Monday, December 27, 2010

DVD of the Week: America Lost & Found: The BBS Story


In the 1960s, film producer Bert Schneider and film director Bob Rafelson expressed an interest in movie production but both men lacked experience so they use their connections in Hollywood to produce a pilot episode for a potential television series. The end result would The Monkees, an irreverent show done in the style of The Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). The show was green-lit and became a pop culture sensation. While developing The Monkees, Schneider and Rafelson met Stephen Blauner who worked for the studio developing the show. They decided to take the money they made from The Monkees and finance a film that Dennis Hopper wanted to direct and star in with his friend Peter Fonda. That film would be Easy Rider (1969) and this counter-culture film became a huge hit both commercially and critically, sending shockwaves through Hollywood.

The Criterion Collection have released an incredible box set sampling some of the most intriguing, experimental, and just plain fascinating examples of BBS Production’s output. Two films that are included have never been released on home video before. This set is quite simply a must-have for any lover of American cinema during the 1970s.


To say Head (1968) is a cinematic oddity is an understatement. Intent at topping The Beatles at their own game, The Monkees appeared in a film that Bob Rafelson directed and co-wrote with none other than Jack Nicholson and that was even more experimental and avant garde than anything the Fab Four had done. The result was a strange, yet playful concert film fused with a trippy pop culture satire. It was a resounding commercial flop when fans realized that the film was not a rehash of The Monkees’ silly, conventional television show.

The opening track, “Porpoise Song,” with its psychedelic imagery, anticipates the British acid house movement by many years and quickly establishes that this isn’t going to be a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination. Gone is the bubblegum pop and in is the Sgt. Pepper’s-esque experimentation. At one point, the band members appear as dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair only to be swept up by a giant vacuum cleaner. Hell, Frank Zappa even shows up with a talking cow to give some sage advice. The Monkees, with Rafelson’s help, gleefully bit the hand that fed them and proceeded to deconstruct their image in a way that no pop group at their level of success had done before or since. Imagine if Justin Bieber decided to star in a film directed Darren Aronofsky.

The critical and commercial success of Easy Rider (1969) scared the hell out of the Hollywood studios at the time of its release. Executives thought that they knew what the public wanted to see: safe comedies like Pillow Talk (1959) or the Frankie and Annette beach party movies. Along came this counter-culture film that featured contemporary rock ‘n’ roll music, two hippie protagonists and a nihilistic ending. And audiences loved it. Easy Rider ushered in the last great decade of American movies in the ‘70s.

After selling their stash of cocaine, Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) decide to ride their motorcycles from California to Florida (by way of the South) where they plan to live off the money. They travel the back roads of American and encounter all sorts of people: suspicious small-townsfolk, an oppressive sheriff and a rancher and his large family who invite them to a meal. The deeper they go into the South, the more resistance they meet because of how they look.

Easy Rider is a fantastic snapshot of the times. It signaled the end of the not-so idyllic ‘60s, where having long hair could deny you a room in a motel because the manager didn’t like the way you look. Time running out is a constant theme throughout Easy Rider. When Billy and Wyatt start their journey, Wyatt throws away his watch. Later on, he finds a discarded pocket watch just before they leave the commune. Also, as they are leaving, the hitchhiker they picked up warns Wyatt that time is running out. It eerily foreshadows the film’s disturbing finale and gives a feeling of impending doom that hangs over the entire film.

Five Easy Pieces (1970) is one of those complex character studies that typified some of the best American films from the 1970s. Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) is a former piano prodigy who spends his days working on an oilrig with his best friend Elton (Bush). As Bill Murray would later say in Stripes (1981), he’s “part of a lost and restless generation.” He’s someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly which makes one wonder why he lives with Rayette (Black), a nice enough person but clearly not Bobby’s intellectual equal and he barely tolerates her needy behavior. One gets the feeling that Bobby is punishing himself.

He is a restless soul as evident in a fascinating scene where, frustrated at being stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate, he gets out of his car and starts playing the piano on a back of a nearby truck. Bobby wants to fit in – hence the blue-collar employment – but he keeps sabotaging his jobs and relationships with an acute self-awareness and his rejection of familial responsibilities. This is a slice of life film whose story doesn’t begin properly until 30 minutes in when Bobby finds out that his estranged father is ill and decides to take road trip to see him. Nicholson delivers a brilliant, gritty performance that would typify a lot of his work in the ‘70s. He’s not afraid to play an unlikable guy who treats those around him poorly. Bobby is full of anger – at the world, at others and at himself.

Drive, He Said (1970) marked the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson. By this point in his career, he had already tried his hand at screenwriting and, of course, acting, so directing seemed like the next logical step. The film concerns the relationship between Hector Bloom (Tepper), a talented college basketball player, and his increasingly radical roommate Gabriel (Margotta). The first thing that strikes one about this film is how topical it is as it deals frankly with sex and nudity (both male and female) – something that was being explored explicitly at the time and how politicized college campuses had become because of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and so on.

In A Safe Place (1971), Tuesday Weld plays a beautiful free spirit in this whimsical experimental film. Scenes often cut abruptly to others and the film lacks a concrete story but is anchored by a strong performance by Weld. Along for the ride is Orson Welles as a mysterious magician who performs several tricks. The lack of a linear narrative can make this a frustrating experiment for some. In some respects, it’s a snapshot of its time and could never be made now.

Made in the early ‘70s, The Last Picture Show (1971) firmly established director Peter Bogdanovich as one of the premiere American filmmakers of that decade. It is also his undisputed masterpiece in a wildly uneven career. Based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, the film is a lament for the absence of simpler times and a simpler way of life. It’s set in a dusty Texas town in the early 1950s with the focus on three aimless teenagers: Sonny (Bottoms), Duane (Bridges) and Jacy (Shepherd). Sonny and Duane play for the local high school football team and endure constant criticism from their elders for their poor play. Social life for the teens revolves around the small town’s lone movie theater. Our three teen protagonists are bored and can’t wait to get out of their town where nothing ever happens.

Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd were all young, up-and-coming actors at the time and are excellent in their respective roles. It is easy to see why an actor like Bridges went on to become such a versatile thespian. Even this early on in his career he displays an uncanny knack for embodying a character. Bogdanovich does a good job with this material and the rich, textured black and white cinematography, coupled with the run-down Texas town, feels like it could exist in the same world as the characters in Hud (1963), another film based on a McMurtry novel.

Bob Rafelson reunited with Jack Nicholson for another tale about disillusioned and disaffected Americans with The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Like their best collaborations, it’s a character study, exploring the relationship between two estranged brothers. David (Nicholson) is a depressed radio show host in Philadelphia. One day, he receives a phone call from his scam artist brother Jason (Dern) who is stuck in a jail in Atlantic City. Once he gets out, Jason ropes David in on a real estate scam. The gregarious older sibling makes it out to be too good to be true and that’s because it is.

Jack Nicholson is fascinatingly cast against type as a reserved, button-downed intellectual. David is a quiet, responsible person, which is in sharp contrast to Bruce Dern’s motor-mouthed Jason, a guy always on the make. He’s a consummate bullshit artist and the cynical David sees right through his hustle. The King of Marvin Gardens is an intriguing snapshot of an Atlantic City that doesn’t exist anymore. At the time, it was in decline but all of the old architecture was still gloriously intact and Rafelson shows it off to the degree that it is almost another character in the film. It’s interesting to note that the film’s offbeat rhythm anticipates Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998) complete with a woman dancing by herself in a spotlight. Dern and Nicholson play well off each other and are believable as brothers. They have a familiar short hand and get on each other’s nerves much like real siblings do.

Special Features:

On the Head DVD is an audio commentary by The Monkees – Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork. Rather appropriately, they talk about how they got their own television show and then the film. They are all pretty candid about how badly the film performed at the time and how it was their attempt to trash the image of the band from the show.

“From The Monkees to Head” is an interview with director Bob Rafelson. He talks about the genesis of the T.V. show and how The Beatles influenced it with A Hard Day’s Night. He goes on to talk about how the show led to the film and how everyone around him told him not to make it.

“BBS: A Time for Change” is a 30-minute featurette on BBS, an independent production company that existed from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. This is an excellent look at the genesis of this company and its place in cinematic history.

There are screen tests for all four Monkees that were done before the T.V. show. They were integrated into the pilot episode and helped launch the show. Their personalities really come out in this footage. We also see two of The Monkees paired up with two other guys that never made the final cut.

“The Monkees on The Hy Lit Show, 1968” is a rare T.V. appearance by the band to promote Head. It takes place next to a boxing ring (?!) and it is interesting to see them try and explain their film.

“Promotion” includes several theatrical trailers, T.V spots and radio spots for the film. Also included is a collection of stills and behind-the-scenes photographs.

On the Easy Rider disc, there is an audio commentary by co-writer and director Dennis Hopper that was recorded in 2009. He kicks things off by talking about the genesis of the film. He also talks about his motivation for making the film and what he was trying to say with it. He points out bits of dialogue and visual inserts that were improvised. There are several lulls throughout as Hopper tends to get caught up in watching the film.

Also included is a 1995 commentary by Hopper, Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis. This is a much livelier track as everyone shares filming anecdotes like Phil Spector lending his limousine and bodyguard to the film. They also point out where various scenes were shot and how also just how stoned Jack Nicholson was during the famous campfire sequence.

There are two trailers.

The second disc starts off with a 30-minute BBC2 documentary entitled, “Born to be Wild”. It features Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Hopper and Fonda talk briefly about how Roger Corman taught them to make a film fast and cheap. Of course, they address the casting of Nicholson and how Hopper didn’t see him in the role. Everyone tells some good filming anecdotes in this highly enjoyable extra.

Carried over from the 35th Anniversary Edition is “Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage,” an hour-long retrospective documentary featuring new interviews with Fonda, Hopper, Seymour Cassel (who worked on the crew) and Black. Hopper says that the film was an attempt to counter the mainstream fluff like the Frankie and Annette beach party movies that ignored sex, drugs and contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. This is a top-notch look at all the wild stories of filming Easy Rider, including the infamous Mardi Gras shoot.

“Hopper and Fonda at Cannes” features a segment from French T.V. of Fonda and Hopper at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival with their film and they briefly talk about it.

Finally, there is an interview with Steve Blauner, one of the founders of BBS. He talks about the genesis of the company and about their start in T.V., creating The Monkees. He points out that the money from the show paid for Easy Rider.

If you own the 35th Anniversary Edition of the film you might want to hold on to as the commentary that Hopper does on it is not included, nor is the excellent BFI Modern Classics book on Easy Rider by Lee Hill or the bonus CD with select songs from the film.

The Five Easy Pieces disc starts off with an audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson. Toby points out that the entire film was shot on practical locations. Originally, she didn’t want to do the film but Bob convinced her when he told that he was going to use their own furniture (!). By keeping it under budget and on time, he had final cut and could also cast whomever he wanted. Naturally, Bob talks about working with Nicholson on this engaging track.

“Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces” features an interview with Rafelson where he talks about the film’s development. He was nervous about doing Five Easy Pieces because it was the first time he worked with actual, serious actors. He had written two screenplays but didn’t like them. He showed them to screenwriter Carol Eastman and she threw them out and wrote her own.

“BBStory” is a 2009, 46-minute documentary about BBS Productions and features the likes of Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and several others. It starts off with the social and political conditions that gave birth to the company. The studio system was collapsing and BBS made films that reflected the times that people were living in.

“Bob Rafelson at AFI” features excerpts from an audio recording of Rafelson speaking at the American Film Institute. He talks about his career and the films he made for BBS.

Finally, there are two teaser trailers and one full-length trailer.

Drive, He Said starts off with “A Cautionary Tale of Campus Revolution and Sexual Freedom,” a featurette where Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and co-producer Harry Gittes talk about making this film. It was about college campus revolution and at one point during filming a real riot broke out on the campus they were at. They went ahead and filmed it without permission. Nicholson talks about shooting the basketball sequences and how he cast actual players.

Also included is a trailer.

A Safe Place includes an audio commentary by director Henry Jaglom. He points out that the film was originally a play starring Karen Black. By adapting it into a film he wanted to make it more abstract, exploring the internal nature of Tuesday Weld’s character. Jaglom is quite eloquent and engaging on this track.

“Henry Jaglom Finds A Safe Place” sees the filmmaker talking about the influence of improvisational theater and the New Wave of European cinema. He was interested in creating stories about the inner lives of women.

“Notes on the New York Film Festival” sees Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich talk with film critic Molly Haskell about The Last Picture Show and A Safe Place in 1971. It’s great to see them all in their prime talking so confidently about their work. The two directors banter playfully with each other in this enjoyable extra.

Also included are outtakes of Orson Welles blowing his lines and four screen tests.

There is a trailer as well.

The Last Picture Show includes an audio commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich and actors Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman and Frank Marshall. The director explains why he shot the film in black and white and says that the town was divided about them filming there. He goes into the casting choices with some interesting stories. Shepherd says that she never acted before doing that film and gives her impressions of working on it as do the other participants.

Bogdanovich returns for another commentary, this time by himself. There is some overlap from the previous track making it kind of redundant. Not surprisingly, he dwells on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and discusses its themes.

Also included are two trailers.

The second disc includes “The Last Picture Show: A Look Back,” an hour-long documentary made in 1999 with most of the key cast members and Bogdanovich and author Larry McMurtry recalling their experiences of making the film. It takes us through the genesis and filming to its reception. There is a fair amount of crossover of information from the commentaries but if you’re not into listening to commentaries then this is for you.

“A Discussion with Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich” sees him talking about how he got into show business, what directors influenced him and, of course, The Last Picture Show.

“Picture This” is a documentary about Bogdanovich and key cast members reunited to make the sequel, Texasville (1990) while also talking about their experiences making the original film. It also paints a fascinating portrait of the people that lived in the town.

Also included are 16mm screen tests of several actors in the film.

There is location footage that Bogdanovich shot while scouting places to shoot for the film.

“Truffaut on the New Hollywood” features filmmaker Francois Truffaut talking briefly about the New Hollywood directors in 1972 on French T.V. He also offers high praise for The Last Picture Show.

For The King of Marvin Gardens, there is a selected-scene commentary by Bob Rafelson. He talks about some of the stylistic choices he made. After Five Easy Pieces, he wanted to make a more abstract film. He talks about the film’s style and comments on the characters.

“Reflections of a Philosopher King” sees Rafelson and actress Elle Burstyn talking about the characters in the film and how they came to be and evolved over the course of filming.

“Afterthoughts” features Rafelson, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and actor Bruce Dern talking about the style of the film and how it was achieved and why. There is some overlap from the previous extras but Dern and Kovacs’ comments are quite good and funny as hell.

“About Bob Rafelson” is brief text biography of the man’s career.

Finally, there is a trailer.

4 comments:

  1. What an incredible collection! I'm going to run right out and buy it. Some of my favorite people are here - Jack Nicholson, Henry Jaglom, Dennis Hopper and Peter Bogdanovich. I'm readynfor a movie marathon.

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  2. Larry:

    It is a fantastic collection and Criterion really outdid themselves on this one. You will love this set.

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  3. When I saw what the collection included, I was flabbergasted. That is quite an assortment. HEAD is the oddity, alright. Not necessarily a favorite, but I can see why the Criterion folk would grab it. EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS offer some great reflections in film for what was going on in America during that restive period.

    Now for DRIVE, HE SAID: I actually saw this film (once) in the theatre back in '71. It left me dumbfounded. I don't think many have seen it. As best as I could tell it wasn't released to VHS let alone DVD in the U.S. Distributors must have been scared by its frank content. There's a Spanish R2 disc of it, but little else. The fact that Criterion is including it here is something significant. It well could have been showcased separately as they're done before with some little seen films. When people look at Nicholson's career, very few mention this directorial stint (and it was his chair debut, for Chrissake!). It's nude scenes are both matter-of-fact and in-your-face -- I mean, did you expect what you saw in that shower scene? This remains one of the most audacious director launches by an actor I've ever seen.

    Marvelous look at this collection, J.D. Thanks for this.

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  4. le0pard13:

    I would say that DRIVE, HE SAID was probably the biggest surprise of the box set. I had never seen it before but was quite taken with its frankness and how much it was of its time. A very strong directorial debut for Nicholson, I thought!

    Criterion really delivered with this box set and it was great to see all of these various titles included.

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