Sunday, August 02, 2009
Great Acid Movies #7: HEAD (1968)
Jack Nicholson wrote the script, shortly after writing THE TRIP, so you know drugs inspired the brilliant disconnects and loose-footed free association of HEAD, the Monkee's "no one cares about as anymore so fuck-it" masterpiece. This ain't your parent's Monkees, it ain't even their kids' Monkees, and this kind of seemingly on-the-spot improv is easy to do wrong and hard to get right if you're not on the button - and Nicholson and company were clearly on the (Peyote?) button. The movie was undoubtedly meant as a post-contract nose-tweak at the TV producers of the Monkees' hit TV show for dubbing their instruments, but years later it's still a cult classic and the Monkees TV show is... well, less... of one.
There are film clips from several of my favorite movies, including THE BLACK CAT and GILDA in HEAD, and there are great talking head interviews that lead nowhere ("If someone laughs at you, that's a violation of your civil rights!") and cameos galore: Terri Garr, Victor Mature, Frank Zappa ("I see you've been working on your dancing, though."), and of course Jack, before he was anyone. Zappa later tried to do something similar to HEAD with his 200 MOTELS, but as I recall it didn't quite get there. This stuff is harder to pull off than director Bob Rafelson makes it look.
My favorite of the four lads here is Mike Nesmith, who takes up the exaggeratedly dry and humorlessly hilarious cool leader position, the kind of role I generally assumed when I was "acting guide" in college "acid tests." I saw this as the back half of a student union double feature with YELLOW SUBMARINE the first time I ever took any sort of psychedelic (it was a $5 envelope of psiclocybe cubensis) as a freshman (back when movies were shown from actual film reels at colleges). The experience changed my life forever.
The production company behind HEAD, AIP (American International Pictures) also made the BEACH PARTY movies, DR. GOLDFOOT and THE BIKINI MACHINE and the Corman Poe series. Rafelson's film raids seemingly every prop and backdrop from AIP studio storage, with western vignettes, cobwebbed castle corridors, World War Two foxholes, factories manned by a Tor Johnson-style gorilla... and, yes, Anette Funicello.
That all said, there are some draggy song moments, such as Peter Tork wandering through the snow and Davey Jones reviving tacky British music hall. Luckily however, there are no sped up comical chase sequences, which The MONKEES were so fond of on TV. Wait, come to think of it, there are... at the very end. Well... that's show biz!
The acid 'peak' for me would be the great Timothy Carey (as "Lord High'N'Low"), running up to boys and shouting "Where ya been? I been lookin' all over the world for ya!" he later shows up again at Mike's birthday party - a Warhol factory-like surprise party scene in which Mike crankily berates the crowd: "Maybe I was better off where I was. You jump out me, scare me half to death," then adds the coup de grace: "The same thing goes for Christmas!"
Then, the crowd parts as Timothy Carey, deformed with some kind of bizarre facial paralysis, dressed from AIP wardrobe in cowboy mining attire with a noose around his neck, stalking through from the back of the crowd, meandering, shambling, slouching towards Nesmith, going "Attaboy, Mike... atta... boy... Mike," over and over again, progressively more hysterical and menacing, which--if you've ever been tripping or a schizophrenic--is hilarious, because that's how it "really" is... any little phrase or word can echo in the head until you go insane. All your filters are off and the world comes in bright and crazy, it's all too much!
Looking into Carey's insane eyes is to glimpse the primordial eternal power of art to transmute this existential terror into dark black comedy. If you can laugh even as you're being ripped apart by the demonic lurkers at the threshold, you're doing all right. In the words of Jesus, a rich man can't enter the gates of heaven any more than a camel through the eye of a needle. What the demons do is rip you to small enough shreds they can fit you through that little eye...so you can walk like Groucho Marx into the flames and not even sweat.
I've only literally fallen out of my seat laughing (in public anyway) twice, and seeing HEAD at that midnight campus screening was the first time. People around me thought I might have to be carried away. I laughed until my stomach hurt and tears streamed down on the auditorium floor. I had been reborn. When I went into the theater that night I was just a frightened nerd with dandruff and clammy hands, but when I emerged from the theater I looked this (left), a Dionysian representative of crazy Mike Nesmithian absurdist-confidence radiating psychedelic light. How do you thank a film for doing that? If it wanted the sun, I would write it down in letters that would burn a thousand feet high, "to Sir High'n'Low... with love"