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An overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice.
Where there is choice, there is misery.
How’s about some more steam?
The final episode of the television show The Monkees aired March 25, 1968. Cowritten and directed by Micky Dolenz, it was entitled “Mijacogeo” (a.k.a. “The Frodis Caper”)—the main title an amalgam of Micky’s and his parents’ and sister’s names, the also-known-as a much-trafficked Monkees in-joke, “frodis” being Micky’s code word for weed. In “Mijacogeo,” Frodis is an alien being concocted from some rubber-plant fronds and splayed, mismatched leaves, with a cyclopean football forming its bobbing, drooping, one-big-eyed head. Once Frodis is loaded into its flying saucer and the saucer heats up, it emits an enormous puff of smoke that renders all who inhale it as docile as Dopey the dwarf. There are some who might argue that only a “head”—that Aquarian-age catchall for recreational drug users who were hoping to ignite a revolution of the mind—would find such shenanigans (or any of the myriad other Monkees TV moments that featured a conspicuously power-huffing offscreen smoke machine or steam generator, nudge, nudge) amusing. Well, they might be right—though millions of Monkees fans stand ready, now as then, to shout them down.
So where were the heads, or indeed those Monkees millions, when in the closing days of ’68 the Prefab Four’s, and director Bob Rafelson’s, big-screen debut, Head—arguably the most authentically psychedelic film made in 1960s Hollywood—came around? “Hellzapoppin’ meets Peter Max” (as Dolenz once described it, referring to director H. C. Potter’s relentlessly reflexive 1941 comedy), Head seemed at first glance to have been dreamt up by and made expressly for fun-loving dopers, a live-action Duck Amuck filled with more “far out!” narrative interruptions and sudden reveals of crews shooting movies within movies than Contempt and Medium Cool combined. But there was much more at stake in the movie than a giddy mind fuck for the chemically altered. What Rafelson and crew were after was a freewheeling deconstruction of the entire Monkees machine: an at once furious and playful assault on the manufacture and ongoing corporate manipulations that had increasingly left the band members themselves feeling like overdubs without a choice, images unable to rejoice. “Wanting to feel, to know what is real”: the lyrics of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s film-framing “Porpoise Song” paint a bleak picture of the Monkees’ inner existences (“Living . . . is a lie”), and seemed to portend a kind of paisley-patterned anomie that, along with the film’s ongoing acid-scrambled non sequiturs, left many hard-core Monkees maniacs scratching their heads, particularly as the Monkees seemed to be enjoying their on-screen auto-da-fé as much as anyone. Too hip for squares and too “Monkees” for the high and terminally hip, Head is exactly the sort of celluloid whatsit? that might easily have been an instant cult sensation had it been released directly to the midnight movie circuit five years later. Instead, cryptically undermarketed and offered to a moviegoing public already intoxicated by both the black-box-confounded primates of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the future-shock monkeyshines of Planet of the Apes, Head missed its mark with mainstream audiences—even as it emerged as an inadvertent stealth candidate for best American film of 1968: a masterpiece of formalist irreverence and psych-out satire rivaled only by Richard Lester’s Petulia in its constant narrative innovation, and an overlooked harbinger of an unfolding New Hollywood.
Archetypically of its time—even as it was way, way ahead of it—and as far as almost everyone seemed to think, completely out of its no-commercial-potential mind, Head was everything a surrealist “irrational enlargement” of the already endlessly reflexive Monkees show and its echt McLuhan-era conflation of genre hopping and channel flippancy should have been. Half nostalgic for and half nauseated by Old Hollywood, Head—a proto–Greaser’s Palace “sick” western, Corman-esque crypt-crawling horror flick, and sappy tenement romance (with former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello as Davy Jones’s love interest) rolled into one—was also, as Rafelson has often noted, his chance to cover as many film genres as he could, uncertain he’d ever get another opportunity.
The casting of the supporting players took a similarly far-flung approach. Off-Hollywood fringe dweller and everyone’s favorite lunatic Timothy Carey and the clearly bemused and bewildered former matinee gargoyle Victor Mature are the film’s guest stars: Carey as its all-purpose Maldoror, an avatar of bellowing evil endlessly waving shotguns, nooses, and marketing suggestions (“The whole phallic thing is happening!”) in the Monkees‘ direction; Mature as the Big Victor (a dig at the group’s record label, RCA), sporting everything from Mother Gin Sling’s dressing gown to Sherlock Holmes’s deerstalker, and occasionally towering over the proceedings like a giant, Naugahyde-tanned jinni from The Thief of Burbank. Creditless until its closing image, the Möbius Head begins where it ends: at the climax of one of its carefully designed, handheld long takes—a free-floating close-up depicting, against sound-design shards of radio squawk, microphone feedback, and tooting tugboats, a porcine pair of civic officials attempting to cut the red dedication ribbon on a newly built bridge (between TV and the movies?), only to have the Monkees burst desperately (“Here we come . . .”) through. Running—not walking—down their now abandoned theme-song street, the panicked band begin throwing themselves, starting with Micky, one after another, suicidally over the side of the bridge. But in the Monkees’ Book of the Dead, death is just another beginning (something like next week’s show), and their aquatic auto-annihilation is interrupted by a dazzling display of lysergically solarized mermaids and the psych-pop serenade of a laughing sea mammal (a sea Monkee?), who may very well be bidding the Monkees’ television career—or perhaps Monkeeness itself—“Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.”
Whether Head was “meant” as a final farewell to the franchise that Rafelson and his production partner Bert Schneider had created and watched grow, in the space of two short years, into a multimedia empire or as a kind of mind-blown, critically conscious but ultimately sympathetic exploded view of the whole Monkees music and marketing machine scarcely matters today; the movie that resulted does. For Head wasn’t just another commodity in that season’s avalanche of Monkees merch. It was both the inaugural nexus of some of the most upstart talent emerging from the ruins of the old Hollywood (Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Helena Kallianiotes . . .) and an unprecedented meeting ground of cultures high and low from late-sixties Los Angeles. Suddenly, here was a scene, and a new kind of cinema, that seemed as open to Bill Gazzarri’s supersexy Hollywood-a-Go-Go dancers as it was to postpop sculptor Ed Kienholz’s nightmarish homage to lovers’ lane necking, Back Seat Dodge ’38 (glimpsed during Head’s eye-boggling birthday party for Mike Nesmith); a place where Davy Jones could click his heels and warble Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” with the thickest possible slathering of Manchester schmaltz, only to find himself and his dancing partner, the film’s choreographer, Toni Basil, in the middle of a seizure storm of stroboscopic editing effects pitched somewhere between Bruce Conner’s similarly Basil-saturated montage barrages Cosmic Ray (1962) and Breakaway (1966) and Paul Sharits’s flicker-furious experimental protest poem of 1966, Piece Mandala/End War.
Indeed, the war seems to haunt Head at a variety of crucial turns, most outrageously in its use of one of the most gruesome newsreel images of the entire conflict: the on-screen bullet-to-the-temple assassination of an accused Vietcong saboteur by a South Vietnamese general—an image so ferocious few in Hollywood would have dreamt of emulating it, let alone incorporating it into the already culturally chaotic overload of a Columbia Pictures commercial vehicle built to promote one of America’s favorite pop groups. And Rafelson didn’t just include it: Head returns repeatedly, emphatically to that hideous head shot, usually in the context of legions of screaming, teenage, female Monkees fans. Only Japanese radical Nagisa Oshima dared collude in the co-optation of that famous piece of Viet War footage, featuring it prominently in his 1968 variation on Head: Three Resurrected Drunkards, starring sixties Nihon pop sensations the Tokyo Folk Crusaders. And Vietnam wasn’t the only war that haunted Head: Richard Lester’s John Lennon–centered How I Won the War, released a year earlier, left its mark on the Monkees movie as well. But where Lester—who’d wowed the pop-cult world in 1964 and ’65 with the Beatles’ smash screen successes A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (which legitimized Rafelson’s idea for the Monkees show, allowing it to get green-lighted)—had trodden as comedically as possible in connecting the dots between his film’s dark satire of World War I’s battlefields and the current conflagrations in Southeast Asia, Rafelson and Nicholson went straight for the jugular, comparing (in a trench warfare episode built around Dolenz’s spasmodic slapstick, the unlikely appearance of Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, and the screen debut of the gold football helmet that Nicholson would sport on his way to stardom in Easy Rider) the atrocities in the Vietnamese theater of war to the pressures of touring as one of the fan-mobbed and scream-besieged Monkees.
But how did Head come about and, perhaps more importantly (to lapse into the vernacular of its day), where was it coming from? Much of it, no doubt, was carried in on wafts of frodis, the main creative lubricant involved during the days the film’s screenwriters—Nicholson and Rafelson—spent “soaking up all things Monkee,” as Dolenz recalls the bull sessions leading up to the movie’s script. Fresh from his screenplay for Roger Corman’s The Trip the year before, Nicholson—in 1966 and ’67, still dividing his time between roles in everything from Hells Angels on Wheels to The Andy Griffith Show, and collaborating as an actor, producer, and screenwriter with Monte Hellman on projects both realized (Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting) and abandoned (Epitaph)—was ready to help dose the Hollywood water supply in ways that American mainstream filmmaking wouldn’t soon forget. But Head wouldn’t just plumb the murky depths of a psyche on acid, or attempt (and succeed at) a film-formalist evocation of the broken, jump-cut flow of momentary enlightenments and fleeting miseries experienced by the tripping head; it would churn up (if not exactly exorcise) every Monkees-specific anxiety it could imagine—authenticity, plasticity, creative choices, product marketing, TV/movie studio as dehumanizing Dadaist turbine (complete with Caligarian conveyor belt), getting paid to throw a fight, ending up trapped in a box (vacuum cleaner, television set, fish tank), wondering who’s the dummy.And all of it culminating in “revelations” that are as much Swami-endorsed emanations of swamp gas as they are potheaded fodder for a quick dressing down by Jack Webb on the sixties revival of Dragnet. In short, Head (as its title suggests) might ultimately be read as a space-cake study of “the human mind . . . or brain . . . or whatever” and its capricious (if not always capacious) vicissitudes, as Peter Tork’s loony Lotus Sutra near the end of the film insists.
Bold enough to have provided a template for follow-ups as varied in their methods, manners, and film-cultural pedigrees as 1970’s Myra Breckinridge (with its far more inane barrage of Old Hollywood excerpts) and Zabriskie Point (whose climactic detonations merely double down on Micky’s explosive confrontation with a recalcitrant Coke machine in the middle of the desert), Head is 1968 in an acid tab. Lost somewhere between wartime agonies and freewheeling love-in, it’s time in capsule form, history as hopheaded high jinks and hilarious pop-cult aggression, a fearless exposé—and a perverse sort of celebration—of the commodification of the Monkees, the Ulysses of a hip New Hollywood about to be born. And accordingly, it concludes with a Joycean female pleasure giggle, from a radiant admirer who has kissed with infinite tenderness the lips of each and every Monkee—and then coyly left them all behind, with nothing more to say.
Chuck Stephens lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.