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America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

(2010) **** R
691 min. Columbia Pictures. Directors: Bob Rafelson, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Henry Jaglom, Peter Bogdanovich. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Karen Black, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Randy Quaid, Scatman Crothers, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Henry Jaglom, Robert Towne, Ralph Waite, Lois Smith.

/content/films/3881/1.jpgLocation, location, location. It's a lesson that wasn't lost on BBS Productions, the seminal film production company active between 1968 and 1972. One hallmark of BBS' output was a determination to shoot on authentic locations rather than in a studio, and its photographic snapshots of a country in transition have remained indelible. So the box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story —now on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection—is aptly titled; Criterion gathers seven important American films from the fabled period when unconventional, independent-minded filmmaking was regarded not only as art but as a marketable asset.

In partnership with Columbia Pictures, BBS Productions (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) launched seven memorable countercultural films: Head; Easy Rider; Five Easy Pieces; Drive, He Said; A Safe Place; The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens (an eighth film, the highly regarded, controversial documentary Hearts and Minds, was cut loose by Columbia). Rafelson co-wrote and directed Head, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, while his longtime friend Jack Nicholson co-wrote and co-produced Head; co-wrote and directed Drive, He Said; and appears in five of the seven films. The enterprise also gave Henry Jaglom his first feature (A Safe Place) and allowed both Dennis Hopper and Peter Bogdanovich to make films that have become certified classics (Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show, respectively). Criterion's six-disc Blu-ray set includes the entire output of BBS' deal with Columbia:

Head (1968): ***1/2. Rafelson and Schneider had created The Monkees along with the musical sitcom The Monkees. A casting call resulted in the formation of the band (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork), and two seasons on NBC; on the heels of the show's cancellation, Rafelson fast-tracked a Monkees film, enlisting up-and-coming talent Jack Nicholson to co-write the script. In the spirit of the times, Rafelson decided to blow up his own creation in a hip, artful deconstruction of the band, one that the increasingly divisive group didn't seem to mind. "G" rating aside, the film's title ideally evokes its sex, drugs, rock-and-roll content, tangled into a comically heady head trip. The picture's songs swing from blatant self-mockery ("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!") to the poignant and seemingly therapeutic "Porpoise Song" that opens and closes the picture (" overdub has no choice/An image cannot rejoice"). Head is a confession of being cogs in the larger marketing machinery and penance for same (in part by the repeated symbolic destruction of a Coca-Cola vending machine), including a joke forestalling criticism of a perceived ingratitude for the band's financial success.

/content/films/3881/2.jpgPlaying out a dream narrative, the band ramps up the psychedelia and absurdism of its comic theatrics: it's Dada with Doda (Carol Doda, that is), Timothy Carey, Annette Funicello, Sonny Liston, Vito Scotti and Victor Mature, whose Brylcreamed coiffure serves as one of the film's principal settings. Brilliantly edited by Mike Pozen, the pleasingly insane satire comes to a point in suggesting a life without compromise. The Monkees play soldiers, musical performers, prisoners and commercial actors in a manner that asks, "What's the difference?" On a factory tour, a swami-enlightened Tork warns, "Hey guys, you'd better listen to me. You'll end up back in the box!" An underrated piece of pop art, Head's nonlocal satire is a balm for the über-manufactured 21st-century pop scene: let's see the Jonas Brothers make a movie like this. Not bloody likely.

Easy Rider (1969): ****. Click through for a full review.

Five Easy Pieces (1970): ****. Scripted (under a pseudonym) by Carole Eastman from a story co-authored by director Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces is such a subtle piece of work that all most people remember about it is the famous "chicken salad sandwich" scene, eternally clipped in tributes to seventies filmmaking and star Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, an oil rig worker on the lam from his family and their crushing upper-middle-class expectations. Groomed to be a concert pianist, Dupea instead became a quintessential angry young man, simultaneously clinging to and chafing against a working-class cycle of unfulfilling hard labor and nights of beer and sex. Dupea is a study in ambivalence: about his pursuits and his long-suffering girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), whose pregnancy now pushes the issue of their relationship. Rafelson gets impeccable work from his entire ensemble, which includes Lois Smith, Ralph Waite, Billy "Green" Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers, and William Challee as the Dupea clan's stroke-silence father.

László Kovács's picture-perfect photography is nevertheless as understated and naturalistic as the acting; Kovács helps Rafelson to use the landscapes (Bakersfield contrasted to Washington State) as symbolic projections of character: angrily pumping oil rigs, a stalled freeway, the climactic way-station. The film emerges as a montage of snapshots of life, unerringly truthful and pointedly lacking in authorial commentary. Dupea is strictly anti-heroic, but Rafelson invites us to empathize with him, understand the roots of his problems, and root for him to overcome his neuroses and embrace the human community. Though moody, Five Easy Pieces has lighter moments, though edged with danger: a droll hitchhiker sequence, the comic awkwardness of the Dupea-home dwellers and, of course, that "chicken-salad sandwich" scene.

Drive, He Said (1970): **1/2. Nicholson hopped in the driver's seat for Drive, He Said, based on the 1964 novel by Jeremy Larner. Shot on location at the University of Oregon, the film finds Nicholson working in the Rafelson mode, pursuing something greater than the sum of its parts through an episodic approach. Ironically, the key element missing on screen is Nicholson himself, or an actor of comparable charisma in the central role. Though not unconvincing as vaguely dissatisfied jock Hector Bloom, William Tepper is too tepid in presence to carry the picture. A fearless Michael Margotta fares better as Hector's roommate Gabriel, a live-wire in the characteristic Nicholson mode; Bruce Dern engages in the supporting role of the frustrated basketball coach; and Karen Black holds her own as a professor's wife trying to find her way out of her affair with Hector (also appearing: Robert Towne, Henry Jaglom, David Ogden Stiers, and Cindy Williams). But the film's two threads (Hector's story and Gabriel's) too seldom actively intertwine, and the narrative doesn't quite cohere into a convincingly incisive whole.

/content/films/3881/5.jpgDrive, He Said has enough to recommend it. Cinematographer László Kovács again delivers sterling work (the plentiful nudity also gives the audience a visual goose), and the film's countercultural themes suggest a better picture that almost was about freedom and its dark side, circa the death of the '60s. Hector resembles an ineffectual Bartleby stumbling toward self-actualization while tussling with conformity (he actually says, "I would prefer not to" to his coach), while Gabriel is his roommate's aggressively rebellious foil. Hector laments his disconnection, while Gabriel strives for same; Hector navigates the NBA draft, while Gabriel courts rejection from the military one. Faking madness with the help of LSD, Gabriel becomes the role. Perhaps most surprisingly, this film from a notorious womanizer includes Black's bluntly feminist conclusion "I'm not going with anybody anywhere. I'm me."

A Safe Place (1971): **1/2. Henry Jaglom has always been an acquired taste, and A Safe Place is no exception. Adapted by Jaglom from his own stage play, A Safe Place marks the filmmaker's directorial debut, with mentor Orson Welles on hand for the occasion. As "The Magician," Welles brings that old Harry Lime charm to the film's father figure and amused Godhead, pulling off impressive magic tricks in Central Park for the benefit of self-obsessed beauty Noah (Tuesday Weld). An infuriating free spirit, Noah recalls her man trouble in flashbacks (or are they? Jaglom sticks to his non-linear guns). Apart from the Magician, Noah splits her time between the dully faithful Fred (Phil Proctor) and the exciting but elusive Mitch (Jack Nicholson, returning a favor to the director). Even at 94 minutes, A Safe Place tests one's patience, but it has moments of brilliance.

/content/films/3881/3.jpgFrench author Anaïs Nin championed the film as a winning piece of male-authored sensitivity to the female character, though the tragedy is predicated on Noah (or is it Susan?) having allowed herself to become a victim of social dependence on men. Employing, as is his wont, old Tin Pan Alley songs and French ditties, Jaglom sets a suitably dreamy mood for his art-film curio. What is the "safe place"? Childhood? Free-flying fantasy? Art? Delusion? Death? At times, A Safe Place hits its stride, intriguing in its exploration of this question. Over-indulgent moments or corny snatches of dialogue too often break the spell, but the picture remains worth seeing, if only for Welles' charming supporting turn or to satisfy Nicholson completists. (For my interview with Jaglom, see the sidebar.)

The Last Picture Show (1971): ****. In adapting Larry McMurtry's semi-autobiographical 1966 novel The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich crafted an enduring touchstone of '70s cinema. An unsentimental remembrance of things past, The Last Picture Show recounts a year in the life of a group of teens experiencing the maddening disillusionment of young adulthood in 1951 Texas. Timothy Bottoms plays Sonny Crawford and Cybill Shepherd plays Jacy Farrow, both naive high-school seniors trying to figure out their place in dusty Anarene, little more than a quiet Main Street. As in Friday Night Lights, the town is unsettlingly focused on high-school sports, an ephemeral experience ripe for re-living by the town's sadly stuck men. Sonny finds sexual comfort in the arms of middle-aged housewife Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), who seeks escape from a loveless marriage to Sonny's basketball coach (Bill Thurman). Flailing under the mixed signals of her depressed mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy tries on different men as she decides how best to lose her virginity and corral a marriageable mate. In his first major role, Jeff Bridges plays Duane, a dim and selfish candidate for the position.

/content/films/3881/4.jpgSupporting Actor and Actress Oscars went to Leachman and Ben Johnson, who reluctantly took the role of town patriarch Sam the Lion (Eileen Brennan and Timothy's brother Sam Bottoms also register strong impressions in supporting turns). Bogdanovich's commanding work as director, co-writer (with McMurtry), and uncredited editor launched his helming career in earnest: he sets the tone with Robert Surtees' fine black-and-white photography and a steady soundtrack of period country and pop tunes emerging from every honky-tonk and pickup-truck radio. Of course, it wouldn't be a Bogdanovich picture without reflection on the heritage and meaning of movies themselves: the title refers to the declining fortunes of the town movie theater, where Bogdanovich poignantly plays Red River, a classic by one of his mentors, Howard Hawks (arguably Bogdanovich's greatest mentor, A Safe Place star Orson Welles was Bogdanovich's houseguest and confidant during this period).

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972): ***1/2. Rafelson, Nicholson and Kovács reunite for BBS' last Columbia release, an influential drama that produces sparks amongst a terrific ensemble. "Tragedy isn't Top 40," says Nicholson's radio storyteller David Staebler, and indeed this story of two wildly different brothers has always gone under the popular radar. The King of Marvin Gardens remains a compelling character study built around Bruce Dern's fast-dancing small-time entrepeneur Jason Staebler. With his jittery charisma, Jason has roped his brother David into a resort development scheme. David's skepticism can do nothing to slow Jason's hurtling toward probable disaster, exacerbated by his living situation with two women—Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) and Sally (Ellen Burstyn)—whose strange relationship to Jason and each other becomes clearer as the story progresses.

The already decaying Atlantic City setting provides an ideal setting for this fable of dashed dreams; the echoes of Monopoly in the city's districts play wryly on that ultimate children's game fantasy of American entrepeneurship. Key to Jason's tragedy is that he's never quite grown up and accepted the unlikelihood of having it all or the maturity of playing fair by family and potential mates. The under-appreciated Dern turns in one of his most potent performances, Nicholson delivers some of his finest work by playing against type as the restrained David, Burstyn's searing, raw-nerved turn disturbs every bit as much as it should, and Robinson's quiet magnetism promises depths we're purposefully, maddeningly denied along with David. A distinctly American tragedy, The King of Marvin Gardens paints a four-paneled portrait of unfulfilled potential.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1, 1.78:1

Number of discs: 6

Audio: LPCM Mono

Street date: 11/23/2010

Distributor: The Criterion Collection

A tremendous effort has gone into Criterion's latest box set, easily the most impressive release since entering the Blu-ray market. All seven films in America Lost and Found: The BBS Story get beautiful, film-like hi-def images. The source material is exceptionally clean (and possibly dusted off further by Criterion's digital scrubbing tools), color schemes hold true, and light film grain retains the films' natural looks. Surprisingly, even Easy Rider—issued by Sony a while back in its own good-looking Blu-ray disc—looks better than ever, as Criterion has has given as much disc space as possible to the transfer approved by director of photography László Kovács before his death in 2007. With the exception of Head, all of the transfers come with an official stamp of approval from either the dp (Kovács) or director (Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdanovich). Without fail, the images provide maximum detail and depth for films of this vintage; the odd transfer out is that for The Last Picture Show, with its black-and-white photography and more rough-hewn look. Given that this Bogdanovich-approved transfer derives from his Director's Cut version, it's safe to say the film can't look much better than this, which is quite fine: some shots have a somewhat unstable look (due to the process used for dissolves or perhaps, in some cases, to reinstated footage that wasn't as well preserved as the rest), but generally, this is a very handsome black-and-white image.

Bonus features are outstanding: a film-school seminar in a box. Documentaries covering the BBS period can be found on Discs One and Three, and each disc has film-specific extras as well. What follows is a disc-by-disc rundown.

Disc One (Head) features audio commentary from Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork. Recorded separately, the pre-fab four serve up their recollections about the Monkees' career, the film and the "head space" at the time, and the concepts and shooting of various scenes. "From The Monkees to Head" (28:28, HD) is a fascinating interview with director Bob Rafelson, a major creative force behind the Monkees. The 2009 featurette "BBS: A Time For Change" (27:38, HD) finds critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley guiding us through the "life" and times of BBS. Screen Tests with the Monkees include "Michael Blessing (Nesmith)" (3:17, HD), "Micky Braddock (Dolenz)" (2:41, HD), "Davy Jones" (2:55, HD), "Peter Tork" (2:35, HD) and test scenes "She's a Groovy Kid" (4:07, HD) and "$13 Million" (3:22, HD). "The Monkees on the Hy Lit Show, 1968" (5:31, HD) is an interesting slice of the film's promotion (and TV chat of the time). We also get a Promotion section with four Trailers and five TV Spots, nine Radio Spots, and the publicity montage "Ephemera" (6:38, HD), which includes behind-the-scenes photos by Henry Diltz.

Disc Two (Easy Rider) includes audio commentary with actor/director/writer Dennis Hopper and audio commentary with actor/director/writer Dennis Hopper, actor/writer Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis. Making its Blu debut is the 1995 doc "Born to Be Wild" (29:50, HD), while the 1999 doc found on Sony's BD release, "Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage" (1:04:51, HD), makes a return appearance; both are fine behind-the-scenes retrospectives. Adding value are the featurette "Hopper and Fonda at Cannes" (2:08, HD), a "Steve Blauner interview" (18:40, HD) covering the perspective of the "S"s in "BBS," and two "Theatrical Trailers" (2:00, :57, HD)

Disc Three (Five Easy Pieces) includes a thoughtful audio commentary with director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson taking turns reminiscing about the production and discussing the conceptual approaches. "Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces" (9:08, HD) is a 2009 video interview with Rafelson, with a Nicholson interview clip also popping up. "BBStory" (46:35, HD) is the set's definitive doc on BBS, including brand-new interviews with Rafelson, Nicholson, Bogdanovich, director Henry Jaglom, Karen Black, Ellen Burstyn, Micky Dolenz, filmmaker Fred Roos, critic Richard Schickel, Timothy Bottoms, co-producer Harry Gittes, and Bruce Dern. We also get an audio-only 1976 "AFI Interview" with Rafelson (49:23), "Theatrical Trailer," and "Teaser Trailers."

Disc Four (Drive, He Said/A Safe Place) includes for the former the 2009 making-of doc "A Cautionary Tale of Campus Revolution and Sexual Freedom" (10:41, HD)—including interviews with Nicholson, co-editor Christopher Holmes, Gittes, Dern and Roos—and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:41, HD). A Safe Place comes with audio commentary with director Henry Jaglom, the 2009 video interview "Henry Jaglom Finds A Safe Place" (6:36, HD), the 1971 Jaglom and Bogdanovich Q&A "Notes on the 9th New York Film Festival" (28:34, HD), an "Outtake" and four Screen Tests (25:25 in total, HD), and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:51, HD).

Disc Five (The Last Picture Show) kicks off with 1991 audio commentary with director Peter Bogdanovich, and actors Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman and Frank Marshall and 2009 audio commentary with director Peter Bogdanovich. The disc also collects Laurent Bouzerau's 1999 doc "The Last Picture Show: A Look Back" (1:04:40, HD) and George Hickenlooper's 1990 doc "Picture This" (41:59, HD); Bouzereau also conducts the 2009 interview "A Discussion with Peter Bogdanovich" (12:51, HD). Rounding out the disc are "Screen Tests" (2:14, HD), "Location Footage" (6:27, HD), the fascinating French TV piece "Truffaut on the New Hollywood" (4:34, HD) and original (3:05, HD) and re-release (1:28, HD) "Theatrical Trailers."

Disc Six (The King of Marvin Gardens) includes selected scene commentary with director Bob Rafelson, the 2009 video interview "Reflections of a Philosopher King" (9:47, HD) with Rafelson and Burstyn, the 2002 Rafelson interview "Afterthoughts" (11:01, HD), the "Theatrical Trailer" (3:28, HD) and the text feature About Bob Rafelson.

Last but not least, the set includes a gorgeous, glossy 114-page paperback with essays by critics J. Hoberman, Chuck Stephens, Matt Zoller Seitz, Kent Jones, Graham Fuller, and Mark Le Fanu; film credits; tech specs and photographs.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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