Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Sunday, August 02, 2009
Great Acid Movies 6: HEAD (1968)
Jack Nicholson wrote the script, shortly after writing THE TRIP, so you know drugs inspired the brilliant disconnects and loose-footed anti-commercial totally-free association of HEAD, the Monkee's "no one cares about as anymore so fuck-it" masterpiece. Bob Rafelson directed and he'd risen the ranks by directing the Monkees' TV show, which--though it's aged a bit due to its constant aping of Hard Day's Night, has moments of crackling surrealist wit. Well, HEAD ain't that Monkees, it ain't even the Monkees you don't want to remember but nonetheless, it's the kind of surrealist masterpiece that only gets weirder on repeat viewings, full of great music (the album is a must, and songs from it have appeared all over movies by Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, etc.) and deranged odysseys, undoubtedly meant as a post-contract nose-tweak at the TV producers of the Monkees' hit TV show for dubbing their instruments, years later it's still a cult classic, studded with cameos from all sorts of Rafelson-Nicholson regulars (from Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider etc), and great bits by everyone from Frank Zappa to Timothy Carey to Victor Mature. Even the fake Tor Johnson shows up!
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 Nicholson in a blink-and-miss cameo, 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 (and was shot on cheap video). This stuff is harder to pull off than 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 the "acting guide" in college "acid tests," which I usually was. 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 as a freshman (back when movies were shown from actual film reels at colleges). The experience changed my life forever. I laughed so hard I got almost hyseterical. Fortunately most of the crowd had left by then, and those that were there weren't in much better shape. And if there's a place to laugh hysterically (literally) in the audience, it's HEAD.
The production company behind HEAD wasn't AIP (American International Pictures) but the BBS conglomerate which also made EASY RISER- but it's got AIP in its blood. There's elements of BEACH PARTY movies, and the Corman Poe series. Rafelson's film raids seemingly every prop and backdrop from back lot studio storage, with western vignettes, cobwebbed castle corridors, World War Two foxholes,.. and, yes, Anette Funicello. Compared to the more death-rebirth focused imagery of Corman's The Trip from the previous year, of course, this is inevitably lighter. The music is better, and the comedy is deadpan gold but the Nicholson 'he knows what he's talking about' LSD savvy is all over the place. It's the kind of thing you can't fake, and if you doubt, just compare to all the terrible, dated big studio productions of the time, all desperate to grab the hip hippie dollar by adding light show frugging, Goldie Hawn in buckskin shorts, and/or old men trying to stay relevant by toking on hookahs.
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 set to one of their ditties, 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 art's true primordial eternal mission: to transmute true existential terror into surreal 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. The demon dogs at the scales of lightness, the camel in the eye of the needle, and Peter Tork's ice cream hand at the commissary: baby, it's all the same. But why listen to me? I know nothing. I know nothing like the back of my hand.
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, wire rim glasses, and clammy hands, but when I emerged from the theater I looked like this (left), a Dionysian representative of crazy Mike Nesmithian absurdist-confidence radiating psychedelic light but without the tacky peace/love gooeyness. 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"