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February 9, 2012
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'Head' trip on Aspen screen

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 said.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."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 10, 2012 06:36AM Published Feb 9, 2012 03:50PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.