America Lost and Found: The BBS Story
- Street Date:
- November 23rd, 2010
- Reviewed by:
- Drew Taylor
- Review Date: 1
- May 5th, 2011
- Movie Release Year:
- 701 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
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.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
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.”
The Audio: Rating the Sound
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."
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
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).
- A Cautionary Tale (HD, 11 minutes) This new documentary, produced in 2009, takes interviews with Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, associate producer (and longtime Coppola associate) Fred Roos, actress Karen Black, and others, about the making of ‘Drive, He Said.’ This is an absolute scream and very much worth watching, as the discovery of 'Drive, He Said,' is one of the box set’s true revelations. Also, you’ll get to hear Nicholson use the phrase "a symphony of cocks," which doesn’t happen all that often in Criterion documentaries.
- ‘Drive, He Said’ Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) It is what it is, daddy-o!
- Notes on the New York Film Festival (HD, 29 minutes) This is a fascinating time capsule – an interview with filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, editor-turned-director Henry Jaglom, and Village Voice writer Molly Haskell, conducted at the ninth New York Film Festival way back in the year of our lord 1971 (for a program called ‘Camera Three’). In it they discuss Bogdanovich’s successful film ‘The Last Picture Show’ and Jaglom’s not-so-successful film ‘A Safe Place,’ with equal fascination. Love that background!
- Henry Jaglom Finds ‘A Safe Place’ (HD, 7 minutes) This brief interview with Jaglom, recorded in 2009, discusses the film, and it’s pretty interesting even if you think that, like me, the movie is an incomprehensible jumble. Included: an anecdote about how Orson Welles helped Jaglom with the uncooperative crew by explaining to everyone that the entire film was a dream sequence.
- Outtakes and Screen Tests (HD) This collection of outtakes and screen tests (ranging from 3-8 minutes each in length) from ‘A Safe Place.’ Easily skippable.
- ‘A Safe Place’ Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) Oooo dreamy!
- ‘A Safe Place’ Commentary This is an audio commentary with director Henry Jaglom. It was recorded between 2009 and 2010. It’s pretty interesting but Jaglom comes across as even more of an unhinged nutjob than the other BBS-ers. And watching the commentary means watching the movie again, which I would never recommend, sober anyway.
- ‘Easy Rider’ Commentaries There are two commentaries available here – one with just Dennis Hopper and the other with Peter Fonda, production manager Paul Lewis, and Dennis Hopper. Both are worth listening to, but if you had to choose one I’d do the latter, since it’s a little more varied and nutty.
- Born to Be Wild (HD, 30 minutes) This BBC2 documentary about the making of ‘Easy Rider’ is really strong, with great interviews with all of the principles and killer on-set footage. (It was directed by Nicholas Freand Jones and aired in 1995.) You’ll hear some of the same stories elsewhere on the ‘Easy Rider’ disc but if you only have 30 minutes to nostalgically spend on the film, watch this!
- Shaking the Cage (HD, 65 minutes) Basically using the same interviewees, this documentary (from 1999) does delve deeper into the production and release of the movie, while recycling a handful of the stories (spoiler alert: Dennis Hopper was out of his mind).
- Hopper and Fonda at Cannes (HD, 3 minutes) This brief, hilarious clip from a French television show called “Pour le cinema,” was from May 22, 1969 (!) And has the two actors waxing philosophical on ‘Easy Rider’ (it’s a western, mannnn) while attempting and failing and a minimal amount of French.
- Steve Blauner (HD, 19 minutes) A Criterion addition to the set, this interview with Steve Blauner (he’s the S in BBS) is absolutely fascinating and one of my very favorite things on the whole set. Basically he takes you through the history of the company and how ‘Head’ directly impacted ‘Easy Rider.’ AMAZING.
- ‘Easy Rider’ Trailers (HD) Two trailers for ‘Easy Rider’ – one around a minute long, the other around three minutes.
- ‘King of Marvin Gardens’ Select-Scene Commentary This video commentary, recorded in 2009 with director/producer/visionary Bob Rafelson amounts to a little more than an hour of discussion, and is totally gripping.
- Reflections of a Philosopher King (HD, 10 minutes) A brief documentary about the making of ‘King of Marvin Gardens’ (including how an actress impetuously cutting her hair altered the third act of the movie significantly), it features interviews with Rafelson, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern and others. Really wonderful stuff.
- Afterthoughts (HD, 11 minutes) This video piece, recorded in 2002, features Rafelson, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and actor Bruce Dern. It’s a wonderful companion piece to the above documentary, with more of an emphasis on the stylistic merits of the film. Rafelson talks about the opening monologue delivered by Jack Nicholson, which was something he had written for a college English class ten years earlier.
- Bob Rafelson A text-based biography of Rafelson. Killer stuff.
- ‘King of Marvin Gardens’ Trailer (HD, 4 minutes)
- ‘Five Easy Pieces’ Commentary A commentary track featuring director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson; because these two are related, and their jobs on the film so drastically different (at least from the outset), this makes for a wonderful commentary track well worth listening to.
- Soul Searching in ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (HD, 10 minutes) This short documentary, made in 2009, features Bob Rafelson talking about the making of ‘Five Easy Pieces.’ In particular, his thoughts about the immortal “table clearing” scene are priceless.
- BBS Story (HD, 47 minutes) This documentary, also completed in 2009, features interviews will all of the principles of the BBS productions as well as assorted film critics (and Richard Schickel), who discuss what a powerful cinematic force the wave of BBS movies really was. You take away two things from this documentary, primarily (or at least I did) – what an astounding cultural impact the movies had and how brief this period was. Six films. That’s it. And it changed the face of cinema, for a while at least. How many production companies can you say have even attempted something like that? Genius.
- Bob Rafelson at AFI (HD, 50 minutes) This is footage from a discussion held at the American Film Institute on May 19th, 1976. Already the legend of the BBS productions was holding sway and while some of the stories are compelling, you can hear them elsewhere on this disc and in much better quality. As a time capsule this is invaluable but otherwise you can pretty easily breeze past it.
- ‘Five Easy Pieces’ Trailers (HD) Two teasers (two and three minutes) and one trailer (four minutes); all for the same great movie.
- ‘Head’ Commentary This commentary, with original Monkees Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork, recorded in 2010, is about as chaotic as the movie is. Imagine that awful ‘Goonies’ track from the DVD a few years ago, except with middle aged men and way trippier, and you’ll get the idea. Worth listening to in an “Is this really happening?” way.
- BBS: A Time for Change (HD, 28 minutes) This 2010 documentary features critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley, as they discuss the impact that the BBS crop of films had and specifically the formation of the Monkees and how ‘Head’ led directly to ‘Easy Rider.’
- Screen Tests (HD, various) Included are Michael Blessing (nee Nesmith), Micky Braddock (nee Dolenz), Davy Jones, Peter Tork, as well as scenes “She’s a Groovy Kid” and “$13 million.” Most are around 4 minutes. These are kind of fascinating, and shows you that even if they didn’t write their own songs, they were talented in their own right.
- The Monkees on the Hy Lit Show This rare interview, which aired in 1968, has the band discussing their film which, as we’ve learned elsewhere on this disc, was a thankless task (and, if you know the poster, rarely engaged).
- Promotion (HD) This is broken down into three sections – Trailers and TV Spots (2 theatrical trailers, 5 TV spots, a New York action trailer, and a Portuguese trailer); Radio spots (9 in total); and Ephemera (6 minutes of madness). How anyone went about trying to sell this movie is kind of fascinating… and then you see how they actually DID try and push it and it’s even wilder.
- ‘Last Picture Show’ Commentaries There are two audio commentaries present here – one with director Peter Bogdanovich and actors Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid (pre-breakdown), Cloris Leachman and Frank Marshall (who is currently a super-producer but back then was an assistant). This track was recorded by Criterion in 1991 (for the laserdisc, presumably) and is a hoot. The second, more somber commentary is just Peter Bogdanovich, which was recorded more than a decade later, in 2009. Still worth listening too but not as fun as the first.
- ‘Last Picture Show:’ a Look Back (HD, 60 minutes) This documentary by Laurent Bouzereau, from 1999, features interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, actors Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Frank Marshall, and author Larry McMurtry. This is totally outstanding and if you have only limited time to indulge your ‘Last Picture Show’ love, use it for this. Great anecdotes and remembrances, which don’t get as personal as maybe they should have (I wanted more about Bogdanovich and Shepherd’s affair), but still really great stuff overall. Love that Orson Welles suggested Bogdanovich use black-and-white.
- A Discussion with Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (HD, 13 minutes) This is a discussion between the ‘Look Back’ director Laurent Bouzereau and Peter Bogdanovich, in which the two talk about a whole host of topics. What would have been really fascinating, though, would be Bogdanovich talking about the rest of his career, he never again had a success like ‘Last Picture Show’ (even when trying in vain to recapture it with the ill-fated sequel ‘Texasville’).
- Picture This (HD, 42 minutes) Subtitled ‘The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas,’ this is an award winning documentary from the recently deceased George Hickenlooper is one of the highlights of the box set, where the original cast and crew of ‘Last Picture Show’ reunite 19 years later in Archer City, Texas, for the making of the sequel, ‘Texasville.’
- Screen Tests (HD, 3 minutes) Dialogue-free 16mm screen tests of most of the actors. An oddity; easily skippable.
- Location footage (HD, 7 minutes) Another oddity, this was pre-production footage lensed by Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas. No sound on this one.
- Truffaut on New Hollywood (HD, 5 minutes) This is an excerpt from a 1972 French TV program called “Vive le cinema” (of course). In it, Francois Truffaut talks about the changing face of American films. This is in French with English subtitles.
- ‘Last Picture Show’ Trailers (HD) There are two trailers here – the original theatrical trailer (4 minutes) and a re-release trailer (2 minutes).
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no HD exclusives.
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.
- 6-Disc Set
- Contains Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens
- 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4
- English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- English LPCM Mono
- English SDH
- Audio commentaries
- Deleted scenes
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