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Saturday, 8 November 2008

Psych-Out (1968)

This sort of thing is just irresistible on every level. It's an American International Pictures release from 1968 that's aimed squarely at the counter-culture market, full of hippies, druggies, musicians, poets, astrologers and Jack Nicholson. The flowers, colours and psychedelia go without saying. It was filmed in San Francisco where I'm guessing that the city provided the sets and the background cast, presumably without Dick Clark's production company having to pony up too much cash. To provide musical accompaniment are the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Seeds, plus whoever did the real playing behind the fictional band Mumblin' Jim whose characters make up most of the major cast.

There's some vague plot. Susan Strasberg plays a deaf runaway called Jenny who is trying to find her brother. He's sent her a postcard so she knows he's in San Francisco, but it takes some time to discover that his message, 'Jeus Saes God is Alive in a Sugar Cube', is really his address. He's known as The Seeker, and is apparently pretty well known in the city but rather difficult to find. He eventually turns up in the form of a wild Rasputin-like Bruce Dern. Assisting her on a search in at least a vague way are the various members of Mumblin' Jim: Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke, Max Julien and Henry Jaglom as Stoney, Ben, Elwood and Warren.

The film as a whole is pure exploitation, not least the astounding fight in the junkyard where a few flower children beat up a bunch of jocks - while one of them is tripping, no less. However there's some real value here in a few scenes that get inside the times, whether they really intended to or not. Jenny first meets Mumblin' Jim in a coffee shop, there are cops looking for her and they help her to escape them by starting a fight. The key is that they know that the moment the cops start hauling them off, everyone else in the pace makes that impossible by showering them with flowers, beads and cries for peace and love.

There's an awesome scene in which Warren has a bad acid trip at a gallery while surrounded by power tools and sees everyone including himself as zombies. The trail to the Seeker takes them to Dave, played by Dean Stockwell, who lives in an apartment that's more like a hole: to get to him they have to climb up onto the roof and then down some sort of air conditioning duct to get to him. These odd little things are far better than the more overt flower power ones and that's not uncommon for this film. It feels like the material that was focused on isn't worth that much and the material that wasn't is.

Strasberg is excellent as the character the film revolves around and the young Nicholson is as fascinating as always as the character that drives most of the story. Dern hardly appears and while he's memorable, I'm not sure if that's in a good way. Stockwell is solid, though his character is hardly explored and is simply used in the ending, which seems to come without invitation and leaves us with a whole host of questions. Maybe that's the point but it doesn't feel right. It suggests that the filmmakers were trying to tell us something but kept forgetting what it was, so that any actual message can be backed up and refuted by material in the same film. Then again, maybe that's the point...

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