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Rafelson on the movie “Head”

February 12, 2012 by  
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ASPEN — Bob Rafelson points out that, around 1967, he was a TV writer-
director who hadn’t been to film school. So when he was given the
chance to make a movie, he had no idea whether he would be given that
chance again. Figuring that it might his only shot at the big screen,
Rafelson decided to cram everything into it: comedy, sci-fi, musical
and experimental philosophical meditation; boxing scenes and homages
to James Bond and “Lawrence of Arabia”; utter silliness, and
seriousness worthy of film-school study; anti-Vietnam War sentiments
along with pokes at the anti-war movement; a nonstop array of visual
gags and gymnastics.

“I didn’t imagine I’d be able to make a second movie,” Rafelson, a 78-
year-old who has lived in Aspen for more than four decades, said. “So
I put every movie I could think of in there. We said, ‘Let’s conceive
of this as 10 movies.’”

Which is one way to explain “Head,” Rafelson’s 1968 debut. Other ways
to explain what Rafelson refers to as “a weird movie” include:
Rafelson and his co-writer, Jack Nicholson, created the script under
the influence of what Rafelson terms “medical aids”; it not only
starred the Monkees, but was an effort to deconstruct the phenomenon
that was the Monkees while simultaneously bringing that phenomenon to
an end; Rafelson made it while fighting a chorus of friends and
associates — including the late Bert Schneider, Rafelson’s creative
partner and the executive producer on “Head” — strongly advising him
not to make it; Rafelson specifically wanted to make a movie with the
title “Head” so that for his next movie, if there was a next movie, he
could promote it with the line, “From the people who gave you “Head”;
it was the ’60s.

And there’s the distinct possibility that Rafelson was fuzzy on what
he was trying to accomplish, and how he would accomplish it. “Jack
wanted to base it on an acid trip,” Rafelson said. “I wanted to base
it on something else. I don’t know what. A dream, maybe.”

• • • •

Certainly, Rafelson wanted to say something about the Monkees. He and
Schneider had invented the group a few years earlier as the
manufactured pop group at the center of a musical-comedy TV series. By
the time of “Head,” “The Monkees” — which had earned the Emmy Award
for best comedy series in its first season — was just about exhausted.
“We both — the makers and the audience — wanted it to be done,”
Rafelson said of the series.

But before the Monkees faded away, Rafelson wanted to make a statement
about the phenomenon. “I thought there was one thing left to do — I
wanted to tell the truth about the Monkees,” he said. “What I felt to
be the truth — the effect of the fabrication placed on them. Because
they were a fabricated group. I felt it was a story worth telling.”

The accepted truth is that the Monkees were a goofy, Americanized take-
off on the Beatles. But Rafelson says this is only partly so. In the
late ’50s, Rafelson — a native New Yorker with a rebellious streak,
who had studied philosophy at Dartmouth and been stationed in Japan
during a stretch with the Army — spent time playing bass in a band in
Mexico. A mediocre musician, Rafelson hummed, rather than played, most
of his bass lines.

“We got into all kinds of insane adventures. And I thought, well, that
would make a good TV series,” he said. When he broke into TV, as an
associate producer and writer on various shows, he began floating the
idea of an offbeat musical comedy. “Nobody cared about it. Till the
Beatles came along. It was very radical to think of a rock ‘n’ roll
group, as lovable as they were, to star on television. It was unheard
of. The establishment knew who the Beatles were, but they were too old
to be fans.”

Rafelson loved the Beatles, but notes that he was a bigger fan of the
Marx Brothers, which became an influence in his creative thinking.

When Rafelson put out a call for auditions for a pop group that would
star on a TV show, 400 young men lined up, among them David Crosby,
members of Three Dog Night, and Stephen Stills. (A big part of the
reason Stills wasn’t hired was because he was missing both hair and
teeth at the time.) Rafelson hired a trio of Americans — the one-time
child actor Mickey Dolenz; the folk songwriter Michael Nesmith; Peter
Tork, who was recommended to audition by Stills — and an Englishman,
Davy Jones, whose great ambition was to be a jockey.

Rafelson directed five early episodes of “The Monkees” to establish
the style, then handed off the director’s chair. Some 32 people —
including Paul Mazursky, who would go on to make the films “Down and
Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies, A Love Story” — directed episodes
of the show; virtually all of them had no directing experience.
“Everybody came in uninhibited,” Rafelson said.

By the time “The Monkees” came to its fairly speedy end, Rafelson was
already thinking about the big screen. At the same time that he was
making “Head,” he was also working, again with Nicholson, on a biker
film. Rafelson became a producer of the landmark “Easy Rider,” which
was released a few months after “Head.”

As “Head” was about to be released, in late 1968, Rafelson and
Nicholson worried that no one was going to see it. They decided to
open the film in an obscure theater in Manhattan. “The idea was to
make it a discovery. People could discover the movie and see how far-
out it was,” Rafelson said. To make sure that at least a few bodies
discovered it, the two walked around New York putting up large
promotional stickers, and striking up impromptu conversations, telling
people about this great movie.

The campaign didn’t work; “Head” bombed at the box office. And while
Rafelson understands the failure, he believes the film doesn’t deserve
to be dismissed entirely.

“Head” will have a screening on Sunday, Feb. 12 at Belly Up Aspen, in
a fundraiser for the Aspen Youth Orchestra. Rafelson, whose son is a
trombonist in the orchestra, will give a talk following the screening.
He will point out such elements of “Head” as the huge box in which the
Monkees continually find themselves.

“The central metaphor is, they’re in a box,” Rafelson. “They can think
their way out of the box, fight their way out of the box, play their
way out of the box. And this came out the same year as Kubrick’s
movie, ‘2001,’ which also had a box as its central metaphor. It wasn’t
all that unique to have the box as a central metaphor, and how to get
your way out of it.”

To Rafelson, “Head” exposed the idea of the manufactured pop star — a
phenomenon that has become standard in the entertainment world.
There’s a scene in “Head” where fans start pulling off one of the
Monkee’s outfits — but the Monkee is actually a dummy. “They don’t
know the difference between a person and a mannequin — they’re going
to pull the costume off anyway. It’s all about the scream,” Rafelson

Much of the message is lost in the madcap pace, the scenes that shift
at head-spinning speeds, the breaking down of the fourth wall
(Rafelson finds himself in the middle of a scene, talking to the
Monkees), the waitress in drag, the mermaid, the boxing scenes, the
psychedelia, the inside jokes, the dance sequences, the music
sequences (the music portion of which is inarguably good, with songs
by Carole King and Harry Nilsson).

The cast includes boxer Sonny Liston, stripper Carol Doda, football
player Ray Nitschke and Annette Funicello — “All losers in a way.
Cultural losers,” Rafelson said. “People didn’t favor these people.
They were all outsiders and degenerates. But to me they were heroes in
a way.”

On a technical level alone, “Head” has much to admire. All the visual
tricks were done in the editing process, which took an exhausting
eight months.

“I vowed I would never do that again,” Rafelson said. “Everything from
that point on was measured, quiet and studied, and the acting was the
all-important element. I never moved the camera backward, upside down,
like Martin Scorsese. It’s very quiet. And this isn’t. This is very
noisy, showy.”

“Head” has gotten a bit of positive late attention. The film was
studied for years at Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’ special
effects studio. Dennis Hopper, who directed “Easy Rider,” considered
it visionary, according to Rafelson, and a time capsule for the ’60s.
“Head” was recently released as part of “America Lost and Found,” a
box set of the early films of Rafelson and Schneider that also
includes “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show” and more.

“In hindsight, I’m happy I made it,” Rafelson said of “Head.”
“Everyone said, ‘You’ve done the Monkees, move on. But it’s so
different from the TV show, which was very frothy. It’s the only movie
of mine I could see more than once. Because you never know what’s
coming next.”

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