Bob Rafelson’s 1968 film, Head, opens appropriately on a head. In particularly, it opens on a figure of white authority: a policeman. While the shot follows the roaming policeman, denying any substantial establishing composition, we eventually see a film crew and some sort of staged celebration experiencing technical difficulties. Cue pop stars The Monkees. The young male pop idols abruptly interrupt the proceedings and completely usurp the film. This opening serves as a useful metaphor for not only the film at hand, but cinema as it approached a new era: a film crew centered on flawed (as marked by logistical difficulties) dominant white masculinity, clearly symbolizing the Hollywood studio system, disrupted by young and careless figures like The Monkees and filmmaker Rafelson.
As the opening continues, the stars jump off a bridge to a song of theirs with the chorus, “Goodbye.” The idea of opening the film with a literal descent is the physical flipside to The Graduate’s opening of a voiceover describing a “descent into L.A.” the year before. The Monkees’ leap and ensuing swim in the water is shown in a series of jump cuts through the lens of colorful film negatives. All of the film’s opening elements work together to characterize the film as an attempt at total subversion of the Hollywood system. In fact, it might be useful to consider the opening as the antithesis of the famous opening credits theme of the 007 film franchise, which was enjoying its critical heyday during the decade in question.
It soon becomes quite clear the film is interested in satire. Head immediately consumes itself with images of violence, war, sports, and the media as they all intertwine and make comments about each other. Perhaps the most visceral of which is the juxtaposition of aforementioned war images seemingly being received by overjoyed young white girls, the latter of which assumingly taken from concerts of The Monkees. While shocking and abrasive, it serves as a reminder that everything in the film must be put into the context of pop stars, as this is The Monkees in a film as The Monkees. In other words, Head is more interested in demystifying pop stars, pop stardom, and such prefabricated Hollywood icons than it is in making mere political statements.
Though satire is the driving comedic tool, the film is almost overbearingly and certainly unapologetically steeped in formalism and farcical humor. Such a mode seems appropriate considering Head’s obsession with the ridiculousness of their targets: a Coke machine (the ultimate pop icon) appears in the desert before being destroyed by a tank; authority figures are constantly parading and dancing around; a girl in a bikini almost commits suicide on a Hollywood studio. Meanwhile, The Monkees move in and out of every conceivable Hollywood genre (i.e. Action, Western, Melodrama, etc.) breaking the apparent narrative over and over again, as if to question what a film is and what it can be. Head is opening the conversation on film.
Along with the film’s tone, Head’s aesthetic should be mentioned. I’m not quite sure of the genealogy of the “trippy” film and where this falls into play, though surely it must be near the origin. The “trippy” film has become synonymous with an attempt to recreate a drug trip and exploring the relationship between said trip and reality. However, Head doesn’t seem overtly interested in drugs. Instead, the “trippy” aesthetic and scenarios comment on the relationship between our fascination with film and pop idols and our realities. The most prominent tool aiding this confusion over real life, what’s the making of the film and what is the film, is the fact that The Monkees are playing themselves, not to mention sly scenes like the inclusion of writer Jack Nicholson. How the “trippy” aesthetic and overall formalism of the film work together feel similar to the seminal postmodern tome from 1966, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Though there is no obvious connection, perhaps the novel informed the overall narrative shape of the time.
Just as Pynchon’s book is rife with key motifs, Head’s second half introduces a recurring “black box.” Sometimes The Monkees are in it; sometimes they’re only talking about it. The box, which figures to be a repackagable item, keeping with the questioning of the film medium, makes a clarifying appearance in the film’s dénouement. Head appears to end with its subversive beginning; The Monkees once again interrupt the cutting of a ribbon before diving off the bridge. Rafelson’s final ironic stab is that the boys are all the while in the black box, and we watch as they get pushed out of the studio, like any box distributed from a factory. As exhausting as it sounds, the film subverts its originally subversive opening. In fact, the film goes so far as to liken its opening sequence to blunt Fordist imagery: a mass consumed box. I can’t think of anything less subversive than that.