The List: One Word or Less

Man, a lot of noteworthy – well, noteworthy in the sub-spheres I inhabit – noteworthy people died last week. Sheldon Moldoff, an artist who did many berserk covers for comic books in the Golden through early Silver Age; Ralph McQuarrie, another artist, responsible for the look and feel of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.; and, to bring it into the realm of this blog, Davy Jones.

Jones was, of course, the “face”, the “cute one” who fronted the Monkees. The Monkees are an odd thing to consider. I loved their shows when I was watching it on Saturday mornings, where I recall CBS put the syndicated series on several years after NBC had cancelled the primetime series. Watching them recently… well, not so much. As the boys exerted ore and more influence over the show, it became less stable, more obtuse (though I suspect I would still like the final episode, directed by Mickey. That was hilarious.).

Yes, they were the Pre-Fab Four, auditioned and cast when existing groups like The Lovin’ Spoonful weren’t available.

The more research you do, the more puzzling it becomes: no, they didn’t play the instruments on their first couple of albums, only supplied voice tracks; yes, they could play. Mike, I knew about. Peter came from the folk scene, and knew guitar and keyboards; Mickey could do guitar, but learned the drums because Davy, who could play them, was too short for the cameras to see over the drum set. In spite of the fact that it’s Mickey doing lead vocals on most of the songs.

The self-destruction of The Monkees seems almost scripted as well – or, at least predictable. Conceived as an attempt to emulate Beatlemania, the emulation became truth, and the boys began to chafe under the control of Don Kirschner, wanted to write and perform their own music, to be their own men. The same conceit that birthed them gave their critics their biggest ammo: they couldn’t play their instruments, they used session musicians, they didn’t write their own music. There’s truth in all those, but it was also true of a lot of popular groups. They were perceived as having had success handed to them, unearned, and that hurt.

So it was pretty much by accord that the TV series was cancelled after two years; The Monkees weren’t interested in doing it anymore, and NBC was tired of dealing with them. Producer/Director Bob Rafelson used the box office success of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! to get funding for a Monkees movie. The result was Head, it was a dismal failure at the box office, absolutely buried under an obscure ad campaign and oddly chosen venues… and it is one of my very favorite movies of all time.

So of course, the day Davy died, I had to watch it.

I’m not even going to try to give you a synopsis of what goes on in this movie – that’s like trying to close your fist around a glob of quicksilver. It is possible to recount exactly what happens in HeadChad Plambeck does it pretty effectively here – but even then, it doesn’t match the full effect of the movie. There is no plot, and trying to find one will only frustrate you; but if you follow the advice of a stoned William Hurt in The Big Chill and “let art wash over you”, what you get is the truest translation of an acid trip to film ever accomplished. Neurons firing multi-colored bursts in all directions, someone keeps changing the channel and there’s Monkees on every channel. An idea slides smoothly into another idea, never mind that one has nothing to do with the other.

People like Chad and other folks smarter than me feel they have found the meaning behind the chaos, and they make damned good cases for it, too. Me, I just like to sit and enjoy the madness.

My favorite moments, of course, are the meta moments. During Davy’s tenement romance sub-movie, complete with Annette Funicello love interest (Rafelson, not knowing if he would ever make another movie, said he made about 50 of them in the course of Head) he’s a violin player who wants to be a prize fighter. Davy is getting the living hell beaten out of him by Sonny Liston (yes, really) while Mickey, in the crowd, is yelling “Stay down! Stay down!” When Mike, playing an obvious crime kingpin, calls Mickey a “dummy”, Mickey goes berserk, climbing into the ring and punching out Davy (“Stay down!”) and Sonny, and in fact, all comers, screaming “I’m not the dummy!” until he is calmed down by Peter, who appears against a wall of boxing ring smoke (or is it supposed to be a sort of heavenly haze?) and tells him, in a calm, steady matter-of-fact voice, “You’re not the dummy, Mickey. I’m the dummy. I’m always the dummy.”

In my post-young fella years, I find that Peter is the one I wind up liking the most.

Since we’re doing this in Davy’s honor, though, here he is singing “Daddy’s Song” by Harry Nilsson, dancing with Toni Basil and tripping everybody’s head out. Reminds one that Davy started out as The Artful Dodger in the Broadway Oliver!. And, oh yeah, there’s some guy named Frank Zappa in there, too.

Yeaaaaah, either Columbia didn’t know what to do with it (likely) or just decided to bury it (also likely). In any case, I had never really heard of it until it cropped up on the CBS Late Night Movie one night and I said, “Wait. The Monkees made a movie?” It seemed to have a very healthy life in bootlegs after that, until it got a legit release on VHS and then DVD, and now it’s part of a box set from The Criterion Collection.

I cannot tell you how impressive the Criterion disc of Head looks. I bought the set (America Lost & Found – The BBS Story) before I purchased a Blu-Ray player, and I can only imagine what this sucker looks like in true high-def. The upscaled DVD is almost painfully sharp, allowing me to see details I had never noticed before, like the designs painted on the psychedelic mermaid’s faces in the opening number “Porpoise Song”. In another meta bit, where at the end of a scene “Cut” is yelled and we see the whole film crew bustle about for the next setup, we see Producer/Screenwriter Jack “Lookit me, I’m so young” Nicholson. But what I had never noticed before, in that same bustle, is Dennis Hopper, wearing his Easy Rider togs, which would be Rafelson’s next Producer gig.

On top of that, in an earlier portion – a World War II movie – Peter is trying to get some ammo for his squad, but keeps getting tackled by Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke. Peter escapes with some ammo, Nitschke throws his golden football helmet after him, and Peter gives it to Mickey, who considers his GI issue helmet “a drag”.

The next time we see that golden football helmet, it’s going be on Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. This stuff can make your head spin. Appropriately enough.

I actually did watch other movies last week. Let’s see if I can get through them without blathering 1000 words on each:

Doom is the new Justice League animated movie from DC Universe/Warner Brothers Animation. I was all set to give this one a bye until I found out it was apparently one of Dwayne McDuffie’s last projects, so I went ahead with my pre-order. In a lot of ways, McDuffie was the heart and soul of the animated Justice League series, Static Shock and some of the more exemplary DTV offerings via DC Universe. His untimely death last year was a serious, serious blow, and when movies like Doom come along, you find out all over again just how much we lost.

Based on the Mark Waid JLA story arc, “Tower of Babel”, Doom gives us yet another version of the Legion of Doom, this time headed up by the literally immortal Vandal Savage. Batman (being Batman) has detailed contingency plans on what to do if any member of the Justice League ever turns evil; Savage gets hold of these and refines them to lethal outcomes, then unleashes each superheroes’ arch-nemesis  upon them. It’s a good story, well-done, and features the familiar voice talent from the various animated series, plus Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern once again. I find that sort of continuity comforting; sometimes stunt casting the voices yields good results, sometimes they’re distracting and disastrous. I just know in my head that Batman sounds like Kevin Conroy and Superman sounds like Tim Daly.

Pretty good way to spend 80 minutes or so. Not sure I’m going to be around for any further offerings from DC Universe; I could be wrong, but I get a feeling of diminishing returns over the last year or so.

I followed up Doom with Cube, which was apparently a staple in the good old days of the Sci-Fi Channel before they started deliberately misspelling their name, and was a constant presence on the video store shelves. None of this ever meant I had seen it; there are lots of holes in my viewing history, and that is one of the things The List is about: remedying those absences. Not that Cube was on either of this year’s lists; but I listened to a typically excellent Projection Booth podcast covering it and thought, “Okay. I should nudge that further up the non-list.”

Cube is a low-budget sci-fi film with a fairly simple premise: Five people wake up in a high-tech structure of interlocking rooms. Each room is a cube, with doors on each wall, floor, and ceiling. Each door leads to another cubic room. And some of the rooms are booby-trapped.

With nothing more than the prison-type uniforms they wear, no food or water, they try to find a way out. At first they note sequences of numbers on each door; if the number is prime, the room beyond seems to have no trap. But even that dodge stops working, and they have to find the more devious, complex clues to make it through alive.

So, actually, what we have here is a movie that takes place largely in one room; sure, it changes colors to give the impression of multiple rooms, but that’s a brilliant setup for a low-budget film. What remains is a character study as the process wears away at each of our protagonists. The balance of power tips and changes; weak characters turn out be stronger than anticipated, and vice versa. That’s a tricky road to follow, but the actors, happily, are up to the task.The ending is… well, not anti-climactic, but unsatisfying. To me, anyway. This is one of those movies where you’re not really going to get any answers outside the ones the characters come up with themselves, and those aren’t going to get validated.

So that was three movies I watched last week. But now I’ve gone and brought up that gosh-darned List, and those of you keeping track at home (snort) have noticed that none of these movies is on either list. So I felt I needed to hit one of those movies  or feel myself a shallow mockery of a man. Of course, I was also on a bit of a roll, and I am unable to resist gimmicks. I had just watched three movies with lots of colors: the psychedelia of Head, the four-color mayhem of Doom, and the color-coded rooms of Cube. Did I have a movie on The List that also centered upon color in this fashion? Well, no, I didn’t, but I did have a movie that had a one-word title.

Hello, Inception.

Inception is one of those movies where really, seriously, I have no idea why it took me so long to see it. I was really excited by those trailers, back when nobody had the first damned idea what the movie was about, but those visuals. Well, it was probably a number of reasons that kept me away. Summers are notoriously tight on money for me, what with the AC bills. I still feel an adversarial relationship with most people who go to the movies these days. So anyway, when it came out on DVD, it was the very first Blu-Ray I ever bought, even before I had a player – one of those Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs – so I was probably, subconsciously, waiting until I could watch the Blu-Ray.

Hm.

Probably, most of you know the basic concept, at least, of the movie by now. An “extraction” is the high-tech corporate espionage term for stealing information from a person’s brain while they dream; an “Inception”, then, is the placing of an idea in a person’s brain while they sleep. Much more difficult, and, in the world of the movie, next to impossible. But Leonardo DiCaprio, in order to get back into the country legally (a situation teased out over the course of the movie) is willing to give it a shot.This will require taking his team three dreams deep – a dream within a dream within a dream – to accomplish it. To complicate matters, the target’s mind has been trained to resist such antics, and his resistance takes the form of unrelenting gunmen. And the reason for DiCaprio’s expatriation – his dead wife – keeps cropping up to screw things up, which eventually requires going into a fourth level of dreaming – possibly even a fifth.

This is a real mindfuck of a movie, and I totally respect that. One needs to pay attention, or one is going to get lost. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, it isn’t that hard, if you keep your wits about you. The rules and conventions of this dream invasion stuff is laid out for you, as you need it, causing Joe over at the Daily Grindhouse to call this Exposition: The Movie. Well, we need that information, and it is played out so matter-of-factly, and in easily digestible chunks, that it’s never intrusive, and never slows down the story.

Inception is pretty close to being a perfect movie. Everything is in its place, everything serves a purpose. As far as possible, Nolan keeps his special effects in-camera, heightening the sense of realism, even when that realism starts getting  elastic. I’d say it was worth the wait, except the wait served no real purpose.

By way of coda, after my wife and I had finished watching it, she said, “Well, what was the point of that? Be sure to choose good dreams?” to which I could only reply, “I don’t think movies have to make a point. I’m personally willing to just let a movie take me somewhere else for two hours.” Which it did, and that brings us full circle. I let art wash over me, and I was refreshed for it.

I really need to start just writing about movies one at a time again. This is getting grueling.

4 Comments

  1. I loved the cinematic in-joke in INCEPTION that you can summon whatever you want by reaching just out of frame. Rifles, bombs, grenade launchers–just reach down below the frame and you can pull up whatever the plot requires.

    • “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

      Yeah, the dreamcrafting bits were all pretty wonderful.

  2. […] thing, this watching movies because someone has died. I mean, it seems wholly justified to watch Head after the departure of Davy Jones a couple of weeks ago, but I woke up this morning to the sad news […]

  3. […] Bunuel layers his imagery. It’s not as confrontational or frantic as the cascading imagery in Head, but it is so much more, well, bourgeois. As one can tell from the sarcastic title, these are […]


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