I can’t think of a better event to kickoff BendFilm’s 11 years celebrating Independent Film than to host a special screening of Alex Gibney’s “Magic Trip” at McMennamin’s on June 17, 2014.
The date marks the 50th anniversary of when Ken Kesey, Neal Cassidy and the Merry Pranksters took off on a cross-country road trip in a DayGlo bus. Though the original “Furthur” bus sits in a barn awaiting an infusion of restoration cash, its successor will be in Bend on June 17th for the event — as will Zane Kesey, Cassady stand-in, Derek Stevens, and a host of Pranksters who are celebrating the anniversary by taking a trip of their own across the country this summer.
The bus will be parked outside of McMenamins during the 5:45pm screening and a Q&A with Zane and crew will follow. The bus will head to the Century Center for a party and music hosted by the Volcanic Theater. We are honored and thrilled to celebrate a truly landmark event in 20th century pop culture.
Personally, this event means a lot. I can trace a direct line from Ken Kesey to my position as Director of BendFilm. In April 1999, I was six weeks from graduating with a Masters in Environmental Science and Engineering in Champaign, IL. My buddy approached me one day and said he was auditioning for a part in a student production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I immediately decided to join him, despite the fact that I never acted, my thesis was in disarray and finals were around the corner. I always loved Cuckoo’s Nest, seeing the film and reading the book several times each. I was at the tail end of my Deadhead days and, though perhaps a little worn out on shoddy Dead bootlegs, I remained well-connected to their music and spirit. And…of course during that time, I was enthralled with Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of Kesey. Auditioning was one of the best decisions I made. I was cast — you could say against type — as “Cheswick” and had a ball bringing that guy to life.
Kesey complained that the Cuckoo’s Nest film adaptation removed the machinery theme from the text. And though I love the film, I agree the adaptation’s omission misses quite a bit. The “machinery” imagery takes center stage in the play. Chief introduces each Act with a monologue taken directly from Kesey’s original text describing in vivid detail the maniacal gears that turn the world. The guy who played our Chief was cast mostly because he was tall and Indian — though of the South Asian persuasion. He struggled a bit with the performance as he learned how to act. We spent most of the time working with his character since the play absolutely hinges on it, perhaps moreso than even McMurphy. But there was a huge benefit in hearing those monologues over and over again for 6 weeks straight. You can’t miss Kesey’s message. Mainstream 1950’s America was so mechanical, so separated from the land and, despite the cliché, artificial. As McMurphy goaded his fellow wards to be fearlessly authentic, Kesey did the same to us. “Don’t worry about a shiny new car, a house in the burbs, or, shit, even nuclear holocaust. Whatever they want to do, they’ll do, but don’t just sit around and let them and, moreso, don’t be complicit in this nonsense by buying into the false narrative of the American Dream they are selling. The American Dream is out on Kerouac’s Road! Get out there and live!” And that he did…in a bus with a bunch of maniacs to shake America out of its hopeless complacency.
And his message is more relevant today than it was in the early 1960’s. We have all the new gadgets we could have ever hoped for. They do amazing things to simplify our lives, but we all have to ask ourselves if these machines and our pursuit of them are guiding us? How much freedom do we surrender as we consume them without question or care? And everyone in Oregon will ask, “How do these things keep us separated from all the beauty that awaits us outside?”
Kesey also foresaw that film would be the most dominant artistic medium of our time. Instead of documenting the trip as a writer might be inclined, he bought 16 mm cameras and filmed the entire thing. Nowadays a third-rate indie band can’t go on a tri-state tour without someone making a documentary about it, but in 1964 Verite documentary was in its infancy. Kesey’s astute reason to film was that “Shakespeare — if writing today —wouldn’t be doing it with a quill.” An artist must use the medium of the time to get the message across. And as good a job as Tom Wolfe does in painting the portrait of the ’64 trip, only color film could do it justice. As it’s been told, “Kesey captured the moment when America went from black and white to Technicolor.”
To me, a solidly Midwestern kid, Kesey was a type of artist I immediately latched onto. He was tough, funny, daring, authentic and most important of all, unpretentious. As Nelson Algren and Mike Royko were Chicago to me, Kesey was Oregon — a lumberjack working with a pen instead of an axe. He was as Wolfe put it in Acid Test, the “non-navigator.” He was the firm hand simply guiding us away from our existential fears and letting us loose to do whatever moved us — and to have a ball doing it. He was an artist that pushed boundaries, yet stayed firmly grounded in beloved archetypal Americana as a family man and a farmer. He is the perfect hero to me as someone leaving college to enter the “real world.”
After we wrapped the play and I graduated, I decided to pursue acting when I returned to Chicago. Though I worked a management job with a construction company, at nights I took classes at Improv Olympic (iO) and then started teaching myself how to make films when my buddy handed me one of the earliest miniDV camera models in existence. He “acquired it” through not entirely legal means in Portland. Little by little, I chipped away at my chosen artform, often thwarted by the false fears of financial destitution and living a non-traditional, Midwestern professional life. After wrestling with these questions for a bit, I was able to quit my construction gig and work fulltime as a film and videomaker. I did this for five or so years, making films that echoed the themes I heard from Kesey — security versus freedom and ego versus authenticity. I married a Northwest native and together we planned to make it out to Oregon hell or high water. After having two kids, we finally got the opportunity when I was hired by BendFilm.
And here I am, fifteen years to the month after my Cuckoo’s Nest detour. Perhaps I would have landed in Oregon working as an Environmental Scientist, but no way would I have been working for this great organization nor would I have been making films if not for my brush with Kesey. I’m still very far from the man Kesey would like to see all of us be, but damnit if I’m not trying and doing my best to go further than the stream carries me on my own. Having said “yes” to this job, my family and I also said “yes” to a type of freedom we would not have otherwise experienced. We followed the Oregon Trail as so many have done before and landed in a place that welcomes all travelers with open arms and invites the world to come and experience authentic beauty, life and freedom — though, being Oregon, it makes you leave all pretention at the door. And “What a long strange trip it’s been”.
That is my Kesey story. Each of us has one and I’d love to hear yours on June 17th. So, on behalf of BendFilm and all those seeking a life that goes Furthur, we welcome Zane Kesey, the Pranksters and the bus to town and wish them well on their landmark trip. We can’t wait to screen the new footage when you get back!
By Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood
June 17, 2014, 5:45pm
Q&A with Zane Kesey et al after screening
The bus will be at McMennamins for screening
McMennamins Old St. Francis School
Reception and Live Music:
Mark Ransom and the Mostest
Volcanic Theater, 9:00pm
Bus will be at the Century Center at 9pm