Category Archives: Week 3 (2/7): The Counterculture Goes Mainstream

Davy Jones

As many students have pointed during recitations, our very own Davy Jones has passed away today. The New York Times has reported the fact on their blog, but the obituary is yet to be published.

I leave you with Davy’s dance scene with Toni Basil, from Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968).

Recitation Presentation on Biskind’s “What Made Us Right?”

Biskind’s chapter “What Made Us Right?” from the book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” describes the ascension of counter-cultural ideas and filmmaking into the pantheons of mainstream Hollywood studio productions.  The initial journey of these ideas is illustrated with the introductions to Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider, two aspiring filmmakers strongly influenced by the French New Wave who believed that the American studio system did not allow for a director to fully express themselves and wanted to change that. They were far from counter-cultural icons (“Bob liked Bert precisely because he had short hair and did not smoke dope” pg. 52) but soon became that after their move to Los Angeles and success with their creation, The Monkees.

The Monkees gave Rafaelson and Schneider power and influence, but they grew to resent the group and what it meant to them – an unoriginal Beatles clone that only served to pay their bills. The Monkees’ mainstream success was like ‘selling out’ to Bob and Bert and in Head they tried to erase that by parodying it. The opening lyrics to the film display this (“He, hey, we are The Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies.“)

The studios had lost touch with the youth audience, an extension of the generational gap seen between baby boomers and their parents in the 1960s. The successful studio pictures of old (big budget blockbuster period epics) were flailing and when films like Head and Easy Rider come out and start to make money, studios went from “…shaking their heads in incomprehension to nodding their heads in incomprehension.” (pg 73) These films drastically differed from the recent studio films by portraying real, contemporary America. This element of realism shows through in Easy Rider – to what extent are Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper,  and Jack Nicholson acting as themselves? Nicholson allegedly smoked real marijuana for the campfire scene where he talks about Venetian invasion. Most famously however, as the article points out, is the LSD trip scene at the end where Peter Fonda is having a very real, emotional moment in regards to his feelings towards his mother.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WH-compe0Q0

I also found there was an element of caution in this chapter – the extreme and often unbelievable antics of Dennis Hopper seem to warn against what may happen when the director is given too much power. There needs to be a happy medium where the producer is not stifling the director’s creativity on the film, but also one where the power structure does not allow for unchecked egomania.

The late 60s and the resulting New Hollywood represented a time where both studios and directors were ‘happy’ – studios were making money in an area they were flailing and the directors were able to have creative control over their films.

Bruno Recitation Notes, 2/8/12, Section 7

Week 3: The Counterculture Goes Mainstream

The recitation began with a discussion of Andy Warhol’s experimental film The Chelsea Girls.  We discussed how the use of 2 scenes playing at once worked together and how any connection between the two is purely of the audience’s own creati on since the two scenes that are paired is random.  It was also brought up how the 2nd projector starts a little later than the first and so the two scenes are always slightly off. The differences between the two screens were also discussed.  One screen is in color and silent while the other is in black and white and with sound.   The idea of “actively” watching a film was then discussed.  With the film, the audience is forced to choose one screen over the other constantly either consciously or subconsciously.

We then talked about the ethics of filmmaking and about whether or not the director should step in when things start to get unethical.  The fact that the scene in The Chelsea Girls with the man slapping the woman makes it into the film is meant to force the viewer to make heir own judgement regarding it.  The “real yet not real” aspect of the film was also discussed and how it makes the viewer have to decide what’s part of the performance and what is reality.  We finished discussing The Chelsea Girls and Touching by talking about how these two films are not difficult to film but that no one had tried to film them in such a manner before and so that is where the production value of art comes from.

The time period (specifically the year 1968) surrounding this week’s films were discussed.  We talked about the Columbia student protests against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King’s murder, the Manson family murders (which hit Hollywood hard), and Nixon’s election and afterwards a student presented the Biskind article to the class.

We watched a clip from Easy Rider where the group drops acid and is tripping followed by the ending of the film where both Hopper’s and Fonda’s characters are killed. We talked about how the acid scene is particularly interesting as it involves now special effects and yet it is still able to convey the feeling of tripping convincingly.  The significance of the acid scene was also discussed.  The scene was described as showing the characters being trapped and existing in a place between life and death.

The discussion then moved to the film Head.  The class was given the task of trying to answer the question “What is Head?”  One answer said that it was “about The Monkees, but not exactly…”  We discussed how the film was attempting to take the media-produced image of The Monkees and radically change it to something closer to reality.  The film showcases the battle between the counterculture and the mainstream.  The idea of performance versus reality was again brought up when the class was posed the question of whether the Monkees are acting as themselves in the film or not.  We discussed the financial shortcomings of the film (it only made $16,000) and the screenplay credit dispute between the filmmakers and the Monkees.  We ended the recitation by watching a clip from the film where Davy performs the song “Daddy’s Song”.

Bruno recitation review 2/8/12 section 007

We began class by discussing Chelsea Girls with respect to ethics and also how the split screen affected our viewing. As far as ethics, we compared it to documentary filmmaking or video journalism. When does the crew behind the camera decide to step in? More importantly, what does it say about the director that he would choose to keep that footage in the final cut? What does it say that he would elect to show that, punitively unethical, side of himself?

Bruno referred to the split screen effect as active spectatorship, meaning that even if the content was boring, the audience is still active in having to choose which screen to look at at any given second. This activity also leads to a self-evaluation. Why am I choosing to look at the left screen now and not the right? This causes us to lose focus and makes it a phenomenological experience.

We also discussed that the reason films like Chelsea Girls and Touching were successful and are still being analyzed and enjoyed today despite the fact that, especially in the case of Chelsea Girls, “anyone could do it,” is because nobody had done it before.

From there, we had a brief overview of the historical context of Head and Easy Rider (i.e. the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, the election of Nixon, the Manson murders, the Vietnam War, the May 1968 protest in France, race riots, Columbia students’ takeover, the beginning of using harder drugs, psychedelics and the ideas of yuppies and what it means to be authentic) and a student presented on the Peter Biskind article.

We watched the acid trip scene from Easy Rider and discussed how it illustrates the idea of authenticity and shows the characters in between life and death. The scene was unique for it’s time in that it didn’t rely on visual effects to display a trip, just pure acting and editing.

We further discussed how the Biskind article affected our viewing of the film and to what extent we believed Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were acting.

We ended by watching the clip of “Daddy’s Song” from Head and discussed what elements of the other films were used in this film and why it was such an epic failure in the box office. We attempted to answer the question, “what is the film about?” After struggling to answer and questioning why it was a struggle, we concluded that the film was less about a narrative and more about revealing how media-produced the Monkees were and what the public’s perception of them was.

Jaap Recitation Notes February 8, 2012

We began recitation by watching that scene from Midnight Cowboy that Professor Zinman mentioned in class. By the late 1960’s, that type of scene- seeing a more straight-edged, old-school guy get high for the first time- had been pretty much played out. Movies like Easy Rider had to take it to a whole nother level- which Easy Rider did- to make its mark. More on Easy Rider later….

Next we discussed the Koch read and Chelsea Girls. We were all in agreement with Koch that one of the reasons Odine snapped at the girl in the clip we saw was because she had disturbed his equilibrium, or the collective equilibrium of the Warhol house-and the drug scene in general. There was no glitz and glam; just depressed artists trying to escape their difficult reality. We discussed Koch’s assertions that at many readings, black and white films were screened simultaneously, but how the clips we saw worked very well together. The vivid colors on Nico’s face drew some of our attention away from the poorly lit, out of focus, but otherwise much more interesting scene involving Odine and the girl. This is a technique I am very interested in, although we did not discuss other movies which screened multiple reels at once.

On to T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G: we discussed how the flashing lights, slurred speech and changes in time (measure by the heavy, thumping base) affected viewers’ perception of the action being taken (the man cutting out his own tongue). Some people suggested it was a critique of the psychedelic drug scene, but I was not so convinced. It certainly would’ve appealed to that group, just because of it’s bravado. But it was also very radical.

Next, we discussed the mixing of the main stream and the avant garde in Head exemplified in Davy Jones’ pop song, which featured well-planned cuts to highlight the color changes-either with Davy dressed in the Black Tuxedo to the beige background; or to the White Tuxedo in the black background.

Finally, we discussed the making of Easy Rider, how it opened new possibilities to no-name directors like Dennis Hopper. Prior to Easy Rider, studios would not fund films unless a big director was attached to the project. We tried watching the graveyard scene which caused so much friction between Hopper and Peter Fonda. Although we had to settle for an Italian version of the scene, it was apparent that this scene felt more real than the rest of Fonda’s performance.

Summary: Bruno’s recitation on February 8, 2012

We started the recitation with the discussion of Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. A recurring theme of this week’s recitation was the interplay between fiction and reality / authenticity and performance. Referring to the scene where Ondine hits a woman, we talked about how much a filmmaker can or should interfere with his subject and how Warhol uses his medium to blur the line between the two. Everybody knows that this scene is all set up, yet we can never tell for sure where the performance starts, where it stops or whether there is a performance at all. How real is Ondine’s anger when he is called “phony“? Do they stop performing when she calls him phony and he gets mad? How real are the drugs? How are they influencing the performance? We pointed out again that Warhol’s film seems like an early version of reality TV and how the adoption of a stage persona (Ondine is not his real name, for instance) is the ultimate rejection of a real identity. Furthermore, it was emphasized that being part of the hip culture is a lot about performance in general, too.

Next, Bruno talked a little bit about 1968, which was a very tumultuous year. Afterwards, the Peter Biskind text “Who Made Us Right“ was presented. We talked about how Biskind constructs history, pointing out that his sources were not facts but oral history, personal stories and interviews. After watching two scenes from “Easy Rider“, the acid scene followed by the brutal ending of the film, we also argued how Biskind’s text influenced our reading of the film. Here again comes in the question of authenticity vs. performance. Do we see the film differently after reading his text because we know, for example, that Fonda and Hopper hated each other on the set? Additionally, we underlined the scene’s resemblance to “Scorpio Rising“, especially due to the quick cuts, the religious imagery, the shooting and, of course, the motorcycles.

Moreover, the question was raised whether “Head“ was the worst marketing strategy in the world. The film was not a success, and we concluded that there was nothing The Monkees could have done to change their image. Because they were ultimately mainstream and the embodiment of phoniness, the hipsters did not see it just on principle and for their admirers the film was too transgressive. Nevertheless, the film maybe tried to reach out for a new type of audience. Also, we talked about the references to “A Hard Day’s Night“ and about the comments on celebrities, the war, Coca Cola and the fact that the film makes fun of its very own production.

Finally, we quickly discussed “T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G”. Most of the students did not like the film, yet some admitted that while watching it they fell in a kind of trance and that the film therefore did something with them. However, it was argued, is that really the only purpose? Can’t any film do this? Touching is a phenomenological film and it is about the experience of watching a film itself. Bruno underlined how hard single frame editing is. Out of destruction, the film produces new meaning.

Then the recitation ended.

Bruno’s 2:00 Recitation Recap (2/8)

We began with our recitation on “The Counterculture Goes Mainstream” with a discussion of Andy Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls.  

Chelsea Girls was met with a generally positive response from our class.  Many commented on the film’s modesty–the film’s lack of editing, the realism of Warhol’s style, etc.  One observation that became especially important in our discussion was the idea of breaking the fourth wall.  All of the actors in Warhol’s film know they are being filmed; they even interact with the camera.  We also interpreted this to be something about self-acknowledgement of one’s own “phoniness.”  When Ondine gets called a “phony” by the girl at the confessional in the famous pope scene, he begins to hit her and chase her.  Since it would have been a supreme offense to have been called a “phony” if you were a hipster such as Warhol or any member of his factory, Ondine got angry.  He becomes self-aware and self-conscious, which incites anger inside him.  Such is the case with the film too–Chelsea Girls uses that self-awareness to deconstruct film as a medium.  We also discussed the effect of drugs on Ondine’s performance.  At what point did he stop acting?  Where did improv begin?  Was the anger all just drugs.  The question of why Warhol used two films was then posed.  One response was that it questions the relation between images and sound, a further deconstruction of film.  Furthermore, the lighting, sound, and cinematography guide our senses between the two films projected simultaneously–another filmic deconstruction.

Peter Biskind’s essay, “Who Made Us Right?,”  was then presented after a brief discussion of history in 1968.  Biskind traces the developments of several directors and producers in the early 60’s in what was labelled as “salacious journalism” the night before.  The early careers of Schneider, Rafelson, and Hopper are traced in Biskind’s essay.  The three directors’ films ended up becoming responsible for the dawn of a new Hollywood, one that was more open to countercultural movements.  Biskind creates a narrative out of a series of interviews given by the aforementioned directors.

Following the presentation of Biskind’s essay, two clips of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider were shown–that of the acid trip in the cemetery and that of the film’s bloody finale.  We discussed why Hopper juxtaposed these two scenes.  The acid trip represents freedom, while the shooting of the two protagonists represents imprisonment.  Whether or not the protagonists “blew it” remains ambiguous.  One important observation was that Hopper clearly had Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising in mind when he made Easy Rider.  This is very much evident in the editing style.  Another important observation was that reading Biskind’s essay changed many people’s perception of the film.  When you know that the actors and Hopper feuded on set and that the girl in the LSD trip scene was forced to strip, Easy Rider seems much more raw.

After that, we began discussing Bob Rafelson’s 1968 film Head.  As for what the film meant, an important point that was raised was that Rafelson destroyed many different genres in the process of making this film.  By making fun of The Monkees, their image, many different Hollywood genres, and mainstream culture, Rafelson intentionally destroyed the film’s subjects, economically and otherwise.  We discussed the poor marketing strategy a bit.  Columbia Pictures, a mainstream distributor, released the film under the false notion that a Monkees picture would be highly successful.  That, however, turned out to be wishful thinking, as Head flopped.  It is important to note, however, that the film may have been designed to fail.  Rafelson did, after all, make advertisements (and a title) that alluded to Andy Warhol’s Blow-Job, an avant-garde success.  Was Head only for a small, educated audience and not for the hipsters?  Did Rafelson want Head to hurt the studio and the Monkees?  We then watched a clip of Davy Jones’ “Daddy’s Song” dance in Head.

When asked what the clip reminded us of, one said Chicago, another said Singin’ in the Rain.  Rafelson has actually been inspired by Paul Sharits’ 1969 film T, O, U, C, H, I, N, G.  Sharits’ film, like Head itself, destroys film.  The word “destroy,” which is repeated many, many times in Sharits’ film, is meant to refer to the physical, phenomenological destruction of the film itself.  Many of us objected to Sharits’ single-frame editing style because it is a film that is so hard to watch, however this was all Sharits’ intention.  And so ended the recitation.