Monday, December 20, 2010

A safe place for cinematic risk taking (and lots and lots of Jack Nicholson): America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

The initials stood for Bert, Bob and Steve, but however cavalier, cutthroat or chaotic BBS Productions may have been during it’s short but tremendously influential run during the late ’60s and early ’70s, this was the home of an extended family of multi-talented movie artists head-deep in collaboration. The name could just as easily have been LKJ, for László, Karen and Jack, as in cinematographer Kovács, actress Black, and writer, director, producer and, of course, actor Nicholson, each of whom could seemingly always be found working in some capacity on some movie somewhere within the BBS boutique. Seven such movies, a couple of them produced before the inauguration of the BBS brand, can be found in
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, a new box set elegantly curated by the Criterion Collection, released last month on Blu-ray, last week on DVD. A cinematic roadmap of post-studio era, pre-Star Wars Hollywood, it’s easily one of the most remarkable thematic assemblages currently available on home video.

Producer Bert Schneider and director Bob Rafelson, their partnership initially dubbed Raybert, made a splash with
The Monkees on TV in 1966. Neither the eponymous band nor their show could be regarded as an auspicious foundation for creative daring, but Head (1968), ostensibly the Prefab Four’s own Hard Day’s Night (64), took the Monkees’ image in an audacious direction, openly confirming the critique that had been accurately leveled against them from the start: the band was manufactured from market research. “The money’s in/We’re made of tin/We’re here to give you more,” goes the chipper chant that launches this free-associative satire on antiquated genres and politics. Written by Rafelson and Nicholson in offices, closets and Harry Dean Stanton’s basement while under the influence of LSD, drunk on Brecht by way of Godard, brimming with bizarre cameos by the likes of Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello and Victor Mature, Head responded to the needs of a youth movement who didn’t identify with what movies had been, an audience grooving instead to Bonnie and Clyde (67) and 2001 (68). Truthfully, unlike everything else in Criterion’s box, Head, its satirical targets as broad as its humour, feels at best like a time capsule.

Everything changes, for Raybert as well as the entire industry, with Easy Rider (69), bad-boy actor Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, which took the aggressive, drug-addled provocations inherit in the exploitation cheapies helmed by Roger Corman—the producer who gave many BBS associates their first breaks—and elevated them into the realm of personal statement. A story of hippy bikers touring a country with whom they share a sense of mutual alienation, their restless journey unfolding to a soundtrack of Dylan, Hendrix, the Band and Steppenwolf, Easy Rider meant a great deal to me when I discovered it, as people generally do, in my teens. If it means slightly less now it’s partly because Hopper’s career only became more strange and fascinating from here on, partly because its most enduring innovations have their roots in richer European predecessors. Easy Rider made buckets of money. Shocked studios scrambled to mimic it. The biggest feather yet in Schneider’s cap, it gave birth to BBS, Rafelson’s first serious narrative film, and a peculiar star by the name of Jack Nicholson.

Five Easy Pieces (70), scripted by Nicholson's friend Carol Eastman from Rafelson's own story, remains Rafelson’s most fully realized work. If it tells us a lot about the ’60s, it does so strictly through the lens of a textured character study that’s got nothing to do with flower power. When we meet Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) he’s working oil rigs outside Bakersfield, going bowling, drinking beer, and living with Rayette (Karen Black) who dreams of becoming the next Tammy Wynette and is frequently found perched on the bathroom sink like a giant witchy kitten. We gradually learn that Bobby comes from a very different class, region, and skill set, that Bobby has seemingly condemned himself to a life of constantly frustrated escape attempts. Discovering that his father’s ill, Bobby ditches drives north to visit his family. He’s at home nowhere and perhaps for that reason seems most in his element on the road, where he can let his mind wander while hitchhikers babble on about Alaska or memorably tell off cold-blooded waitresses. With Five Easy Pieces Nicholson finally found himself on-screen, capitalizing on that callous confidence that masks a fathomless despair. Bobby Dupea is mostly an asshole, but his fascination with other people and how they live their lives outweighs his contempt.

With Drive, He Said (71), based on Jeremy Larner’s novel, Nicholson proved to also possess directorial chops, using the contrast between a libidinous college basketball star and his prankster/activist friend as an opportunity to swing between classical and fragmented, sensation-oriented storytelling. For all its interest in student demonstrations it’s not as politically engaged as it might want to be, but the film is lively, unpredictable and sometimes hilarious, very playful with form and music, and very concerned with male potency and its multiple shortcomings. And Nicholson clearly loves the court—I can’t think of another basketball movie that captures the same nimble fluidity.

Having long been familiar with the more celebrated titles in
America Lost and Found, my single most exciting personal discovery arrived in the shape of the hypnotic, haunting, at times hallucinatory A Safe Place (71), the debut of writer/director Henry Jaglom, whose constant shuffling of images from different points in time recalls Alain Resnais’ Muriel (63), and who, not surprisingly, helped cut the stroboscopic transitions in Easy Rider. It’s based on, of all things, a play, which Jaglom wrote for Karen Black, though the film’s lead is Tuesday Weld. Slipping between various Manhattan apartments and rooftops and stretches of Central Park, the film deliberately dissembles chronology in favour of rippling, disorienting psychological portraiture. The story as such is simple enough, concerning a love triangle between Susan (Weld), Fred (Philip Proctor) and Mitch (Nicholson), yet one of the most arresting sequences features a monologue spoken by a secondary character played by Gwen Welles, and one of the most memorable characters is a magician played by Orson Welles (no relation), intent on making someone or something disappear. Disappearance is indeed a goal for Susan, whose life, fraught with emotional turmoil, has become so unmoored and dreamlike that she almost seems to be disintegrating from the start. Though it’s initially shocking to see Nicholson in this supporting role (!), I dare say he gives one of the greatest performances of his career, at once seductive and sad, heartbroken and horny, encircling Weld, eating a sandwich, showing up in the middle of the night, desperate for companionship, yet almost palpably uneasy with cuckolding Proctor. I don’t know that he ever registered such genuine surprise on-screen again.

Okay, there’s still more praise for Nicholson to come, but in the meantime let’s remember that once upon a time Hollywood raconteur—that’s French for shameless name-dropper—Peter Bogdanovich made truly wonderful movies. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show (71) seems at first the antithesis of a hip BBS production: a period film, shot in black and white, rife with homage to the great American studio era directors Howard Hawks and John Ford. But this is a story about aimless youth, pointless war—swap Vietnam for Korea—and most of all sex, a force which rules, changes and never quite ruins lives in a small Texas town in the mid-’50s, where everyone knows everyone’s business and the local disc jockey never runs out of Hank Williams records to play. Bogdanovich’s bittersweet erotic web includes an achingly young Cybil Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges, and the not-so-young, but quite possibly aching, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn. The town’s most respected bachelor dies, the kids go off to fight or get an education, and the beloved movie house closes down. Everything is ending in The Last Picture Show, yet life is stubbornly just beginning for its soft-spoken, irresponsible, uncertain hero.

The King of Marvin Gardens (72) begins David (Nicholson) speaks in darkened space, his face in close-up, telling a story about the everyday terror of family suppers. Turns out David’s a late-night talk radio storyteller. He’s timid, wears owlish spectacles and ties, is resigned to solitude—in other words the opposite of Jack Nicholson. Yet Nicholson’s superb here, as is Bruce Dern, who plays Jason, the lively younger brother hell-bent on convincing David that they’re about to hit the big time by building a casino on a private island in Hawaii, though the bulk of the story takes place in a wintry Atlantic City. Rafelson, collaborating with László Kovács, who previously shot Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, never moves the camera, preferring to let these mismatched brothers face-off against bleak land- and seascapes that feel frozen in time. Of course Jason’s a con-man, and everything goes bad, but there’s a muted vitality to The King of Marvin Gardens that makes it a perfect note to finish America Lost and Found on. There would only be one more BBS production, the documentary masterpiece Hearts and Minds (74), which Criterion has already put out.

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