Criterion Files #544: Bob Rafelson, The Monkees, and Victor Mature Give You ‘Head’

By  · Published on June 29th, 2011

For the rest of the summer, Adam and Landon will be focusing on films included in the Criterion Collection released by the legendary BBS Production Company whose anti-establishment films rocked the world of Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So dust of your old LPs, set out on the highway, and embrace your countercultural sensibilities with one of the most eccentric and essential stories of New Hollywood.

When rummaging through the Criterion Collection’s available box sets, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the serious and traditional role that authorship has played in forming both the Collection and its reputation. Whether it’s five films by John Cassavetes, Sergei Eisenstein’s sound years, or Truffaut’s cinematic adventures of Antoine Doinel, the Collection places the director as the primary author of the text, just as they do when ascribing possession to individual titles (“Orson Welles’s F for Fake,” for instance).

Then came the BBS set, which frames authorship to a group of films not because of the signatures of the directors who made each individual title, but as a group effort through the umbrella of a production company. BBS may refer specifically to Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, but the talent pool that determined the artistic output of this company was hardly exclusive to them, incorporating the then-young talents of Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, and Henry Jaglom. None of these figures solely inhabited clear and exclusive occupational signposts like “writer,” “director,” “producer,” or “actor,” but a combined contributions to the collective therein.

The BBS Set perhaps simultaneously represents best what is most celebrated but also what’s most ignored about New Hollywood. The short and much-honored revolutionary period that witnessed the countercultural switch away from the aesthetic, narrative, and business conventions of accessible genre formulas and enthralling but often innocuous stars is typically remembered through the individual artistic voices that spoke most loudly as the era’s authorities of reinvention. With the variety of talents that include Bogdanovich, Nicholson, and Hopper and with the inclusion of the era’s canonical, defining works such as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and The Last Picture Show, the BBS set not only encapsulates what countercultural Hollywood cinema looked like, but the important individuals who gave it that meaning.

However, the BBS set also highlights the complex and selectively framed history of that era. Evidence of the persistence of New Hollywood from the late 60s to the mid-70s constantly relies on the routine circulation of now-“classic” titles ranging from The Graduate to Taxi Driver, but this is a history that’s often romanticized, the kind that’s repeated ad nausem until it becomes common knowledge. While the fact that there was indeed a “New Hollywood” is undeniable, the history of it is far more complicated. Hollywood, after all, did continue to release what we would typically think of as “studio films,” which were often more successful than the countercultural fare, even if they perhaps don’t retain the same timeless sustainability. More importantly, BBS reminds us that for every Easy Rider there was a King of Marvin Gardens, movies that also took chances but didn’t penetrate the cultural zeitgeist, find inclusion in the annals of cinema history, or bring success to a company that required commerce in order to continue its boundary-bushing (which, after all, is the reason why New Hollywood, as evidenced by BBS’s short run, didn’t last longer than it did). That several titles in the BBS set have met their first commercial home video release and are being rediscovered because of the Criterion Collection points to how we still have a long way to go in order to fully understand this important time in American cinema history.

That’s why it’s more than fitting that the BBS set start off with a curiosity piece like Bob Rafelson’s debut feature Head.

The Monkees, of course, signify everything ‘inauthentic’ about the counterculture. In fact, they weren’t considered part of the counterculture at all, but were a cynical co-optation of what the counterculture looked and sounded like for little more than the sake of commercial benefit. As a band they weren’t formed organically but by television producers, they didn’t write their own songs, they were cast for their looks rather than their musical skills, and, most evidently of all, they were an unapologetic attempt at banking off the success of the Beatles.

Yet the only feature film about The Monkees is how BBS got its start. It’s the film that was released right before Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show, and was made mostly by that same company of talent. As Rafelson co-produced the band’s popular TV show, BBS as an essential component of the New Hollywood narrative is indebted in many ways to The Monkees. But how can this be? Easy Rider and those latter films represent all that is sincere and challenging and mind-opening and boundary-pushing and revolutionary about New Hollywood, and The Monkees, which their legion of teen fans who don’t understand the plastic lie they’re buying into, represents the status quo, the mainstream, everything that New Hollywood was reacting against.

Well, not exactly.

Head, even without the production-related historical context in which it was released, is a great film all its own. It was released in a time where the band members decided to start writing their own lyrics and music (and the music became all the better for it), but while Head is decidedly psychedelic and anti-narrative in a way that only the late 60s could deliver, it’s not a desperate grab for authenticity either for the band or the creators behind them. Despite moments such as when the band disingenuously engages in Eastern philosophy and religion after meeting an inspiring Indian guru or the overall sentiment here that The Monkees are attempting to cinematically out-Beatle the Beatles, Head can’t even be accurately described as a parody of the Beatles, or of anything in particular. The self-effacing tone throughout can perhaps be best summarized in one of the film’s opening numbers:

“Hey, hey, we are The Monkees/You Know We Love to Please/A Manufactured Image/With No Philosophies…”

Perhaps The Monkees had to wait until postmodernity could catch up with them in order to be truly appreciated. As products of television, the film’s schizophrenic and hyperactive narrative can only be described as televisual. Just as a faceless finger clicks a remote early on in the film, we as viewers channel-surf through narratively disparate episodes that have enough generic resonance to be familiar but not enough direct engagement or transparent satire to be parody. The film is a pastiche of the genre conventions that would be subverted by New Hollywood as a whole elsewhere at this time, but it locates these conventions as pervasive in television rather than cinema, for television often contains cinema. Are we watching a film as Micky traverses through a wide desert landscape, or a commercial as he suddenly encounters a Coca-Cola machine? Do we even know the difference anymore? Rather than the modernist retooling of genre that would characterize the rest of New Hollywood, Head is more Tarantino than Coppola in its appropriation of media to make more media.

Perhaps to signal the shift to New Hollywood and the entertainment that would lie beyond, Old Hollywood movie star Victor Mature suddenly shows up in several bizarre, wordless cameos whose comedic appeal can only now be described as “Internet humor,” and I don’t even want to open up the Pandora’s box that is the film’s implication that it all takes place on Mature’s scalp. If Head sounds like a mess, it’s surprisingly not (though it was an astonishing failure upon release). Rather than postmodern chaos, the film surprisingly wraps things up in a way that displays astute structural order when dealing with such mayhem, a testament as much to the admirable artistic control of BBS as it is to the notion that postmodernism is not entirely synonymous with meaninglessness.

But what’s important and essential about Head in terms of what this box set does is that it reminds us that the New Hollywood story was never as simple as we made it. Behind challenging art was the commerce necessary to bring it to light. And just as Head itself is a difficult movie to make any sense of, the history of New Hollywood cannot be so easily divided into bifurcations of mainstream vs. counterculture, or convention vs. art. Just as Head, being neither a Beatles parody nor an attempt at recovering authenticity, is a celebration of what others would dismiss as “co-optation,” the history of BBS shows that “authenticity” itself is as much of a misleading romantic notion as our selective history of the period.

Continue the long, strange trip with more Criterion Files