You know, this used to be a hell of a good country, I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.—George Hanson, Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
This week’s class addressed the following themes and topics:
The counterculture crossing over into the mainstream, and the interaction between the two cultural spheres.
The crisis of selling out vs. “being real”
The notion, expressed by Wyatt in Easy Rider, of “blowing it,” and it’s ramifications for the American Dream and the counterculture of the late 1960s.
Authenticity and performance
The portrayal of the psychedelic experience on film (the term “psychedelic” comes from the Greek words for “soul” and “manifest,” translating to “soul-manifesting”).
These themes and tensions are expressed in the words of “The Porpoise Song,” that opens and closes this week’s feature, HEAD (Bob Rafelson, 1968), as sung by the Monkees: “Wanting to feel / To know what is real / Living is a lie.”
We began by screening Bruce Conner’s short film BREAKAWAY (1966), a proto-musuic video starring singer/choreographer/dancer Antonia Christina Basilotta, who reappears throughout tonight’s films. Multimedia artist Conner—a painter, photographer, sculptor, light show artist, and filmmaker—was one of the pioneering directors of appropriation and cinematic deconstruction, and central figure in the underground Bay Area scene. Conner’s use of found footage in A MOVIE (1958), radical editing patterns, and use of pop music, all proved to be a tremendous influence on his friend Dennis Hopper, and is also evident in Rafelson’s cut-up media critique in HEAD.
N.B.: This is not the full version…
16 years later, Antonia Christina Basilotta, now Toni Basil, enjoyed a US #1 with her single “Mickey” in 1982:
1966 was also the year of Andy Warhol’s art film sensation, The Chelsea Girls. We briefly discussed Warhol’s use of the cinematic apparatus to deconstruct movie-making (films of extreme duration, like Sleep, Eat, Blow-Job, and Empire; fixed camera setups, wherein the entire reel is shot, printed, and screened without editing) and challenge cinematic conventions of narrative, pacing, and stardom.
Warhol on his early films:
Sometimes I like to be bored, and sometimes I don’t – it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Everyone knows how it is: some days one can sit and look out the window for hours and hours and some days one can’t sit still for a moment. I’ve been quoted a lot as saying, ‘I like boring things.’ Well, I said it and I meant it. But that does not mean I’m not bored by them. Of course, what I think is boring can’t be the same as what other people think is, since I could never stand to watch all the most popular action shows on TV, because they’re essentially the same plots and the same shots and the same cuts over and over again. Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I’m just the opposite: If I’m going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.
Critic and poet Parker Tyler writes that Warhol’s films engage in dueling and simultaneous temporalities, “Dragtime,” and “Drugtime.” The former, for Tyler, is “eventless” and “nonprogressive”, resulting in filmic passages that comprise a “vicious circle” or “an endurance test. “The latter, he says, is “the time of sublimated leisure: all the time in the world,” it relates to drug use, and perhaps even the psychedelic trip.
The Chelsea Girls, comprised of twelve discrete 30-mintue reels, to be played by the projectionist as a dual, asynchronous projection in any combination, certainly embodies both of these temporalities, while offering a new kind cinematic experience: episodic, rather than narrative, documentary but performative, confrontational but catatonic.
Steven Koch, who we read this week, writes that the film offers almost too much information: “The Chelsea Girls seems almost an act of aggression, though it must be called aggression of a very special kind. A cliché leaps to mind: The film is mind-blowing, an inept cliché that has leapt into a good many people’s minds. The work overloads the circuit of perception.”
We looked at the infamous scene with Robert Olivo, “Pope” Ondine, in which the meathadrine-stoked actor violently loses his temper with a young woman, set against colorful images of Nico, singer for the Velvet Underground, crying. We discussed the film’s notion of exposure, its relation to contemporary reality television, the question of who is a “phony,” the term that sets Ondine off on his rampage, and the perceived cultural subtext of the war in Vietnam.
We then moved on to Easy Rider, and viewed it through the backdrop of the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the election of Richard Nixon and the Silent Majority, the collapse of the counterculture, the Tet Offensive, the changing drug culture, and student uprisings at home and abroad.
Discussion of the film included:
The relation of the film to genre: westerns and biker films; the influence of Scorpio Rising (both in the use of rock and roll and the outlaw theme), Bonnie and Clyde, 2001, and the films of Bruce Conner.
The film as an explicit clash of cultures, and how its box office success signaled a melding or interplay of those cultures.
Critic Matt Zoller Seitz on the film’s final shot: It could represent the death of a man or of a dream of a revolution. But it may also signify the death of a false dream of comfort. Billy and Wyatt were born to be wild, and they died wild; in its twisted way, it’s a happy ending.”
Then we looked at the Joshua Light Show, and it’s role in a variety of cultural spheres.
From the lecture:
The group members were resident artists at the Fillmore East, a seated rock theater on 2nd Avenue in New York City. From March 8, 1968, until the venue closed in on June 27,1971, the group performed multiple shows every weekend for up to10,000 people, receiving nearly equal billing to such acts as the Who, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. One of the premier historians of visual music, William Moritz, summed up the light show’s unrepeatable nature as “always only once.” In its finest instantiations, Moritz wrote, light shows comprised “a living art work of organic complexity considerably more interesting, challenging and satisfying than any of the flat, static art styles of the past, including painting and the traditional fictional cinema.”
The Joshua Light Show’s appeal was broad and circulated in a variety of cultural strata. In addition to their work at the Fillmore, the group produced a light show for the premiere of the New York Symphony at Carnegie Hall, provided light effects for a Lincoln Center production of King Lear, collaborated with Yayoi Kusama’s staging of her political performance piece Self-Obliteration, in 1968—on a bill that included Fleetwood Mac and Country Joe & The Fish.)—held a happening in Bryant Park, and, in a performance that drew a direct line between the light show and its synaesthetic forebears, Shoesmith contributed light sequences to accompany pianist Hilde Somer’s recital of Scriabin at Alice Tully Hall.
This interplay of sub-cultural and mainstream cultural spheres is perhaps best seen in the party sequence that the Joshua Light Show designed for John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). In the scene, Jon Voigt’s Florida naïf-turned-hustler Joe Buck tries marijuana for the first time, and the viewer sees projections of the group’s oil and water mix on swaying women, some of whom wrap themselves in sheets hung throughout the Factory-style loft space. Schlesinger’s use of zooms, proleptic framing of 8mm interview footage from partygoers superimposed over the action presented in the narrative’s present, and close-ups of Buck’s sweating, open-mouthed, glazed-eye visage, all scored to Elephant Memory’s woozy “Old Man Willow,” all register as an attempt to convey the dizzying upheaval of Buck’s altered consciousness. The director initially asked his friend Andy Warhol to design the scene, but, according to White, Warhol’s organization was too unorganized to complete the project. Warhol did lend his art to the set, however, and many of Warhol’s “superstars,” including Viva, Ultra Violet, and Paul Morrissey (appearing, appropriately, camera in hand, as the event’s documentarian) played themselves in the scene. The resulting sequence combined the talents of Warhol’s personnel, who had been celebrated in the New York art/film world as well as in the pages of Vogue and other national magazines, the Joshua Light Show, lesser-known as personalities but part of the burgeoning popular culture of rock and roll, and Schlesinger’s crew, who were members of the Hollywood filmmaking community. That the film was the first X-rated movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture points to how mainstream culture is striated—Schlesinger’s film initially seen as being outside that culture before being dilatorily subsumed into it. Nevertheless, by 1969, the “psychedelic party scene,” was already something of a cliché…
Warhol’s influence also informed our discussion of structural film and screening of Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. Sharits frame-by-frame manipulation of the filmstrip calls into question the use of the apparatus, the meaning and limits of cinematic representation, and makes film itself the subject of cinema: celluloid, sprocket holes, frame lines, emulsion, the projector, etc. In other words, Sharits cinema is about what cinema can do. His project is to shatter or disrupt our senses in order to reorient our understanding of the world, and make us self-aware viewers. If cinema can make us see and hear differently, then we might think differently, and that argument carries cultural and political implications.
I’d like to give up Imitation and Illusion and I’d like to enter the higher drama of Celluloid, 2dimensional film stripes, individual images, nature of perforation and emulsion, projector operations, 3dimensional lamps, environment, illumination, the 2dimensional reflecting screen, optic nerves and individual psychophysical conditions. In this cinematographic drama light is energy and not a tool for the representation of non-film objects. Light as energy creates its own objects, shadows and textures. If you take the facts of the retina, the flicker mechanism of film projection than you can make films without logic of language.
We finished up with a screening of the Monkees movie, HEAD, a work that I called “the Trojan Horse of the New Hollywood,” not only because it features a script by Nicholson and represents Bob Rafelson and Bert Schinder’s (who went on to produce Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Picture Show, and the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds) attempt to break into the movie business after making a fortune off of The Monkees television show, but also in the film’s attempt to expose the limitations of genre-based filmmaking in search of something real.
The specters of Conner and Warhol looms large here, in the appropriation of advertising and corporate sloganeering, the newsreel footage of the assassination of a captured Vietcong soldier and bombing attacks, the ad campaign referencing Blow-Job, and a party sequence that, as in Midnight Cowboy, includes members of Warhol’s entourage, the expressionistic colored lighting of The Chelsea Girls, and the floating sliver pillows that once floated above the Factory.
We discussed the film’s awareness of the “the media”—especially television, the idea of self-relexive auto-critique, of the Monkees’ precarious cultural position (neither hip nor popular any longer) at the time of the film’s release—interestingly, the day after Nixon’s election, it’s meditation on phoniness (or, in the film’s satiric terms, “the real and the vividly imagined experience”) and it’s radical anti-narrative, anti-genre, anti-corporation, anti-war stance.
Some questions for further discussion:
What do you make of the film’s structure? How is this a trip film?
Why do you think this film has had a critical revival? How does it resonate with contemporary culture?
Do you feel empathy for the Monkees? Does the movie offer the potential for escape?