The BBS Story- Head, by Scott Nye
The following is the first entry in a series dedicated to the films of BBS Productions, as collected in the recent Criterion Collection release America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.
In the world of pop culture criticism, it becomes a very necessary practice to “separate the stuff from the stuff.” In other words, one must divorce what they know of the people who made the thing in question, its reception, the kind of people who praise it, the kind of people who disdain it, its current standing in history, the struggle (or lack thereof) in producing it – everything that isn’t the thing itself is without merit.
Most of the time.
Sometimes, everything that surrounds the film is absolutely vital to gaining any sort of understanding. Sometimes, it’s illuminating. Sometimes, it’s…well, it’s all people remember about it. So it is with Bob Rafelson’s yes-it’s-really-as-weird-as-everyone-says 1968 debut feature, Head, a film with itself as its subject. Chiefly remembered as a flop that inadvertently launched the careers of Rafelson and cowriter Jack Nicholson (who were, as Rafelson explains in the special features, on acid during the writing process), Head is also a backwards reflection on boy band fame, inside jokes, and that most perennial of late 60s subjects, Vietnam. So yeah, you’ve got to have some idea of how the intelligentsia perceived The Monkees at the time (as a boy band of little artistic consequence and absolutely no integrity) to understand the main undercurrents, and a little Vietnam knowledge will get you far. But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.
Head has been described alternately as an interesting failure and an important piece of American avant-garde cinema, but neither are exactly true. The latter is a gross overstatement – as influenced as it is by that ongoing movement, it doesn’t excite the senses in the way that the really good stuff does. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not exactly challenging. But a failure, even an interesting one? Too harsh. Nothing that features the Toni Basil/Davey Jones two-tone dance sequence (which was apparently edited by Monte Hellmen, which should surprise no one associated with Hellmen or big, bold, insane concepts) could ever be a failure, and the movie as a whole is too much fun to dismiss. For a stream-of-consciousness, anti-structural exercise, it moves very quickly and is never not entertaining.
A lot of that is because each bit has purpose, no matter how unreachable it may seem. Some are more obvious, as when the teenage girls rush the screen and tear the Monkees apart only to find that they’re just plastic replicas of the Monkees, and continue with equal fervor. Others are a bit more…well, let’s put it this way – Rafelson claims now he was just trying to pack as many kinds of movies into Head, which he assumed would remain his only film. But even if their purpose is just to give Rafelson a chance to do a Lawrence of Arabia-style epic, there is a purpose there.
But the movie wouldn’t be nearly as good if it was actually considered an important, major work (Rafelson says it’s entirely possible that the film just isn’t very good). The conversation around it has become as much a part of the film as the film itself. Film never exists entirely in a vacuum, and though we try to view it that way as often as possible, Head is also just one of those films that actively engages with the world around it, so it is only right for the world around it to engage back. That ongoing dialogue has kept Head afloat these many years, and why its appearance on Blu-Ray is more than welcome (in addition to its first home video appearance in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1).
It’s also a very interesting look into a very different time. Just the idea that this was a major representation of one of the biggest musical acts in the country is fascinating. Even more mainstream examples, like The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (which was the inspiration for the television series The Monkees), are far stranger than you’d ever think. This is not something you could imagine Justin Bieber in – other than featuring them, The Monkees aren’t really being promoted here. I’m not on the “things were better back then” train; there are a lot of reasons to hate Head, and unlike a lot of movies I really like, I wouldn’t wear myself out defending it. But things were, at the least, a lot more interesting back then, and I’ll take that almost any day.