Living in the Head

(Observations on Bob Rafelson’s film masterpiece)

Chapter 21 in Encyclopedia Walking: Pop Culture & the Alchemy of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Jon Kanis
Originally appeared in Schlock, #12, 1994. Reprinted in Subliminal Tattoos, #5, Summer, 1995.

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees, you know we love to please,
A manufactured image, with no philosophies.
We hope you like our story, although there isn’t one,
That is to say there’s many, that way there is more fun.
You told us you like action and games of many kinds
You like to dance, we like to sing, so let’s all lose our minds.
We know it doesn’t matter, ‘cause what you came to see
Is what we’d love to give you, and give it one-two-three.
But it may come three-two-one-two or jump from nine-to-five
And when you see the end in sight the beginning may arrive.
For those who look for meanings in form as they do fact,
We might tell you one thing, but we’d only take it back.
Not back like in a box back, not back like in a race,
Not back so we can keep it, but back in time and space.
You say we’re manufactured, to that we all agree,
So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free.
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees, we’ve said it all before,
The money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more.
The money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you…?


So. There it is. Should you require a Rosetta Stone road map to explore the surreal notions within the loop-de-loop, skyscraper citadel that is the motion picture Head, I suggest looking no further than the “Diddy Diego–War Chant” that appears near the top of the film. The grand conundrum that is Head is also a cinematic masterpiece, uniquely representative of the esoterica contained within our collective consciousness—with the added bonus of demonstrating how relativity makes it impossible for us to pinpoint or precisely agree on what exactly constitutes consensus “Reality.”

Head was at the vanguard of a radical movement of brilliant, maverick filmmakers coming into prominence during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was the first feature film directed, produced, and written by Bob Rafelson, who later found acclaim directing Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). In addition to starring in the three above-mentioned titles, Jack Nicholson co-scripted and produced Head, in tandem with all four Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork), who each contribute equally to the dadesque, funhouse interior of Head.

When Head was released on November 6, 1968 (the day after Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency), its symbolism apparently sailed right over the scant few who cared to comment about it in the mainstream media. Taking the inference from the street slang “head,” as in someone who has “turned on” their cerebellum through chemical means—some critics believed it was a drug movie, with the New Republic’s Stanley Kaufman remarking “I’ve been hearing that in order to enjoy Head, you have to be high on pot. I enjoyed it while smoking a cigar.” The New York Times Renata Adler missed the boat completely and wheezed that Head “might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass or if you like to scream at the Monkees, or if you are interested in what interests drifting heads and hysteric high-school girls.”

Whatever your particular drug of choice (coffee, tea or… television?), Head’s freewheeling sense of style comes from a nonlinear, psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness dreamscape, resembling the astral plane far more than the physical. The thoughts inside Head reverberate and resonate with cosmic consciousness, projecting a message synonymous with the vibrations of its time: love your brother, love the planet, respect all living things, and wow, isn’t this a silly Box that we’ve locked ourselves inside of, as our love affair with science and technology grows out of control. More about the Box later.

Five years after Head first appeared, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times reassessed the film and asserted that “you have to wonder how the critics and the early audiences could have missed the film’s fierce visual energy and perhaps even more the film’s tart, iconoclastic point of view.” That “fierce, visual energy” makes many deliberate points about civilization circa 1968, and does so with candor, humor, and complete irreverence. Teeter-tottering between taking itself too seriously and taking nothing seriously at all (there are no sacred cows herein), Head lampoons everything that comes across its depth of field—drawing its greatest breath by deflating and satirizing the pre-fab construct of the Monkees themselves.

The film opens with a blast of feedback, while journalists mill around at the christening of a newly constructed bridge. A nondescript, middle-aged mayor from central casting begins the dedication, and—BAM!—out of nowhere, our four principals (Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter) tear through the red tape/ribbon, simultaneously concluding and beginning a marathon. As they rush to the highest spot on the bridge, Micky initiates a collective suicide leap into the waters below. Cue Goffin and King. Call Jack Nitzsche.

And by the time the majestic “Porpoise Song” climaxes on the soundtrack three minutes later, it should be obvious to anyone watching the screen that the Monkees were through pandering to the prepubescent audience who had paid them such royal tribute during the golden years of 1966 and ‘67. With the cancellation of their TV show, the game had changed completely, and Head became a sly/deliberate/perverse attempt at killing the Concept entirely, and to distance the group from their public image as prefabricated puppets.

Unfortunately, Head never stood a chance of connecting with a contemporary audience. The film sits outside of time and is very much a High Concept Artistic Statement aimed at the avant-garde New Left underground, offering up the Monkees as symbolic silly putty upon a pyre—to be used and abused as much as Rafelson, Nicholson and the group themselves saw fit. The film had an appallingly short run of three days in New York City when it premiered and it never received a general release. Part of this could be blamed on the way the film was marketed. In the initial print, radio, and television adverts, the Monkees weren’t even referenced. Instead, Rafelson employed mixed-media promoter John Brockman to appear in a “head shot” for the film’s advertisement, with simply the word HEAD superimposed across his forehead. The campaign was minimalist to a fault, you might say. And contrary to what Pauline Kael wrongly asserts in her piece for the New Yorker, Brockman does appear briefly in the film, although he is hardly what you could call the “star” of Head. In the democratic omniverse of Head, everyone and no one is the star, with Brockman earning the right to serve as the film’s poster boy as much as anyone.

From the Monkees’ dive into the water below (a leap into the sub-conscious), the film’s tone is established. With one brilliant match cut after another, a rhythmic pace is established that never allows the viewer to remain lodged within a particular scenario for longer than three minutes. The cuts can be jarring, but that is an integral point of the big picture. Anyone who has meditated, or merely sat and observed their thoughts for a spell, knows how easily the mind can jump from one landscape to another with disarming frequency. From that perspective, Head serves as an incredible visual metaphor for the inner workings of the mind, subsequently suggesting much more to its audience than most films do with a linear plot and storyline. Head certainly works as passive entertainment, but to reap its greatest rewards the film asks that you become a participant with the action on the screen.

As for the images within the film, the free-floating montage that Rafelson has constructed is so rich that one hardly knows where to begin. The audience’s perception of reality is constantly being challenged. Are we watching a film or are we in a film? Are we watching a film about making a film about being in a film? Is the film a metaphor for life itself? Reality has become so convoluted that the lines of distinction no longer exist.

Someone holds a remote control and keeps changing the channels. In one sequence Micky finds himself stranded in a desert, shirtless and parched, until he happens upon a Coca-Cola machine. With salvation merely a sip away, it turns out that the joke’s on him, as this symbol of American imperialism is “out-of-order” (exactly like the television enterprise of the Monkees themselves). Out of frustration, he blows up the very Box that helped to create his present circumstances. Oh, how the ironies abound in Head.

The public image of the Monkees as a plastic construct is the film’s central theme, and it crops up everywhere. In the cantina of the movie studio set within the film, the Monkees are branded as pariahs and the stench of their arrival instantly clears the room. The only person left who is willing to interact with them is a fellow freak of a transvestite waitress, greeting them cheerily with: “Well, if it isn’t God’s gift to the eight-year-old?” “Just trying to please” retorts Nesmith. After doing a Las Vegas-style song-and-dance routine to Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song,” Davy walks out to a sea of applause (it’s the only time in Head that one of the Monkees garners anyone’s approval). Davy is greeted by the Critic, played by an appropriately typecast Frank Zappa, who sneeringly tells him “That song was pretty white.” Davy shoots back, “Well, so am I, what can I tell ya.” “You’ve been working on your dancing though,” observes the Critic. “It doesn’t leave much time for your music. You should spend more time on it because the youth of America depend on you to show the way.” May we please have a bucket to catch the dripping sarcasm?

From public image to personal identity, the concept of the Box is central to Head. In the parlance of the ‘60s it was extremely fashionable to refer to people by what sort of “bag” they were in. This cliquish approach is taken several steps to the extreme by pursuing the subliminal questions of what sort of Box have I placed myself into with my perceptions? And exactly how AM I using my free will as a human being? As the channels keep flipping towards the end of the film, Micky states that “this Box right now composes our universe.” How big is this Box and is there room for growth? Judging from the collective suicide that begins and ends the film, it would appear that the Box of television and the cage of public perception were a bit too confining to breed any hope that the Monkees could escape from the straightjacket of their own built-in limitations. Of course, in this particular universe, a coffin comes with the territory. But I suspect that is nothing to be afraid of. In death, just as in a dreamscape, situations meld into one another, with characters from one scene changing costumes and linking arms within adjacent scenarios. Continuity is only an illusion and in this particular reality everything happens simultaneously. Life is also an improvisatory theatre piece, a theme that Carole King and Toni Stern’s liltingly beautiful “As We Go Along” serves to underscore.

The sequence for “As We Go Along” weaves a stunning visual tapestry of the four principals wandering through the terrestrial beauty of unspoiled wilderness, only to have the song’s climax come crashing down in a modern day travesty of what man has wrought out of the natural, phenomenal world. Cast out of Eden indeed. We find that mankind has littered the horizon with tacky billboards to sell meaningless trinkets, plundered from the bosom of beautiful Mother Earth. It’s subtly subversive, with Rafelson employing a litany of images that deserve a standing ovation.

From that series of images we move into the lion’s den of a giant factory, with a tour guide explaining to our four principals the enormous benefits that await them in the industrial revolution. “Leisure,” their overseer tells them, is “the inevitable by-product of our civilization. We are creating a new world, whose only preoccupation will be how to amuse itself. The tragedy of your times, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want.” He later goes on to explain “to the degree that we are capable of understanding these mechanical, electrical devices as separate extensions of our brains, to that same degree we are capable of using these machines productively.” Having planted the seeds of understanding to our current dilemma within the atomic age, he then ushers them into a dark room (yet another Box) and slams the door behind them. They do manage to make their way out, only to walk right back in. Or does this particular Box only appear to be the same?

Your mind can be a trap, and that’s why reality, as a concept, keeps getting shuffled around in Head. Continuing with the Box motif, Peter peers through the bars of an existential jail cell, where a mystical swami offers council through the fog of circumstance: “We were speaking of belief. Beliefs and conditioning. All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one system of beliefs deposing another. And so on and so on and so forth. A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain (the conscious and sub-conscious) is unable to discern between the real and the vividly imagined experience—if there is a difference, and most of us believe there is.” The swami turns to Peter and asks “Am I being clear?” He goes on to add that “to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To allow the unknown to occur and to occur requires clarity. And where there is clarity there is no choice. And where there is choice there is misery.” The next time the Monkees get caught in the Box (it happens several times), Peter remembers what he has learned from the swami and interprets him in the following manner: “Psychologically speaking, the mind or the brain, or whatever, is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience. The sound and film, of music and radio—even these manipulated experiences are received more or less directly and uninterpreted by the mind. They are catalogued and recorded and either acted upon directly or stored in the memory or both. Now, this process, unless we pay it tremendous attention, begins to separate us from the reality of the now.” Echoing the swami, Peter asks “Am I being clear? For we must allow the reality of the now to just happen as it happens. Observe and act with clarity. For where there is clarity, there is no choice. And where there is choice there is misery.”

Without ever repeating itself the film comes full circle several times over, and in the final analysis begs the question: who really controls the world of Head? Victor Mature’s omnipotent character sits in the director’s chair at the end of the film with the Monkees trapped in their final Box—an aquarium, encased within a body of water once again. In Head, even the end credits are lampooned, with the film stock catching fire, and when it is all over the film ends with a glorious giggle—suggesting that in the end, it was all done for a laugh.

Cast
Peter Tork ………………………………………………………. Peter
David Jones …………………………………………………….. Davy
Micky Dolenz ……………………………………………….. Micky
Michael Nesmith ………………………………………………. Mike
Annette Funicello ………………………………………… Minnie
Timothy Carey ……………………………… Lord High ‘n Low
Logan Ramsey ……………………………… Officer Faye Lapid
Abraham Sofaer ……………………………………………. Swami
Vito Scotti …………………………………………….. I. Vitteloni
Charles Macaulay ……………………………. Inspector Shrink
T.C. Jones …………………………………….. Mr. and Mrs. Ace
Charles Irving …………………………………. Mayor Feedback
William Bagdad ……………………………………… Black Sheik
Percy Helton ………………………………. Heraldic Messenger
Sonny Liston ………………………………………………….. Extra
Ray Nitschke ………………………………………… Private One
Carol Doda …………………………………………. Sally Silicone
Frank Zappa ……………………………………………. The Critic
June Fairchild ………………………………………… The Jumper
Terry Garr ………………………………………………. Testy True
I.J. Jefferson ……………………………………….. Lady Pleasure
Victor Mature ………………………………… as The Big Victor