Judge Gordon Sullivan bathes in Criterion ecstasy.
Our reviews of Easy Rider (published November 13th, 1999), Easy Rider: 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (published January 10th, 2005), Easy Rider (Blu-Ray) (published November 12th, 2009), Five Easy Pieces (published December 29th, 1999), The King Of Marvin Gardens (published May 9th, 2000), The Last Picture Show (published December 14th, 1999), and Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show (published April 21st, 2009) are also available.
"A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere…"—Easy Rider
Back in 1966, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider decided to cash in on Beatlemania and manufacture their own cuddly rock'n'roll band full of cute young lads. Thus were born The Monkees, and Rafelson and Schneider made a fortune or two. Because the Monkees were a multimedia concern (with both albums and a TV show), it was natural that the pair would find themselves to be movie producers as well. The duo teamed with Steve Blauner to form BBS Productions (named for Bob, Bert, and Steve). Out of their collaboration came some of the most enduring films of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It was a strange time in American movie history. Way back in 1950, Jimmy Stewart got involved in a profit-participation package with Winchester '73, which some see as the rise of the star over and above the concerns of the studios in the Golden Age of Hollywood. By the 1960s, that traditional studio system was in poor shaped: rocked by the cultural shift occurring with the increasingly powerful youth market and put off by the success of more violent fare like Bonnie and Clyde. This shift left the field open for more independently-minded filmmakers to step in and supply what the market wanted, films that increasingly appealed to the disillusioned youth longing for revolution. BBS Productions stepped in to fill the gap, whether young people wanted acid-tinged movie-musicals like Head, the ground breaking road antics of Easy Rider, or the introspective drama of Five Easy Pieces. Though around for less than a decade, BBS produced several classics, and in recognition of that fact, Criterion has released the highlights of the BBS catalog on Blu-ray. It's a mammoth six disc collection and continues their trend of preserving important films.
Facts of the Case
The seven films in this collection are presented on six Blu-ray discs, with Drive, He Said and A Safe Place making their home-video debut on a shared disc.
• Head capped off the original Monkees incarnation in style. It's a playfully weird attempt to both reinforce and trash their own image. By making a self-reflexive send-up of movies, complete with musical numbers and a host of drug references, the Monkees cemented their place in cult cinema.
• Easy Rider hardly needs a summary, but here goes: a pair of cocaine-dealing motorcyclists (Peter Fonda and director Dennis Hopper) take their bikes east across America's heartland, dealing with life along the way.
• Five Easy Pieces follows Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), a disaffected young man who must travel back to his family home to confront his ailing father.
• Drive, He Said is Jack Nicholson's directorial debut, and looks at the revolutionary tenor of the times through the life of a generally square college basketball player whose roommate is growing increasingly militant.
• A Safe Place is a bizarre love story where Tuesday Weld tries to come to terms with a dream-like relationship and her fascination with a street magician (played by Orson Welles).
• The Last Picture Show is Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece about a year in the life of a small Texas town, as Sonny Crawford deals with his incipient adulthood through trials physical and sexual.
• Finally, The King of Marvin Gardens features Jack Nicholson playing against type as the meeker of two brothers (the other played by Bruce Dern). When the wilder brother demands to be let out of jail by Nicholson's David joins his brother for a wild spree of merrymaking.
The title of this set is America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, but it could almost as easily be The Jack Nicholson Story. Six of the seven films in this set chart Nicholson's course from B-movie actor in films like The Trip, to critically acclaimed actor (in Easy Rider initially, then more acclaim in Five Easy Pieces and other), writer (here of Head and Drive, He Said) and director (Drive, He Said). It's a marvelous transformation, as Easy Rider announced Nicholson's talent to the world before Five Easy Pieces cemented him as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Although neither his writing nor directing is up to the same caliber as his acting, his excursions in those fields are interesting enough to watch.
One of the great things about a box set oriented around a production company is that we get to see a lot of the same names. While Rafelson (as producer, writer, and director) is the most frequent name on these films, followed closely by Nicholson, a number of other talented individuals contributed to the success of the films of BBS Productions. Actors like Karen Black, Ellen Burstyn and Bruce Dern appear several times, and László Kovács photographed three of the movies (most famously Easy Rider, but he's also on hand for Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens). Watching this team grow from film to film is one of the chief pleasures of this set.
In some ways though, the best film of the set (at least for my money) is the one least connected to the others: The Last Picture Show. Director Peter Bogdanovich had directed a low budget picture for Corman (Target), and Last Picture Show was his first "serious" film. It features a cast of either relative new-comers (like Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybil Shepard) or old Hollywood hands (like Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachmen). Also unlike the other BBS Productions, The Last Picture Show takes on a much bigger task. Rather than create a portrait in miniature of modern malaise using movement across America as a backdrop (as four or five of the other six films on this set surely do), Picture Show takes on a wider cast in a more local setting, offering a more classically-oriented picture that combined the energy of the youth movement with Bogdanovich's tremendous knowledge of the old Hollywood studio films.
In fact, The Last Picture Show owes much of its verve to Bogdanovich's association with John Ford and Orson Welles. From Ford Bogdanovich borrows an essentially American mode of storytelling, focusing on the small defeats and triumphs of our citizens. From Welles Bogdanovich cribbed that lovely deep-focus black and white cinematography that both completely captures the small-town 50s feel while also giving the 1972 production a timeless quality…it's possible to watch The Last Picture Show today and imagine that a similar story is going on somewhere today. But influenced or not, Bogdanovich displays an even hand, treating the youthful characters with respect while not turning the adults into hopeless caricatures of staid morality.
My preference for The Last Picture Show is just that, a preference. At least two other films in this set are stone classics (Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), while Head offers a set of delicious cult thrills with its gonzo musical montages and psychedelic trappings. Drive, He Said is a minor work, but as Nicholson's directorial début, the film offers some interesting moments, especially when the film utilizes an actual college protest as a backdrop for its plot (a la Medium Cool). A Safe Place fits neatly into the world of experimental narrative filmmaking occurring in the 70s. It's a bizarre, rather trippy film whose main highlight is a beautifully mesmerizing performance by Orson Welles. The other actors can't live up to his example, but the film has enough moments of oddity to make it worth at least a single viewing. The King of Marvin Gardens isn't quite up to the other Nicholson work from that era…he's playing against type, which definitely shows off his range, but his character just isn't as interesting as others included in this set.
These Blu-ray discs are, unsurprisingly, the only way to watch these films now (unless, of course, you have access to newly struck prints). The video transfers are generally gorgeous. They do an excellent job of capturing the grain structure of the film, so that detail is usually preserved, but each feature retains a strongly film-like presence. The Last Picture Show's black and white deep-focus work is especially impressive, but all of these transfers are improvements on previous releases in one way or another. Color rendition is also really impressive, and the prints are generally in good shape, with very little in the way of damage. The audio is equally impressive, with all films featuring an uncompressed mono soundtrack. The dialogue is always well modulated, highs and lows are appropriate, and no distortion or hiss are present. Head and Easy Rider both get 5.1 tracks as well (and Easy Rider gets an uncompressed stereo option as well). The 5.1 tracks have a little more oomph in the bottom end for those features where music is a primary element.
Extras are simply ridiculous. The 6 discs are housed in individual cardboard cases, all housed in a cardboard slip cover. In addition we get a booklet featuring six essays that each highlights one of five of the films and one that covers the basic story of BBS productions. Here's the extras breakdown by film:
Five Easy Pieces
Drive, He Said / A Safe Place
The Last Picture Show
The King of Marvin Gardens
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alright, time to quibble (because that's all I can do with this nigh-perfect set). In a perfect world, America Lost and Found would feature a Blu-ray of Hearts and Minds, which would complete the BBS Productions catalog. The film already has a Criterion release, and a Blu-ray here would only make things better. Yes, this is the most minor of complaints.
Also in a perfect world, America Lost and Found would have been released with a companion piece. Since this set documents what one author calls an "interregnum" in American filmmaking, after the collapse of the studio system but before the rise of the blockbuster, it would be nice to see the end of the moment with the rise of some of those blockbuster films. So, I would love to see a companion set featuring films like Jaws and maybe Star Wars as a bookend to this amazing era in American film.
Although this review is of epic length by Verdict standards, it can't hope to do justice to America Lost and Found. Although cineastes will probably be arguing about the merit of individual films in this set, there's no denying that all together these films represent a vital tributary in the rushing river of American film history. Even when individual films are perplexing or not entirely successful, they combine with the other, better films to paint a vivid portrait of America in a time of change. Not only has Criterion ensured that these films will live on in home video because of their excellent transfers and audio tracks, but the extras continue their trend of master-class level filmmaking information throughout the copious extras. Every serious fan of American film needs to give this set a look, even if the price tag prohibits an immediate purchase.
40 years on it's hard to say what America lost or found, but this set is absolutely not guilty.
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Perp Profile, Head
Distinguishing Marks, Head
Scales of Justice, Easy Rider
Perp Profile, Easy Rider
Distinguishing Marks, Easy Rider
Scales of Justice, Drive, He Said
Perp Profile, Drive, He Said
Distinguishing Marks, Drive, He Said
Scales of Justice, Five Easy Pieces
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Scales of Justice, The Last Picture Show
Perp Profile, The Last Picture Show
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Scales of Justice, A Safe Place
Perp Profile, A Safe Place
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Scales of Justice, The King Of Marvin Gardens
Perp Profile, The King Of Marvin Gardens
Distinguishing Marks, The King Of Marvin Gardens
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