'America Lost and Found

The BBS Story': A Cinematic Open Road

by Thomas Britt

10 February 2011

Easy Rider 
cover art

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

Director: Bob Rafelson
Cast: Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Frank Zappa

US DVD: 14 Dec 2010

The Criterion Collection’s synopsis for America Lost and Found: The BBS Story situates BBS Productions as “a company that was also a community.” The description is ideal, and the company’s brief, brilliant history attests to a unique happening—an intervention into American movies at a crucial time, with a strong vision, and courtesy of an extraordinary collection of artists who brought that vision to life. BBS might have only lasted for a few good years, but its effects on the art and business of American filmmaking continue to resonate.

In the documentary BBS: A Time for Change, one of several insightful special features included in Criterion’s seven-film, nine-disc retrospective, film critic David Thomson describes American independent films of the late-‘60s and early-‘70s as presenting a vision of the country “that had not been shown in movies before”. Thomson says such films upended “the serene fantasy of American movies that had worked so well for so long” in the studio system. This box set leaves no doubt that BBS Productions was one of the most important players in a cinematic revolution.

The company, run by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner (B., B., and S.), originated in the unlikely form of the Monkees—a fact that is now recounted with irony because of the perceived inauthenticity of the prefab group. However, the first film in this set, Head (1968), is remarkably straightforward about the reality (which is to say the unreality) of being a manufactured pop group. Directed by Rafelson and starring the Monkees, Head is a psychedelic array of musical interludes, genre excursions, and reflexive quasi-philosophical nudging that surprisingly makes us think about some weighty issues.

In the early minutes of the film, the group chants, “Hey we are the Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image, with no philosophies / We hope you like our story, although there isn’t one / That is to say there’s many, that way there is more fun.” During this mantra, we see small images from each of the mostly silly upcoming vignettes, yet these are interrupted by footage of the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém. This image, which author David D. Perlmutter rightly classifies as an “icon of outrage”, is so strong that seeing it once is certainly enough to make a permanent impression.

Head, however, repeats footage of the execution over and over, linking war violence with images of youthful hysteria, such as a young woman screaming in the audience at a Monkees performance. Some argue that the repetition of the violence lessens its impact, but in Head, each time the footage appears we’re sufficiently shocked out of the show of songs and colors. The extreme juxtaposition creates a state of constant dissonance. Although the film relies too often on wink-wink references to drug culture, its use of narrative confusion and interruption conflict the senses in a way that evokes wartime tension, which truly was the bad trip looming over youth at the time. In the film, as in life, pop music can only distract for so long.

From the opening moments, when the band runs through a mayor’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, scenes are constantly breached, toppled and forgotten. The viewer risks getting lost in the narrative shifts, and the Monkees themselves grapple with fitting into their own film (and then later, racing to get out of the film’s rabbit hole). Most of the film concerns being stuck in media as we know it, a concept that gives Rafelson an excuse to cycle through several genres familiar to the studio system. The war film, the desert epic, the boxing tale, and the western are all represented. To be “stuck” in the movie, as a character or viewer, is an absurd and scattered experience, but purposefully so.

Through the Monkees, Head calls into question the War, advertising, pop music, masculinity, sports and romantic love, with assistance from the most unlikely supporting players, including Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, and Victor Mature. By challenging tradition without offering a clear roadmap for revolution, Head represents the birth pangs of New Hollywood.

Head

Head

No film in this collection speaks more directly about the clash between tradition and revolution than Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), here presented in a two-disc set with multiple commentaries and documentaries. On one of the commentaries, Hopper calls his film a fable of what was happening in America at the time. His comments are representative of the guiding ideology that connects all of these movies and results in the box set’s name. Of Easy Rider’s many extraordinary qualities, perhaps none is more lasting than the film’s visual evocation of a country simultaneously “lost and found”.

More than once on their shared audio commentary, Hopper and co-writer/producer/actor Peter Fonda discuss John Ford and Ford’s vision of America. The reverence with which they hold Ford and his old fashion is accompanied by the quest for a new fashion of filmmaking, of living, and of being patriotic. Fonda’s Wyatt/Captain America is both of these in one—the horse and the motorcycle, as the filmmakers like to point out. Wyatt’s other half, Hopper’s Billy, is more juvenile and off the map than Wyatt, but his desire for a new frontier is no less substantial.

Easy Rider’s episodic plot is unremarkable, but it is the journey that the characters must take to find out if there is anything left to discover, beyond what’s been lost. Yes, it’s a road trip movie, a one-last-deal and we’re-retired movie, and a drug trip movie. Yet the synthesis of the many conflicts that develop across those plots is a conclusion that rests not so easy for any viewer who takes the journey seriously. In short, “we blew it” or we didn’t, but either way, the road definitely comes to an end. This is a bummer. To this day, there is something especially bold in the film’s ambiguous failure to resolve the difficulties that have arisen across the beautifully photographed landscape. Easy Rider was, and remains, a warning shot for Hollywood and for America as a whole.

The importance of cinematographer László Kovács’ involvement with Easy Rider cannot be overstated. He greatly enabled Hopper and Fonda’s intention to display the past splendor and future potential of the American landscape, and the film would certainly be less meaningful without his innovative shooting. The versatile Kovács’ contribution to the next film in the set, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, is equally vital to its atmosphere. In this case, however, the dreams of Easy Rider are left behind, replaced by alienation and the rejection of romance.

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