Psych-Out (Blu-ray)(Olive Films, 2.17.2015)
If ever a great American filmmaker missed his moment, it’s Richard Rush. While he managed to direct several terrific films (Psych-Out, Getting Straight, The Stunt Man), his timing always seemed slightly off. In the case of Psych-Out, he anticipated the psychedelic techniques and family baggage flashbacks of Midnight Cowboy, as well as the hippy attitudes of Easy Rider before they reached the mainstream. However, there’s a good reason Rush never achieved the cultural penetration of those landmark works. Rather than combine his techniques with grounded, universal dramatic ideas, Rush preferred to pursue broader extremes, both comic and surreal. Psych-Out isn’t a triumph of real world storytelling, but it’s one of the most intricate and uncompromising movies ever made about the psychedelic ’60s.
Thanks to the involvement of American International, Psych-Out is often misunderstood as an exploitation film. While producer Dick Clark does seem determined to cash-in on (and occasionally critique) the hippy movement, Rush and his talented screenwriters (Betty Ulius, E. Hunter Willett) offer something more substantial. Revolving around a deaf runaway (Susan Strasberg) and her relationship with a rising psych rock band (featuring a 30-year-old Jack Nicholson, shamelessly ripping off Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”), the film is more concerned with observations of character and culture than narrative.
Rather than emphasize generic hippy-isms, Rush allows his characters to articulate a real worldview, one that rejects judgment and prioritizes acceptance. Memorable moments abound (they bring donuts to a guru, Strasberg cries as the hippies betray their values and mock her, a misunderstood sexual advance turns out to be intended for a bed’s third occupant), as do cerebral motifs. Attention is repeatedly drawn to Strasberg’s alienated disposition, as encapsulated in her inability to hear Nicholson’s band. In spite of these moments of insight, this is anything but an intellectual exercise. Visceral thrills and emotional engagement are present throughout, particularly in a subjectively rendered bad trip and a funeral that turns into a dreamy, surreal dance party featuring The Seeds.
While Olive’s new Blu-ray of Psych-Out is missing the featurette from the DVD (a disc the film shares with the equally worthwhile The Trip), this new HD transfer offers a significant upgrade, one that makes a world of difference in this densely visual experience. Whether you’re partial to incense or peppermints, you haven’t experienced psychedelic cinema until you’ve experienced Psych-Out. -- Jonathan Doyle