Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what your country already DID to you.
That might be the slogan for the films produced by BBS, the independent studio founded in the late 1960s by maverick producers Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steven Blauner. Films produced by the Hollywood dream factory were steadily losing audience share to TV, genre formulas weren't computing as reliably as usual, and 50s Hail Mary innovations like CinemaScope no longer provided novel alternatives to convince viewers to stop suckling on the glass teat, particularly not younger viewers.
BBS had a bold strategy to appeal to the youth demographic, by creating mindless action blockbusters and flatulence-based comedies that sent the condescending message that studios assumed teens are slack-jawed imbeciles. No, wait, that's Hollywood's current strategy (and a successful one, it must be admitted). BBS had another idea. They thought they could pack hip, educated viewers in their 20s and 30s into theaters by creating socially engaged films that acknowledged the anxieties of a younger generation disappointed that the great cultural revolution had resulted in the landslide election of Richard Nixon.
That's an oversimplification, of course, and a large part of the appeal was centered on good old sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. But in what now seems like a historical anomaly, the crazy, balls-out BBS strategy was to catch the interest of a younger audience by providing MORE sophisticated, MORE socially relevant material than mainstread Hollywood was offering. And no Dream Factory assurances that everything would be OK if you just believed in truth, justice and the American way like a good, productive citizen.
BBS films were not noted for their happy endings. Just about the best that could be hoped for was the alienated ambivalence of Nicholson, without wallet or jacket, riding off to anywhere but here at the end of "Five Easy Pieces." But all was not hopeless. Even if dreams ultimately dissolved in the face of a consumerist reality, dreamers like Jason Staebler (Bruce Dern) in "The King of Marvin Gardens" could still be admired precisely for the audacity of dreaming in a society fundamental trusts had been irrevocably shattered.
BBS was also predicated on three bold philosophies. First, Europeans didn't have a strangehold on art-cinema and Americans could produce similar ambitious work. Second, films were best left in the hands of directors without interference from the bean counters. "Say what?," asks Harvey Scissorhands. Third, Americans would actually pay to see these movies.
On that latter front, BBS' record was mixed. "Head" (1968, Bob Rafelson), the film debut (and finale) of TV sensations The Monkees, was a complete flop despite the built-in hipness the group brought to the big screen, but BBS' follow-up was a little flick called "Easy Rider" (1969, Dennis Hopper), one of the biggest hits in Hollywood history and a film that quickly became identified as a generational touchstone. A few years later, "The Last Picture Show" (1971, Peter Bogdanovich) would prove to be as much of a box office success as it was a critical hit, making up for the commercial (and, for the most part, critical) failure of "Drive, He Said" (1971, Jack Nicholson) and "A Safe Place" (1971, Henry Jaglom). "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972, Rafelson) met with a mixed reaction, but still turned a tidy profit as one of BBS' early writers and directors had surprised himself by becoming an on-screen star and box-office draw, a quirky fellow named Jack Nicholson.
In the interest of space, I won't expand in any detail on the three most recognized titles in the set, especially since we've already published fine reviews of two of them. You can read Jim Plath's review of the 2009 Blu-Ray release of "Easy Rider" here, and John Puccio's review of the Columbia/TriStar SD release of ‘The Last Picture Show" here. I will focus instead on the other four films included in this sprawling package.
Hardly anybody took the "Head" trip in 1968, but the film has since become a cult hit and it's easy to understand why. The psychedelic, psychotropic response to "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!," "Head" offers all the same anarchic looniness as the Beatles' star vehicles, but without the prop of a linear plot. There's no way to anticipate from shot to shot or scene to scene what will happen in "Head," a film which begins with a Monkee (whichever one, they all look the same in their similitude) leaping to his apparent death from a bridge. Rafelson and Schneider (then through their company Raybert) had literally created The Monkees from nothing, but the pre-fab four's film excursion was designed as something more than just a sop to screaming teenage girls. "Head" is a good deal darker than the Beatles' flicks. It was a full-blown deconstruction of both the manufactured phoniness of the group (who might not have been great, but like the "fake" group Spinal Tap were still better than 90% of the "real" pop groups that followed) and consumerism in general. Its social critiques and reflexive metacommentary on the filmmaking process in generally are fairly superficial, but often quite witty, and far more ambitious than anyone could have expected from the third of three Monkey/e Movies released in 1968 ("Planet of the Apes" and "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Plot? There's no point in talking about the plot. Let's just that it's damned weird. As a testament to how terminally weird "Head" is, I offer this factoid: it features cameos from both Annette Funicello and Frank Zappa.
"The King of Marvin Gardens" is less known than the BBS megahits, but still a well-regarded film. It is perhaps most notable for Jack Nicholson playing the repressed, buttoned-down counterpart to his crazy, flamboyant brother portrayed by Bruce Dern, an inspired piece of casting against type . Dern, a two-bit hustler in Atlantic City, has a doomed-from-the-start plan to buy his own island but through sheer charisma convinces his depressed "philosopher king" brother as well as two women (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson) to dream along with him, if only for a little while. I have to admit that the film pretty much flew over my head as I couldn't quite figure out exactly what prompted some of the abrupt character transitions or crises, but Nicholson's restrained performance provides a glimpse of another side of Jack before he, like most great actors, was eclipsed by his own caricature.
The two most obscure titles in the set (not, as far as I can tell, previously offered on Region 1 DVD), are "Drive, He Said" and "A Safe Place." "Drive" is Nicholson's directorial debut, and (like many BBS films) has a very evocative beginning, featuring slow-motion footage of a basketball player in mid-jump shot, partnered with a extraordinary song by Moondog (which I can find identified only as "a composition by Moondog" on about two hundred different Internet sources all copying from each other). Indeed, the film features several exceptional basketball sequences, some rendered in slow motion to the point they become abstractions, a reflection of the world's most famous Lakers' fan's early and abiding passion for the game. The story centers on a disaffected (the most common adjective in the BBS story) college basketball star (Michael Tepper) who is distracted both by incipient campus revolution and by his lust for his friend's lover (Karen Black, one of the BBS stalwarts). "Drive" was reportedly booed at Cannes, and generally dismissed by critics. Though it gradually peters out, I found enough inspired moments to appreciate it despite/because of its many languors.
"A Safe Place" is another story. It feels like a spiritual antecedent to Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" (2006), an achingly sincere movie about loss that is torn from the wrtier/director's heart but doesn't offer much more than its sincerity to recommend it. This was Henry Jaglom's directorial debut and it is, well, a Henry Jaglom film. Tuesday Weld stars as a wounded (OK, disaffected) woman who (like Hugh Jackman in "The Fountain") is plagued by past traumas and drifts between half-repressed memories of the past and her anxiety-plagued present. The film ultimately comes across as a tedious exercise in elliptical editing, an experimental film that reminds us that most experiments turn out as failures. It does, however, feature Orson Welles as a magician with a Yiddish (or unidentified Eastern European) accent which might make it worthwhile for Welles aficionados.
The BBS experiment was anything but a failure, but it also came to an end rather quickly as the group of highly motivated, sometimes highly aggressive artists could only live in Shangri-La for so long before getting on each others' nerves. BBS produced one more film, the extraordinary Vietnam documentary "Hearts and Minds" before officially dissolving. But they left behind a legacy that shaped American studio film during its most transformative stage since the arrival of sound.
"Head" is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer is particularly strong in capturing the saturated, psychedelic colors on full display. I sometimes use the term "razor sharp" to describe Criterion's high-def transfers. Let's just call this one "very sharp."
"Easy Rider" is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I like the grainy look of his 1080p transfer, and the contrast is excellent. A superb transfer all around.
"Five Easy Pieces" is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Another excellent transfer, as good as any in this set and perhaps the strongest. Rich detail, strong grain Guess what, another superb transfer.
"Drive, He Said" is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This isn't quite as vibrant a transfer as the others, looking a bit dull in some spots, but it's just about pristine and nobody will complain about the image quality.
"A Safe Place" is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It looks about the same as "Drive, He Said," its partner on the same disc. A solid, if not top of the line, transfer.
"The Last Picture Show" is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This is the "roughest" looking of the 1080p transfers on the set, but I imagine that's what it's supposed to look like. Grainy and a bit shop-worn, this black-and-white photography reflects the ragged, run down look of its small town setting. Detail is fairly strong, though not exceptional.
"The King of Marvin Gardens" is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film looks generally dark, and even the beach scenes don't look particularly vibrant, but this is Atlantic City in the off-season and the film isn't exactly meant to be a celebration of its beauty. Detail is quite strong in both outdoor and indoor scenes.
"Head" is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which doesn't sound particularly elaborate in terms of separation, but which captures the music quite well and that's what matters most. Optional English subtitles are provided. An LPCM 1.0 track is also an option.
"Easy Rider" is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track as well as DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. It's nice to have three options, including the original Dolby Digital, but I'm sure most people will opt for the 5.1. It is probably the most dynamic of the soundtracks included in this set and the film's now-famous pop soundtrack is well-rendered here. Optional English subtitles are provided.
"Five Easy Pieces" is presented in an LPCM 1.0 sound track. The sound design is a bit simpler than in the previous two films, but the lossless audio still sounds great and is whistle-clean. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Both "Drive, He Said" and "A Safe Place" are presented with LPCM 1.0 sound tracks. They are free of any pops and whistles but otherwise unremarkable which may be exactly what the original source sounds like. "A Safe Place" has a lot of music and it sounds strong but not great. Optional English subtitles are provided.
"The Last Picture Show" is presented in an LPCM 1.0 sound track. The soundtrack is once again clean as could be. Optional English subtitles are provided.
"The King of Marvin Gardens" is presented in an LPCM 1.0 sound track. Listen, after spending an entire day just writing the Video, Audio and Extra sections, I'm about to pass out. This soundtrack is quite good. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Criterion is never known for chintzing on extras, but here they have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Might as well dive right in. And you better get used to Bob Rafelson, because he is virtually omnipresent throughout this boxed set.
The 2010 commentary track by The Monkees isn't quite as loopy as you might have hoped. It's pretty matter-of-fact so this is a mild disappointment, but still it's a commentary track by The Monkees (who seem generally puzzled by the film) and what's not to like about that?
"From The Monkees to ‘Head'" is a 2010 interview (28 min.) with Rafelson in which he discusses both the TV show and the movie.
"BBS: A Time for a Change" (28 min.) is a 2010 featurette in which critics David Thomson and Douglas Brinkley relate the history and analyze the impact of BBS.
This disc also includes a rare appearance by The Monkees on the "Hy Lit Show" from 1968 (5 min.), Screen Tests of each of the Monkees conducted by Rafelson while casting the TV show (6 total, running about 3 min. each), and a passel of Promotional material includes Trailers, TV Spots and "Ephemera."
There are two commentary tracks: a 2009 track recorded with Dennis Hopper and a 1995 commentary with Hopper, Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis. The Hopper soundtrack was included on the 2009 Sony Blu-Ray release.
"Born to Be Wild" (30 min.) is directed by Nicholas Freand Jones and originally aired on BBC2 in Dec 1995.
"Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage" (1999, 65 min.) is directed by Charles Kileyak and focuses on the substantial cultural impact of the film including interviews with Fonda, Seymour Cassel, and Karen Black. This was also included on the Sony Blu-Ray released in 2009.
The disc also has an interview with Steve Blauner (19 min.) recorded in 2010 for Criterion. Blauner is the "S" in BBS, and this interview is just about the only coverage he gets in the set-long Rafelson-fest so it's a great addition. He discusses his career from his Screen Gems days to his involvement with BBS, with some particularly interesting tidbits about The Monkees' TV show.
The disc also offers a brief (2 min.) clip from the French TV show "Pour le cinéma" featuring Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Pierre Mignot.
Trailers are also included.
FIVE EASY PIECES
The commentary track is by Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson.
Perhaps the best documentary in the set is "A BBS Story" (46 min.), a 2009 documentary featuring many of the regular players from BBS, and providing an excellent overview of the whole BBS project and its auteurist focus.
"Soul Searching in ‘Five Easy Pieces'" is a 2009 featurette (9 min) in which Rafelson discusses the film.
The disc also includes a lengthy audio excerpt (49 min.) of a Bob Rafelson interview at AFI from May 19, 1976.
DRIVE, HE SAID and A SAFE PLACE:
These two films are housed on the same disc (all others have separate discs).
"Drive, He Said" doesn't have much supplementary material, just a Trailer and a short 2009 video (11 min.) featuring Nicholson, Dern and co-producer Harry Gittes, but Nicholson is quite a trip in this featurette.
"A Safe Place" is surprisingly loaded. The film is accompanied with a commentary track by director Henry Jaglom (which I haven't had the chance to sample). "Notes on the New York Film Festival" is a 1971 interview (28 min.) from the 9th annual NYFF with Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich who was there with "The Last Picture Show." They had the only two American films in the festival that year. The interview is conducted by the great Molly Haskell.
The disc also offers an Outtake and Screen Tests. The Outtake will be of great interest to Orson Welles fans, as Welles does repeated takes of a line in his usual jovial manner. Ever the showman. It must have been fun to share the set with him.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
This is probably the most loaded of all the discs in the set.
Two commentary tracks here: a 2009 track with director Peter Bogdanovich, and a 1991 track originally recorded for Criterion's laser disc release and featuring Bogdanovich, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman, and Frank Marshall.
"‘The Last Picture Show:' A Look Back" is a 1999 documentary (64 min.) directed by Laurent Bouzerau featuring interviews with Bogdanoich, author Larry McMurtry and many cast members. This was included on the old Columbia SD release. A 2009 Q&A (13 min.) with Bogdanovich also conducted by Bouzerau serves as a companion piece on the Criterion release.
"Picture This" is a 1990 documentary directed by George Hickenlooper (who passed last month) which follow the return of Bogdanovich and much of the cast to Archer, TX (where "Last Picture Show" was set) to shoot the forgettable sequel "Texasville." I haven't watched this documentary, but it is listed as "award winning" and the fact that it was directed by Hickenlooper suggests it is worthwhile.
Three short extras round out the collection: Screen Tests (2 min. total), Location Footage (6 min., no audio), and a 5 minute excerpt from the French TV show "Vive le cinéma" in which François Truffaut discusses the New Hollywood. Directed by André Labarthe.
Two trailers are also included, the original and the re-release.
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS
This disc offers Selected Scene Commentary by Rafelson, 15 scenes and running at 61 minutes of the 104 minute film.
"Reflections of a Philosopher King" is a new 10-minute interview with Rafelson and Ellen Burstyn.
"Afterthoughts" is a 2002 piece (11 min.) with Rafelson, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and Bruce Dern which repeats a lot of information from "Reflections."
The disc also includes a Trailer and a text-based feature "About Bob Rafelson" (seeing as he's hardly been mentioned anywhere else in the set).
Finally, the chunky 112 (!) page insert booklet includes an essay by Chuck Stephens on "Head," Matt Zoller Seitz on "Easy Rider," Kent Jones on "Five Easy Pieces," Graham Fuller on "The Last Picture Show," and Mark Le Fanu on "The King of Marvin Gardens." J. Hoberman also contributes a lengthy, substantial essay about the history and films of BBS.
I love "Head." Yes, the film's title was intended to be used for puns galore. Rafelson claims he planned to advertise the next film ("Easy Rider") as "From the people who gave you ‘Head.'" Its relentless randomness can get a bit tiresome, but it features so many great pop art flourishes (including a groovy dance number between Davy Jones and Toni Basil which shifts between black and white and white and black color schemes like a strobe light), charismatic performances from the leads and cool cameos that it's difficult to resist. Tim Carey is a particular standout in a supporting role.
I have never had any great fondness for The Big Three films from BBS ("Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," and "The Last Picture Show") but they were all major cultural touchstones that helped to define New Hollywood. "Drive, He Said" and "A Safe Place" are the two major "discoveries" on the set, previously unavailable and new to the vast majority of home viewers. "Drive" has its moments, but I can't say much positive about "A Safe Place" except that I respect its sincerity. "The King of Marvin Gardens" didn't connect with me either, but the acting is excellent all around.
My ambivalence aside, "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story" is one of Criterion's most elaborate and ambitious releases yet. With seven films both high and low profile, and approximately 20 hours of extras, the set does everything it can to relate the BBS Story in exquisite detail. It's definitely the first time I've ever taken a DVD review to page 9 in Word. I'm certain this will appear on many Top Ten lists at year's end.