Retro-View ’68: Psych-Out

To celebrate the Summer Solstice of Movie Days Past, now we get our heads straight and taste the colors of madness. You dig this trip? Outta sight. PSYCH-OUT was released in March of 1968 by American International Pictures, produced by teen maven Dick Clark, and based on a screenplay by Jack Nicholson called THE LOVE CHILDREN, to be directed by rising maverick Richard Rush. The duo’s previous motorcycle film from 1967, HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, grossed millions so they were brought in to give the hippie exploitation film counter-culture verisimilitude — and do it in 18 days with a 200 grand budget. AIP old school owner Samuel Z. Arkoff and others thought THE LOVE CHILDREN was a story about bastards, so like the carny barker at heart he was, Arkoff combined LSD with Hitchcock and came up with PSYCH-OUT. Another set of writers, E. Hunter Willett and Betty Ulius were brought in to revise Nicholson’s lengthy experimental script to a more linear AIP narrative, namely that of Jenny (Susan Strasberg), a 17 year old deaf girl searching for her artist brother in the paisley streets of San Francisco circa Summer of Love ’67.

I first saw PSYCH-OUT on VHS when I was working at Broadway Video in Long Beach way back in 1992 (I was the token straight employee of the gay owned/operated movie rental place, but that’s a whole other amazing post). I was immediately mesmerized with the credits (see it here), a musical journey through the heart of the Haight at the very peak of its cultural power. Buoyed by the pretty theme song, apropos named, “The Pretty Song from Psych-Out” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Jenny watches this new kaleidoscopic world through her bus window. As photographed by Lazlo Kovacs’ liberated camera, Strasberg’s face radiates a child-like glee at the colorful denizens of Hippie Land and it was a wise narrative move to let her be our surrogate. Her innocence is reflected by the atmospheric music and flower people of Golden Gate Park. The location footage also provides a perfect time-capsule glimpse at the apex of the legendary love summer. I consider this whole opening section a minor film in itself; even possibly my favorite credit scene of the 60’s.

Pursued by cops, Jenny stumbles into a Haight street coffee shop and is saved from The Man by one Stoney, played by Jack Nicholson in a role written for himself. Jenny finds herself drawn into the pot, bead and incense mindscape of Stoney and his band, Mumblin’ Jim (who I like to imagine had a single song that made it to number 27 on the charts: “One Big Plastic Hassle”). She’s been following the clues left behind by her brother, known only as “The Seeker” by the local heads and rednecks. The other band mates, played by AIP stalwart Adam Roarke and THE MACK star Max Julian, are joined by future director Henry Jaglom as a poster artist with the most outrageous mutton chops I’ve ever seen. Rush stages their cafe conversation in a loose, casual fashion, and there’s more verite here than almost all the exploitive hippie films of the decade. They seem like actual drop-out artists basking in coffee shop lassitude. And since the filmmakers were indeed on the fringe of the industry, their self-absorbed exuberance is palatable. I also love Roarke’s rejoinder to a friend’s too obvious pot smoking in the cafe: “Man, you are totally uncool.”

Of course, what’s probably most cool about PSYCH-OUT is Jack Nicholson, in a role very much like his famous outsiders. As this was his last film before EASY RIDER would make him a star, I find this a unique, terrific performance, his method style and libertine philosophy percolating under the dewy guise of a counter-culture musician. Nicholson nails all of his dialogue, managing to rise above the exploitation elements of the film. What’s particularly interesting is that Stoney is not an idealized peace and love archetype of the era. He’s tough, cynical and pragmatic; when his band mate accuses him of seeing only dollar signs, Stoney flashes that famous Nicholson devil grin and says, “Oh, the old bad thing, the root of all evil, right?” His character wants fame and fortune, not to mention a stable of liberated partners. He’s honest about his desires, less concerned with the socio-political implications of the period. And he has a pony-tail.

Credit is also overdue to Susan Strasberg in one of her few starring roles. It’s a shame that she was overshadowed not only by her famous father, Lee Strasberg, but by Marilyn Monroe, who seemed to have a stronger thespic relationship with him. Strasberg deserved better than what she was given, but she’s very appealing in PSYCH-OUT and easily matches Method with Nicholson. It’s also nice that in a movie decade not revered for its portrayals of female empowerment (Pussy Galore doesn’t quite count), that Strasberg stands out as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. She emanates a joy of discovery, sexual and cultural, and the film is always on her side.

Along her journey, Jenny ends up falling in love with Stoney, of course. But his open warmth is replaced by cold indifference after he beds her in a love scene equivalent of a 60’s blacklight poster, their nude bodies covered by swirling psychedelic colors, soundtracked by that “Pretty Theme From Psych-Out.” Stoney’s friend, Dave (Dean Stockwell) the resident guru of the group, acts as his conscience, throwing out pithy koans like a hippie Pez dispenser. Stockwell’s yin to Nicholson’s yang are fun to watch together. Their banter about art versus commerce, love versus lust, reality versus illusion are the verbal high points of the movie. There is a lot of wit here, even in the expert photography of Laslo Kovacs (singled out as the only good thing in the film by the New York Times review). My favorite moment is a long, single-take tracking shot of Stoney and his band jamming a nifty organ tune as the searching camera goes from hippie to hippie, each doing his or her own thing, capturing the boredom and malaise of the love children.

Jenny finds herself disgusted by the stoned lethargy of the household and Stoney’s indifference. She finds little comfort with Dave, The Love Guru, who himself is painted as a hypocrite. The sexism of the day is still manifest, especially when Stoney shows up and gives her an ugly harangue, even though he’s the one who blew her off. Angered, she ends up taking the dangerous speed/acid drug, STP, offered by Dave, just as Stoney finds her brother Steve, played by Bruce Dern (in a wild, stringy mane wig). I like it when Dern is babbling about his fiery visions, and Nicholson cuts him off with, “You’re a little high.” But Dern gets a good scene to himself as he tells Stoney exactly how Jenny became deaf.

One of the tropes of the hippie film was the inevitable psychedelic freak-out, with the best of the decade belonging to Peter Fonda’s movie-length THE TRIP (1967), followed by Jackie Gleason’s 8 minute acid fest in my beloved SKIDOO and then the Mardi Gras hallucinogenic bad trip of EASY RIDER (1969). There are three trip sequences in PSYCH-OUT: the first with Max Julian seeing himself as a knight while he beats the shit out of some junkyard rednecks. The second is Henry Jaglom having scary visions hopped up on LSD. “I’m the guy who psych-outs!” he told me when I talked to him about his role as Warren. It’s hilarious when Warren says all he has to do is snap his fingers and he can come out of it…then he snaps his fingers and without a beat says, “It’s not working this time.”

Finally, Strasberg has an epic trip, effectively portrayed as a living hell, culminating with her body falling, tumbling through golden flames in a striking image. That the film ends on a bummer note is typical of the era, with the promise of Dionysus reduced to the threat of Hades. Just like THE TRIP was altered by AIP to make it seem that Fonda’s experience destroyed him (by adding cracks to the final image!), here we leave our flower children tangled in thorny vines with a tiny hope of redemption for Jenny. Or as Stoney says to Dave, “The acid has curdled and made you sour.”

Despite the cultural baggage, PSYCH-OUT is actually flat-out enjoyable, moreso than you might think. If you want to be limited in your thinking, you can watch the movie to laugh at the dirty hippies. Or you can find pleasure in a team of young artists working on a budget to create a work of period artfulness that would reflect their later work. There’s also a terrific score by Ronald Stein with memorable songs by The Strawberry Alarm Clock (who I got to sign my LP soundtrack at the Mods & Rockers Film fest) and The Seeds. Anybody interested in sixties cinema can find pleasure here. When I praised PSYCH-OUT to Jaglom, he said, “But it’s still an exploitation film.” I said, “But one more honest and adventurous than the others.” And I think it is. The movie also shows the roots of the discord and violence that would reflect the less loving year of 1968.

Richard Rush signs my Psych-Out LP - Photo: Matt Rabin

I’m also big fan of iconoclast director Richard Rush, who claims to have invented the rack-focus shot, one that alternates between the foreground figure and the background figure, except he calls it “critical focus” and it’s in ample use here. Along with Kovacs’ atmospheric lighting, Rush has a gift for framing. Sometimes he goes for obvious points, like a group of hippies outside a church who just happen to look like Jesus and his disciples, but I like the attempt to make visual metaphors into social critique. He was sympathetic, but not slavish, to the youth movement.

Oddly, when PSYCH-OUT was finally released with THE TRIP on DVD under MGM’s fantastic Midnite Movie series, almost 8 minutes of footage was shorn, possibly as it might have been a better print (in fact, I saw this shorter version at the late, great University Theater in Berkeley). The cuts are unfortunate, because they’re all interesting bits of business including a whole dressing room montage and an extended version of the lovely “Beads of Innocence” scene. The coveted DVD is out of print now, so hopefully MGM will find the longer version for re-release. But purists can track down the VHS from HBO Video for the uncut version.

PSYCH-OUT is an important pop movie foot-note since it was the last exploitation film of the 1960’s for many of the principals. It’s almost a cinematic graduation. Along with Nicholson on the cusp of stardom, co-stars Bruce Dern and Jaglom were about to embark on their next career phase. Richard Rush would direct the hit student-protest film, GETTING STRAIGHT (1970) for Columbia, and Nicholson, Jaglom and Kovacs would all be part of the creative team for the groundbreaking EASY RIDER. If anything, PSYCH-OUT is the missing link between AIP’s exploitation drug/motorcycle genre and the coming 70’s storm of the New Hollywood. Next to SKIDOO and EASY RIDER, it’s my favorite counter-culture film of the decade.

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9 Responses to “Retro-View ’68: Psych-Out”

  1. halmasonberg Says:

    Nice, Christian. Makes me want to watch it again right now.

    And take acid.

  2. christian Says:

    I’ll be over in a flash with the stash. Two cubes or one?

  3. Great stuff here Christian. A talent you have is an ability to write like a fan and a critic, or, a fan with a bit of common sense.

  4. christian Says:

    Thanks Chuck. I do love this film. Would like to know your thoughts on it.

  5. This is a tremendous examination of Psych-Out, Christian. Rush was quite a directorial powerhouse in his own right, for many of the reasons you point to here. The passion you have for the film comes through loud and clear. Great review!

  6. Christian Says:

    Thanks for reading — I’m glad you found the film as rewarding in your piece.

  7. […] and his girlfriend (Candice Bergen). Rush got his first studio gig because Variety praised PSYCH-OUT for its autuerist […]

  8. […] Theme Song From Psych-Out” from the third best counter-culture film of the decade, PSYCH-OUT (1968). I’m a fan of their first two LP’s, and their sunny psychedelia was one of the […]

  9. George Cox Says:

    The majority of the songs for this film were performed by the Storybook. Just check out the soundtrack album to verify this. I was the lead singer in this group.

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