Even by the high standards of The Criterion Collection, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, is a fantastic box set. But for those interested in the birth of American independent film, as I am, it is something near definitive, a visual companion of sorts to Peter Biskind’s famous book about this wild era, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls.
BBS was a production company founded by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner. Bob, Bert, Steve. B B S, you see? Coming off their success producing the Monkees television show in the late 1960’s, they got a special deal with Columbia Pictures. As long as they stayed in budget, the studio would not interfere and release the movies as the filmmakers intended. What they intended was nothing less than a revolution, to merge the best of European art films and American documentaries, and the aftershocks are still being felt to this day.
I bought the set because it contained three of my favorite films: Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971). But the other four films in the collection — Head (1968); Drive, He Said (1970); A Safe Place (1971) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) — also have their own appeal. Taken together, these seven films offer an eclectic cinematic experience that mirrors any modern-day independent film festival. The loose collective of filmmakers that made up BBS, including legends like Jack Nicholson, writer/director Henry Jaglom and cinematographer Laszlo Kovaks, in a few short years forever changed the aesthetic of movies from fake Technicolor sets on sound stages to one where the terror and the terroir of America itself took center stage.
The title of the set is more than apt: in each of these films, the lost corners of America are found, rediscovered and preserved. As historical documents alone, these films would be invaluable, bottling for all time the hippy communes, the crumbling boardwalk of Atlantic City and the oil fields of Bakersfield. But beyond that, they function as odd and wonderful works of art. Let’s explore each of them…
Head is a sketch and music omnibus, starring the counter-culture’s favorite rascals, The Monkees. The movie is wonderfully anarchic, with all kinds of trippy visuals to satisfy the stoner-appeal title. It is also brilliantly funny, never more so than when casting a satirical eye at war. Keep in mind, this was made at the same time as the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam. Would that there had been some Iraq War satires as fun and funny as this. BBS also produced a more serious look at the war, the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (available as a standalone disc from Criterion). But even if you ignore the cultural baggage, you are left with a daring and exciting work of cinema, a grand announcement of what was to come from BBS.
So potent is the iconography and the legend of Easy Rider, it is hard to watch the movie as audiences of the day did. Once you see it for what it is, a moral parable, a travelogue, an American attempt at a European art film (as director/star Dennis Hopper repeatedly reminds us in his two included audio commentaries), it starts to make sense. Easy Rider didn’t invent the counter-culture, it just galvanized it. For the first time, young people were seeing themselves reflected honestly (and not necessarily positively). But the ironic and strangely abrupt ending to the film rang with a sort of truth that must have been cathartic for a Hays Code generation raised on Hays Code movies where the heroes always won. In this world, some free spirits who dream of a big drug score have their quest constantly hampered and eventually cut short by reactionary rednecks. Peter Fonda, son of the Hollywood icon Henry Fonda, plays a character named Captain America, his American flag biker jacket asserting the competing vision of America’s future, at once capitalist and counter-establishment. In those days, the folks who couldn’t reconcile this vision shot first and asked questions later.
Five Easy Pieces
Bob Rafelson could not have gone further on the realism continuum from his debut Head, with this, his second feature as co-writer/director. Jack Nicholson stars as a California roughneck with a decidedly unlikely backstory: he belongs to an intellectual northwestern family of concert musicians, the Dupeas. The movie reveals his character and his backstory slowly, in now-classic scenes like the one where, stuck in traffic, he leaves his car and begins playing a piano being transported in the bed of the truck in front of him. When the movie begins, he’s a fish out of water. But in the middle it switches, and his girlfriend (in an Oscar-winner performance by Karen Black) finds herself out of place among the hoity-toity Dupeas. Behind Lawrence of Arabia, Five Easy Pieces might just be the best character study ever committed to film. As Rafelson, in his excellent commentary track points out, even in the final moments, the filmmakers were left trying to solve the enigma of Nicholson’s character. Whatever his motives, there is no question we are watching a living, breathing human being, captured in all his fascinating contradictions. It was the role that would define Nicholson for the rest of his career.
A Safe Place
I’ll confess, I found A Safe Place tedious, despite the winning presence of actors like Tuesday Weld and Orson Welles. What makes the film worth studying is that writer/director Henry Jaglom (who also edited this film and assisted editing Easy Rider) used this film to launch a long and creatively-fulfilling career as an independent filmmaker. As he talks about on the included bonus features, this film attracted the same audience of people drawn to explorations of the female psyche that his filmmaking has attracted ever since. As a model for a filmmaker who has survived in a corner, just doing his own thing, Jaglom has served as the inspiration for the likes of Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith.
Drive, He Said
Drive, He Said has Jack Nicholson all over it, but he did not star in it. Instead, for this tale of basketball and anti-war protesters on a college campus, Nicholson worked behind the camera, co-writing with Steve Blausner and directing. He coaches Nicholson-esque performances out of great actors like Karen Black and Bruce Dern, as well as non-actor basketball players. Taken as a whole, the movie is a mess. But individual scenes ring with the emotional truth that Nicholson brings to his best performances. The movie is as obsessive about the intricacies of human relationships as it is about the intricacies of the game of basketball. Watching it, I wished that Nicholson had paused his acting career more often to write and direct. His frank and funny interview in the disc’s bonus features makes me think that, in an alternate timeline, he could have achieved equal fame as an independent writer-director.
The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich was a film nerd and critic who, like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard, put his money where his mouth was and made brilliant cinema. I have always loved this film about the sex lives of teens in small town Texas, but never thought of it in context as a BBS film. Watching it as part of the set, I had a new appreciation for the contributions of the other filmmakers involved, including the tremendous cast. (The story about Bogdanovich bullshitting to actor Ben Johnson that he would win an Oscar if he took the role is a great one. Spoiler: Johnson did win the Oscar.) As far as bonus features, the disc features a great documentary by George Hickenlooper called Archer, Texas, which follows up 19 years later with the cast, Bogdanovich and the local people of the town where it was shot. Clearly, it was made in association with the sequel, Texasville (1990), of movie of which I wasn’t even aware. But still, the doc provides some insight into writer Larry McMurtry’s relationship to the townsfolk he thinly fictionalized in his novels. Other bonus features include clips of none other than François Truffaut talking about the film. He must have spotted a kindred spirit.
The King of Marvin Gardens
The third movie in the box set co-written and directed by Bob Rafelson (and the fourth one with a strong influence from Jack Nicholson), The King of Marvin Gardens is a lost gem. Done much in the same style as Easy Rider, but casting against type with Nicholson playing the bottled-up writer and Bruce Dern playing his grandiose brother, the movie tells a tabloid story in less-than-tabloid manner. Nicholson plays radio monologist David Staebler, summoned by his younger brother Jason (Dern) to Atlantic city to help with a business deal. The deal may or may not exist only in Jason’s mind, but Jason at least has a mother-daughter pair (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson) convinced. But when David and the daughter begin to fall for each other, the whole fantasy begins to rot like an aging boardwalk. In shockingly beautiful classical photography by Laszlo Kovaks, the now-lost world of 1970’s Atlantic City becomes a grand stage for a drama about brothers, mothers and daughters and, as with Easy Rider, the dark side of American capitalism. It’s an under-rated film, and a great finish for the set, weaving together so many themes from the earlier films.
Overall, I’d consider this a collection that indie filmmakers should not only see but study in depth, a real treasure trove of techniques and inspiring history. To that end, I wish Criterion had also produced an over-arching documentary that tells the BBS Story, rather than having to get it in fragments from each disc’s bonus features. The included eponymous booklet, with essays by the likes of Matt Zoller Seitz and J. Hoberman, goes some way toward creating this narrative. There are also unaffiliated documentaries of this era, like A Decade Under the Influence, which I recommend putting on the BBS syllabus.
In any case, this collection provides all the more reason to explore, watch, re-watch, re-discover this astounding era of rebel filmmaking. (America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. $99.96 on Blu-Ray. Also available on DVD.)