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grandfnk Written by grandfnk
Dec. 17, 2010 | 11:48 AM





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THE BBS STORY - The Criterion Collection

The BBS production team were Bob Rafelson, Bert Schnieder, and Steve Blauner. They were quite possibly the most important independent group in Hollywood during the late sixties - early seventies era. We are all familiar with landmark films such as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. But ask anyone about BBS and they will probably think you are referring to the pre-World Wide Web term for online posts: Bulletin Board System.


Criterion’s new Lost And Found In America: The BBS Story box seeks to rectify the situation. The company have done another superlative job with this nine-DVD set, plus book. The origins of the company came with the invention of The Monkees TV show. The series was wildly successful, and earned them quite a bit of money. The decision to use those funds to make their way into film was an obvious next step. Their first movie was titled Head (1968) and the stars just happened to be The Monkees.


Head is one of the most surreal films you are likely to encounter. In a nutshell, it is a movie about making a movie. It is filled with non-sequiturs, and some brilliant fourth wall segments. A great example of this comes fairly early, where the group are “filming” a Western. An upset Mickey Dolenz walks right off the set, and through the Monument Valley-type backdrop.


Head features cameos from Terri Garr, Annette Funicello, Carole Doda and Frank Zappa, among others. Doda’s character is named Sally Silicone, which I found rather amusing. Zappa’s memorably odd sequence finds him leading a talking cow through the backlot of the studio. There is a strong anti-war theme throughout, as well as “wink-wink” references to marijuana. In one of the DVD bonus features (called “Gravy” here), The Monkees are seen promoting their picture on The Hy Lit Show. Michael Nesmith describes the film as “A character assassination. We had a lot of fun at The Monkees’ expense.” He is quite correct, Head completely skewers their “manufactured” image.


In the pre-CD reissue days, original copies of the soundtrack sold for big bucks through ads in Goldmine and at record collectors conventions. One reason was the rarity of the item, but the biggest reason was the music itself. It sounds nothing like what we had come to expect from the group. In fact, the music is one of the main reasons to watch this film. There are some wonderful songs on here, especially the theme “The Porpoise Song,” which was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.


There are plenty of additional bonus features. These include “From The Monkees To Head,” a 30-minute interview with director Bob Rafelson filmed in 2010. There is also “BBS: A Time For Change,” another 30 minute piece chronicling the history of the company. Screen tests, trailers, and commentary from all four of The Monkees complete the extra materials.


Although Head was a flop, BBS were undeterred. Their next film was Easy Rider (1969), and it made history. There is little more I can add to what has already been said about the film. It simply blew everyone away at the time, and retains its power because it is a perfect slice of Americana circa 1969. One of the great themes about America is the lure of hitting the road. The long-haired, pot smoking hippie duo of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper do just that on their motorcycles. As great as those two are, it is Jack Nicholson who steals the show. His all too brief appearance as an alcoholic lawyer was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, although the Oscar went to Gig Young that year.


The Criterion Collection’s edition of Easy Rider was digitally transferred under the supervision of award-winning cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. It features two audio commentaries, one with director and star Dennis Hopper, the other featuring Hopper, co-star Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis.


True to form, Criterion have outdone themselves with the supplementals. A full second DVD is devoted to them, and there is some fascinating material contained within. “Born To Be Wild” (1995) and “Easy Rider: Shaking The Cage” (1999) are two superlative documentaries about the movie. There is also a short piece that aired in France with Hopper and Fonda - who were there to submit the film to Cannes. Hopper came home with the award for Best First Work.


Easy Rider was a monumental box office success. The ratio of cost to profit was astronomical, and if BBS had closed their doors then, their status in Hollywood would have already been secure.


Instead, they produced another brilliant picture, Five Easy Pieces (1970). Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Bobby Dupea is one of the cornerstones of his career. It is a performance of stunning versatility, and the character is deservedly iconic. As the movie unfolds we find him working on an oil rig in Texas, and living with a woman he can barely tolerate. Her off-key singing of Tammy Wynette songs such as “Stand By Your Man,” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” are just one aspect of her personality that drive him crazy.


We find out later that Dupea came from a privileged background. His family’s home is a mansion on an island somewhere in Washington state, and he is a classically trained pianist. The theme of alienation and ambivalence is what underlines Five Easy Pieces. As Roger Ebert is quoted: “We’d had a revelation. This was the direction American movies should take: Into idiosyncratic characters, into dialogue with an ear for the vulgar and the literate, into a plot free to surprise us about the characters, into an existential ending not required to be happy.”


Ebert’s comments come during the bonus feature “Soul Searching In Five Easy Pieces,” a short documentary featuring director Bob Rafelson. The best of the extras is “BBStory” (2009), a 45-minute segment about the company which includes interviews with Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Ellen Burstyn, Peter Bogdanovich, Henry Jaglom and Rafelson himself.


The BBS company detoured a bit with its next two films, which are packaged together in the box. Drive, He Said (1970) is Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut. It is definitely of its time. The rough story is of two seemingly opposite characters who happen to be best friends. Hector (William Tepper) is a college basketball star, and his campus roommate Gabrielle (Michael Margotta) is an Abbie Hoffman-esque provocateur. His antics are amusing at first, like when he and his cohorts shut the power off during a big basketball game, and announce “This is a U.S. military operation. We are seeking to flush out an enemy agent. Turn to the person next to you and see if they are of a subversive appearance.”


As the story progresses however, the character of Gabrielle is more fully revealed, and it becomes increasingly clear that he is insane. What is especially intriguing about Drive, He Said is what is left unsaid. A lot of very odd behavior was tolerated at the time, because some of the points that the counterculture made were all too true.


The point Drive, He Said has to make is that Gabrielle’s eccentricities may have seemed like relatively harmless goofs. But there is nothing remotely funny or cute about attempted rape, and he should have been carted off afterwards. This does not happen until the final scene, where he goes into an empty classroom completely naked and lets all of the snakes out of their cages. The closing image of Hector running after the police truck is haunting and sad. Gabrielle obvious needs professional help, but Hector does not see it that way.


The main bonus feature is a ten minute documentary titled “A Cautionary Tale Of Campus Revolution And Sexual Freedom.” It was filmed in 2009, and features Nicholson, Bruce Dern and co-producer Harry Gittes.


A Safe Place (1971) features Orson Welles prominently, which is always a treat. But the story itself is so unfocused that it is hard to even describe. Basically, the title refers to a sort of commune that a group of about ten people live in. It is their “safe place” and they are usually in some state of undress while there.


Interacting with the outside world is the problem evidently. The star is the beautiful Tuesday Weld, who envisions Welles as a magician. Or is he her father as well? Very tough to follow this dream-like script, written by Henry Jaglom. It is also his directorial debut, and he provides commentary here.


The main bonus feature is “Henry Jaglom Finds ‘A Safe Place’ (2009). In it, the director discusses the influences of Fellini and Cassavetes on his work. There are also selected outtakes and screen tests.


As the “BBS Story” booklet mentions, Drive, He Said and A Safe Place are the most unrecognized pictures in the company’s history. To be honest, neither one is all that great. But the team more than made up for these lapses with the next film in the set, The Last Picture Show (1971). Peter Bogdanovich directed this black and white beauty, and it is as moving today as it was upon release.


Again, the basic theme is alienation. The timeframe is the early 1950s, the setting a small town in Texas. Cybill Shepherd is marvelous as a young girl torn between the two worlds of rich and poor, so clearly defined in this tiny community.


Her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn is another brilliantly drawn character. Sexy as hell, and world weary enough to know what she wants, even though it is unavailable to her. Her advice to her daughter is priceless: “Well at least if you slept with [boyfriend Duane Jackson] you would know enough not to marry him. Find yourself a rich guy”


A very young Jeff Bridges portrays the boyfriend in question. His performance is outstanding, as is the rest of the cast’s. Bogdanovich lined up a stellar group for his picture show. Many of the actors were relative unknowns at the time, but went on to become big stars - in large part due to this classic film.


The Last Picture Show could best be described as a “coming of age” movie. Unlike others in the genre however, there is no pandering. This is a fabulous story, told with the attention to detail that only a film historian such as Bogdanovich could muster.


Rather than detail the plot, I am just going to recommend it as highly as possible. Of the seven movies in this set, The Last Picture Show is without a doubt my favorite. One more great touch that Bogdanovich added was the prominent use of Hank Williams’ music. In 1971, country wasn’t considered “cool” at all, and Hank had not been accorded the legendary status he deserved. The music adds immeasurably to the film’s overall impact.


The collection devotes an entire second DVD to supplemental materials. They include “The Last Picture Show: A Look Back” (1999), and “Picture This” (1990) which are great documentaries on the making of the movie. “A Discussion With Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich” is also highly recommended, as former Sopranos psychologist Dr. Elliot Kupferberg talks about his influences and the making of this excellent film.


Rounding out the second disc are screen tests (which are always fun to watch), location footage, and a pretty interesting interview with `Francois Truffaut. The interview was originally aired on February 13, 1972 on the French television show Vive le cinema and Truffaut discusses his opinion of the “New Hollywood.” It is only 4:32, and subtitled, but intriguing to say the least.


The seventh and final film of the set is The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972). Rafelson returned to one of his favorite actors, Jack Nicholson for this picture. The King Of Marvin Gardens is another thoughtful piece about what goes on in one’s inner life.


The opening scene is incredibly moving. Nicholson faces the camera to relate a monologue about how his family always ate fish on Fridays. Not for any religious reasons mind you, it is just what they did. Grandpa was the instigator of the idea, and always choked on the bones. It was part of the ritual.


One day, the young Nicholson and his brother were dining alone with Grandpa. When the old man started choking, they pretended not to notice. And he died. At this point, the camera pulls back to reveal that we are at a radio station, and Nicholson is relating this story to his audience.


It is an absolutely audacious way to begin a film, and more than anything else, reminds you of how daring the art form of film can be. What follows is a visit Nicholson makes to Hawaii, where his brother (Bruce Dern) is currently living with his girlfriend.


The title The King Of Marvin Gardens does refer to the Monopoly game by the way, in a very humorous manner. This is another picture that I do not wish to give too much away about plotwise, simply because it is so good.


Extras: Selected scene commentary from Rafelson is interesting. The ten-minute “Reflections Of A Philosopher King” (2009) features interviews with Ellen Burstyn and Rafelson. “Afterthoughts” (2002) is an interview with the director, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and actor Bruce Dern that runs eleven minutes. The film’s trailer and a text-based segment titled “About Bob Rafelson” round out the extras on this DVD.


It seems that Criterion manages to top themselves with every successive release. Nowhere is this more apparent than with America Lost And Found: The BBS Story. For anyone interested in the evolution of film over the past 40 odd years, this collection is required. Criterion did an absolutely superb job in every way. I recommend the set without reservation.


6 Comments:

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