Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Great Acid Movies: HEAD

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. 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, eh heh, "button" indeed. 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 the Monkees TV show is... well, forgotten.

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 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 "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 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.

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"


  1. I had never heard of this one before now. I'm so excited so see it! Trippy AND good looking? What?

  2. Great review. The film has some flaws, which you've succinctly identified, but they're more than made up for by a plethora of hilarious moments.

    BTW, I've passed along a "Great Read" award to you. Details here:

    Kind regards,


  3. Thanks, Whitney. The two go hand-in-hand. I wish I was you just so I could see it for the first time all over again!

    And thanks for the award, Neil. I shall hang it on me proverbial wall... forthwith!

  4. The thing about HEAD is, every time you watch it, it sorta feels like the first time. It's packed with so many hilarious details. The moments that make me laugh: the tracking shot across the soldiers at the beginning, with each face garnering a drum beat, and then one goofy face gets a cowbell clunk; the cop who grills the boys calling to Mickey "You--Fuzzy wuzzy. Speak up"; "Nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humor". There are literally hundreds more, but these stand out for me right now. This is one of those movies that, if you get it, it feels like your very own. I wish more people would see it, but then again, that might trip up its unusual appeal. By the way, I agree with the Tork snow trek being a slow moment, but it provided the movie with a certain sweet dynamic. I feel the same way about Davy's trippy dancehall routine, which I sort of love for the precise direction and editing back and forth between those two contrasting setups with Davy and Toni Basil. Plus it leads to Zappa's onscreen moment, a self-reflexive criticism of the scene and a call to arms. In all, I guess I'm saying that the movie doesn't do anything wrong at all. CC me on that letter you'd write.

  5. Of course, Nicholson had a hand in creating "The Monkees"...

  6. He did? I thought he just worked on the film. Thanks for cluing us in, Kathryb.

  7. Jack Nicholson had nothing to do with The Monkees tv series, just the feature film Head.

    AIP had nothing to do with the production of Head. It was filmed AT Columbia Studios (plus some "real" locations). It was produced by Raybert Productions (producers of the tv series) and released by Columbia Pictures.

    I do like your interesting comparison to 200 Motels and I very much enjoy the Acidemic site!


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