Graeme Blundell revisits the death of the hippie dream in San Francisco
December 15, 2007
EVERYONE who lived through the 1960s has some overreaching
generalisation to describe the experience, the rhetoric shot through
with inconsistencies, but always with a dramatic touchstone for
nostalgia and regret. This is certainly true of those bare-chested
flower children who 40 years ago made love so famously in
patchouli-scented crash pads in San Francisco,generously sharing
their food, money andpartners.
Though as SBS's telling documentary Summer of Love reveals, they did
it so energetically, and in such numbers, that they threatened the
much-ballyhooed Utopian dream itself.
Summer of Love is an elegant documentary about 1967, the era's
central year, when San Francisco became the holy land for hippies;
the year when the US's young people declared the possibility of a new
culture, a new family and a new tribe, evangelical in their belief in
peace, nature, sexuality and the positive use of psychedelic drugs.
Directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's feature is especially
revealing for Australian viewers of a certain age who witnessed these
events on television, or through intermittent newspaper coverage and
a handful of magazine stories. Summer of Love demonstrates how the
San Francisco hippie, dancing in Golden Gate Park with long flowing
hair, almost overnight became a durable American archetype, as
resonant as the avenging gunfighter of the wild west, the hard-boiled
detective, the long-limbed chorus dancer of the Broadway musical or
the gangster as tragic hero.
Throughout 1967, against the backdrop of an ever-widening chasm
between the nation's youth and their parents that would eventually be
dubbed "the generation gap", young people from across the US headed
towards San Francisco. They even had their own music, Scott
McKenzie's San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair),
though ironically heroin, amphetamines, rape and violence were taking
over the streets by the time McKenzie's song appeared in mid-1967.
The events that came out of the Haight that summer now seem fixed in
amber, as ephemeral as McKenzie's plaintive tenor, a Dayglo street
theatre poster or a beatnik poet, though the ideas trundle on
impervious to age and ridicule, even if the recollections seem
laughably detached from reality. Succinctly, and with a lovely feel
for the decade's moral and social contradictions, Dolgin and Franco
ground that irresistible but paradoxical time and place when American
principles and realities clashed.
After watching it, I experienced one of those anxiety dreams. You
know, the kind in which you're in familiar circumstances but you
become worryingly inert; when you are on a stage but have no words to
say. Maybe it was the interviews with the dependable '60s spokesmen:
earnest ageing anarchists with bad ponytails and brown teeth, and
matronly women who once believed they were dancing on the edge of the world.
The professional talking heads running the baby-boomer nostalgia
machinery are still scarily militant, sometimes even threatening,
preaching mysticism and community. They scared me then and still do.
Some, exhorting like hip evangelists, still encourage the viewer to
make their decisions about love, freedom and anarchy as if nothing in
time has changed. Others seem saddened by the way complex moral and
metaphysical ideas were obliterated by single-minded nihilism at the end.
While much of this feature film's material is hardly new -- we've
seen grabs in countless other docos -- it's illuminating to get such
a concentrated picture of the period that doesn't do the usual
Dolgin and Franco deliver stunning footage from the carnivalesque
events when God lived inside everyone, all of it beautifully restored
and edited with stylish juxtapositions. The black-and-white photos
are sometimes heartbreaking in the radiant innocence of their
subjects, many of them pretty angels whose hearts would be broken
before the end of that year.
The archival footage, a combination of home movies and news coverage,
is eloquent and arresting, imposing coherence on a time that was
completely disjointed, chaos incarnate.
Summer of Love's rich visuals provide a more visceral impact than
many other features that have covered the same cultural territory. At
moments it seems a time machine has dropped you almost violently on
Haight Street in the middle of the scene, listening to Timothy Leary
and dancing to the music of the spheres.
There you are swirling and singing, wearing rainbow-coloured clothes
and psychedelic scarves around your neck, experimenting with stopping
traffic and jumping on car bumpers.
Or wandering through Golden Gate Park, you suddenly hear somebody
saying, "Hey, you wanna try this pill?" And you do because you admire
her halo, entranced by the shimmer surrounding her pre-Raphaelite face.
But Dolgin and Franco reveal how utopia so quickly became a broken
dream, as thousands of "summer hippies", drug addicts, pedophiles,
petty crooks, vagrants and runaways found their way into the swirling
miasma of social and personal change.
The hippie dream burned out amid the drug casualties, sexually
transmitted diseases, barefoot passive kids looking for a free ride,
and the weird busloads of tourists checking out "the only foreign
tour in the domestic US". (As underground cartoonist Dan O'Neill
said, it became an epidemic of crabs masquerading as a revolution.)
As the film records elegaically, the Summer of Love collapsed in on
itself on Labour Day in September 1967, leaving many damaged souls in
its wake. Its lingering contribution, its supporters say, was the
freedom to choose one's own sexual path through life, with all the
possible joys and disasters it allows. Amen to that.
Summer of Love left me with one haunting image. Look journalist
William Hedgepeth went underground to live as a hippie for a story.
When it was time to leave, he got into a cab on Haight Street, a guy
bidding him farewell.
"I'll write to you, send you an envelope," he shouted. "There won't
be anything in the envelope, but I'll soak the stamp in LSD, so when
you get it, lick the stamp and turn on." The cab started moving down
Haight Street, the guy still yelling. "Lick the stamp, turn on."
Ah, the '60s. You had to be there.
Summer of Love, Wednesday, 8.30pm, SBS.