Head

Mickey, Peter, Mike and Davy

Head is many things. The Monkees’ declaration of independence, a psychedelic beanfeast, a wackadoo retread of Help by the Prefab Four, director Bob Rafelson’s big screen debut and one of Jack Nicholson’s rare writerly contributions to the movies to list just a few.

What it isn’t is a good film. Tiresome in the extreme, it wears out its welcome very quickly. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Monkees are an extremely likeable foursome, it would be barely watchable at all.

But there is something to be squeezed from it, and it’s not just the chance to see cameos by Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, Victore Mature, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson himself (in fetching white flat cap and bright shirt looking every inch the late 1960s hipster dude).

The Monkees at the time were riding high on the success of their TV show. But the show hadn’t been built around the band; instead the band was built around the show. The Monkees were a boy band created as a consumerist version of The Beatles. No musical skill required, just a bit of chemistry and a cute face. Some of the band knew this going in and accepted it. Mickey Dolenz, for example, was a seasoned TV professional, having played Circus Boy on TV as a kid, and knew exactly what the deal was, whereas Mike Nesmith, who was already a singer-songwriter when he answered the call, was genuinely taken aback when asked to mime while “proper” musicians did the actual playing.

Consumerism sat badly with the increasingly counter-cultural late 1960s and while the band was hugely successful with screaming teens, they weren’t cool. Addressing both aspects of the Monkees’ dissatisfaction with the TV show, Head sees the band singing their own songs and playing their own instruments. “You say we’re manufactured, on that we all agree” the band chant in a snatch of an early song, in an attempt to head their critics off at the pass. Manufactured being a bad thing, obviously, hence the digs throughout at Capitalism Inc. in the shape of the Ford motor company and Coca-Cola.

Psychedelia from the movie
Far out, man!



With more than a hint of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In about it, and aping its loose, set-em-up-knock-em-down format, the film is constructed as a mad satirical dash through various scenarios – a harem, a high tech office, the Old West, a diner, a church, a nightclub, a war movie in the desert, the opening of a bridge by a local dignitary, each generic scene being upended as one or all of the Monkees do something wacky. There’s a deliberate flouting of convention going on. No opening credits, for example. And the breaking of the fourth wall, which starts early on and continues with leaden regularity right up to the end credits. Apparently the script was brainstormed by the Monkees, Rafelson and Nicholson, aided by a big bag of marijuana, and was then written up by Nicholson, with a psychedelic assist.

The best bits of the film are the psychedelics, in fact. At one point Dolenz is underwater swimming with mermaids. At another the whole band are in a nightclub and the deeply saturated colours of the visuals are spectacularly wild, the epitome of what you expect 1960s psychedelia to be, but rarely is.

Through it all the band remain as their screen personas always were – the cute Davy Jones, zany Mickey Dolenz, dumb Peter Tork and laconic Mike Nesmith.

The film bombed, satisfying neither the teenies nor the older crowd the Monkees were courting, but it did pave the way for Rafelson’s movie career – Five Easy Pieces came two years later and The King of Marvin Gardens (both starring Nicholson) two years after that.

With a background in producing and writing, Rafelson was already 34 when Head was made. Jack Nicholson was 31. Maybe that’s what’s ultimately wrong with the film. The guys making it were too old. They come to 1960s counterculture not as participants but as consumers. “Never trust anyone over 30” as the old hippie slogan has it. For all its insistence that it isn’t, the entire thing is a work of consumerist pastiche, just like the TV show was, right down to the “authentic” songs – Beatles knock-off meets early Pink Floyd.



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









The Departed

Jack Nicholson in The Departed

 

 

Martin Scorsese’s remake of the brilliant 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs adds 50 minutes of flab to what was a lean, taut thriller. The plot is the same – cop bosses Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg send in undercover man Leo DiCaprio to bust a gang. Unbeknown to the boys at the precinct, gang boss Jack Nicholson is one step ahead of them and has been grooming a placeman of his own (Matt Damon) for years, and he’s now deep deep inside their gangbusting team. The drama springs from the “Who is going to get whacked first?” premise as each side works out after a while that there’s a mole on the team and then tries to work out who it is.

Scorsese gets busy with the digressions from the start, with a Goodfellas opening (thanks to William Monahan’s script) intoned by Nicholson – “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be product of me. Years ago we had the church…” And through the rest of the film Scorsese keeps adding self-consciously “Marty” touches – the use of the Stones and John Lennon on the soundtrack, the acres of wiseguy smalltalk that used to be fun until everyone started doing it, the “big man” acting style. If Scorsese is puzzlingly behaving as if Tarantino hasn’t happened, the basic cat-and-mouse of Damon and DiCaprio remains nailbiting, and the fact that the two stars are dressed and coiffed similarly is clearly also saying something about 21st century law enforcement (the usual thing, but hey). And Alec Baldwin, as the reptilian alpha male, toilet-mouthed and very violent cop, also reminds us what presence and acting chops are all about.

As for Jack Nicholson, the extra length of this film vis a vis the original looks to be down to the fact that it’s been rewritten around him, possibly to encourage him to sign up. Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together before, and the suspicion is that Scorsese sees The Departed partly as a way of bagging another 70s legend. But though Nicholson’s presence can be justified in so many ways – his Frank Costello is based on real-life Boston crime boss “Whitey” Bulger, his character allows Scorsese to get religion in, and widen the film out into a discussion about morality and guilt, and so on – the story isn’t about him, or shouldn’t be. And as if to show he knows everything has been bent too far out of shape to accommodate him, Nicholson delivers a finger-flick performance. Scorsese-philes and Nicholson groupies will love all the masturbatory touches. The rest of us will console ourselves with the Hong Kong original, which actually concentrates on the show rather than the sideshow, and with the fact that for all its flaws this is Scorsese’s best film since Casino, so maybe the man is on the comeback trail.

 

The Departed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Chinatown

Jack Nicholson bears the scars of combat in Chinatown

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 June

 

The Aqua Traiana inaugurated, 109

On this day in 109, the aqueduct the Aqua Traiana was put into service. Built on the orders of the emperor Trajan, it supplied Rome with fresh water. Rome’s appetite for water was huge and among the things the Aqua Traiana did was: help deliver drinking water for Rome’s one millions citizens; water for countless public baths including the massive Baths of Trajan overlooking the Colosseum; spectacular fountains; and other leisure uses including the Naumachia of Trajan, a huge basin used for staging naval displays; not forgetting the importance of water as the motive force in Rome’s many flour mills. Running 40 miles from the Lake Bracciano area to the north west, running overground on spectacular aqueducts and underground in brick tunnels lined with waterproof cement, it was a prime target for those wishing to attack Rome. The Ostrogoths cut the supply in 537 when they laid siege to the city. However, it remained in service for centuries. It was the last great aqueduct built in Rome and its remains can be seen to this day in the city. Indeed there are special “Aqua Traiana” tours.

 

 

 

Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)

Chinatown is an old-school film noir about a good guy in a bad world trying to get to the bottom of some murky business. It matters not what the murky business is, pretty much, in the same way that it wasn’t very important what animated Raymond Chandler’s detectives, as long as they were out in the world, righting wrongs and cracking wise. But in this case it’s water – in Los Angeles, a town built in a desert, the person who controls the water supply is going to make a lot of money. Jack Nicholson plays JJ Gittes, the besuited private eye hitting resistance at every turn as he tries to find out why someone has turned up dead with his lungs full of water in an otherwise bone-dry area. The resistance comes mostly in the shape of John Huston’s Noah Cross, an old school patriarch given to thundering, quick with the blandishments, a powerful man with a biblical name for a reason. As many people have pointed out, one of Roman Polanski’s triumphs with Chinatown is to have made a film that (now, at least) looks to be of a piece with the famous noirs of the 1940s – The Maltese Falcon, often credited as being the first noir, was Huston’s directorial debut in 1941 and Polanski surely took a few stylistic notes off the great director whose casting is something of a coup. And yet it’s also clearly a movie from the early 1970s – Nicholson in a suit, wearing the hat, driving the big jalopy you’d expect from a man doing virtue’s work back in the day. The drama is propelled by Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a damsel in distress, with Nicholson’s Gittes the white knight (when we meet him he is wearing a white suit, in fact) hoping to protect her reputation, but finding that in trying to fix something in the here and now, he’s unearthing something far grubbier back in the past.
Small details take on huge significance in this film – the way that a gangster (played by Polanski himself) sticks a knife up Gittes’s nose and slits his nostril, the fact that Noah Cross can never quite remember Gittes’s name, Evelyn Mulwray’s strangely fluttering behaviour, always nervous; what she’s nervous about we only discover right at the end of the film.
In any assessment of Nicholson’s career, this period, from Easy Rider in 1969 to The Shining in 1980 will always be seen as key: when he did his best work; before the mannerisms set solid. Chinatown was made about halfway in, a year after The Last Detail, a year before The Passenger (when he played a mysterious journalist on the run from something). Chinatown is Jack as a human first, an inquisitive operator second, a principled guy third, the last one jostling with the first two for position. Nicholson’s line readings are courtly, and it’s a logical yet different way of expressing the same character that Humphrey Bogart played – “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero”, as Raymond Chandler once put it. Chinatown is 1974’s definition of chivalry.
As with the man, so with the place: Polanski chooses his Los Angeles locations as carefully as costume designer Anthea Sylbert dresses her actors, with an eye for the ancient – in LA ancient means a few decades – with Nicholson driving through the last remaining art deco relics in a city that is always presented as dry, harshly lit, the sun baking its wide streets.
It is in short a beautiful, desperate and almost languid mood piece, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne dropping in just enough exposition and colour to keep the thing moving along. Its ending, when everything unravels at breakneck speed, comes as something of a shock, yet it makes total sense – all the masks are suddenly removed and everyone is revealed for what and who they are.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Noir, or neo noir, at its best
  • One of Jack Nicholson’s defining performances
  • The Oscar for Robert Towne’s screenplay (of 11 nominations)
  • Anthea Sylbert’s great costume design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Chinatown – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Batman: The Dark Knight

 

Not having enjoyed the first Nolan/Bale Batman film (yes, he was traumatised by bats. I get it!) I wasn’t looking forward to the second.

But, having been told how great it was, how awesome Heath Ledger was, how dark it all was, I was prepared to put prejudice to one side and settle back to watch it with an open mind.

And I hated it. But no one else seems to feel this way. Why?

My own lack of soul to one side, it’s possibly something to do with the death of Ledger, a good actor who generally did more than was necessary in whatever role he took on, was happy to subsume himself to the character, unlike almost all “stars”. As the Joker, though, Ledger wasn’t really acting, he was channelling two famous previous players of the Joker – Cesar Romero (the giggle) from the 1960s TV version, and Jack Nicholson (the shoulders) from Tim Burton’s 1989 film – blending them and then replaying them at toxic volume. It was good, it was fun, it was clever but it was a stunt.

As for the “dark” aspect of the film, the guy in the bat suit is famously a nutjob, always has been, always will be. Christopher Nolan in no way made him darker. In fact such was the post-production fiddling with the film – to amp up Ledger – and the original misfire of an idea to include two villains that the Bat Man actually barely gets a look-in.

This is probably not the place to launch into an argument against Christian Bale’s acting talents, particularly when he’s being serious.

So we’ve got a jokey Joker, a film that’s really no darker than Tim Burton’s films, a disastrous dramatic weakening with the decision to introduce two villains (they’re meant to be powerful characters, they don’t need to hold each other’s hand).

Also, Christopher Nolan may be many things, but he’s not a good action director – after an hour of his incoherent editing – a beat too slow here, a beat too fast there – and his frequent dialling of the frenzy up to 11, I got bored. In fact there’s something really wrong with the editing of this throughout – I exclude the opening heist sequences which are gorgeous and seem to set the tone for an entirely different movie.

Then there’s what has been called the film’s psychological depth, its arthouse elements. I refer readers to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s collaboration Ebony and Ivory, Nolan and screenwriters appear to be saying little more than “there is good and bad in everyone”.

None of the characters, apart from the Joker, has any existence you can imagine outside the film. They’ve got no depth – look at Maggie Gyllenhaal, look at Gary Oldman, look at Michael Caine, all dropped in as if to say “hey, this is a film you know, with a budget and everything” but they’re not actually doing much more than just being there.

Also, where is the sex – sexual frisson is everything if Bruce Wayne is meant to have lost his girlfriend to the Two Faced Eckhart (whose eyeball never seems to dry out, even though he’s got no eyelid).

And what the hell is Bale saying? That weird growl is very off-putting.

I’ve had a look round to see if anyone else hated it. David Denby of The New Yorker was the only one I could find. He called it “grim and incoherent”.

Agreed. Though grim isn’t a bad thing. Sadly, it looks like there’s more to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2009

Dark Knight – at Amazon

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