archival film and audio.

At the end of the film, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters don’t end up having any sort of revelation or particular enlightenment. The trip itself was seemingly an anonymous event, and other than Ken Kesey’s Acid Test’s in the Bay Area, nothing really resulted from it.

But what Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and Gibney give us in “Magic Trip” is unique and rare insight into the people and events that helped shaped such an iconic era as the ’60s, and why, most importantly, nearly 50 years later, it still means so much to Eugene.

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