12:07 p.m. - July 13, 2006
But I’ve definitely altered my consciousness by watching a few things recently thanks to TiVo.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched the movies “Head” and “200 Motels” and now am watching “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”, which is being re-run by the Cartoon Network! (Finally!)
Needless to say, my mind capsized while watching those things.
“Head” was the only movie the Monkees did as a group, and well, it’s pretty much a big old train wreck.
I’m a fan of people who think outside the box, who decide that they don’t want to play it safe anymore, that they’re going to be bold and daring and shake things up. And this does it in spades!
The Monkees had been on TV for three seasons, had released several albums (including a couple where they were in control of everything) and were going on tour as an actual group playing their instruments, and while they had gone through some controversy they were still beloved by teenagers and preteens for the most part.
Jack Nicholson (yes, THAT Jack Nicholson) and Bob Rafelson were the writers of the movie, though the Monkees also contributed (but were denied screen credit). Basically, the producers and the group sat around throwing ideas off of one another and somehow came up with a script, as it were.
In early 1968, production started on the movie. They had a test screening in August of 1968, but the reaction was unfavorable, so some editing was done, and it finally was released in November of 1968.
Unfortunately, by that time, the TV show was cancelled. Also, the producers decided not to really mention that “Head” was a movie by the Monkees in the ad campaign, so no one really knew what the heck it was about. So the movie stiffed, big time.
It basically ended the career of the Monkees. Peter Tork soon left, then after another record Mike Nesmith left, leaving Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz as a duo for a final record.
But really, the movie probably would have killed them anyway even if it was promoted heavily. It’s a mess. Entertaining at times, yes, but it’s a mess.
How can I explain the movie??
I can’t really. It’s a stream of non-sequitirs and stream of consciousness skits and vignettes strung together without much of a plot, except that in the end the Monkees are being chased off of a bridge and reveal themselves as mere studio props.
Remember the TV show, and how silly it was and how the plots were wafer thin? Well, take the plot away, and leave the silliness and the randomness.
However, the Monkees were also trying to make some salient points, and in this they come over a bit heavy handed. They were trying to ‘break free’ of their various characters and personas as teen idols, too.
The movie has cameos by Victor Mature, Sonny Liston, Annette Funicello, Teri Garr, Frank Zappa, and Ray Nitschke. You can see Dennis Hopper and Nicholson in there, too.
The music, though, is pretty darn good. “The Porpoise Song”, which opens and closes the movie, is a stunning and powerful song. “Circle Sky” may be the best song the Monkees ever did, and that’s a Mike Nesmith original.
The “Circle Sky” sequence also proved that the Monkees did actually play live, and played pretty well.
All in all, it really does seem like the Monkees and the producers were baked when they came up with this movie, and were baked when they filmed it, and were baked when they edited it. If you want coherence, stay away from it! But if you are a fan of the Monkees, then by all means, go ahead!
Earlier this week, I watched Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”. The first time I saw this movie, I had only read one Frank Zappa book, I hadn’t listened to all of his records (though I was intrigued – they were just coming out on CD at the time) and I had no idea about the backstory to the movie.
It made no sense at all.
Now, after reading a lot of Zappa, listening to the soundtrack album, and knowing a lot about the story, and about the albums preceding it and following it, the plot DID make sense.
It’s still a train wreck.
Zappa had broken up the original Mothers of Invention a couple of years earlier, but put together a new group. At this point, Zappa seemed to be obsessed with life on the road and with groupies, and this is evident with a lot of the music he made at the time, and in the movie.
The lineup of this group is probably my least favorite version of the Mothers, because the groupie skits and songs can become quite tedious. It featured Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles as the mouthpieces for Zappa, and they played right along with the shtick. Ian Underwood, George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar are in this version, though, and Zappa has decided to let his guitar do a lot of the talking. So that’s always enjoyable to listen to.
(Frankly, I do really enjoy “Billy The Mountain” from this version of the group, and Chunga’s Revenge is a fine record, but a lot of the other stuff this version did doesn’t click for me – it’s sophomoric and uninteresting).
It’s a rushed production, as they had only seven days to film it, without overtime. Zappa wrote a double album’s worth of material, and had the London Philharmonic play on the record and appear in the movie as well.
And it was fraught with problems, as Zappa could only film about 1/3 of what he wanted, the director left, and a band member left during pre-production as well, leaving Zappa to scramble and find a replacement at the last minute.
They did have the good taste to have Ringo Starr in the lead role, playing a ‘dwarf’ dressed up like Frank Zappa. Theodore Bikel is also along, to lend some professionalism. Keith Moon is about being weird, and the rest of the cast are basically Zappa’s musicians past and present (no actors, they) and some of the GTOs (professional groupies who again, aren’t really actors).
The plot is simple – musicians want two things – groupies and their paychecks. But of course, someone has a site about it, here. (It’s Geocities, so be prepared).
The whole thing seems surreal, with characters weaving in out. The times are really shown by the visual effects during the production, especially during some of the ‘dance’ numbers where they intercut the orchestra with the dancing.
Some of the music is really good, though. “Magic Fingers” is decent, as is “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” (which has some of the most memorable lines – in reality Jimmy Carl Black steals the show here) and even though it can be construed as a bit misogynistic, the suite of “She Painted Up Her Face”, “Half A Dozen Provocative Squats”, and “Shove It Right In” is very strong musically.
Unfortunately, the musical scenes are filmed with the weirdest and most disconcerting of effects that was rife during the time, where colors would change and get all freaky and the cuts between things were random and odd. It took away from the performances.
So how does this relate to “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”?
Like “Head” and “200 Motels”, each episode is really hung together by the thinnest of plots. Each episode has a lot of randomness and weirdness in it. Things just happen, all of a sudden, for no darn reason at all.
But somehow, Mr. Herman, Mr. Pee Wee Herman, pulls it off.
I think it’s because of audience expectations, and because that Pee Wee put some thought and effort into his surrealistic world.
The Monkees’ audience had expectations, and “Head” didn’t deliver at all. A lot of the skits were unfocused, and either tried too hard to make points or tried too hard to make no points.
In Zappa’s case, he was moving into another direction, and yes, his audience did understand that he was weird and strange and experimental, “200 Motels” didn’t seem to be of the quality of some of his albums, even the really strange ones like Uncle Meat or Weasels Ripped My Flesh. It looked and seemed dashed off and half hearted, whilst even in the oddness and strangeness, his other stuff had an air of well thought out oddness and strangeness.
And that’s it with Pee Wee Herman’s show. You aren’t supposed to want to make sense of it – you have an expectation to just go along for the ride and see what’s going to happen. It’s also clear that every detail is well thought out and arranged in advance, even as it seems totally random.
Well, it may seem random to you to equate movies made in 1968 and 1971 to a TV show from the late 80’s, in this year of 2006. However, because we live in an age where reruns always happen and are available thanks to TiVo and DVDs, where everything is connected to everything somehow, and where the past is prologue, it seemed germane to discuss these things.
Why not? Besides, I meant to do that!