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Chi Lives: Michael Flores goes time tripping



Michael Flores was a teenage hippie in Atlanta working for an underground newspaper when Otto Preminger's pro-LSD film Skidoo came out in 1968. The bizarre musical satire, inspired by Preminger's experience with the drug, pits the square establishment, represented by former hit man Jackie Gleason and his boss, a character named God (Groucho Marx in his last screen role), against a bevy of peaceful, fun-loving hippies. Other cast members include fading stars like Carol Channing, Burgess Meredith, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, "and a lot of people who should have known better," says Flores.

News of the movie created a stir among the paper's oddball staff, but Flores, a fan of schlock films since watching King Kong as an eight-year-old, never got to see it. "It never came out in Atlanta," he says.

Flores searched for the film on and off for years. In the mid-1970s he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute and became a filmmaker himself, working with Stan Brakhage on an experimental Super-8 film called Philosophy of Light as well as making his own stuff. In 1984 he and Del Close helped found the Psychotronic Film Society--named after Chicago filmmaker Jack Sell's 1980 flop The Psychotronic Man, which Flores calls "one of the worst films ever made"--to celebrate the weirdest movies known to man. Besides sponsoring screenings the society put out a zine called It's Only a Movie, now available on Psychotronic's Web site, Flores is still the head of the society, which he runs with his wife, Mistress of Mayhem Kat (aka Katherine Southerland), and comic-book artist Brian Thomas in between writing, producing, and directing plays.

But in some ways the society's mandate isn't unique anymore. "Years ago the only place you would find out about these kinds of movies, from Ed Wood to Doris Wishman to Herschell Gordon Lewis to Russ Meyer, would be in small-circulation fanzines made on copy machines, folded over and stapled." Now, he says, such films are everywhere. "They have $20 to $100 million budgets. There are so many psychotronic movies out this year that it's hard to keep track of all of them--Fight Club, Sleepy Hollow, the new Bond movie, that Princess Mononoke cartoon film from Japan, Perfect Blue, another Japanese animated film." He's thrilled. "We've truly won the cultural war. It's really a trash culture dreamworld right now--it's the platinum age of psychotronic film."

A year and a half ago he put a notice on Psychotronic's Web site asking for help obtaining a copy of Skidoo. In August someone E-mailed him the address of a German film company. Flores sent off a letter ("They weren't even on the Internet") and received the video around Halloween--right before he and Southerland left for Las Vegas for a garage rock festival and to get married. Flores watched the tape upon their return.

"It was jaw dropping," he says. "One word I kept saying through the entire film was 'Why?' Even after seeing it I wasn't sure it was real."

Skidoo features a body-painted Channing leading the hippies in a snake dance and Gleason being turned on by his hippie cell mate and having an acid trip that's supposed to mirror Preminger's, resulting in a mass prison drug trip complete with dancing garbage cans. Even the production credits seem like a joke--they're sung. Songwriter Harry Nilsson did the music, the costumes were done by 1960s fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, and the assistant director was Erich von Stroheim Jr., son of the famous director.

"It is definitely a really good document of that bizarre period," says Flores. The movie was made several years after the use of LSD was criminalized. "A lot of people were exposed to it in the mid-1960s through their therapists--which is why Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, and Carol Channing and others who had been in therapy with it wanted to do this film."

He speculates that Skidoo sank for lack of a market. "Straight people didn't want to see a film that was basically favorable to hippies and acid, and hippies didn't want to see straights embracing the lifestyle that was supposed to drive their parents crazy." But he thinks it may have been for the best. "If it received a full national release, hippies' parents would have taken LSD, and hippies would have cut their hair and stopped taking it. I mean, if you were a hippie would you want to know that Carol Channing and Jackie Gleason were taking LSD?"

The Psychotronic Film Society will screen Skidoo Monday at 8 at Liar's Club, 1665 W. Fullerton. The film, originally shot in the wide-screen format Panavision, will be shown on video. Admission is free; you must be 21. Call 773-665-1110.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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