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Haight's Fate on Screen

Berkeley Barb Wire: In the '60s, free spirit Today Malone hawked alternative papers on the streets of San Francisco.

A revived 1968 documentary brings back the psychedelic past

By Richard von Busack

WATCHING The Hippie Revolution in an almost-empty movie theater was a thrill. I felt that I was recreating Chuck Heston's big scene from The Omega Man, where he sits in a theater bitterly watching Woodstock as the world goes to hell outside. Jack O'Connell's 1968 documentary-- newly revived and updated with some modern reminiscences--details the Summer of Love in 1967, without chronology or identification of the participants.

The accompanying music is by Steve Miller, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish. One distinctive part of psychedelic music, which I love sincerely, is the prevalence of apparently three-fingered keyboardists; in such a milieu, the Doors' Ray Manzarek was considered as facile as Glenn Gould.

The interviews mostly immobilize the film. Despite the hippies' laudable aims, they were not great conversationalists. The refusal to identify the talking heads may be a way of showing solidarity with the girl who says she thinks astrological signs might be more important than names. Nevertheless, one can pick out Frank Jordan, Cecil Williams and Herb Caen, who claims to have been smoking grass ever since he was a police reporter in Sacramento. The main interviewee, however, is typical dropout Louise Malone, nicknamed "Today."

Far more interesting than the interviews is the scene in which O'Connell's camera races around a roomful of trippers--and one dozing tabby--to sum up the fleeting moods of an LSD trip. The more conventional images of psychedelia show up as well: the treated film stock, the light shows and the naked girl bouncing through the daisies (the "Where's Waldo" of these hippie documentaries).

All the talk of a unified front and love power notwithstanding, it's obvious which way the interviewees are going to head. A Mime Troupe member forecasts, with his smugness, 30 more years of the group's self-righteousness. It is also easy to predict who's going to fall apart from too much brain candy, and who is, depending on your point of view, going to buy in or sell out. As a musician worries, "Are we going to turn them on, or are they going to turn us off?"

It was the latter, of course. The hippies' efforts may not have been lasting; they were fuzzy thinkers who produced little art that endured. Today, "Today" is a nice single mom with two kids, a house and a swimming pool in New Mexico. Other people, who didn't end the game with those prizes, have wondered aloud if it was all worth the effort.

Yet, to imagine an America in which the hippies didn't materialize is to imagine It's a Wonderful Life's Pottersville with more guns and police, a place in which the vision the hippies once supplied didn't counter the triumph of repression and conformity. O'Connell's documentary doesn't suggest this, but he had the presence of mind just to let the camera run and capture the endless parade down Haight Street in 1967. It is in these scenes that the pricelessness of The Hippie Revolution is revealed.

The Hippie Revolution (Unrated; 93 min.), a documentary by Jack O'Connell.

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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