Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Psych-Out (1968)

Right after he wrapped up his biker classic "Hells Angels On Wheels", Richard Rush rushed to the streets of San Francisco to shoot another picture for AIP. This time he was to roll over Height Ashbury district withering counterculture and come up with "Psych-Out" – a cult hippiesploitation flick featuring restless bunch of actors, who at some point jumped onboard and have become AIP regulars due to Roger Corman's talent-spotting eye. It's here, where Rush finally broke through with his underground sensitivity and good nose for subtleties of the counterculture and youth revolution. He is fortunately in debt to the amazing creations he called up to the screen when cast all the best that AIP could have offered. Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern, Dean Stockwell and Max Julien were soon about to become respectable actors with few of these young guns making their way up to the top. We're not gonna exaggerate at all dubbing some of them New Hollywood trademarks. But here all these future stars were still spacing out for nickel'n'dime while being caught by the camera of great Laszlo Kovacs.

A movie was shot in San Francisco with a lot of scenes being filmed at the location, in Height Ashbury or in Golden Gate Park. Although by 1968 Summer Of Love vibe was already gone, the feeling of cosmic change coming has dried and revolutionary heat has given up to the rising depression, it was a perfect time for AIP to cash on hippie-related products, while media was still digesting countercultural agenda, stripping and washing it down for the palate of middle class America. This was a moment when the revolution has slowly, but irreversibly moved toward selling out and all psychedelic groups were suddenly signing to big recording companies like RCA, MGM, Columbia, Capitol or their small, alternative subsidiaries and only few hard liners stayed unaffected. In fact a lot of old hipsters and activists started moving out of Height Ashbury going up the country – mostly to Northern California, where they soon laid a foundation for the biggest, illegal industry in United States – the cannabis growing business! This wave made easier for AIP to pull two classy acts into the movie, a young psychedelic rock group, The Strawberry Alarm Clock and successful garage rock band, The Seeds, thus we watch them both performing on the screen.

Jack Nicholson plays Stoney, a leader and a guitarist of aspiring Height Ashbury garage/psych band – Mumblin' Jim. Kicking back with his buddies (played by Adam Roarke and Max Julien) in a local cafe he accidentally bumps on a deaf girl, Jenny (Susan Strasberg) – a runaway searched by police. While lads provoke a brawl to help her slide off the eyes of the cops, Stoney won't let his one night stand opportunity slip away again when they meet her on the street going around with gig posters. Jenny is a girl with rules though and the most important thing for her is to find the older brother – Steve (Bruce Dern), who's just sent her a postcard with LSD inspired message ("God is well and alive in a sugar cube"). Mumblin' Jim guys will help her out by bringing to the free shop, so she can shake off the remnants of a square life, introducing her to the communal living and the psychedelic scene. Luckily, they'll trace her brother's pad eventually through the acid guru named Dave (Dean Stockwell), who lives in a compact box on the top of the roof, but is apparently into girl's charms. As they find out pretty soon, her brother's nickname is The Seeker and he occurs to be a local mystic, experimental sculptor and a drug burnout... to accomplish the mission they'll need to rumble around with God-loving Americans, meditate on their hang-outs and get through the psychedelic jungle of multiple inner truths.

"Psych-Out" has a general quirky stream dragging on scene after scene and it does follow a simple script saving it from too many loop-holes. Runaway girl, a band rising to local fame, crazy brother hiding around the corner – it all makes sens solely if actors know their lines verbatim, creations are believable and director knows what he's doing. The movie is sort of exploitation with an insight as it borrows from both worlds of cinema – a cheap, slanderous, pass the buck land of cashing on any emerging underground phenomenon there is and emotionally rich, smart driven slope of auteur cinema. Besides top directing by Rush, the movie is soaked in brilliant, electrifying examples of B-movie acting. It's hard to point at a winner here. Dean Stockwell as Dave – an enlightened recluse and acid guru, who doesn't lose any opportunity to clue Stoney in on his square hang-outs and materialistic doings, but still will keep his affinity for the girls... or Jack Nicholson as Stoney himself – a low-down musician with a big heart, driven by his street smarts and psychedelic hip, but boling with rage... or maybe Bruce Dern as The Seeker (Steve) – a down and out acid burnout, usually running around tripping his brain out or ranting insanely in the Golden Gate Park about the need of making love not war. Who knows, man?

Since it's release "Psych-Out" has joined a cult circuit gaining worldwide recognition. There are certain reasons for that as the movie is a hectic romp from beginning till the last cut. It offers some unique, psychedelic camera work by Laszlo Kovacs with his famous lens flare, vision blurring and brilliant close-ups, which kind of invoke the Height Ashbury experience. One of many movies, he definitely lifted up with his original style of photography. This is also fantastic opportunity to check the mentioned cream of a talented breed, who's been wading through AIP many low-budget productions to eventually hit the spot in the late 60's and 70's with classic auteur movies like "Easy Rider", "King Of Marvin Gardens", "The Last Movie", "Coming Home" and many others. Moreover, you get to see Jack Nicholson with a pony tail, playing cover of "Purple Haze", sharing the stage with loud rockin' bands such as The Seeds and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, bashing out their psych/garage hits – both outstanding examples of West Coast late 60's sound, they left some far out albums like "Incense and Peppermints" (1968) and "Web Of Sound" (1966). Undoubtedly a valuable proposition for rabid AIP, Richard Rush or Jack Nicholson followers!

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