Head (1968, Rob Rafelson)
In the ever revolving cultural landscape of rock, rap and certainly pop music, some bands are oft-maligned by those more savvy in deciphering what is genuine and what is not. While there are those bands which resonate with the youth (as well as the not so young, occasionally) for perfectly admirable reasons, namely talent and ingenuity, others are decried as nothing more than cynical industry productions, glossed up and heavily marketed products whose sole purpose is to making the studios' pocket books that much heavier. This has been going on for a long, long time already, with one of the most memorable cases in North America being the birth of The Monkeys, a creation from the minds of Rob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, two American filmmakers who , after witnessing A Hard Day's Night starring The Beatles, found a desire to make their own version television show of similar ilk. After the programmes cancellation, a film was made, Head, which took the band's image an a radically different direction, or, one might say, made the members just plain radical!
No attempts at a plot synopsis for Head could ever suffice for there truly is no plot. Even a few weeks ago when the site gave a brief review of A Hard Day's Night there was something to be written about what The Beatles did throughout that film even though they really did not do much at all. It didn't seem possible to imagine, but Head goes a few legs further into distorting all notions of sensible plot. Our picture opens on a sunny day, somewhere in the United States, where a new bridge is about to be christened. Out of the blue, running tearing through the bright red ribbon and spoiling the ceremony, The Monkeys (Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith) come running onto the bridge and jump into the water below...thus propelling the viewer into the subsequent 85 minutes or so during which time the hip kids trot along a studio lot of rather psychedelic proportions. Appearances in a fake western, a fake war film, a fake boxing film, a fake horror film, a fake birthday bash, all the while offering biting commentary about the Western culture (with a mostly American slant of course) of the late 60s, as well as the ongoing Vietnam war. Nothing is really what it seems in Head, with the exception of, maybe, the multifaceted messages the film tries to convey...perhaps(?).
An evaluation of a piece of cinema the likes of Head brings upon itself certain difficulties. There is now way to critique it by the traditional standards since this is not, in any shape or form, a traditional movie. Are the costumes nice? is the acting good? Does the story hold up? Who cares. None of those aspects hold any water because they are not supposed to hold any water in the first place. A dissection of the film would be more à propos. Even then, Head launches into so many topical issues at such a rapid fire pace, one might being to wonder if the film is actually being serious in any way about any of them in particular. Are the references to the Vietnam war too flippant to be taken seriously? Are they insulting perhaps, given how quickly the topic is dropped? What about those references to commercialism and the consumerist culture the Western world has idolized back then as it still does till this day? Does that scene at the beginning, repeated again at the end, in which The Monkeys jump of the bridge offer commentary about suicide? So many questions percolating our minds and it is, honestly, a bit difficult to make head or tails of it, pardon the pun.
Whether a viewer appreciates the dream like fluidity of Head will come down to, essentially, if he or she can basically 'run' with the concept director Rob Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson (yes, that one) invite them to consider. Even in our early 21st century day and age, not every commentary about war, consumerism, suicide and all of society's other ills are greeted with open arms. How often do we read reviews which scorn movies, television shows, books and songs for being 'too on the nose', for 'lacking subtlety' or 'not showing proper respect' to the people involved or the issue at hand? Our personal backgrounds and political ideologies constantly influence how we take in our culture and whatever fails to hit the right note, the right tone (according to our sensibilities, as always) will make it difficult to accept what might very well be interesting experimentation, for experimentation is very much the nature of Head , insofar as cinema goes, and certainly as traditional North American cinema goes. The creativity that went into and overall worth of Rafelson's picture can be summed up in one simple phrase: hold on to your hats. No time whatsoever is spent on holding the viewer's hands to help them along the way. Was the previous scene a bit too strange for its significance to fully mesh? Well, one might as well press the 'previous chapter' button on your remote because The Monkeys are already doing something else entirely (while actually commenting on something else entirely, get it?). The juxtaposition of specific sounds and images either against one another or immediately before and after one another make for some of the film's boldest moments. Early on, a rabid fan base of young pretty women await the arrival of The Monkeys onstage, only for the movie to cut to a fake war scene in which the band members are stuck in the trenches of what might be either WWI or II, that is evidently beside the point. After some quick bickering about petty things, they charge on into combat in a tunnel, at which time the film cuts back to the concert, as if heading onto stage as a super popular band faced with gargantuan expectations from its fans is like heading into war. The icing on the cake is when, as the band plays a song for its adoring fans, the film cuts to quick although by no means terrible Vietnam War footage. Now, the film speaks to how silly American youth concern themselves with a cheap product placement band rather than the plight of youth elsewhere in the world who suffer at that very moment.
That is but one fine example of what Head as in store for the willing audience member. For all that can be known, the assumptions made in the above assessment are completely off base. Someone who has seen this movie might have read an entirely different message. The movie's qualities go beyond mere socio-political commentary however. There is some fun to be had in seeing the band traverse from one impossibly surreal studio set to another. Tributes are paid to classic film genres, in joke commercials are shot, and bringing some of those ideas to life is very colourful and very well shot set design. For what it is worth, Head is a nice looking film, with a great variety of places and sounds to offer its viewers, and director Rafelson keeps things fresh on a regular basis, making it feel as if we, along with The Monkeys, are exploring the weirdest studio ever conceived by man. As a matter of fact, writing this review at this moment has given birth to yet another notion: the movie takes place on at a studio lot, the precise location where things are fabricated, and what popular band of the time was more fabricated than The Monkeys themselves? It all comes full circle therefore...
Those disappointed with this sightly aimless review, Between the Seats offers an apology. This is the first of the BBS films to be reviewed over the next couple of weeks and it just so happened that we began with what will in all likelihood end up being the most off-kilter and psychotic, which posed some problems when the time came to sit down and write something that made a lick of sense. Be that as it may, Head is a film everybody curious about experimental cinema should discover. One never knows if the results of an experiment will prove successful or not despite all calculations beforehand. It is one of those films that might be brave and intellectually exciting, which is the camp this reviewer falls into, or it might be really, really stupid and vapid, depending on who one asks.A blender of ideas that should produce a great many reactions. although no guarantees said reactions will be warm!