America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Noah Tsika
Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; produced by Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson, and Bert Schneider; photographed by Michel Hugo; edited by Michael Pozen and Monte Hellman; starring Peter Tork, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Teri Garr, Victor Mature. Blu-ray, 85 min., color, 1968.
Directed by Dennis Hopper; written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern; produced by Peter Fonda; photographed by László Kovács; edited by Donn Cambern; starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Toni Basil, Phil Spector. Blu-ray, 95 min., color, 1969.
Five Easy Pieces
Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Carole Eastman; produced by Bob Rafelson; cinematography by László Kovács; edited by Christopher Holmes and Gerald Shepard; starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Lois Smith, and Susan Anspach. Blu-ray, 98 min., color, 1970.
Drive, He Said
Directed by Jack Nicholson; written by Jeremy Larner and Jack Nicholson; produced by Steve Blauner and Jack Nicholson; photographed by Bill Butler; edited by Donn Cambern, Christopher Holmes, Pat Somerset, and Robert L. Wolfe; starring William Tepper, Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Robert Towne. Blu-ray, 90 min., color, 1970.
A Safe Place
Directed by Henry Jaglom; written by Henry Jaglom; produced by Bert Schneider; photographed by Richard C. Kratina; edited by Pieter Bergema; starring Tuesday Weld, Orson Welles, Phil Proctor, Jack Nicholson. Blu-ray, 92 min., color, 1971.
The Last Picture Show
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich; written by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; photographed by Robert Surtees; edited by Donn Cambern; starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan. Blu-ray, 126 min., B&W, 1971.
The King of Marvin Gardens
Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Jacob Brackman; produced by Bob Rafelson; photographed by László Kovács; edited by John F. Link; starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Scatman Crothers. Blu-ray, 104 min., color, 1972.
A Criterion Collection release distributed by Image Entertainment.
Why, during the closing stages of the Sixties, did Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner—the masterminds behind The Monkees—recommend a renewal of the studio system? After all, the latter half of that decade effectively drove the final nail into the coffin of Old Hollywood, abolishing the all-too-embarrassing Production Code and creating new standards for assimilating experience—standards that explicitly did away with the Code’s concern for social niceties like heterosexual marriage, motherly sacrifice, and soda shops. (One of the first post-Code films to reconfigure the soda shop—1970’s Little Big Man—did so in expressly erotic terms, lingering on an elephant-head spigot whose phallic tusks figure prominently in Faye Dunaway’s sex scene.) That the studio era ended with much fanfare is a cultural assumption in need of reconsideration, since it neglects the effect of this regime shift on the businesses—the bungalows, back lots, and sound stages—that remained studios in name only, no longer capable of containing a roster of contracted talent collectively beholden to unchanging aims.
The basic narrative is by now familiar: following a series of unqualified triumphs, including the almost unprecedented financial success of 1965’s The Sound of Music, the major movie studios discovered, much to their communal chagrin and capitalist consternation, that certain narrative and esthetic formulas were failing to sell tickets. Twentieth Century-Fox in particular suffered at its own formula-following hands, producing a high-priced triumvirate that tanked: in fewer than fifteen months, the musical films Dr. Doolittle (1967),Star! (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969), all modeled according to the blueprint behind The Sound of Music, managed to capsize the studio. At around the same time, the independently produced Head (1968)—itself modeled on an earlier musical success, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964)—brought the pop group The Monkees to a new plane of artistry (and pretension), and, while not a box-office hit, generated enough prerelease attention to validate Columbia’s decision to distribute the film. Proceeds from the television sale of Head went straight to the studio following a considerable bidding war between NBC and CBS (the eventual winner). What’s more, Head had a grip on the counterculture and, much like another 1968 release—George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—quickly became a fixture of midnight movie houses.
Having triumphed (with ethical reservations, of course—or so they now say) in the mainstream music industry, and having nudged their Beatles knockoff into cinema, Rafelson, Schneider, and Blauner felt justified not only in establishing their own ministudio, BBS Productions, but also in asking Columbia for continued support. That the first film produced under the auspices of BBS—1969’s Easy Rider—quickly became both a box-office success and a cultural milestone must have emboldened the men to take on increasingly challenging work, from the laudable (an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s minimalist, elegiac novel, The Last Picture Show, about the death blow dealt to cinema by television, circa 1951) to the nearly plagiaristic (the amalgamation of Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? that is Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said) to the irresistibly bizarre (a family melodrama set in a desolate Atlantic City that says more about brotherly relations than most films released before or since, the stunning The King of Marvin Gardens). What connects all of these works, beyond the sponsorship of Columbia Pictures, is a belief in the capacity of film form to reflect disparate—and often drug-induced—states.
Consider, for example, the infamous acid-trip sequence of Easy Rider, in which a variety of camera lenses and filters are used to provide an imagistic diversity that is, at least implicitly, indicative of the individual, somatic experience of hard drugs. But who’s the individual in question? The absence of classic strategies of subjective narration define almost all of these films, even the Nicholson-centric Five Easy Pieces, which ends with a celebrated, static, “omniscient” shot of the actor’s chronically dissatisfied character, the onetime piano prodigy Robert Dupea, boarding a freight truck that takes him out of the frame, at the same time that his neglected girlfriend (played with both comic petulance and righteous anger by Karen Black) steps questioningly onto the wet pavement of this unnamed town in the Pacific Northwest, never to see him again. It’s a dazzling—and depressing—sequence, and it has its echo, of course, in the closing moments of The Last Picture Show, when the camera leaves the former lovers played by Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman to light out for the empty Texas streets that lead to a deserted cinema. Even Easy Rider ends on an obsessively omniscient note, and it is by far the most extravagantly struck: following the deaths of the counterculture bikers played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, the camera takes flight (via a helicopter) and surveys not just the flaming wreckage of the men’s motorcycles but also the entire tainted, poisoned-by-prejudice landscape of a specific sector of the American South.
A Safe Place, perhaps the least known of the BBS films, forgoes a conventional juxtaposition of objectivity and subjectivity to suggest a sort of postmodernist refusal to personalize only certain styles of experience. The result is a film that flirts with familiar appeals to gendered empathy by granting the female protagonist a preponderance of close-ups and by letting her look doelike into the camera, only to have a bloated Orson Welles bellow about “mystery” while breaking the fourth wall. Welles the eminent arbiter of high culture is on hand, it seems, to elevate A Safe Place to a certain echelon of artistry, but that echelon is anathema to the BBS ethos as expressed elsewhere. It’s altogether too European, as Welles himself surely seemed at the time, to move the film in line with its BBS brethren. In A Safe Place, the fully articulated existentialism operates in contrast to the implied nihilism of Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, generating a true BBS anomaly that is also, for good measure, a metatextual commentary on a particular actress’s struggles, circa 1971.
When the film was shot, Tuesday Weld was twenty-seven—hardly ancient, even by Hollywood standards. But she was over ten years past her prime as a model of the American teen girl. Undeniably, Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) both showcase a far different Weld from the fatigued, sunburned one on display in A Safe Place. In this BBS debacle, ably assisted by an overacting Orson Welles, the former ingénue stares at the camera, bares her nicotine-yellowed teeth, and traces her own descent into mental illness, using words lifted almost verbatim from Joan Didion’s mad-princess novel Play It As It Lays—which, ironically enough, would reach the screen the following year, with Weld in the central role. A Safe Place seems, at times, designed to defile, through a twofold narrative focus on drugs and aging, a onetime teen queen. When Jack Nicholson, in the sort of obeisance-paying guest appearance he had perfected in Head, grins his marvelous madman’s grin and says, “You sure are pretty,” the statement seems to confirm that she is in fact not—and that the film is trying, however misguidedly, to say something profound and self-reflexive about an actress’s loss of looks and her lingering doubts about a style of film performance largely predicated on those looks.
Though indefensibly bad, the film’s anomalous status in the BBS oeuvre derives not from its esthetic shortcomings but rather from the aforementioned patina of European high culture that cloaks all of its elements, from the soundtrack (reliant, at times, on French popular songs, such as Charles Trenet’s “La Mer”) to the Richard Lesteresque zoom lenses and shock cuts that the director, Henry Jaglom—himself a European, and the only non-American auteur on the BBS payroll—provides. Even a set piece involving the desecration of a monument through youthful folly feels like a reprise of many a moment from Godard’s Sixties films: what, in 1964’s Band of Outsiders, entailed a race through the Louvre here involves the playing of soccer on the stage of Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell. That the least American of the BBS films should also be the worst is telling, as is the title chosen by Criterion for the boxed set itself: “America Lost and Found.”
A Safe Place conceivably explores the collision of clichéd European and American temperaments, but something “squarer” is at work in The Last Picture Show, perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the BBS films. In her 1971 review, Pauline Kael makes a point of such squareness, suggesting that Bogdanovich’s film is in fact doubly conservative, rooted as it is in a familiar soap-opera structure that’s given a gloss of cultural legitimacy by the controlled lighting and camerawork, both reminiscent of the most conventional and formally impeccable films of John Ford. In Kael’s consideration, however, The Last Picture Show is the perfect antidote to other BBS films, including and especially Drive, He Said (which she believed to be a compelling mess) and Five Easy Pieces (which she alone derided). Though she didn’t identify BBS as being behind all three films, the association is implicit in her appraisal.
Linking such diverse films beneath the BBS banner serves a variety of purposes, of course. It reminds us of the precise aspirations of Rafelson, Schneider, and Blauner—aspirations that involved the revivification of an Old Hollywood technique, little remembered among the harried studio heads of the post-Star! Sixties, of consolidating definable esthetic and thematic approaches to varied subject matter under the aegis of an individual studio. Within this history, Warner Bros. had offered the grit, restricted sets, and urban surroundings of the gangster picture—the sort that gloried in the violence of the central characters before an eleventh-hour, final-reel capitulation to the Production Code; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer extended the lavishness of its musicals to the less fantastical settings of society romance, imbuing such films as Camille (1936) and Grand Hotel (1932) with the grandiosity elsewhere associated almost exclusively with the song-and-dance routine; Paramount pioneered a potent juxtaposition of simple, uninspiring mise-en-scène and erudite dialog exchanges, as in Trouble in Paradise (1932) and I’m No Angel (1933); and Universal?—well, it relied on unironic schlock, at least until Douglas Sirk strolled into town, Teutonic wit in tow.
It’s telling that, in interviews (several of which are contained in Criterion’s boxed set), Rafelson, Schneider, and Blauner not only address this history but also pointedly insert Columbia Pictures into the equation. Such an insertion serves the obvious purpose of plugging the one viable movie studio that committed production funds to the various BBS ventures, but it also works retrospectively to question Columbia’s lack of a distinct identity, even following the Oscar-decorated successes of such films as From Here to Eternity(1953) and On the Waterfront (1954), during the dominance of the studio system. While there are plenty of exceptions to the abovementioned studio styles—exceptions largely effected though the stealing of one or more stylistic devices known to have “belonged” to a particular studio (witness Warner Bros. dipping into MGM’s repertoire for the maternal melodrama with 1945’s Mildred Pierce)—possibly no two Columbia films looked or “felt” quite alike. Even the back-to-back Columbia biopics Jeanne Eagels (1957) and The Goddess (1958), the latter a veiled account of the lies and loves of a then-still-living Marilyn Monroe, exhibit markedly oppositional approaches to character psychology, one film showering its subject—Eagels—with an extreme subjectivity made even more vulnerable by the noir elements that surround her, the other film approaching Monroe with a cold, clinical objectivity.
In contrast, at least five of the seven BBS films collected by Criterion can be considered continuous. Male depression and impenitent female sexuality seem to be the steady gendered devices. A pioneering use of pop songs, from the region-specific realism of Tammy Wynette in Five Easy Pieces to the pure nostalgia trip provided by Tony Bennett and Hank Williams in The Last Picture Show, serve the films remarkably well. And the semi-stock company of actors certainly helps to provide a semblance of consistency: Ellen Burstyn, nearing forty as she made the transition from television workhorse to new-style film star, appeared in both the Bogdanovich film (memorably extending the angriest middle finger the screen has ever known) and The King of Marvin Gardens (even more memorably shearing her hair—a wig—during a beachside bonfire, and finally pulling a gun on her ageist male tormenter).
The totality of great performances here is staggering: who but Bruce Dern, in Drive, He Said, could turn a cultural cliché—the uncompromising sports coach—into a study of self-loathing and reflexive aggressiveness? The irony of BBS is that in spite of its countercultural aspirations it was patterned on perhaps the most conservative (both in terms of fiscal expenditure and narrative foci) of all Hollywood models. But it was really the company’s affection for actors, and its capacity to engender loyalty and conviction in those working without traditional contracts (and without, in many cases, considerable pay), that provided the most pleasurable link to the studio system, where actors may have been treated like cattle (in Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous formulation) but where they nevertheless managed to build a body of consistently compelling work. BBS brought Burstyn in line with Bette Davis, and Dern in line with John Ireland, and itself in line with an actor-loving tradition the likes of which we haven’t seen since.
Noah Tsika is a Ph.D. candidate in cinema studies at NYU and the author of Gods and Monsters: A Queer Film Classic.
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.