America Lost And Found: The BBS Story (Criterion)
It’s no exaggeration to call BBS—named for its partners Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner—a defining creative force in the volatile Hollywood culture that was in the midst of identity crisis between 1968 to 1972, despite producing only seven features (eight if you count financing the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, not included in this set). The partners were Hollywood insiders with aspirations to do something different, and these films, which they produced autonomously for Columbia Pictures (their contract gave them final cut), were just that. They weren’t all hits, but some of those features caught the wave of the youth market and created a model for personal filmmaking with commercial appeal. Most of the films in this collection have been previously released but this Criterion box set pulls them all together and adds its own collection of new and archival interviews and featurettes and commentary tracks along with those supplements carried over from previous releases, and puts them all on Blu-ray.
Easy Rider (1969), the only film here previously available on Blu-ray, is the quintessential counterculture blast of the late sixties it became a film of legendary proportions, from the stories of the chaotic production to its reverberations through contemporary culture. Directed by Dennis Hopper from an Oscar nominated script written by Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern (which was extensively re-written during the production), and beautifully shot on location by Laszlo Kovaks on location, the low-budget production became a countercultural shot across the bow of an out-of-touch Hollywood system. From the opening blast of the biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” to the grim disillusion of the climax, it tapped into the pulse of American youth, became a runaway hit and, for better or worse, was the defining film of a generation.
Fonda’s Wyatt and Hopper’s Billy set off from Mexico to Mardi Gras on their way to find their paradise in Key West. Along the way they pick up hitchhikers, meet salt-of-the-earth folks and idealistic hippies in a dusty desert commune, clash with bigots and intolerant rednecks, and lose their way on a bad acid trip in New Orleans. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs captures it with a glorious spontaneity and gives the traveling scenes a liberating sense of flight across the two-lane blacktops that wind from the Western desert to the lush backwoods of the deep South. The defining soundtrack of the Band, the Birds, Jimi Hendrix and others energizes the journey.
But Easy Rider is an uneasy portrait of the late ’60s right from the opening, when the two bikers launch their idealistic odyssey with a cocaine deal. Billy is skittish, reflexively suspicious of strangers and impatient to get going. Wyatt, the thoughtful, introspective one, is open to the warmth and generosity they find along the way but unable to really connect. “I’m hip about time, but I just gotta go,” is his answer to an invitation to settle down. The freedom of the road is also an escape. The little road movie of hippie bikers was an odyssey for the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, of Vietnam and protest marches, of idealism and cynicism stirred by the volatile culture clash of the late ’60s, dated and simplistic to some extent, but also loose and introspective and restless. As such, Easy Rider is both a celebration and an epitaph. And more than 40 years later, this cinematic time capsule still works on both counts.
Jack Nicholson is superb in a supporting role as a straight-speaking buddy they meet on the road, a small but defining part that he was not initially considered for and only cast after other actors fell through. Rafelson recommended Nicholson, who could have been the fourth partner in the BBS enterprise, for Nicholson produced, wrote, directed and/or starred in six of these films, starting with the first film out of the newly-minted BBS independent workshop. This set is a tribute to Nicholson’s creative explosion as well as the BBS legacy.
Head (1968) was spun off from the TV show The Monkees, which Rafelson and Schneider created and produced for Screen Gems, but the feature film couldn’t be more different. Bob Rafelson made his directorial debut with this film, which he wrote and produced with Nicholson (who had learned his trade in the Roger Corman school of hard knocks, tight schedules and starvation budgets), and with the willing cooperation of the pre-fab four themselves, they proceeded to deconstruct the teeny-booper image of the group with a surreal mix of psychedelia and satire (and a more adventurous set of songs), a loopy twist on their lighthearted TV show with a dark undercurrent squeezed in between genre parodies.
“You say we’re manufactured; to that we will agree…,” they remark in an early sequence. A few minutes later, a concert sequence turns into a riot and the boys are ripped apart as department store mannequins by screaming fans. Yes, these are the self-reflexive Monkees, remarking upon their own manufactured existence, and commercialization in general, through a series of gags and sketches. Like the TV series (which was cancelled by the time the film came out), the film is packed with non-sequiters and outrageous situations, but it follows a dream logic (or illogic), played to a (hoped for) audience of hipsters clued in by the title and ready for a trip. Deep? Maybe not, but certainly Head-ier stuff for our mop-topped TV stars, who riff on the Vietnam War and screen violence in weird slapstick sequences with self-reflexive angles. It was a flop, for all that, likely due to marketing missteps: it was too adult and alienated for their teenaged fans, yet they were so long a bubble-gum pop band that their target audience of hippies and counter-cultural kids was not ready to take them as anything else. Only later did it acquire a cult cache, and a well deserved one: it’s a psychedelic Hellzapoppin’, a wild slice of self reflexive sixties surrealism with a savage satire of commercialism. What could be more appropriate from a musical group created as a marketing platform?
Nicholson made his directorial debut with Drive, He Said (1970), another uneasy portrait of the era as seen through the eyes of a disaffected college basketball player on a radicalized campus, and took a supporting role in A Safe Place (1971), the directorial debut of Henry Jaglom (both films making their home video debut in this set), but his defining role in BBS came with his first major lead: Bobby Dupea in Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), a silent scream of alienation and narcissism in a world seemingly untouched by the sixties with Nicholson as a man on the run from family, commitment and himself. If Easy Rider is the epitaph for the sixties, Five Easy Pieces is the herald for seventies cinema, or at least the seventies cinema that we continue to celebrate as the silver age of American filmmaking, and Nicholson helped redefine the leading man as a guy who doesn’t have the answers but still swaggers through with the show of confidence and control of someone who does.
Bobby works the oil fields of Southern California with his drinking buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush) and lives in an anonymous apartment with waitress Rayette (Karen Black), a dim bulb that Bobby can feel superior to, which seems to be his primary need next to sex. “You know, if you wouldn’t open your mouth, everything would be just fine,” he drops at one point, almost gone mad from her nattering. Black plays her without vanity, embracing her uneducated, socially oblivious nature while opening her up as an emotionally generous and genuine person who just wants Bobby to love her and puts up with his abuse for those moments of affection. Bobby just keeps trying to trade up, notably when he returns to the family home on an island in Puget Sound. The culture couldn’t be different in this family of classical musicians and Bobby, the black sheep, returns to visit his ailing father and bring his worldly cynicism to the bubble of cultural arrogance he fled years ago. It’s enough to catch the eye of his brother’s student and girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is both attracted to and repulsed by his bad boy image and emotionally guardedness spilling over into hostility, but it’s not enough to win her.
The film’s signature moment is the famed restaurant scene, where he patiently orders a side of toast in a measured, calm voice and then delivers the kicker insult in the same measured tone, now carrying an edge of gleeful malice. Audiences practically cheer the scene (and yes, there is a certain satisfaction in his response to a rude waitress) but that same attitude pervades his personal relationships and it’s not so funny there.
The score of Tammy Wynette songs and classic piano (the “five easy pieces” of the title) play out the collision of Bobby’s worlds on the soundtrack, and it’s telling that Bobby rejects them both: he’s “too cultured” for country (which Rayette loves) and too cynical and angry to embrace the classical music of his past (and his familty) with any seriousness, and he treats the people in his life the same way. Nicholson and Rafelson keep Bobby from slipping into cliché by riding the currents of his turbulent emotions, giving him moments of generosity and, in one powerful scene, an outpouring of his confusion and fear to his paralyzed and dying father, a man whose beatific smile and sparkling eyes may be forgiveness or simply absence.
The moment that kills me is when Rayette, on the drive back home, tells Bobby that no one will love him the way she does. Rayette has been his fall back, his compromise, in many ways his statement of rebellion against the intellectual arrogance of his past, but as such he never treats her as an equal or even an adult. He had earlier stood up for her at a cocktail party, berating an intellectual for her dismissal of Rayette, but you get the idea it was less about Rayette than him and his rejection of this rarified world of cultural and class arrogance, and a kind of defense of him: she is, after all, at the party as his girlfriend. What she offers as a pledge he takes as the sting of truth: no one indeed will love him like she does because he hasn’t the capacity to love. The idea that he’s stuck in this life, a statement of rejection rather than a choice of acceptance, cuts him to the bone. Rafelson has said that he had multiple endings ready for the film and he shot the one that the characters brought him to. The simple act of flight is perfect, a statement of his fears, his self-disgust and his lack of compassion for anyone else. Bobby smolders with indefinable yearnings and fears and he’s no closer to facing up to them by the end as he was in the opening.
The set is completed with Peter Bogdanovich’s superb The Last Picture Show (1970), a masterful adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel of life in a dying small Texas town, and Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), with a suppressed Nicholson as an introverted deejay and Bruce Dern as his flamboyant hustler of a brother. It was the final original production from BBS but the legacy of this company, an independent outfit releasing its handmade productions through a major studio, continued on through the seventies.
The Criterion box set features seven films—all newly remastered (many supervised by the directors and/or directors of photography) in high definition—on six discs in six slim paperboard cases. There’s commentary on six films—The Monkees (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) on Head (recorded separately and edited together); Dennis Hopper on two tracks for Easy Rider (solo in a 2009 track and via telephone hookup with producer/co-star Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis in a home viewing session recorded in 1995, and there is no evidence of bad blood between Hopper and Fonda here); Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson (recorded separately) on Five Easy Pieces; Henry Jaglom on A Safe Place, a new track by Peter Bogdanovich on The Last Picture Show along with the 1991 commentary with Bogdanovich, producer Frank Marshall and actors Cybill Shepard, Randy Quaid and Cloris Leachman originally recorded for the laserdisc release; and select scene commentary by director Rafelson on The King of Marvin Gardens. There are excellent new interviews and new and archival featurettes, including the new 46-minute retrospective documentary BBStory: An American Film Renaissance, and Jack Nicholson, who has been conspicuously absent from other special editions and retrospective documentaries on his key films, contributes his thoughts and remembrances in interviews for Five Easy Pieces and Drive, He Said. The accompanying 112-page booklet features essays by Chuck Stephens, Matt Zoller Seitz, Kent Jones, Graham Fuller, Mark le Fanu and J. Hoberman, plus stills and credits. In an reversal of traditional releasing patterns, the set debuts on Blu-ray first, with the DVD edition set for December 14.