Head (1968)

This is the original poster, by the way–or at least some variation on it. The obvious stars and draws (the Monkees!) aren’t on it. That’s kind of appropriate here. I saw this, largely in pieces, earlier in life, on a recorded video alongside other movies, as I often did in those days. I was increasingly intrigued, and eventually tried to sit through it after my curiosity ended the fast-forwarding to get to the movie I was aiming for. Oddly, this ended up the primary motivation for my acquisition of Criterion’s BBS set, which also includes the much more famous Easy RiderFive Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show, amongst others. Not, I suppose, all that odd, given we’re talking about me, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Monkees, being the real-life-slash-television-fake musical group composed of–in no meaningful or deliberate order–Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork are at the end of their television show contract. In keeping with these, they are in their last days of filming episodes, when they begin to make overtures toward exiting the project. Most of these are thwarted through sudden jumps to entirely different scenarios of any and all kinds. Describing the plot in any more detail is generally untenable, or insists upon informing the plot and nature of the movie with personal interpretation (as the wikipedia page does, inaccurately, in my own  humble opinion).

The reputation of the Monkees is strange at this stage: I recall the lingering upturned noses at their “fake” nature. “They didn’t play their own instruments or write the songs!” was the cry, but that wasn’t even (entirely) true on the first album. Nesmith had songs on even their debut, and Tork played guitar on some of its songs. By their third album, Headquarters (no particular relation), they were still making the television show, but had become an actual band, playing on all the songs on their album, after wresting control from their producer, Don Kirshner. And so, in this era, this seems to be increasingly forgotten–and it no doubt helps that the most musically oriented of the group (Nesmith and Tork) were joined in their vocal displeasure over the deceptive album releases by even the acting-oriented Jones and Dolenz.

This seems like valuable background to understand Head, which does at least explicitly address the notion of actors–named Davy, Mickey, Michael, and Peter–trying to escape a television acting job. Additionally, the obsessive fandom is addressed, with a moment that could easily reference the irrelevance of the actual performers when the band is mobbed during Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” and torn to pieces–only to be revealed as mannequins. There’s no particular time taken up with drawing up the characters of the show, or even the Monkees as being the “television” Monkees as even a band. They are who they are, but they are left to be that, rather than being carefully illustrated and shaded.

But this isn’t really the joy of Head, which I indeed still loved: the work of editor Michael Pozen–and, occasionally credited (as, er, uncredited), Monte Hellman–and the endless visual, directorial, and photographic choices. The opening scene, an unheralded, unexplained moment of civic ritual–a mayoral bridge opening–is interrupted by Mickey as he barrels through the ribbon before the mayor (Charles Irving) can cut it, suddenly leaping off a bridge into the water below, which turns to a heavily colorized, polarized negative as he drifts underwater and is gathered up by mermaids. Cuts, overlays, transpositions, juxtapositions, flashing rapid cuts and insertions, alternations, and endless moments are sprinkled heavily throughout to punctuate, stylize, colour, and blend the disparate moments of a crazed, seemingly random movie that somehow maintains an inexplicable focus under the directorial helm of Bob Rafelson–who, along with executive producer Bert Schneider, created the TV show for the group–and the drug-addled (whether inspired chemically, or imaginatively post-chemically) pens of Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson (yep, that one!).

The nature of the incisive, rapid, and minimally inserted commentary–bits on consumerism, war and its place in society–via strange and random jokes, and extremely unexpected moments like the footage of the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém (cleverly set against the hysteria of fans of bands as seen in the ’60s) doesn’t in any way “manage” to carefully tread the line–it saunters confidently, and deservedly so. It wants to say things and does, and it wants to make almost no sense, and it does. It’s absurdity with a sharp tongue: Davy Jones and Tony Basil dance bombastically (in flashing inverted costumes and sets) to Davy singing Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” (and singing any of Harry’s songs is an excellent way to win my heart)–and so there’s the sweetness of a Nilsson song, the flash and bang of a choreographer and performer dancing–to a song about paternal abandonment.

If you need any further enticement–though you certainly shouldn’t–we have the parade of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos: Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Frank Zappa leading a rather unusual cow, the aforementioned Basil, Sonny Liston, Terry Garr, an inexplicably gigantic Victor Mature (not a blink-and one, but still!). Or there’s the genres covered: war, musical, absurdist commentary, trippy art-house, mystery, existential, silent…it’s unique, to be certain of nothing else.

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