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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Peace Out (originally published 8/95)

I love the Sixties. I know that Sixties-bashing is trendy in certain circles these days, and I recognize that the decade of the flower children was the occasion for lots of ill-advised excesses, but I still look back on it with fondness. From where I sit in the frosty, uncaring Nineties, excesses in the name of peace and love sound pretty good in contrast to the excesses in the name of greed and self-interest that we've all become accustomed to.

Even so, in cynical moments I've been known to remark ruefully that the only thing from the Sixties that seems to have survived is widespread recreational drug use. In fact, though, a lot of extraordinary music has also survived. We lost Janis along the way, and Jimi, and a few others we couldn't spare, but at least Jerry Garcia hung in there with us for a while to become an elder statesman of the counterculture. Now that Jerry is also gone, we'll have to work a little harder to hold on to the positive elements of the counterculture. We've still got the recorded music, of course, but I thought I would also suggest a few Sixties film titles to help keep the spirit alive. Each is available on home video.

"Alice's Restaurant" (1970). The inspiration for this film was the hilarious recording in which Arlo Guthrie recounts his arrest for littering in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day and how it kept him out of the draft. From this fertile kernel, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Venabel Herndon created a sympathetic, but by no means uncritical, portrait of life in a hippie commune. Arlo appears as himself.

"The Strawberry Statement" (1970). For a look at Hollywood's take on campus radicals, try this adaptation of James Kunen's "The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary." Bruce Davison plays a politically mainstream student who becomes radicalized by his university's arrogant power play to deprive underprivileged children of a playground. The musical backgrounds are rich with the sounds of the times, including songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

"The Trip" (1967). With this low-budget film, we begin to see the work of a struggling young actor/screenwriter whose presence runs through the Sixties counterculture movies like a recurring theme in a symphony. His script for "The Trip" reflects the counterculture's hope that LSD would liberate the mind and enhance the spirit. As originally written, the script was apparently intended to be in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception," but the production company ultimately dumbed it down significantly. Peter Fonda plays a TV commercial director who becomes fed up with the shallowness of his life and turns to chemical stimulation in his search for meaning. The screenwriter, by the way, was Jack Nicholson.

"Psych-Out" (1968). Director Richard Rush's look at the youth culture of Haight-Ashbury was also based on a Jack Nicholson script, but it was so heavily rewritten that Nicholson received no credit. He did, however, star in the picture as (are you ready for this?) the leader of a psychedelic rock band, complete with ponytail.

"Head" (1968). By the time the Monkees got around to doing a movie to capitalize on their TV success, their show was already fading from the scene, and the youth culture had evolved into something that they would never have been allowed to deal with on the tube. Rather than beat a dead horse, they made the gutsy decision to exploit their own outdated image by making fun of it in the context of psychedelic imagery. Once again, Nicholson wrote the script, along with director Bob Rafelson.

"Easy Rider" (1969). Finally, we can't forget Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's saga of two counterculture motorcyclists making their way down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The phenomenal success of this shoestring production woke the film industry up to the potential of young filmmakers to tap into the vast youth market. And who was it who played the most interesting character role in "Easy Rider," thereby cementing his future as a major movie star rather than in the less lucrative position of screenwriter? Jack Nicholson, of course.

So take heart, Deadheads. Garcia may be gone, but vestiges of the Sixties remain. Even in a Hollywood establishment figure like Jack Nicholson there beats the heart of a former radical.

Peace, brother.

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