HEAD - Hey, hey, it’s the Monkees . . . being catapulted through one of American cinema’s most surreal sixties odysseys. In it, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork become trapped in a kaleidoscopic satire that’s movie homage, media send-up, concert movie, and antiwar cry all at once. Head escaped commercial success on its release but has since been reclaimed as one of the great cult objects of its era.
1968 • 85 minutes • Color • Monaural/Surround • 1.78:1 aspect ratio
EASY RIDER - This is the definitive counterculture blockbuster. The former clean-cut teen star Dennis Hopper’s down-and-dirty directorial debut, Easy Rider heralded the arrival of a new voice in film, one planted firmly, angrily against the mainstream. After Easy Rider’s cross-country journey—with its radical, New Wave–style editing, outsider-rock soundtrack, revelatory performance by a young Jack Nicholson, and explosive ending—the American road trip would never be the same.
1969 • 96 minutes • Color • Surround • 1.85:1 aspect ratio
FIVE EASY PIECES - Jack Nicholson plays the now iconic cad Bobby Dupea, a shiftless thirtysomething oil rigger and former piano prodigy immune to any sense of romantic or familial responsibility, who returns to his childhood home to see his ailing estranged father, his blue-collar girlfriend (Karen Black, like Nicholson nominated for an Oscar) in tow. Moving in its simplicity and gritty in its textures, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is a lasting example of early 1970s American alienation.
1970 • 98 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.85:1 aspect ratio
DRIVE, HE SAID - Based on the best-selling novel by Jeremy Larner, Drive, He Said is free-spirited and sobering by turns, a sketch of the exploits of a disaffected college basketball player and his increasingly radical roommate, a feverishly shot and edited snapshot of the early seventies (some of it was filmed during an actual campus protest). Jack Nicholson’s audacious comedy (starring Bruce Dern and Karen Black) is a startling howl direct from the zeitgeist.
1970 • 90 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.85:1 aspect ratio
A SAFE PLACE - In this delicate, introspective drama, laced with fantasy elements, Tuesday Weld stars as a fragile young woman in New York unable to reconcile her ambiguous past with her unmoored present; Orson Welles as an enchanting Central Park magician and Jack Nicholson as a mysterious ex-lover round out the cast. A Safe Place was directed by independent cinema icon Henry Jaglom.
1971 • 92 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.85:1 aspect ratio
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW - The Last Picture Show is one of the key films of the American cinema renaissance of the seventies. Set during the early fifties in the loneliest Texas nowheresville to ever dust up a movie screen, this aching portrait of a dying West, adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel, focuses on the daily shuffles of three futureless teens—enigmatic Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), wayward jock Duane (Jeff Bridges), and desperate-to-be-adored rich girl Jacy (Cybil Shepherd)—and the aging lost souls who bump up against them in the night like drifting tumbleweeds. This hushed depiction of crumbling American values remains the pivotal film in the career of the invaluable director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich.
1971 • 126 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.85:1 aspect ratio
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS - For his electrifying follow-up to the smash success of Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson dug even deeper into the crushed dreams of wayward America. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern play estranged siblings David and Jason, the former a depressive late-night radio talk show host, the latter an extroverted con man; when Jason drags his younger brother to a dreary Atlantic City and into a real-estate scam, events spiral into tragedy.
1972 • 104 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Box sets are usually grouped around an actor or a filmmaker or a franchised film series, something like the 'Alien' films or the work of Elia Kazan. But few box sets have ever been a powerful narrative device themselves, with each film contained within providing a chapter in a complicated and profound story of American filmmaking. But that’s exactly what the Criterion 'BBS: America Lost and Found' collection is.
The BBS production company, an evolution of Raybert Productions, was the brainchild of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner (B-B-S, get it?) Fueled by the financial success of The Monkees, a rock group the production company had engineered, they had freedom and resources to do movies the way they wanted to do them. And they produced a small cluster of films that changed the face of Hollywood.
The late sixties and early seventies was a notoriously tumultuous time for Hollywood, with the fading studio system and the crop of "movie nerd" filmmakers who wanted nothing to do with the old ways (Documented, complete with hatchet marks, in books like Peter Biskind's scathing 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.'), but nobody wanted to blow up the whole structural enterprise like BBS. Embracing experimentalism (which sometimes, granted, bordered on amateurism) and cultivating a creative team from within that would including future visionaries like Peter Bogdanovich and Jack Nicholson (a staple of virtually every BBS production), they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable mainstream entertainment and distributed their kind of druggy, satirical vision of current events to the world at large.
Contained within Criterion's box set are the Monkees' wacky musical circus 'Head,' Jack Nicholson's meditative basketball film (it had a script polish by Terrence Malick for crying out loud) 'Drive, He Said;' Bob Rafelson's emotionally devastating dramas 'Five Easy Pieces' and 'The King of Marvin Gardens' (which I had never seen and is nothing short of a revelation); Henry Jaglom's trippily impenetrable 'A Safe Place;' Dennis Hopper's counterculture masterpiece 'Easy Rider;' and Peter Bogdanovich's ‘The Last Picture Show,’ both stately and unhinged, a gorgeous time capsule of a time gone by that was much racier than your parents told you about.
And after these films were produced (and alongside BBS's Academy Award-winning documentary 'Hearts and Minds'), shaking up the way that movies were made and sold (by and for a new, hungrier, more cutting edge generation), BBS was no more. But it had already accomplished what it set out to do: it jumbled the system and made it easier for bolder, more visionary filmmakers and their equally personal, visionary films. And it left behind a small bumper crop of absolutely immortal films; movies that are incredibly specific for time and place, but absolutely timeless.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
There are seven movies on six 50GB Blu-ray discs, all of them Region A locked. They're contained in a chunky paper box set, with the spine #544-550. Tellingly, this box set was originally conceived of and put together by Sony (which released the original BBS films theatrically), but then they got cold feet and Criterion took over and added a few flourishes. This is typical of BBS – perennially underrated and overlooked but oh-so-powerful.
In short: all of these movies look absolutely amazing. Seriously. It's hard to go into too much detail, here, but everything looks stunning, all sporting 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers (usually the aspect ratios are either 1.85:1 or 1.78:1).
'Drive, He Said' looks amazing. It's an odd mishmash of impressionistic strokes and highly, realistically detailed, and the transfer does a great job of showing this off. From the hypnotic opening moments to the more confrontational emotional moments, everything is rendered wonderfully. Skin tones, in particular, look outstanding, without any glitchy technical issues or larger problems. Some might find it too grainy, but it's a fair approximation of what things looked like in the theaters. From the booklet: ""'Drive, He Said' is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Supervised by director Jack Nicholson, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35mm interpositive."
'Easy Rider' has about the same transfer as on the earlier Sony release (keep in mind, again, that this box set was originally a Sony project), which is a good thing indeed – the picture looks crisp and clear without any hint of the kind of digital scrubbing that leaves movies looking rubbery and phony. The booklet explains the transfer as: "Supervised by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, this new high-definition transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight 2 Scanner from the original camera negative and the black-and-white separation masters."
'King of Marvin Gardens' is one of the revelations of this box set, partially because of this stunner of a transfer. From the moment go – with Nicholson's long, beautifully photographed monologue, your jaw will be on the floor. And it will be hard to pick it up. It’s just as technically proficient as the other movies' transfers, maybe more so. From the booklet: "Supervised by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a new 35 mm interpositive."
'Head' is crazy. And things are approximated appropriately here - in particular the bright, brash colors are amazingly reproduced. From the booklet: "'Head' is presented in the director's preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35mm interpositive." A stunner.
'Five Easy Pieces' is also dynamite – one of the more straightforward looking, at least of the BBS productions (it lacks the hazy dreaminess of, say, 'Head' or 'A Safe Place'). That straightforwardness is evident here and things look very striking and real, without any digital tinkering or glitchy technical issues of any kind. Booklet (clearly a lot of work went into this!): "Supervised by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, this new high-definition digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight 2 Scanner from the original camera negative and the black-and-white separation masters."
The piece de resistance of the entire box set, at least from a visual perspective, though, is 'The Last Picture Show,' which luxuriates in the velvety smoothness of its black-and-white. It doesn't look too scrubbed clean – there is a healthy amount of grain, but good lord is it gorgeous. This is the most beautiful transfer of the bunch, but that just could be because black-and-white and high-definition go together better than peanut butter and chocolate. Booklet: 'Supervised by director Peter Bogdanovich, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a new 35 mm fine-grain master positive.'
'A Safe Place' is a pretty unremarkable movie, although it looks too good to totally dismiss. There's a kind of dreamlike quality to the film, and the visual presentation, which is upheld beautifully here. Colors pop and flesh tones look good, without any glitchy issues or photographic missteps. From the booklet: "'A Safe Place' is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a new 35 mm interpositive.”
Again: all of the audio tracks on these discs sound wonderful. That's pretty much all you need to know, although I'll go into specifics now.
'Drive, He Said' and 'A Safe Place' (these movies are housed on the same disc, after all), are just monoaural mixes, but they sound great. Dialogue is crisp, clear, and easy to follow, and there's a surprising amount of depth in the mixes. From the booklet, re: 'Drive He Said:' "The Monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters and 35mm music and effects masters" and 'A Safe Place:' "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm magnetic 3-track masters."
'Easy Rider' has a number of options – English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and English Dolby Digital 1.0. (There are optional English SDH subtitles.) The mono track was the original for the film, and it sounds sturdy and reliable, but the 5.1 mix isn’t the disaster that it could have been (remember that 'Jaws' mix from a few years ago?) It’s a toss up between which one you should go with – if you want purity, hit up the mono track, if you want your sound system to thump (especially during the rock songs), hit up the 5.1. They're both dynamic and grand. From the booklet: "The soundtracks were remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters and multitrack music masters under the supervision of director Dennis Hopper."
'Five Easy Pieces' has a single option: an English LPCM 1.0 job. With optional English SDH subtitles. And you know what? It sounds pretty great. Dialogue rules the day here and everything sounds crisp, clear, and easy to understand. There are moments when the sound field opens up a bit, and there aren’t any glitchy technical issues. So all in all, a solid job. From the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters."
'Head' probably got the most music love, for obvious reasons, with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix as well as an English LPCM 1.0 mix, with optional English SDH subtitles. Again the question is: which do you want to hear? The original mono job or the more dynamic, widescreen 5.1 mix. Well, both are fantastic; take your pick. While the traditionalist in me would suggest the mono, that 5.1 track really howls. From the booklet: "The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters and multitrack masters. The remixed surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit using a variety of original sound elements from 1968. Four of the songs - "Porpoise Song", "Circle Sky", "As We Go Along", and "Daddy's Song" - were transferred from the original 1-inch 8-track audio multitracks. "Can You Dig It?" and "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" were sourced from 1968 stereo mixes originally created for the film's soundtrack album. A substantial amount of the incidental score for the film was recovered from the original 3-track session tapes, allowing for new stereo mixes. The remaining cues, dialog, and effects were culled from 1968 35mm DME elements."
'The King of Marvin Gardens’' is equipped with a remastered monaural mix that sounds pretty great, if not exactly punchy. There are also optional English SDH subtitles. Most of this movie is about the dialogue, which you can hear crisply and cleanly in this mix. So it succeeds in my book, it's just not as outstanding as the video. From the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from 35 mm magnetic 3-track masters."
It actually kind of surprised me that they didn’t do more with 'The Last Picture Show' besides a monaural English LPCM 1.0 (with optional English SDH subtitles). As far as I’m concerned, the movie is the crown jewel of the BBS run (and this box set). But as far as mono tracks go, it’s pretty great. While it would have been nice to hear a fancy new 5.1 job, it sort of fits the small town feel of the film to have the sound be so tiny. Which isn't to say there's anything wrong with it, since dialogue is easy to make out and sound effects and atmospherics come through cleanly. From the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters."
Extras are voluminous on this box set, and appear identically on the DVD counterpart. Also included is a 122-page booklet featuring essays by Chuck Stephens, Matt Zoeller Seitz, Kent Jones, Graham Fuller, Mark Le Fanu, and J. Hoberman. (If you want to point to a very specific thing Criterion contributed to this box set, and wouldn’t have been in the Sony version, it’s this booklet.) We’ll now look at the features alphabetically by movie (‘Drive, He Said,’ and ‘A Safe Place’ are on the same disc so we’ll start there).
The legacy of the BBS production company is one that is sometimes overlooked, despite the power and legacy of the films they produced. Thankfully, the brilliant 'America Lost and Found' box set puts them where they ought to be: front and center. The movies (particularly 'Last Picture Show') have never looked or sounded better, and they're presented alongside contextual evidence of BBS’ importance in the history and evolution of American film. This is a Must Own collection, one that weaves its own narrative. An amazing box set, for sure.