America Lost & Found: The BBS Story

Yes, this is another Blu-ray review coming out of my my PC World Blu-ray boxed set gift guide.

If you’ve read Peter Biskind’s excellent history of Hollywood in the 70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, you know something about BBS, the small, short-lived production company that changed everything. They made seven cutting-edge features between 1968 and 1972, turned Jack Nicholson into a star, and left behind a different Hollywood. (Well, at least until Jaws and Star Wars changed everything back again.)

The biggest changes came with their second film, Easy Rider. When this clip_image002weird little movie, which the Columbia Pictures executives hated and almost didn’t release, became a huge box office hit, Hollywood shook. Doors swung open and young, long-haired filmmakers from George Lucas to Martin Scorsese got in before those doors closed again.

And sitting on top of this heap was the company that produced Easy Rider: Raybert Productions, which soon changed its name to BBS (for Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner–yes, their company was on a first-name basis). With a far more cooperative Columbia at their disposal, they made a much better film: Five Easy Pieces.

Criterion’s box set, America Lost & Found: The BBS Story, contains those two along with BBS’ other five narrative features. (The company also made the 1974 documentary, Hearts and Minds, but it’s not included here.)

I can’t honestly call this a collection of seven great films, although Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show are among the best produced during that decade. Pieces is the Great American Loosely-Plotted Character Study. In his first starring role, Nicholson brilliantly plays a relationship-averse blue-collar worker with a surprising family history. Of course he goes on a personal, emotional (and physical) journey in the film, but there’s nothing redemptive in it, and he’s not a better man for going through it. Little happens in Five Easy Pieces, but what happens is more than worth following.

The Last Picture Show put director Peter Bogdanovich on the map (as well as Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd), and he hasn’t come close to it since. BBS’ only period piece, and the company’s only film in black and white, it studies a group of teenagers in a small Texas town in the early 1950s. The town appears to be blowing away (the title refers to the community’s one, struggling, movie theater). Once again, there’s no conventional plot. The kids go about their business, experiment with sex, and dream of the world to come. Think American Graffiti (made the same year), set eleven years earlier, and played for reality rather than laughs.

While these are the best films in the set, Easy Rider made the most money and remains an iconic work. It hasn’t aged well, but it’s worth seeing, if only as a bug in amber–a frozen relic of a lost age. Besides, the two anti-heroes make an interesting pair, totally counterculture on the outside, yet irredeemably materialistic at their core. At least Peter Fonda’s character senses that there’s something wrong with their values–that they “blew it.” Dennis Hopper’s character is simply an annoying jerk. I’m pretty sure that was intentional.

The King of Marvin Gardens is neither a masterpiece, a big commercial hit, nor historically important, but it’s still pretty good. It examines two brothers in a difficult relationship. Acting against type, Nicholson plays the calm, apparently well-adjusted one, although he has a history of mental problems and appears to be suffering from depression. Bruce Dern plays his manic older brother, a wheeler-dealer who believes that success is just around the corner–even though that corner has always eluded him in the past. They’re both excellent, as are Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson as the women in Dern’s life. But the story is often predictable, and the staging occasionally strange for strangeness’ sake.

BBS went in for strange. The company’s first film, Head, may just be the weirdest feature ever released by a Hollywood studio–an experiment that failed spectacularly. The only feature starring The Monkees is a surreal comedy with few laughs, no plot, tiresome psychedelia, and too much dependence on breaking the fourth wall. Drive, He Said and A Safe Place aren’t quite as weird (although Place comes close), but they don’t work, either. And since they take themselves seriously, their failure is all the worse.

Since this is a Criterion set at Criterion clip_image004prices, you can expect quality transfers and extras. While the discs come as close to reproducing the films’ original theatrical appearances as home technology allows, these aren’t the best movies to show off your home theater. They’re intimate rather than spectacular, and occasionally grainy. These are, after all, prime examples of 40-year-old low-budget filmmaking. But while the photography in these films is seldom conventionally beautiful, it almost always helps evoke the desired atmosphere and emotions with clarity and brilliance. Laszlo Kovacs shot most of these films.

Criterion gives us the original mono soundtracks on all of the titles come, usually in uncompressed PCM. Easy Rider is the exception; although listed as uncompressed, the mono track is actually Dolby Stereo. Head and Easy Rider also include new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes.

Many of the movies have commentary tracks; most of them quite good. There are plenty of supplements. The box also contains a 111-page booklet with six essays, each by a different author.

To sum up, you’ve got one box with two great films, one historically important one, another very good but flawed one, and a big chunk of American film history. That’s worth some shelf space.

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