(Observations on Bob Rafelson’s film masterpiece)
by Jon Kanis
(originally published in Schlock in 1994; subsequently reprinted in Subliminal Tattoos in 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 kind
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?
If a rosetta stone were necessary to explore the concepts of the film Head, one needn’t look further than the “Diddy Diego” chant that pops up near the beginning of the film. If you’ve seen Head, and you can’t figure out what it’s about, you certainly are not alone. While it may be difficult to assess this minor masterpiece of a film, Head remains a stunning portraiture of the esoterica in our sub-conscious and the flimsy notion of what we try to pin down as Reality.
To those not in the know, Head was the first feature film directed, produced and written by Bob Rafelson, who later found acclaim for his work directing Five Easy Pieces(1970) and The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972). Co-scripting and producing Head(as well as starring in the two above titles) was Jack Nicholson, who along with the four Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork) created the interior landscape of Head.
When Head was first released (November 6, 1968), it apparently sailed over the collective populace of everyone in the mainstream media. Most critics of the film thought that it was a drug movie, as Stanley Kaufman remarked in the New Republic “I’ve been hearing that in order to enjoy Head, you have to be high on pot. I enjoyed it while smoking a cigar.” Renata Adler, writing for the New York Times, missed the boat completely, suggesting 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 the film’s shortcomings, Head needn’t be written off as a drug movie. Besides, grass might not be a strong enough stimulant to fully appreciate the benefits of what Head has to offer.
Whatever your choice of drug (coffee, tea or TV), Head’s sense of style comes from a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness dreamscape — from a world that is closer to the astral than the material plane, and it harbors a message that is synonymous with the vibrations of the time: love your brother, love the planet, respect all living things and isn’t this a silly box that we’ve climbed into as our love affair with science and technology grows. More about the box later.
Five years after Head first appeared, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Timesreassessed 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” applies itself to make many deliberate points about civilization circa ‘68, and it 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 here). The film spends much of its time lampooning everything that comes across its field of vision and Head draws its greatest breath by lampooning and deflating the concept of the Monkees.
The film opens with a blast of feedback while the local news media mill around to report on the christening of a newly constructed bridge (to where you might ask?). As the local mayor begins his speech, out of nowhere the four principals of the film (Micky, Davy, Peter and Michael) come bursting through the red ribbon, signifying the end of a race (or perhaps the beginning) and all four rush to the highest point of the bridge before Micky initiates a collective suicide leap into the water below. This was obviously not a ploy to pander to the pre-teen age group that gave the group its commercial lifeblood on television and radio. Indeed, this was a deliberate slap in the face of the Concept and it served to distance the Monkees from what you thought they were to what they had become. No more living in the past, Head signaled a trumpet blast that a new era had arrived.
Unfortunately, the public was unwilling or unable to allow the Monkees to change and grow and Head never had the chance to find a contemporary audience and connect with it. By November of 1968, the Monkees audience consisted mainly of pre-pubescent teeny-boppers, and this was a film that never addressed that audience for a moment.Head was very much an artistic statement aimed at the avant-garde underground, offering the Monkees as symbolic silly putty, to be used and abused as Rafelson, Nicholson and the Monkees themselves saw fit. The film had the appallingly short run of three days in New York City and it never received a general release. Part of this could be blamed on the way that the film was marketed. In the initial print and television adverts the Monkees weren’t mentioned at all. Instead, Rafelson employed a mixed-media promoter named John Brockman to appear in a “head shot” for the film’s advertisement, with simply the word HEAD superimposed. The ad campaign was minimalist to a fault you might say. Contrary to what Pauline Kael asserts in her piece for the New Yorker, Brockman does appear in the film, yet he is hardly the “star” of Head. Everyone and no one is the star and Brockman deserves to be Head’s poster boy as much as anyone.
From the Monkees’ leap into the water (what some might consider a leap into the sub-conscious), the tone of the film is established, with one brilliant match cut after another, until a pace is set that disallows the viewer to remain comfortably lodged in one scenario for longer than three minutes. This can be quite jarring at times, but that is an integral part of the big picture. Anyone who has ever tried to meditate or has simply sat and observed their thoughts knows that the mind can easily jump from one landscape to another with alarming frequency. From this perspective, Head serves as an incredible visual metaphor for the inner workings of the mind, and subsequently reveals much more to its audience than most films with a linear story line and plot. Head certainly works as passive entertainment, but to reap its greatest rewards the film asks that you become a participator with the action on the screen.
So, back to the images. The free-floating montage that Rafelson constructed is so rich that one hardly knows where to begin. I keep asking myself, “What is being said here?” Something Big, I suspect, but not the sort of thing that is easy to put your finger on. 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 life itself a film? Reality becomes blurred to the point that the lines of separation no longer exist. Again, what is being said here?
Someone holds a remote control and keeps changing the channel. This keeps the pace moving and it keeps the audience from getting too settled into one groove. Micky finds himself in a desert with no water until he happens upon a Coke machine, but the joke is on him. The machine is empty (as is the commercial enterprise of the Monkees) and out of his frustration he ends up blowing up the very thing that helped to create his present circumstances. The ironies abound in Head.
The public image of the Monkees is the film’s central theme and it crops up all over the place. In the cafeteria of the movie set within the film, the mere presence of the Monkees instantly empties out the room, prompting a volley of banter with a transvestite waitress. “Well, if it isn’t God’s gift to the eight-year-old” he/she says. “Just trying to please” retorts Mike. After doing a Las Vegas style song and dance (”Daddy’s Song”), Davy walks out to the applause of extras (this being the only time in Head that one of Monkees garner anyone’s approval. Keep it sweet and predictable.) After the applause, Davy is greeted by The Critic (played by Frank Zappa) who tells him “That song was pretty white.” Davy shoots back “Well so am I, what can I tell ya.” The Critic states that “You’ve been working on your dancing though. 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.” Could I have a bucket to catch the dripping sarcasm, please?
From public image to personal identity, the concept of a box is very central to Head. In the sixties it was very fashionable to relate to people by the sort of bag they were in. This cliquish approach is carried several steps further by pursuing the subliminal question of what box have I placed myself into with my perceptions? Towards the end, as the channels keep flipping, 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 just a little too small to breed the hope that the Monkees could escape from the straightjacket of their own built-in limitations. It appears that in this world, a coffin comes with the territory.
But this is nothing to be afraid of. In death, just like in a dreamscape, scenes melt into one another with characters from one scene changing costumes and linking hands with different scenarios. Continuity is only an illusion and in this reality everything happens simultaneously. The lilting and beautiful “As We Go Along” serves to underscore the message of living in the here and now, the subtle, yet appropriate, subtext to the whole ofHead and, ultimately, of life itself.
The sequence for “As We Go Along” weaves a stunning visual tapestry of the four principals wandering through the celestial beauty of nature, only to have the song’s climax come crashing down to the modern day reality of what man has done to the natural, phenomenal world. Cast out of Eden indeed. We find that mankind has littered the horizon with billboards to sell the very trinkets that he has reaped from Mother Earth. Subversively subtle, with Rafelson employing a litany of images that deserves a standing ovation.
From that series of images we then move into the lion’s den of a giant factory, where the four principals are being given a guided tour of the benefits to be gained by the industrial revolution. “Leisure,” their tour guide tells them, “is the inevitable by-product of our civilization. We are creating a new world, whose only pre-occupation 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 tell them that “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.” After giving them the seeds of understanding modern man’s dilemma of the atomic age, he then ushers them into a dark room (a box) and slams the door behind them. A series of vignettes occur, and after finding a way out of the box, they find themselves willing to walk right back in. Or does this box only appear to be the same?
Your mind can be a trap and that’s why reality as a concept keeps being shuffled around in Head. Continuing with the box motif, Davy peers through the bars of an existential jail cell and drifting through the fog of his circumstances he hears a swami’s voice offering counsel. “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. 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 that 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. 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.” Is he being clear? No, not by a long shot, but it does give you something to think about when the film is over (a Hollywood no-no).
Without ever repeating itself, the film manages to come full circle several times, and when the final tally is rung, one might ask who controls the world of Head. Victor Mature’s omnipotent character (The Big Victor) would seem to be the master of this particular universe, as he sits in the director’s chair at the end of the film with the Monkees trapped in their final box (in an aquarium, back to a body of water again). In Head, even the end credits get lampooned with the film stock catching fire and when it is all over the film ends with a glorious giggle, neutralizing the occasional heavy-handedness of the film, suggesting that in the end, it was all done for a laugh. And really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that what life and going to the movies is all about?