Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: American Movie(s)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

American Movie(s)

The Criterion box set of a diverse group of films from a maverick production team of the late ’60s and early ’70s is way more than the sum of the individual movies it collects

by Tony Dayoub

Criterion’s latest box (available on Blu-ray and DVD), America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, is a wonderfully curated set that rewards both those unfamiliar with ’70s-era American cinema and those well versed in its behind-the-scenes accounts of the near incestuous repertory company that was at its vanguard. BBS Productions was led by producer Bert Schneider, director Bob Rafelson and former booking agent/manager Steve Blauner. As the studio system quickly faded away and America’s youth counterculture began to take hold, the independent BBS had virtual free rein from their partners at Columbia Pictures to produce films that often captured the malaise of the period, opening the door for mainstream cinema to incorporate an unprecedented realism. This freedom was earned chiefly by BBS’s success with some unlikely films like the existential biker film Easy Rider, or the elegiac The Last Picture Show.

What Criterion's box set demonstrates, with all the films presented together for the first time, is the cross-pollination that occurred between the producers, directors, writers and actors who worked on these films, collaborating to forge a new direction for American film that briefly put the responsibility for the art on the artists rather than on those bankrolling the productions. If one ignores the well-covered contributions by creative force Rafelson and directors like Peter Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper, who virtually launched their careers with films that came to be considered the apex of their directing achievements, or familiar faces such as Jeff Bridges, Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda, who all experienced watershed moments in their respective professional paths while with BBS, there is still one surprising element to the story of the fabled production company. It is how former writer-producer Jack Nicholson emerges as a powerful talent — not just as an actor but as a director. All of this within five years, and all due to BBS.

Weird Monkees
Criterion wisely provides a prologue to BBS’s story in the form of Head (1968). It was the last production by Rafelson and Schneider's company, Raybert Productions, which made the pair’s bones in TV with a comedy series created to capitalize on the success of the Beatles, The Monkees. Drawing together four men whose respective talents lay in vastly different arenas — former child star Micky Dolenz, British song-and-dance man Davy Jones, country rocker Michael Nesmith and folk musician Peter Tork — the fledgling producers fashioned a show that revolved around a novice pop band trying to make it big. Many musical sequences were precursors of today’s music videos, and with some absurdist comedy sprinkled in, The Monkees shamelessly derived its popularity from its evocation of Richard Lester’s Beatles films (particularly Help!).

If The Monkees served as a deconstruction of the group that was derisively nicknamed “The Pre-Fab Four,” then Rafelson's film follow-up, Head, is a complete obliteration of the band's public persona. By this point, the band members were chafing under Columbia's demands for them to conform to a certain style of music (some of which was provided by the likes of Carole King and Harry Nilsson), resulting in some tension between the group and their producers. Rafelson, under pressure of his own given that this was his first film, worked with then-screenwriter Jack Nicholson to create a script that would virtually destroy the group, despite the ancillary profits they were bringing to Columbia through their record division.

Afraid this would be his only chance to prove himself on film, Rafelson structured Head as a series of vignettes aping a wide variety of genres: Western, war movie, psychedelic flick, etc. Cast eclectically with such personalities as boxer Sonny Liston, singer Frank Zappa, the manic Timothy Carey, a young Teri Garr, and veteran Victor Mature (ostensibly the film is about the Monkees’ attempt to escape a rampaging giant Mature... don't ask me to explain, but remember, Columbia's record company was RCA Victor), Head needs to be seen to believed. As unhinged as the movie itself is, though, the songs and performances are among the best the band ever produced. Nesmith's rocking "Circle Sky" still holds up today. And Davy Jones's Broadway-like belting of "Daddy's Song," choreographed by singer-dancer Toni Basil ("Mickey"), is a showstopper, thanks to Rafelson's inventive strobe-effect editing.

One could argue Head is the odd man out in this box of films, except that it sets the stage for much of what is to follow on BBS's program. There is a pronounced anti-establishment sentiment that pervades the film, a movie that in some ways serves as an anti-Vietnam screed (mostly due to Nicholson, Rafelson admits in one of the set's countless featurettes), upending the rather conventional musical film form like BBS’s subsequent films would do with their respective genre antecedents. Ignoring this entry in BBS’s history would be a big mistake.

Blowing It
Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) is likely the first of the mainstream films to emerge from the New Hollywood. Sure, Warren Beatty may have cracked the door open with Bonnie and Clyde, but its glamorous-looking leads were still holdovers from the studio system aesthetic. Easy Rider was an outlaw film made by and cast with outlaws who weren't interested in changing the system from within as Beatty seemed to be. They were hoping to forge their own path. Producer and co-writer Peter Fonda was rebelling against his star lineage, slumming in low-budget biker pictures even before this film came along. Hopper was often running afoul of the establishment as a result of his erratic behavior. With Easy Rider, both would get to prove their worth as filmmakers while BBS would get its first chance to cede artistic control of a film they financed to a couple of mavericks.

It’s easy from 2010’s vantage point to underestimate Easy Rider’s progressiveness. But is there any American film prior to this one that boasts the particular confluence of unsophisticated Hollywood actors, location shooting, use of non-actors, counterculture music, sexual liberty, casual drug use, social and political relevance, European-influenced cinema aesthetic, improvisational acting technique, etc., that Easy Rider does? Not to be ignored either is the nexus of new talent that Hopper's film could proudly boast of, from director of photography László Kovács to actress Karen Black to a BBS repertory member who had all but given up acting by the time he was asked to replace Rip Torn in the pivotal role of alcoholic attorney George Hanson.

Jack Nicholson had resigned himself to the knowledge that he would never achieve financial security as an actor, much less become a star. His friendship with Bob Rafelson had given him the opportunity to continue in the film business from behind the scenes. So after Torn dropped out of Easy Rider over a dispute with Hopper, Nicholson's enlistment into the cast probably struck him as an afterthought. But the way he imbues Hanson — a character who, on paper, serves as more of a narrative device in his capacity as the film's conscience — with a distinct, comic personality, coupled with the exposure the popular movie afforded him, propelled Nicholson to stardom and his first Academy Award nomination. BBS had launched its first star, and things would never be the same again.

Piece Work
Despite a reductive comment by Fonda and Hopper on Easy Rider’s commentary track, joking that Nicholson has essentially been playing the same role of Hanson for years (a bit of self-serving sour grapes on their part), it is in Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970) that Nicholson's onscreen persona finally gels in his Oscar-nominated turn as Bobby Dupea. Here, Nicholson deploys his explosive temperament in small, intermittent bursts between extended moments of slow-burn intensity as a man with a culturally (and monetarily) rich background deliberately living below his potential as an oil rigger in Texas, requisite waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) and all. Scenes like his "road rage" meltdown where, reacting to unnecessary honking on a freeway-cum-parking lot, he jumps out of the car and starts goading a barking dog by growling back at the animal, or the notorious moment in a diner where he clears a table after the waitress points out there are no substitutions ("You want me to hold the chicken, huh?" / "I want you to hold it between your knees.") point to a contemptuous misfit barely able to contain his rage, a character type he would revisit often.

During the first, lighter half of the film — which owes its levity to Rafelson's broader depictions of the Texas hicks Dupea has surrounded himself with — Dupea's snide arrogance hints at an elitist's view of both his hayseed friends and the locale. Rafelson's flair for comedy sometimes devolves into sharp but extraneous side trips, like Dupea's acquaintance with two lesbian hitchhikers (one is played by Toni Basil). The other, named Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes), can't stop spewing bitter sentiments about all the filth in the world ("I don't even want to talk about it."). Carole Eastman's screenplay proves adept at maintaining the focus on Dupea, despite the intrusion of colorful individuals, by bestowing the dialogue with a sense of truth and using the bizarre characters to reflect Dupea's alienation from those around him.

However, during the second, dramatic half of the film, it is Nicholson who sustains Dupea's separateness, even now that his character is back in the familiar surroundings of his family home in Seattle. Once there, his fierce disgust with his family's hollow upper-class existence serves to disaffect him from his milieu. The empty feeling of Dupea’s past life is reflected in the catatonic expression of his sick father, the sedate dinner conversation with his holier-than-thou older brother (The Waltons' Ralph Waite), and his strained relationship with an infantile sister (Lois Smith) who gave up on life a long time ago. Nicholson's approach is striking throughout, his Dupea feeling as if a dramatic character wandered into an absurdist comedy of manners. This is bolstered by Susan Anspach's role as the brother's temptingly intellectual fiancée and an unexpected visit by Dupea's waitress girlfriend, allowing the viewer to see Dupea's two alternate paths writ in romantic terms: Does he choose the icy stiff or the hot airhead?

Still, Rafelson and Nicholson manage to frame the devastating ending in a way that addresses the themes that were a hallmark of the BBS brand: disillusionment, a society on the brink, and the futility of holding onto the past in the face of an uncertain future.

Weird Scenes Inside the New Hollywood
This idea of a society evolving into something out of its own control is best illustrated in BBS's next film, Jack Nicholson's directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971) The film is centered on a college basketball star, Hector (Bachelor Party's William Tepper of all people), the actual and metaphorical All-American being pushed and pulled by the forces surrounding him: his best friend, Gabriel, an increasingly radical draft dodger; his older, pregnant girlfriend (Karen Black), the wife of his favorite professor (Robert Towne), and his demanding basketball coach (Bruce Dern), who hypocritically capitalizes on Hector’s talents while berating him for his transgressions on and off the court.

This little gem is perhaps the most underrated movie in Criterion's box. Never before released on DVD or video, it underscores the fact that Nicholson was, as Peter Biskind says in his New Hollywood book, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, "the de facto fourth partner" at BBS. His eye for young talent (Mike Warren, playing Tepper's fellow ball player, would become a star a decade later on TV's Hill Street Blues), attraction to the thriving protest politics of the time, and insider knowledge of basketball (evident in his casting of actual ball players and dynamic camera work on the court), coupled with an exciting opening theme by David Shire, lift this movie above your typical sports flick. Of all the films in this set, this is the one most overdue for a reassessment.

So it's strangely fitting that it is buttressed against another minor BBS film on the same disc, Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place (1971). The strangest of all the BBS films, Jaglom's first feature stands out even more than the Monkees' Head. If one were to classify it by what it's not, it is not political, not representative of its time, not populated by antiheroes, and not distinctly American. If anything, it owes more to the European New Wave films of the ’60s, its cut-up breezy focus on the lovely Tuesday Weld reminiscent of Godard's Une Femme Est une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman). From what I understand of Jaglom's work (which, full disclosure, I haven't seen), A Safe Place only bears a slight resemblance to the rest of his oeuvre insofar as it favors a female character. But much of his later work is more documentary-like.

Admittedly, Weld is fascinating as a childlike woman (based on Jaglom's ex-girlfriend, Karen Black) who’s unwilling to accept the world's constant advance into modernity, nostalgically longing for a time when she "knew how to fly" — literally. Orson Welles is endearing as a whimsical street magician she encounters in Central Park. And Jaglom's buddy Nicholson is featured in an extended cameo as an ex-boyfriend with a powerful hold over Weld. But male lead Phil Proctor is not for all tastes, alternately naive and irritating, not the qualities one desires in such a role.

Its unique, absurdist place among the rest of the timely BBS films makes one wonder if A Safe Place was simply the production house's way of repaying a favor to Jaglom, whose elliptical editing style helped make sense of Hopper's raw footage for Easy Rider a few years earlier.

Forward into the Past
BBS's next film was The Last Picture Show (1971) — what a movie to have to live up to! Cursed by some critics' pronouncements that it was the best American film since Welles's Citizen Kane, director Peter Bogdanovich (a friend, patron and protégé of Welles’s) couldn't foresee the eerie way his own career would end up following much the same trajectory as his mentor's. It's a difficult thing to have to measure up to a near perfect film so early in one's career. And The Last Picture Show is that, near perfect.

One of those films with a dream cast (like The Godfather soon after), Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show is also, at first glance, quite different from the other works in this set. Shot in black-and-white, in a classic Fordian/Hawksian style (longer takes, no zooms, etc.), set in the early ’50s, the film stars both new and veteran actors who hadn't really made their mark, yet: Timothy and Sam Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid, Cybill Shepherd, and two character actors who won much deserved Oscars, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Nicholson, so finely intertwined into the rest of BBS’s pictures, had no discernible involvement in The Last Picture Show’s making. Rafelson and Schneider apparently had not much more than that, except for Schneider's confusion upon seeing Bogdanovich's dailies.

Perplexed about why there were no master shots (complete photographic coverage of an entire scene used to impart the scene's geography), Schneider consulted with Rafelson about whether to fire Bogdanovich before the shoot went much longer. Rafelson realized Bogdanovich was simply cutting "in the camera" (shooting scenes exactly as they were to be edited) the way his influences, John Ford and Howard Hawks, used to do. The two producers decided to leave Bogdanovich alone.

No doubt he was saving them money by not going long on his shots, and no doubt he learned this from his former boss, B-movie director Roger Corman (who coincidentally was Hopper and Nicholson's former boss and mentor as well). This run-and-gun style, the frank depiction of sexuality, and the story's parallels with what was happening in the late ’60s/early ’70s is what makes The Last Picture Show of a piece with the rest of the BBS films. Despite being a period piece, the film’s cultural landmarks bear a striking resemblance to what was happening in the real world: The Korean War looms in the background just as Vietnam did in real life; disillusionment pervades the coming of age of its two central characters Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges). Here, Bogdanovich is showing us the breeding ground from which the counterculture would spring, and all in miniature in a tiny Texas town.

Monopoly Money
The final film in Criterion's box, Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is the last narrative feature BBS would produce (their final film, the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds, is also available from the label). In an odd way, BBS comes full circle with this one, a dark mirror version of the production company's first film, Easy Rider. Where Easy Rider is fueled by the idealism of its two protagonists, at least initially, embarking on a road trip into "the real America," Marvin Gardens confronts the cynicism left behind as a result of the counterculture's failure to overturn the status quo; it has its two antiheroes circling the wagons and hunkering down in a seedy hotel in Atlantic City as they plan to bilk a mob boss out of his cut in a real estate scheme. Easy Rider's two spiritual brothers, Fonda's serene Wyatt and Hopper's manic Billy, are counterpointed by the two brothers of Marvin Gardens, the oily Jason Staebler (Bruce Dern) and his repressed brother, David (Jack Nicholson).

Nicholson's portrayal is probably one of the biggest stretches of his career. Playing a mild-mannered radio monologist (did anyone other than Paul Harvey make a living at this?), his usual actor's tools — contempt, rage, hyper-mania — are snatched away from him by Rafelson. As a result, Dern steals the show as the glad-handing con man, and the film always feels like it's on the verge of some cathartic explosion via the twitchy, seething Nicholson. Eventually it does arrive, but through a female hanger-on played by Picture Show's Ellen Burstyn, an aging, fading, kept woman who finally rebels against Jason's casual exploitation as she realizes he will soon drop her in favor of another beautiful (and younger) companion.

BBS would begin to disintegrate behind the scenes, as Bert Schneider's attention turned to politics, and Jack Nicholson's star ascended. Nicholson would direct two more films — one an ill-conceived sequel to Chinatown that nearly ended his directing career — and his association with Rafelson would continue, producing at least one more memorable film, 1981's The Postman Always Rings Twice remake. Steve Blauner retreated into the music world he was comfortable with, executive producing an abortive revival of The Monkees in the late ’80s and consulting on Beyond the Sea, a biopic of his former client, Bobby Darin. And Rafelson? Though his career has been spotty with successes, as America Lost and Found's featurettes bear out, Rafelson has become quite the raconteur, an éminence grise on the subject of the ’70s New Hollywood.

This review was first published on 1/5/2011 in Nomad Editions: Wide Screen.


MrJeffery said...

great post. i need to get this. some favorites of mine are in it plus some i haven't seen yet.

Sam Juliano said...

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is the masterpiece in this set. It's my favorite film of the 1970's from any country, and a film I count among the greatest ever made. I agree with you that it is elegiac, and it benefits greatest from the pristive transfer in the blu-ray set that brings its wind-swept atmospherics to profound emotional effect. I agree that the set's components do count for much more than the total, as each film contributes a different perspective on the sociological and cinematic landscape.

Tony Dayoub said...

A belated thanks for your comments and insight, MrJeffery and Sam.

Joel Bocko said...

I think Nicholson is probably the key figure in recognizing the impact and originality of New Hollywood: here's somebody who really doesn't fit into the more traditional Hollywood mould, who works on the margins in B films and in the counterculture, and yet would become the ARCHETYPAL "movie star" in audience's minds by the 1980s.

It's one thing I love about this era - how it took the goalposts and moved them back, until this became the new standard. Sure, there was a turnaround after 10 years - the films were not as provocative or adventurous, the content was often safer, there was less of a mix of the gritty & larger-than-life (hastening the ever-widening divide between indie & blockbuster), but New Hollywood changed the landscape permanently.

As for Fonda's and Hopper's comment, it doesn't really hold; he definitely crafted a persona and held on to it for a good 20-30 years (at least since the late 80s), but in the 70s he was something of a chameleon - occasional grin aside, does Jake Gittes have anything in common with Randall MacMurphy a year later? And George Hanson, with the accent and mild-mannered eccentricity, is really quite different from any character I've seen Nicholson play down the line - like Hoffman's role in The Graduate (or, arguably, Pacino in The Godfather) it's a breakthrough that is NOT really a harbinger of things to come.

Enjoyed your insights here on Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces & Last Picture Show; I avoided reading the other three for the moment because, while I've owned the BBS set for a year, I haven't watched them yet. Hoping to finally do so within a week or two.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for your insights, Joel. You're probably safe from spoilers in reading about DRIVE, HE SAID and A SAFE PLACE. But I would avoid reading about THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS until after you see the film.