Tag Archives: Jack Nicholson

STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING (1980)

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, which claims that telephoned author Stephen King shortly before filming commenced on The Shining (1980). Allegedly, Kubrick asked King: “Do you believe evil exists, as an entity?” “Yes, I do,” King answered. “Well, I don’t,” Kubrick replied as he slammed down the phone. According to the anecdote, King then knew his pulp novel had been “taken away” from him. His budding 1980 fan base agreed, feigning outrage at cinematic liberties Kubrick was to take. Despite King’s fans, The Shining was largely a hit with audiences and critics, though hardly unanimous. Since then, it has developed an epic cult reputation and is considered by many to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. As per the norm with extreme opinions, both views are off-kilter.

Underrated by literary critics and overrated by housewives, Stephen King was already a household name by 1980, and a film version of his novel about a possessed hotel was inevitable. What King was not prepared for was a forceful filmmaker with his own ideas. To be certain, this is Stanley Kubrick’s Shining, not King’s, and for that we can be thankful (King later proved the point in a dreadfully faithful 1997 television remake).

In Kubrick’s The Shining, the face of evil is not the hotel. Rather, it is the bourgeoisie husband/father Jack Torrance (), with the Still from The Shining (1980)hotel standing as an obvious symbol for man’s eternal evil. That very simple decision confused the hell out of its hyper-linear 1980 audience, although contemporary viewers seem less troubled by it. Yet, there are drawbacks; Kubrick does not make good on all of his promises. There is no substantial character arc for Jack. He is most interesting in the first half before being reduced to a monotone Looney Tune archetype. In sharp contrast, his wife Wendy () emerges from her bedside banality, like a figure jumping off a Symbolist canvas, to become a torrent. Channeling modernist painters (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Amedo Modgiglini) is a recurring Kubrick theme. Casting Duvall was shrewd. Footage from a “making of” documentary  reveals Kubrick was tyrannical when directing her. It paid off.  Unfortunately, the development of the patriarchal antagonist is not as layered. Kubrick fails to reign in Nicholson, whose character solicits identification and sympathy only from the film’s thug demographic (much in the same way that the Al Pacino’s Tony Montana does). In painting Jack two-dimensionally, Nicholson and Kubrick open wide the door of identification for simpletons. The film falters in allowing the ink to dry on Jack. The banality of evil theme is as subtle as the second half of Nicholson’s performance, but of course, Kubrick’s The Shining is not relegated to a single character.

Kubrick’s The Shining is a far more complex machine than the source Continue reading STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING (1980)

218. HEAD (1968)

“Quite frankly, there was a bit of acid involved.”–Bob Rafelson on the genesis of Head

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Victor Mature

PLOT: An official is cutting a ribbon on a bridge when the ceremony is interrupted by four young men (the Monkees) who leap off the bridge and into the water. We then see a number of sketches that find the Monkees in the trenches fighting a war, performing live concerts, enjoying hookahs in a harem, fighting boxer Sonny Liston in the ring, trapped in a giant metal box, and acting out other absurd vignettes that blend into each other. Throughout the film they find themselves pursued by a giant man played by Victor Mature, and the movie ends where it began as the entire cast is seen chasing the Monkees onto the same bridge, off which they once again leap.

Still from Head (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Monkees were formed in 1965 for a TV sitcom about a band “that wanted to be the Beatles.” Although Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were cast for their acting abilities and presumed appeal to teenage girls rather than their musical chops, they developed into a tight band and had several hits. Their self-titled debut album reached #1 on the Billboard charts.
  • Despite the band’s financial success, the actors were dissatisfied with the goofy television scripts, which featured stories like the band spending a night in a haunted house. “The Monkees” TV series lasted for only two seasons before cancellation.
  • Head was the feature directing debut of Bob Rafelson, who had originally pitched the concept for the TV show and directed several episodes.
  • The script was co-written by , in his “acid” period. (One source says Nicholson directed at least one scene, uncredited). Nicholson also produced the soundtrack album, including assembling the sound collages.
  • The Monkees themselves contributed to the original brainstorming sessions, but were denied screen writing credits; they staged a mini-protest, but were placated when the producers offered more money.
  • With its surreal imagery and drug references, Head seems to be intended to destroy the Monkees wholesome image. The ad campaigns avoided mentioning the Monkees altogether.
  • Head‘s notable cameos and bit parts include Rafelson, Nicholson, , Victor Mature, , Annette Funicello, (in his final role), Timothy Carey, Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, boxer Sonny Liston, and celebrity stripper Carol Doda. A pre-fame Terri Garr and Toni Basil can also be seen in the film. Furthermore, is featured prominently in clips from The Black Cat.
  • Rafelson’s next project as director was Five Easy Pieces (1970), starring Nicholson as an underachieving piano prodigy. It was nominated for four Oscars.
  • Tork left the band soon after Head was released, and Nesmith resigned soon thereafter. The Monkees broke up by 1970, although Dolenz and Jones later recorded under the name with substitute musicians.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Monkees posing as dandruff in “the Big Victor”‘s hair. (In fact, a surprising number of Head‘s most memorable images involve the giant version of Victor Mature, especially if we assume that oversized eyeball Davy Jones finds staring at him from out of the medicine cabinet also belongs to Vic).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Psychedelic mermaids; eye in a cabinet; “the Big Victor”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It is tempting to describe Head as what might happen if a young Jack Nicholson were hired to write a treatment for a bubblegum boy band, then dropped acid and wrote a script that reimagined the boys as psychedelic tricksters wandering through a surreal series of cynical, self-aware scenarios set everywhere from the old West to a dandruff commercial, sprinkling in the most bizarrely eclectic assortment of pop-culture cameos imaginable. Actually, that’s pretty much the true story of how Head came to be, meaning reality scoops metaphor once again.


Theatrical trailer for Head

COMMENTS: In 1964, A Hard Days Night turned a little band from Continue reading 218. HEAD (1968)

CAPSULE: THE TRIP (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Salli Sachse,

PLOT: A director of commercials headed for a divorce takes LSD hoping for insight into his life; he gets it, while seeing plenty of pretty swirling colors and getting into trouble when he wanders away from his trip-sitter.

Still from The Trip (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Trip is a trendsetting lysergic journey, but it’s weirdness suffers because it takes itself too seriously, and handles itself too competently. Compare the derangement of 1968’s Skidoo, which, by casting the past-their-prime Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Carol Channing as the turned-on, comes at the acid fad from a bizarrely oblique angle.

COMMENTS: One of the vanguard films exploring (or exploiting) the LSD craze of the mid to late 1960s, The Trip was a seriously-intended and visually pioneering film from an unlikely source (B-movie impresario Roger Corman, previously best known for monster cheapies and Poe adaptations). While prior films—Movie Star, American Style or; LSD, I Hate You, Hallucination Generation, and even 1959’s The Tingler—had dealt with the effects of this remarkably cinematic drug, The Trip feels like the start of the psychedelic cycle. Despite a disclaimer pasted to the front of the first reel by the producers (“the illegal manufacture and distribution of these drugs is dangerous and can have fatal consequences”), the film’s tone is intended to be objective and non-judgmental. Inevitably, however, it feels very pro-drug; who wouldn’t want to have the insides of their eyelids temporarily tie-dyed while going on a fantastic interior adventure like Peter Fonda, safe in the knowledge that Bruce Dern will bring you back to Earth with a shot of Thorazine if things get too intense? True to its serious intent, the movie proposes the paradigm of LSD as a self-psychotherapeutic tool rather than LSD as an opportunity to chat with God or LSD as the ultimate party drug—though, if the film is to be believed, it can also get you laid by groovy disinhibited chicks.

Little of what happens in The Trip occurs outside of Fonda’s skull. We are quickly introduced to his character, a dude on the fringes of the establishment but hip enough to have Dennis Hopper as his connection, and within fifteen minutes he’s setting off pharmaceutical fireworks inside his cranium. The Trip settles into a rhythm of subjective hallucination montages followed by returns to normalcy as we check in on the blissed-out (or paranoid) Fonda from the perspective of a neutral observer. Fonda sees pasty-faced death figures on a beach, meets with a hallucinated guru played by Hopper inside the tinseled carnival of his mind, and makes love to Strasberg and Sachse while  projected paisleys play across their nude bodies. Fractured images assault us in speedy montages that whirl by in a psychedelic blur. The liquid light and solarization effects seem kitschy and cliched today, but they were cutting edge (though inexpensive) at the time. Fonda’s acting while straight isn’t impressive, but his stoned temperament is believable, particularly when he wanders into a laundromat and is awestruck by a Whirlpool washing machine. What psychological depth the film might have is suggested rather than achieved; we don’t know enough about Fonda to relate to his self-discovery, and there are no shocking psychological insights. In that way, The Trip seems more like a sketch or a template for what an artistically successful trip film might eventually look like. But there’s an energy and an anarchy to this pioneering effort that makes it watchable despite its flaws, and it’s Corman’s most experimental film—and one of his best.

The screenplay was by acid enthusiast and future Academy Award winner . Feeling that he could not direct the film competently otherwise, Corman (along with most of the rest of the cast, minus health-nut Bruce Dern) dropped LSD before filming. The Trip is overdue for a decent Blu-ray release, but it can still be found on an old double-sided DVD release along with Psych-Out. The disc has several featurettes and a Corman commentary, and although the picture is good, the soundtrack could be clearer. If buying the overpriced out-of-print double feature is too much of a plastic hassle, The Trip can be rented on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Corman has simply resorted to a long succession of familiar cinematic images, accompanied by weird music and sounds.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PSYCH-OUT (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Rush

FEATURING: , , , Max Julien, Adam Roarke, 

PLOT: A deaf runaway goes to Haight-Ashbury in search of her burnout brother, who has sent her a postcard reading “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.”

Still from Psych_Out (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few hallucination scenes supply a bit of weirdness, but essentially this is just an earnest pro-hippie exploitation film.

COMMENTS: I like the vintage newspaper ad copy for Psych-Out—“listen to the sound of purple!”, “they’ll ask for a dime with hungry eyes… but they’ll give you love—for NOTHING!”—much better than the actual film. The movie is a 1968 rush job tossed into the market to exploit the audience’s salacious interest in the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll ethos of San Francisco’s flower children. The story of young Jenny’s search for her acid-casualty brother takes a back seat to a tour of Haight-Ashbury locales and culture. You get love beads, pot smoking, freakouts, happenings, chaste orgies, bead-stringing, bogus zen philosophy (“everything is part of everything else”) delivered by a guy in a Navajo headband, concerts at the Filmore East, the Strawberry Alarm Clock providing a fairly groovy soundtrack, and more pink and yellow paisley than you’d see in binge-watching session of “Laugh In.” Strasberg plays the wide-eyed ingenue lost in the den of friendly sin, Nicholson is musician/love interest aptly named “Stoney,” Max Julien (the future pimp of The Mack) is a drummer who hallucinates that he’s a knight, Dean Stockwell is Nicholson’s hippie conscience (he warns Stoney that success is “all just one big plastic hassle”), and Bruce Dern is the mad messiah of Haight Street. There are a few fun psychedelic scenes—one guy sees his friends as zombies and tries to cut off his own hand with a power saw, while Strasberg’s final fiery crash-and-burn STP trip is almost worth the wait—but mostly the film makes unfettered freedom and hedonism look kind of tedious, like a drug trip that starts off fun but just won’t end.

The script details are sloppy. Lots of plot points don’t make sense, like why a gang of straits is so eager to devote their time hunting down “the Seeker” when he’s no more offensive than any other street freak preacher. Strasberg’s Jenny has the most perfect diction you’ve ever heard from a deaf person. Jenny is also underage—otherwise her mother wouldn’t be able to send cops after her as a runaway—a fact whose moral implications the script ignores when throwing her in bed with various unshowered hippies. Overall, Psych-Out fails as standard entertainment, and delivers little in the way of weirdness or overt exploitation (the film has some blurry, blissed-out  suggested sex, but is nudity-free). At the time, it was a novel look at a subculture that was weird to outsiders, but today its only value is as a curiosity of hippie kitsch. It will come over either as camp or nostalgia, depending on your age. High on kaleidoscope lenses but low on plotting, this psychedelic capsule has lost most of its potency over the past five decades.

Jack Nicholson’s original script for Psych-Out was deemed too experimental, and Richard Rush had it re-written by a team of screenwriters; Nicholson kept the lead role of Stoney, which he wrote for himself. The great Lazslo Kovacs (who got his start in low-budget exploitation films like this one) oversaw the cinematography. Psych-Out was produced by clean-cut American Bandstand/New Year’s Rockin’ Eve impresario Dick Clark (!) It was re-released on Blu-ray (to better appreciate the pretty colors) in 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an above average programmer about San Francisco hippies. Thin story line – girl seeking lost brother – is sufficient as the medium for a series of incidents, including drug-induced hallucinations, all directed in excellent fashion by Richard Rush.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) BLU-RAY CRITERION

‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.

Both were produced by  (uncredited), , and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded among films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).

Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.

Still from Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)Nicholson is shockingly subdued and vulnerable. Even better is , an overly familiar character actor villain, in his best celluloid role. Despite very good performances, Ride In The Whirlwind lacks  and Millie Perkins, who gave The Shooting its essential grounding.

Hellman is a Western grim reaper, as vital and original as Sam Peckinpah as a harbinger of the genre’s death. Comparatively, Clint Eastwood and his celebrated deconstructionist Unforgiven (1992) are obvious and unsatisfactory.

The films premiered together at Cannes and were enthusiastically advocated by  and other notable French critics. Alas, it was to little avail. Hellman’s twin opuses received scant attention in the States and only belatedly earned cult reputations.

The Shooting was previously reviewed here. Ride In The Whirlwind has received considerably less attention, but Criterion astutely treats the two films as inseparable. True to form, Criterion provides a definitive edition. Both films finally receive spotless, lush transfers. Among the plethora of extras are interviews with Corman, Perkins, Harry Dean Stanton, and Will Hutchins, an outstanding homage to Oates (written by critic Kim Morgan), critic Michael Atkinson’s equally excellent essay, and several commentaries by Hellman accompanied by film historians Bill Krohn and Black Lucas.

25TH ANNIVERSARY: TIM BURTON’S BATMAN (1989)

A quarter century after its debut, ‘s Batman (1989) is still among the brightest of the comic book genre films; an odd thing, given how dark it is. However, Burton’s Batman has a glamorous darkness. Burton was young, energetic, and at the top of his game in 1989. His interpretation of the caped crusader remains groundbreaking and is more astute than ‘s The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan went the mile to distance the avenger from his comic book origins. Burton embraces the source material.

Upon Batman‘s monstrously hyped release, many critics lamented the dominant personality of ‘s Joker as compared to the title character. In hindsight, Nicholson’s killer clown seems less innovative than Heath Ledger’s radically different interpretation. Today, it is easier to recognize ‘s Bruce Wayne as the eye of Tim Burton’s hurricane: he inhabits the quintessential capitalist fantasy. In a case of shrewd casting, Keaton’s Batman has no extraterrestrial powers, nor does he even look like he has spent his life in the gym. Rather, Wayne is fabulously wealthy and it is all those “wonderful toys,” bought by all that wonderful money, that makes him an all-American noir Superman, free to wreck vengeance upon a fascistic Gotham’s lower criminal element. Like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper before him, Keaton went through the script, pruning his dialogue down to the bare essentials, making this an internalized performance.

Burton’s casting inspired controversy among unimaginative comic book fanatics, who only saw Keaton in his previous comic roles. The actor and director proved them wrong. ‘s Wayne, in the Nolan films, resorts to a dull playboy act. Keaton’s Wayne can’t help revealing that he has as many screws loose as his alter ego. Burton says in less than ten minutes what Nolan takes an entire film to tell: Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) stumble upon a hidden Wayne manor room of armor and weaponry, explaining the inspiration for the costumed alter ego.

From Boss Grissom’s mafioso penthouse to the Axis chemical plant and a quack surgeon’s back alley office, Anton Furst’s set design is among his best (in an impressive career that unfortunately ended with the artist’s suicide in 1991). Also noteworthy are Roger Pratt’s cinematography, Bob Ringwood’s costuming and Danny Elfman’s resonant, Wagnerian score, all done under the guidance of Burton, elevating pulp into anarchic poetry. Like the Burton-helmed sequel, Batman consistently surprises enough to nearly render its flaws secondary. 

Still from Batman (1989)Nicholson’s Jack Napier shines most when he wrecks havoc upon pop culture, sabotaging consumer products and brooding over popular media’s not so subliminal sales tactics. The chief flaw of the film lies in a lack of a substantial female character, which Batman Returns (1992) remedied in spades. Vale is merely there as a decoration for Bruce Wayne’s arm. A second noticeable flaw is in the intrusive music by Prince (otherwise, a very good artist during his youthful prime). However, the related MTV videos were considerably better, and a wonderful example of how big a pop phenomenon Batman was.

Homages to ‘s Metropolis (1927), ‘s Vertigo (1958), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) are prominent, but, for the most part, Burton keeps cinematic references down to a minimum, something he would not do in Batman Returns (1992). Naturally, Tim Burton’s Batman is not as much guilty pleasure fun as “Scooby Do Meets Batman” or “Superfriends,” and it certainly isn’t the delicious morsel that Adam West gave in his legendary camp take on the character. Yet, Burton manages to make a tale of two sociopaths, spawned from the gutter, into highly stylized entertainment.

Batman was birthed by the then new graphic novel trend, most notable Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight.” The script was written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based on Bob Kane’s original characters. The violence in Batman is comic bookish and stately: the Joker fries a mafioso with a hidden hand buzzer, and the murder of boss Grissom is devoid of blood. At times, the film seems to be enveloped in a Tex Avery ‘toon: after mating with his girlfriend, Wayne hangs upside like a bat, the Batplane soars upward to the moon (creating a bat signal), a joker card is flipped over with Carl Stalling-like sound effects foreshadowing Napier’s fate, the Joker’s hand melodramatically emerges from acid, the silhouetted Caped Crusader moves like wet ink atop a roof, and the Joker shoots down the Batplane with a gun that looks like it might have been ordered from Acme supplies. The henchmen are really not too far removed from Cesar Romero’s sycophants. Batman is crepuscular, and, thankfully, it’s never realistic. 

Apart from Heath Ledger, Nolan’s believed-to-be superior Dark Knight is devoid of humorous touch and is so utilitarian, with one plot too many, that it is doubtful the film would have worked without the late actor’s turn as a pathological clown.

Unfortunately, neither Burton nor Keaton went beyond their two entries in the series. Perhaps a man dressed up like a bat might revitalize both artists.           

HEAD (1968)

Head (1968) is the quintessential cinematic oxymoron: a “G” rated LSD trip, starring The Monkees, with cameos by Victor Mature, Anette Funicello, Teri Garr, and ! Written by  and directed by Bob Rafelson, Head has the reputation of killing the career of The Monkees. Actually, their short-lived television series had already been cancelled after the end of its second season. A manufactured-for-prime-time pop band, The Monkees were, of course, the first prefab phenomenon; a second-rate ripoff of , sponsored by Kelloggs. The brevity of their career was utterly predictable. Despite that, and despite being clearly modeled after ‘s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), “The Monkees” TV series (Rafelson was part of the creative team) had fleeting moments of innovative satire and surrealism. The script for Head was reportedly conceived one night when Rafelson, Nicholson and the Monkees were tripping on acid. With the Monkees fad already in its death throes, the creative team plunged into producing the group’s first and only feature as an experimental opus depicting the suicide of Peter, Michael, Davy, and Micky. The result was an epic bomb. Most critics hated it, as did its potential audience. Fans of the boy band were outraged at the sacrilegious nature of the film, while the hippie culture avoided anything with the Monkees name attached. Yet despite all odds, Head became a cult favorite in many circles. Evidence of that may be found in Rhino Records decision to release the film on DVD. With Rhino’s reputation as the Criterion Collection of bizarre and obscure cinema, television and music, that amounts to something approaching canonization.

Mickey’s dive off a bridge sets the opening tone of a spherical immolation. Admirably, the Monkees do not attempt to make a big screen version of the TV show, rather they deconstruct it through a series of random, nonsensical misadventures arising from their attempt to escape their “box.” Their War Chant serves as an apt theme:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
You know we love to please.
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.

We hope you like our story
Although there isn’t one;
That is to say there’s many
That way there is more fun.

Still from Head (1968)You told us you like action,
And games of many kinds.
You like to dance, we like to sing
So let’s all lose our minds.

We know it doesn’t matter
‘Cause what you came to see
Is what we’d love to give you
And give it one, two, three.

But there may come three, two, one, two,
Or jump from nine to five,
And when you see the end in sight
The beginning may arrive.

For those who look for meaning Continue reading HEAD (1968)