Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
I normally try to go out of my way to pick a diverse set of movies for this series. Not only does that increase the chances that somebody has seen the movies I cover, but it also takes advantage of the broad collection of films that are in the Criterion Collection. Unlike my other, more strictly-themed series, here we can get a samurai film one week and a science fiction romance the next, and nobody bats an eyelash. I like it that way, and try to keep my schedule for these planned around constant thematic shifts.
That said, a few weeks ago Amazon had the BBS box set on sale, and I bought it (because of course I did). If you don’t know what this is, the box set is officially titled America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, and contains seven films from BBS Productions. Who are BBS Productions? Producers Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner formed BBS with money they made by producing one of the greatest pop sensations of the sixties—the Monkees. And with that money and growing counterculture cache they went off to fund an explosion of what would become the first wave of ‘New Hollywood’ films, a golden age of independent and experimental film in the wake of Hollywood downturn in the 60s.
I’m going to be covering all seven movies (check the bottom for a full list/schedule of the movies being covered), hopefully with a heavy emphasis on historical context, because I feel like that’s really important for movies like these. They existed in one of the more turbulent social eras of American history, and they represent a shift in conversation we’re still feeling the effects of today. That said, I don’t want to overwhelm this article with weeks and weeks of these movies, so I’m going to stagger them every other week, with other movies on the off weeks.
With that, let’s go back to talking about The Monkees.
Talking about Head without talking about The Monkees is nearly impossible, and having some much-needed context is important here. The Monkees eventually became a bastion of pop rock, touring for years, made famous through a number of hit songs (and recently due to the unfortunate death of Davy Jones). But originally they came of much more humble beginnings. You see, Bob Rafelson, seeing the growing success of The Beatles in the mid-60s, decided to create a pop band that would be constructed for and by TV, built by producers to star in a TV show meant to appeal to a similar youth crowd. That band? You guessed it: The Monkees.
It’s the kind of concept that seems ridiculous now, where cynicism and skepticism would probably torpedo any obvious attempts to package a group built from the ground up to make the studio money first and foremost, but it was entering the market at a different time, and the songs were poppy and good, and soon both the TV show and the albums The Monkees were putting out were catching on and taking off.
But as could be expected when these things happen, realizing that they had a fanbase and as they grew artistically, both The Monkees themselves and the people behind them were interested in growing creatively. Which meant that they would push against the safe scripts of their TV show, trying to go into a different, less obvious direction. Tensions rose, and eventually NBC went ahead and cancelled the show, leaving everyone with a lot of money and lingering cultural capital and nothing to spend it on. Enter the not-quite-formed BBS Productions, who decided to cook up a script that not only fulfilled everyone’s desire to make something that they could actually get behind, but to take a stand against the public persona that The Monkees’ success had given them. Thus, Head was born.
This is a lot of build-up to talking about a movie, I know, but that’s because trying to explain Head is to completely miss the point, so I’m not really going to try any sort of real summary of it. Head is a decidedly psychedelic adventure starring the four Monkees, starting from their normal cultural personas freewheeling their way down a bridge before they leap off of it. As they tumble to the supposed cheering of fans, the movie shifts to a different seen, where all four of them try to get the same woman who dismisses all four of them as indistinguishable facsimiles, encouraging all of them to prove her wrong.
The movie then takes off on a surreal adventure through each of the four’s travels to try to distinguish himself, leaping from set to set and through various genres of film. One minute they’re at war, the next they’re trudging through the desert, in a film that’s far less concerned with consistency than it is with tone. Each of their vignettes shows one of them trying to disrupt this world that’s been constructed of them, a weird non-reality where they’re constantly stars of adventures they don’t want to have, thrust into roles they want to escape. They leap through backgrounds, get into fights, try to piss everyone off to the point where they can stop being The Monkees and start being individuals.
The movie itself is a heady experience, as all psychedelic movies are. There’s a lot of potential for symbolism, but it could also just be a kitchen-sink approach to weirdness for the sake of it, and the movie never bothers tipping its hand one way or another. Instead, it just delights on going further and deeper into this bizarre world, where bits out of hokey old Hollywood genre movies sit side by side with the famous images of the execution of Viet Cong member Nguyen Van Lem. It’s a movie that doesn’t mind juxtaposing deep existential reflection against bizarre, epilepsy-inducing song-and-dance numbers.
Eventually the movie comes back around upon itself, and we find the four back on the bridge, but instead of the happy-go-lucky connotation it had before now they’re fleeing from a rush of screaming fans and producers and everyone else, trying desperately to get away. In the end, their only real solution is to end it all, and leap off the bridge. The movie, returning back to where it started, shows the four of them hit the water, only for the water to turn into a glass water tank on a studio lot. The director covers up the tank, trapping them, and wheels it backstage to be used for a later scene. Even their rebellion becomes part of the commercial narrative around them.
Needless to say, this kind of movie didn’t win them any friends, and became a solid failure both critically and commercially. It also torpedoed their recording career for a good long while, effectively ending the fame railroad they seemed determined to get out of. And over time it eventually found its audience, both critically and among later Monkees fans, especially as the counterculture took greater hold on that demographic as America drifted into the 70s and beyond. Now it shows up in box sets like this, a cultural milestone and early indicator of the direction entertainment was going to go in as a generational shift happened and new, angrier voices took over the dialogue in film and music.
And in the end it didn’t really hurt The Monkees that much. They went on to tour for decades, becoming a cultural icon. It would be interesting to know what the Monkees of that era would think of their current status. They’ve gone on record as saying that they don’t regret making Head, that it was of a time where they knew their artificial hype bubble was bursting and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. I hope that’s true, and I hope that the young men who tries so hard to escape from easy labels found themselves happy with the life they ended up having, but that’s far outside of the scope of Head. It’s a young person’s movie, with a young person’s anger, and is all the more dazzling for it.
A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11 That’s today!
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9
Drive, He Said (1970) – 7/23
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3