Wednesday, May 25, 2011

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

I’ve always loved Hollywood movies of the 1970s. It has something to do with my wishing I had been part of the student protests that opened the decade – like the burning of the Bank of America in my home town of Isla Vista, California. Wishing I had been at Woodstock to witness a generation’s high point, and the beginning of its end, also plays a role. Mostly though, it’s a reaction to seeing my parents trembling with hushed tones in the kitchen trying to hide these events from me.

American movies during those times of unrest and Richard Nixon were notable for taking their cameras into the real world, away from Hollywood’s sets and stars. Also characteristic were frank and free explorations of sexuality, downbeat, ambiguous endings, and conflicted characters that left audiences grasping and asking: Was I supposed to like that hero?

“America Lost and Found: The BBS Story,” a rich new box set that combines seven movies released from 1968 through 1972, some well-known – Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show – some not so well known – Head (starring The Monkees), Drive, He Said, and The King of Marvin Gardens – and one forgotten – A Safe Place, feels like a primer on 1970s Hollywood.

BBS Productions, named after [B]ob Rafelson, [B]ert Schneider, and [S]teve Blauner, was born out of the success of two productions: the television series The Monkees and the whirlwind known as Easy Rider. Monkees co-creators Rafelson and Schneider filled their bank accounts with enough cash to finance the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper pipe-dream of a biker movie. But first they tried to spin The Monkees into a theatrical movie. They planned to jokingly promote Easy Rider as being “from the producers who gave you Head.”

Now, thanks to this set, we can see Head, a box office disaster that forced one of the greatest taglines in movie history to be abandoned. It’s actually a fun and inventive movie, though far more politically serious than the television show, which explains it failure.

Jack Nicholson was on the verge of hanging up his acting gloves when he was cast as George Hanson in Easy Rider (he also co-wrote Head) and a star was born. He saved Easy Rider which would’ve been deadly dull without him. He owns this set as well, being involved in six out of the seven movies including his fascinating directing debut Drive, He Said. Watching these movies is like watching the birth of a major career that almost never was.

Idiosyncratic director Henry Jaglom seems an odd man out with A Safe Place, his meditation on loving and forgetting, until one notices the threads. Jaglom was the editor who helped simmer Easy Rider down from a four hour mess to a mostly taut 95 minutes. Jaglom and Nicholson made a pact that they would each act in the other’s first movie. Jaglom appears in Drive, He Said, Nicholson in A Safe Place.

Seeming the most out of place though is The Last Picture Show (the one without Nicholson). Its classical storytelling and black and white cinematography harken back to earlier Hollywood times of Howard Hawks and John Ford, but watching it within the context of this set makes it feel perfectly at home at BBS.

Peter Bogdanovich insisted on shooting entirely in the town that inspired Larry McMurtry. The pool party with Jacy stripping on a diving board perfectly captures the era’s freewheeling sexuality, and no ending is bleaker than its encounter between Sonny and Ruth Popper that dissolves into an image of the town’s desolate main street with one forever blinking traffic light.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"I knew two things for sure...

I'd love to include things like this from time to time. It's a reaction to the Cinema 100 experience by first time season ticket holder Kelsey Schable:

Throughout the course of this semester, I have searched for an opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture in order to complete my cultural event project. My efforts had been mostly futile, due to the low number of cultural events located in the Bismarck-Mandan area. It occurred to me that perhaps I was being too simplistic in my cultural views and should look beyond race and ethnicity to find a group of people with completely different interests than my own. To my chagrin, I did not even realize that I had been attending a significant cultural event every Thursday afternoon for months in the form Cinema 100, a club that regularly shows new and remarkable films at the Grand Theatres weekly. Cinema 100 is unique because the people who attend the showings of these films not only have their own culture, but they involve themselves in other cultures with the medium of film.

I was first introduced to Cinema 100 through my fiancé, a local director, movie enthusiast, and board member of Cinema 100. It was his first year working with the organization and every Thursday afternoon he would have to disappear to the Grand Theatres to take tickets and view a different film. The members of Cinema 100 took great pains to find the perfect blend of films in order to expose the people of Bismarck to captivating movies that range from foreign films to classics. On the first week of the Spring 2011 Cinema 100 showing, my fiancé halfheartedly asked me to join him, knowing that it was unlikely that I would give up my Thursday afternoon to sit in a crowded movie theatre. I surprised him and myself by accepting his offer.

The first week I attended Cinema 100, I paid six dollars to watch a documentary about Joan Rivers. Although the documentary was provocative and feisty, the electric atmosphere was more stimulating than the film. Veterans who had attended Cinema 100 showings for years lingered with one another before the movie and were the first ones out of the theatre, bursting with critiques. Newbies, like me, were more reserved. I liked the vibe, but I was cautious about giving my opinion about the film with so many vivacious personalities surrounding me. As I drove away from the Grand Theatres, I knew two things for sure: Joan Rivers was a dynamite comedienne and I was purchasing a season pass to Cinema 100.

In the weeks following, I attended four other films presented by Cinema 100. I enjoyed viewing films that were different than the romantic comedies and explosive action films one usually sees in theatres. As the weeks wore on, my misgivings about expressing my opinions gave way to the fun of debating with other Thursday afternoon film critics. I realized that the Cinema 100 culture is built on the idea that everyone has an inner film critic, and that those who attend have inner critics that cannot be satisfied by the regular blockbusters of the week. This culture is exceptional because the members may not be the same race, age, or religion, but they have the same yearn for education through film and spirited debate.

While my cultural event project may have been atypical, that is fine with me. In fact, it may even be preferable. Cultural diversity is something to be celebrated and explored, especially because the fact that all people belong to the same, human culture can sometimes be forgotten. I have found that not only does it pay off to expose oneself to different cultures, but that every once in a while one may find another culture to which one belongs.