The legacy of BBS Productions, which stands for “Burt [Schneider], Bob [Rafelson] and Steve [Blauner],” is one of disillusionment and callow self-discovery. Funded by the money the eponymous trio of producers made from handling the Monkees, the bankrupt man’s answer to the Beatles, BBS films remain revolutionary for their anti-romantic stance. I use such an inelegant phrase because “anti” was to a large extent the way the BBS filmmakers defined themselves: anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-happy endings, anti-resolution, anti-squares, and anti-studio system. They didn’t know where they were going and they didn’t always know what there was to say beyond a need to speak disenchantment to the powers that be and whoever else would watch.
It was a radical pose, but a pose nonetheless: Easy Rider, the studio’s most visible film, remains a vital snapshot of young people struggling to express an ideal that they haven’t yet fully considered. It, like many other BBS films, is proudly stuck in the present tense, too caught up in reacting to their youth audience’s love of the idea of ideology to notice that they too only have so much of the American landscape mapped out. But they didn’t need to, not when they had such budding poets of disillusionment as Jack Nicholson starring, scripting, and directing some of the studios’ most deeply felt works.
Nicholson is effectively the poster child of BBS. Combined with his work as star and screenwriter of Monte Hellman’s existential acid-western double bill of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, Nicholson’s collaborations with Rafelson mark him as one of the most capably evocative and self-aware artists in the BBS stables. Five Easy Pieces is an extraordinary work that effectively captures the volatility at the heart of the American drifter’s defining malaise. Nicholson explodes the self-image of Robert, a nomad unsure of his place in the world and unaware of what to do with himself. Robert constantly rebukes his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), who tags along with him like a lovesick puppy. He stays with her because she reminds him of the path as a musical prodigy that he refused to go down. Her singing is heartfelt and full of an inimitable soul while his piano playing is bewitching but, according to Nicholson, totally soulless: “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big response,” he snarls when his playing is sincerely praised.
In that sense, Nicholson has forsaken a sanitary, privileged home life with his family for the life of a blue-collar stiff but even that is a performance he’s putting on firstly for himself, then the world. His blue-collar status is a sham: When he belittles his girlfriend for rolling gutter balls at the local bowling alley until the last frame, he winds up blowing his credibility by calling her spare a strike. A former used car salesman, Robert is a born huckster and an angry young man determined to keep everyone at arm’s length because he can’t stand to be around himself. He doesn’t care for his new job working at an oil derrick, even though he was the one that convinced his friend Elton (Billy Greene Bush) to working there with him in the first place, and would much rather play poker, probably because that game revolves around bluffing. He’s paradoxically both a victim of society, visualized in the film’s climactic wrestling scene, where he’s subdued as his attacker puts him in a sleeper hold while bellowing “Give in!” repeatedly, and, unbeknownst to him, his own biggest persecutor. He’s the great American sociopath.
Five Easy Pieces’s final last shot of Nicholson being driven away for parts unknown sans poor Rayette posits an unavoidably irresolute search for happiness that isn’t expressed nearly as well in The King of Marvin Gardens, Nicholson’s next project with Rafelson. In the film, the pursuit of bigger and better things inevitably leads to a Sisphyan morass where Nicholson’s character, a melancholic radio personality, is lassoed by his estranged brother (Bruce Dern) into helping him close an impossible business deal involving local thugs, a cheap pearl handle revolver, and skittish Japanese businessmen. It doesn’t end well, but it never really could.
The King of Marvin Gardens is not only a perfect example of Nicholson’s approach to drama as intractably immobile character studies, but it’s also a great companion piece to Drive, He Said, another fine collaboration between Nicholson and Dern. Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said is a moody bifurcated drama that follows both Hector (William Tepper), a successful basketball player on the verge of burning out—he walks out of one practice in a huff after quoting Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (“I’d prefer not to!”)—and his best friend, Gabriel (Michael Margotta), an unemployed post-grad that’s progressively becoming more and more fanatic in his counterculture politics. Nicholson’s film cynically assumes that both men fail and/or succeed not because they deserve what’s coming to them but because their communities decide their respective fates. Gabriel doesn’t have the safety net that Hector’s least tentatively concerned teammates and coach (Dern as an exhausted and surprisingly human authority figure) provide him with. Gabriel’s subsequently on his own, leading him to run around naked liberating animals used for science experiments at a local university before the men in the white coats come to take him away. When he insists that, “I’m perfectly sane,” he doesn’t mean he’s not crazy; he just means he’s not responsible for his actions.
But the most inspired Nicholson project is also the studio’s unsung masterpiece: Head, the 1965 psychedelic musical starring the Monkees as a group of prepackaged teen idols that now, on the verge of self-awareness, just don’t know what to do with themselves. Co-scripted by Nicholson and Rafelson, Head is a hilariously unhinged ode to self-fashioning. According to the film, you can’t find yourself in modern society because that would require a level of concentration that’s impossible to attain for almost anyone. The Monkees spend the bulk of the movie struggling to stop themselves from being buffeted along in a series of irruptive, nonsensical skits, including a bizarre desert scene where a Coca-Cola machine is assaulted by an Italian tank commandeered by a thirsty and vindictive Micky Dolenz. The only road to happiness is to “live in the now,” as Monkees lead singer Davy Jones discovers, which means that the only way to win is to tune in, turn off and jump off a bridge—twice. Passivity is king in the BBS vision of America, and thanks to Nicholson’s bizarre deconstructionist scenario, that makes the Monkees poster children for a generation that never wanted to be led.
The restoration process that each of the films in the America Lost and Found box set has undergone is truly amazing. Each film has had their soundtracks restored, including Head, which incorporates better recordings of songs from vinyl albums of the original soundtrack. The music and dialogue in each film is, as a result, crisp and exceptionally well-balanced. The picture quality for each was also restored, sometimes under the auspices of BBS cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs’s watchful eyes. The films look fantastic, virtually spotless and without any distracting bits of grain. Thanks to Criterion’s preservation efforts, the America Lost and Found box set is the definitive release for all seven of its featured films.
The Criterion Collection has commissioned and assembled a truly daunting compendium of new and existing supplementary material for this set. There isn’t a bad or, at the very least, uninformative piece in the bunch, but the best of the best features are without a doubt the video interviews and audio commentaries director/producer Bob Rafelson contributed. Rafelson provides such great historical context and technical insight and is also just a fantastic raconteur. The track for The Last Picture Show, recorded in 1991 and featuring director Peter Bogdonavich and actors Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman, Frank Marshall, and Cybil Shepherd, is a must-listen as that motley group is an irrepressibly strange bunch.
The Criterion Collection’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story is exactly what their Eclipse line should be doing and should be at the top of every cinephile’s wish list this holiday season.
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