How and Why I Stopped Caring About What Everyone is Talking About, or, The Only Movie Review I Will Ever WriteI signed up for a Letterboxd account somewhat recently. I have little interest in writing two sentence reviews that amount to saying “this movie is low-key gay/horny/about capitalism and that implicitly means it’s also good???” but I like being able to track what I’ve watched over time. I find the arc of interest and taste interesting, even when it comes to a largely uninteresting person.
I was outright shocked to discover that not only did this website have the unmitigated gall to ask me what my favorite movies were, but it had also deigned to ask me what my four favorite movies were - a question no human being has ever asked of any other human being. We create lists in multiples of five, Jerry! Top three I’ll accept, but what kind of Deranged Pervert would ask me to further artificially limit a list of things I consider important to my identity?! Five is barely enough - if you’re gonna limit it, at least make it a weirder exercise: your top two favorite movies, your favorite movies under one hour and thirty minutes - anything but the distractingly weird demand for Four Favorite Films.
I set about paring down the largely fluid Top 5s and Top 10s that I had gradually and accidentally devised whenever asked this question in a more sensibly divisible form. I become fairly confident with The Master, Inside Llewyn Davis and Fire Walk With Me - all generally well known, but still fairly “arty” and not unanimously loved films - that’s Slam Dunk City, baby!!! All movies that a passing observer would see, say “sure, why not” and then move on with their lives. Perfect.
But... that d*mn fourth pick!!!!! I spent some time cycling through some reasonable and unreasonable choices, seeing how the posters play against each other, imagining what some psychopath who cared to look this up would think about these choices in the future when I finally landed on a choice that I had never considered, because I have never heard anyone else seriously discuss it.
My fourth pick and (possibly) favorite film of all time is Head, a film created by and about The Monkees, a band entirely created and assembled for a television show. Also, a film that is now seen as the direct cause of their immense decline in popularity and break-up. Wow! That sure sounds like a fun factoid you’d see passed around about a movie no one in the conversation has actually seen!
However, I have seen this movie. Many times, in fact! I first saw this film when I was six years old, which is a very bizarre thing for a child to do. And this film is he kind of inscrutable thing a child latches onto that either determines or describes what sort of thing they will be interested in for the rest of their life.
I could talk for hours about this band’s (very good) music and crazy journey from four guys hired to act in a TV show and sing over pre-produced backing tracks to a genuine creative force that fought to actually become a real band that could play on their own records. My exposure to that story early on in my life probably fundamentally changed how I view “Celebrity” and “Authenticity” in art forever. But all of those concerns and ideas are most potently and fascinatingly represented here, in this movie, a fascinating footnote of pop culture excess that has a lot more to say about Culture than any of the nominally “counter-culture” films of the period.
Head is a difficult movie to talk about due to its largely non-narrative and surrealistic construction; most of the writing on the movie focused solely on its creation and creators. Instead of developing anything related to their largely successful sitcom, the four Monkees and a then-unknown Jack Nicholson (Wow! Another fun fact!) rambled into a tape recorder for a drug-addled weekend in Ojai, California, which Nicholson later structured and turned into a full screenplay while (allegedly) tripping on acid. The resulting film is exactly as free-wheeling and plotless as you might expect.
First, one of the leads appears to commit suicide by jumping off of a bridge. later, the band will be cast in a war movie, a boxing movie, a sitcom, several disconnected music videos, a dandruff commercial, a live concert, and a horror film. None of these settings will matter very much or mean anything concrete to the characters that inhabit them. Most importantly, none of them are real: the characters and the film switch genres so rapidly by quite literally walking off of one set and wandering through the backlot directly into another. Seeing an actor literally walk through the painted backdrop of a Western 30 minutes into a movie that was not a Western was the most mind-blowing thing I had ever seen at six years old.
A character presented first as a mysterious western villain will implore the Monkees to “think of the tie-ins", claim “the whole phallic thing is happening” and then ineffectually wave his cape into his own face. A full cafeteria will completely empty out as soon as the clientele realize the Monkees are coming in. No one actually likes these people unless they’re trying to get them to do something they want.
The band start a chant for “W-A-R WAR!” on a football field, run out of ammo during an active firefight, get on the cover of Life Magazine, run onto stage to start performing, the execution of the Viet Cong member Nguyễn Văn Lém is intercut with footage of their screaming fans, who then storm the stage and rip the band to pieces, holding onto the arms and heads of mannequins. These are all incredibly loaded images and ideas and none of it adds up to much of anything. The world is hostile and disposable and none of what you’re watching is real anyway. The Monkees spend many portions of the movie trying to escape enclosed spaces, eventually jumping off of a bridge to escape, only to land in a glass box filled with water, carried away from the camera as the movie ends. There is no escape. Not when you’re a fictional character, at least.
I am not interested in the profoundly dull genre of movies about movies. They all invariably feel like the creators convincing themselves that their own lives are filled with more conflict than they actually are. Head is the only film I have ever seen that actually has anything interesting to say about how people consume art and media beyond “it’s bad that people use their phones/watch TV/listen to rock music too much.” Head presents a pop culture that despises itself, a world where it is impossible to for anything to ever be authentic outside of the constraints handed to you by forces you barely understand and can never meaningfully change.
So much of the counter culture both from this era and today is just about doing a lot of drugs and performatively being an asshole. As a film made by people who had already experienced commercial success, Head feels so much more subversive than just any “weird movie” from the era. It is a piece of work in conversation with the conventions and expectations of commercial filmmaking, and is much weirder and denser because of it. I’m not trying to say need to have had a successful television show and music career to successfully critique the entertainment industry, but these people’s unique circumstance lead to a more keen and nuanced understanding of art as a commercial undertaking than the kind of people who view a work’s financial success as a fundamental demerit to its artistic credibility.
Head prefigures the all-out nonsense hypertext media that the internet has become completely saturated with. Remixed alternate versions of the otherwise anodyne and boring pop culture ephemera that wanders in and out of everyone’s brains, in this case, released in theaters for their teenaged fans to demolish the image of the people who created it. It can only exist due to the financial success of “The Monkees Experiment,” which also funded Easy Rider and the production company that would release Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. I’ve seen all of those movies, and let me tell you: none of them feel nearly quite as meaningfully counter to the culture as this movie.
Which brings me to why I have been thinking about this movie a lot lately.
On it’s release, this movie, one of the most cynical pieces of commercial art you could find, almost solely about how ugly and contradictory the impulses behind consuming and creating pop culture are, and every film critic dismissed it as complete nonsense for teenaged fans, because it was a tie-in movie to a crassly manufactured popular sitcom. The fans hated it as well, because it is, quite frankly, an insane follow-up to a sitcom. People hated the Monkees' music and show because it too perfectly fit the mold of what could be accepted and popular, and people hated Head because it was the exact opposite of that. It sat uncomfortably between two worlds, not because of anything intrinsic to the work itself, but because of how it was framed and discussed.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have spent the past year of my life almost exclusively online. I have spent most of that time reading what other people I don’t know have to say about things, because it feels low-effort and uninvolving in a way that dulls my incredibly diseased mind. Often these conversations circle around to talking about pop culture; as much as I try to stay away from “Film Twitter” and other “Stupid Assholes,” The Discourse still worms its way over to me, because every dumb conversation that happens on twitter must be reposted and relitigated on other websites for reasons I do not understand. There is no escape. Partly owing to this nonsensical psychic bombardment, I have become completely uninterested in anything almost anyone has to say.
I don’t mean to say that I don’t like it when people talk about movies, or that outside perspectives are no longer valuable to me because some of them are stupid. But the way the internet has turned all of these conversations about Art and Pop Culture and Media into constantly shifting snobs vs slobs debates on what constitutes “real art” is just the most boring endpoint of any conversation. There is no resolution to the question of what art is or can be, and the descriptor will always just turn into a different way to say what You, Personally like is worthwhile to care about, and everything you don’t is not worth considering. To endlessly relitigate the merit of certain things as artistically valid is a way to completely dismiss how you directly experience anything in order to have something shareable to say about it.
The obsession with categorizing and ranking the specifics of art is deeply sickening to me. It’s such a limiting way to look at the world that mostly results in closing yourself off from things in a misguided effort to present yourself as a person with “refined tastes.” No one actually likes anything, they’re just aligning themselves with whatever is culturally convenient and disregard whatever doesn’t fit that into that mental framework. All of this Discourse about The Discourse, where everyone outright refuses to give any moment of introspection to investigate why all the debates they are having are so deeply boring and circular. None of it adds up to much of anything. Everyone is hostile and all of this is disposable and none of what you’re talking about is real anyway.
I am completely uninterested in a hot take about just about anything. Who cares? why should any Random Asshole dictate my own framing and response to a piece of art? Who are you? Why are you speaking with authority?. You don’t know anything! Being “cringe” is a fake idea. There is little value in dismissing anything out of hand. To take something on its own terms and give a genuine appraisal on what makes something worthwhile and unique is an opportunity to be far more interesting than either reflexively aligning with whatever’s generally popular or reflexively dismissing whatever’s popular at any given moment. All of these rubrics and categorizations developed by the most tedious people alive to rank pieces of art against each other are completely unrelated to actually experiencing culture and art honestly and openly.
A lot of my feelings on “All of This” are wrapped up in this movie, which is still theoretically what I’m trying to talk about. The idea that something’s status as part of the culture or the counterculture isn’t determined by anything about who or how or why it was created, but what the actual work is. The difference between High Brow and Low Brow art is mostly in how other people describe it, not in terms of content or thematic weight.
I have shown this movie to friends and breathlessly explained that the scene where they blow up a coke machine in the desert with a tank is actually about hating the image of The Monkees as commercialized “manufactured pop” and that they face off against a giant Victor Mature because their label was named RCA Victor and that Peter says he’s “always the dummy” because that was his role on the TV show and that, and this, and that’s why, and then my friends say “I guess...” and I stop pretending like any of that should matter to anyone but me. Why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak? I don’t know anything! Our reaction to art is far more personal and in the moment than other people would lead you to believe.
If you think I’ve gone overboard in my assessment of this film; you’re probably right!!! But this is an entirely unique movie, and one that has had an enormous impact on my personal growth as someone who makes and consumes art. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t already interested in a surrealist movie based off of a band that takes place mostly on a studio backlot. And if they don’t like the music, forget it! There’s five whole songs in there that do not advance the plot in any conventional way. I’d find it stretched extremely thin if I didn’t also love the music. For me, Head is one of the most interesting and meaningful multimedia objects to come out of the Hollywood system. To most other people, it’s just a wacky movie that four random dudes and Jack Nicholson wrote while getting very high in a hotel in California.
If you are interested in watching it, the Criterion Collection (that’s right folks, it’s art) remaster is available on YouTube for the moment. It's less than an hour and a half long, which is nice::
Anyway, that’s why I don’t care for ranking and categorizing movies, and that’s why Head is my fourth favorite movie of all time.
Or, as someone far less self-indulgent than me put it: