Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cult Club: 'Head' (1968)

“Our film is going to astound the world… The Monkees are dead. We’ve been gently moving away from the prefabricated image of the four of us in the last few TV episodes…We want to be thought of as real people. We are still largely victims of the monsters we helped create, and people still expect us to act our TV parts in real life.”

When Mike Nesmith said this to the NME in April, 1968, The Monkees were swinging through a fuzzy patch. They’d gone through the incredible, literally overnight sensation of their first few hit records and their first season on TV. They’d been rejected by the burgeoning counter culture for not playing on their records, and had failed to get all due credit when they successfully fought for the right to play on them just months into their career. The popularity of their series was now on the decline even as it moved along with the times, cursing the stale conventions of the American sitcom more than ever with wilder improvisations, bolder admissions to the artificiality of TV show-making, more socially aware satire, groovier music, and the loss of the dreaded laugh track. The Monkees were also getting sick of being Monkees, of playing their limiting roles on the series and playing together. As The Beatles would soon do during their “White Album” sessions, The Monkees essentially became a group of four solo artists producing their own sessions, recording their own particular styles of music. So Nesmith was right that The Monkees were dead even if he meant their previous image was no more rather than meaning that they were finished working together as a unit.

The fact is the work The Monkees were doing to kill their image would reach such a miniscule audience that they never would lose their image as pre-fab bubblegum peddlers, which haunts them to this day. The audience that had made them superstars in ’67 was growing up and out of The Monkees in ’68. Most of these kids would never even get the chance to see the guys graphically French kiss a willing and rather empowered woman on the big screen or see them wail through Nesmith’s blazing rocker “Circle Sky” as a real band playing real instruments or see their antics side-by-side with the real murder of a Vietcong operative or see Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter end their very first movie by committing suicide together. That’s because few apparently cared enough to even buy a ticket to Head.
Another reason the movie was a humongous flop was that most straggling Monkees fans didn’t even know that Head was a Monkees movie. Though the group was featured prominently in the film’s theatrical trailer they were nowhere to be seen in the print or TV ads that simply superimposed the title over the face of promotion man and future literary agent John Brockman’s head.

That was not the least avant garde thing about Head, a film that flickers through a parade of spy, horror, musical, sports picture, war movie, comedy, news, commercial, and psychedelic flick clichés with the impatience of a bored TV viewer flicking through channels. Toward the end of the movie, we meet this viewer, the god-like Big Victor played by former Hollywood hero Victor Mature. He is the almighty TV watcher with the final say over The Monkees lives. As viewers did with their –and many other’s—series, he watches them for a bit then kicks them across pop media’s vast wasteland while laughing callously.

But it all starts with The Monkees racing across a bridge as it’s being christened by a mayor. Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones stop at the edge. Micky Dolenz leaps over it in a-not-so-symbolic act of suicide. As the movie churns on, we see just why a Monkee might want to end his life. He is mocked by his peers and potential lovers, slapped onto a medium polluted with crass advertisements and horrifying images of war, denied acknowledgement of his innovations and talents. The Monkees may have had all the fame and money for which four young men might wish in 1968, but in an era dominated by such capital-A Artists as The Beatles, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, they completely lacked credibility, which must have been incredibly frustrating for musicians, singers, and songwriters of such considerable talent.
 So The Monkees and their maker, Bob Rafelson, broke the formula. Davy Jones, the Monkee with the least avant garde sensibilities, took issue with Head because he thought his group should have made a movie like Ghostbusters, indicating a 90 minute version of the TV show. Instead they went as far-out as is imaginable, stapling together a plot-less, surreal, often grotesque compilation of clips unified by the dreary reality that The Monkees will never escape their image. Micky’s suicide ends with him being rescued by mermaids only so he can be sexually rejected. The mass suicide that climaxes the film ends with all four Monkees trapped in a box and not for the first time in Head. That ominous black box is the demonic shadow of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While Kubrick’s slab of polished black rock brought evolutionary leaps in intelligence and ability to a race of monkey men, the black box of Head denies our Monkee Men such boons, constantly imprisoning them back in the black box of 1960s TV ruled by stupidities such as “Lassie”, “Dragnet”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, and “The Flying Nun”.

Peter Tork, the Monkee with the hippiest sensibilities, now dislikes the movie for what he perceives as Bob Rafelson’s cynicism toward Peter and his mates, yet Rafelson really only attacks the group’s public image in the film. The guys reveal the lies behind the venomous “Ditty Diego” chant— “Hey, hey, we are The Monkees! You know we love to please! A Manufactured image with no philosophies!”—by refusing to please their audience easily (Head is no Ghostbusters, to put it mildly) and revealing an anti-media, anti-manufacturing philosophy throughout the myriad sketches and vignettes. Rafelson also portrays The Monkees as a real Rock & Roll band playing the best music of their career in electrifying live sequences and innovative music videos. Peter gets more of his own songs on the soundtrack than he ever did on a previous Monkees record, and considering that Head only featured six songs, that’s a hefty percentage of the whole. Just as significantly, Peter gets to address his image as “the dummy” in a scene that plays quite poignantly to anyone familiar with how uncomfortable the intelligent fellow was with the role he was forced to play on the TV show.

Head is mostly cynical about television, a medium that puts the silliness of sitcoms and the revolting graphic violence of the evening news on a level playing field. America’s newly preferred way of receiving entertainment and information is revealed to be a stupefying fake. The effects are often hilarious. Micky gets shot with arrows in a cavalry movie and slaps them out of his torso wearily and rips through the fake Southwestern backdrop. He gets lost in the desert during a Lawrence of Arabia parody before coming upon another Kubrickian stand-in, a monolithic Coke machine that is out of bottles, then blows up the product that fails to deliver on its Madison Avenue promise (“Things go better with Coke!”) with a tank canon. We pull back on Davy Jones serenading girlfriend Annette Funicello tenderly to reveal a film crew, and a random hand reaches into the frame to wipe a glycerin tear from Annette’s cheek. Unseen forces manipulate The Monkees into starring in a dandruff shampoo commercial. Peter punches out a waitress that had been raking The Monkees over the coals, but when Rafelson wraps the scene, she pulls back her wig to reveal that she’s actually a male actor. Peter expresses distress over being forced to hit a woman on screen to a filmmaker who couldn’t care less about his chattel’s input. Here, Rafelson (who appears on screen with co-writer Jack Nicholson) portrays himself as the villain in the film. As the filmmaker, Rafelson once again treats Peter with great sympathy. We feel his discomfort with the scene and the crushing feeling of being ignored and patronized. The beautiful “As We Go Along” is the next song we hear, further heightening the unexpected poignancy of the sequence.

Poignant, funny, frightening, pointed, and brimming with great songs, Head has recovered well since it was dropped into a landscape of war, social unrest, and political assassinations 45 years ago today and closed a few days later. Today it is rightly regarded as a cult classic. It now holds a 75% Fresh rating from Rotten Critics such as Kim Newman and Leonard Maltin have praised its wildness. Prestigious DVD and Blu-ray producer The Criterion Collection gave the film a beautiful new presentation in 2010 as part of its BBS Box Set. Filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; The World’s End) named Head as one of his favorite Criterion discs and “my favorite film that stars a musical artist, by some degree.” Best of all, Head has provided dedicated Monkees cultists and defenders with a handy and heady exhibit A to use against those who claim Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter were only involved in safe insubstantial stuff for pre-teens or that they were never as far out as The Beatles or as scary as the Stones. The subversive Head is one of the farthest out products of a far out psychedelic scene and one of the scariest pop cultural items of a terrifying year.
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