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Over the course of the 1960s, the United States saw great social and political upheaval, as countless young people revolted against a system that was fundamentally incapable of effectively representing them or their desires. Though the decade saw the development of a number of important social and political efforts, such as the civil rights movement, the hippie movement has come to define the era, and for good reason. Hippies not only opposed the Vietnam War, but they also formed a counter-culture, opposing repressive standards of dress, behavior, and even thought, and, ultimately, they ended up forcing the entire country to undergo a dramatic ideological shift. The films Head, Skidoo, and Psych-Out represent three different reactions to the social conflict that gave rise to the hippie movement, and each films' implicit or explicit treatment of psychedelic drugs, as well as its representation of preexisting entertainment genres, reveals its particular ideological position.
Head embraces the ideals of hippie movement whole-heartedly, adapting a dizzying array of styles and genres in order to make its point about free will, all the while metaphorically participating in the kind of visual and auditory consciousness-expansion that formed a crucial part of the hippie movement. Skidoo, meanwhile, attempts to make these aspects of the hippie movement palatable for a wider audience, and thus presents a shallow, if well-intentioned view of the hippie movement that ultimately fails to challenge authority or reveal something essential about the social crisis facing the American consciousness. Finally, Psych-Out represents the conservative reaction to the hippie movement, because it treatment of drug use and insistence on creating a kind of "hippie horror" reveal its utter contempt for the hippie movement, which it portrays as immoral, hypocritical, and destructive. By reviewing each film individually and then considering the spectrum of reaction they represent, it will be possible to appreciate the degree to which the rise of the hippie movement represented one of the most important social and political crises of the twentieth-century.
Before analyzing the aforementioned films in greater detail, it will be necessary to outline the methodology by which one can determine whether or not these films are good representatives of the hippie movement and its challenge to the larger society. Firstly, it is important to note that the hippie movement was a true revolution, and as such it cannot be boiled down to a specific set of ideals; that is to say, it gets its meaning from rejecting something preexisting, and not necessarily through the proposition of something new. While this rejection of the old presents itself in a wide variety of phenomenon, for the purposes of this study, each film's use or rejection of film and television tropes and genres reveals the extent to which it is willing to challenge authority, and as a such, it is one of the most important metrics upon which to judge said film. Part of the hippie movement's vitality came from the way it mixed and matched styles of dress, belief systems, and political ideologies, and so it is only natural that films purporting to represent the hippie revolution would mix and match their own filmic equivalent in the form of genre.
While part of the hippie movement undoubtedly depended upon the proposition of new modes of dress and behavior, the true work of the movement was creating the space for these new modes to arise.
This is what Tywonkiak (2010) means when he says that in many ways, the core philosophies and ideologies of general semantics was at the cornerstone of the cultural reform movement of the 1960s, including a call for greater clarity of understanding, a search for prime causation as opposed to hegemonic causes, and a deeper exploration of the interior world of the mind at that moment of sensorial manifestation. (p. 290)
This exploration of the deeper world of the mind was frequently aided by the consumption of consciousness-altering drugs, and indeed, all three of the films under discussion here have some connection to the popularity of hallucinogens within the hippie movement, a connection that is not always explicit but which nevertheless plays a crucial role in expressing each film's position. Recognizing this allows one to formulate another metric for evaluating Head, Skidoo, and Psych-Out. The hippie movement represented a search for meaning unencumbered by the arbitrarily-established regulations of the past, and as such determining whether the aforementioned films are representative of the movement will depend upon whether or not the films themselves follow this same line. In other words, for them to be truly representative of the movement, they must not simply portray hippie characters and themes, but also participate in the same revolutionary rejection of preexisting forms and modes of thought. As will be seen, a key marker as to whether or not the film in question is participating in the same kind of consciousness-expanding work as the hippie movement will be how the film incorporates drug use, and particularly hallucinogens, into its larger message.
Of the three films discussed here, Head is the one most explicitly in line with the consciousness-raising efforts of the hippie movement, likely because it stars the Monkees, whose existence as fictional boy-band made up of real people was itself a kind of revolutionary approach to mass media. The film represents a kind of apex of the Monkees' consideration of their own fictional existence, because although their television show can be viewed as deconstructive television, it was not until Head that they directly and repeatedly confronted the apparent division between reality and scripted scenes, and furthermore, determined that this division was either nonexistent or at least irrelevant (Goostree, 1988, p. 50). The film has no concern for the audiences' expectations, frequently showing the director shooting scenes as the Monkees make a number of attempts at escaping their scripted lives, only to find their every action has been predetermined. Thus, in a way, the Monkees' journey over the course of the film, and the films avant-garde character, is representative of the hippie movement's chafing under the arbitrary moral, social, and political standards of the old hegemonic order.
In 1968, the Monkees released the feature film Head, directed by one of their co-creators, Bob Rafelson. Taken as a whole, the film represents a kind of artistic triumph, in that it brought the same kind of meta-textual questioning of reality that made the Monkees famous to the big screen, and in doing so helped in predicting the future of popular entertainment. The surreal, disjointed nature of Head is indicative of a serious cultural shift underway in the 1960s, as the immediacy of popular television made reality that much more attractive, while making its representation that much easier to manufacture and control. Head reveals these methods of control, as well as the seeming impossibility of ever escaping them (although some hope remains for expanding or reconfiguring them)
Before considering Head in greater detail, it is first necessary to understand the Monkees. The Monkees were first conceived in 1965 by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who pitched them as "a young band having wacky, surreal, intertextual adventures that would trade on and draw its inspiration from Richard Lester's 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day's Night" (Stahl, 2002, p. 310). The members of the Monkees were chosen from over four hundred applicants, and were determined after an interview, screen tests, and "audience response sessions" (Goostree, 1988, p. 50). The show was made by people with relatively little experience in film production, and the actors/bandmates were largely improvisers, meaning that any given episode was at least partially constructed on the fly (Goostree, 1988, p. 50). Nevertheless, the show a hit for multiple seasons, even winning an Emmy award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement.
By 1968, the Monkees' popularity had already begun to wane, but their commitment to bizarre, counter cultural media had not. Head simply refuses to follow any sort of filmic conventions, breaking narrative standards left and right. The plot is circular, bringing the story all the way back to the beginning of the film just as it climaxes, while the scenes in between this return defy popular logic about what constitutes reality, filmic and otherwise. As the Monkees make their way through the movie, it appears as if they are making their way through the world of filmmaking itself, because Head is a pastiche of different film genres and styles. The only central theme running throughout the whole film is the Monkees' inability to escape their fate as fictional, scripted characters, because every time they attempt to break free from this overwhelming contextual control, they merely find themselves in a new scene.
Head did not perform well at the box office, nor was it received well by critics. Though it received some decent reviews -- the Los Angeles Times said it was a film that is "not trying to tell us anything new about modern life but rather is heightening our awareness of the how the media condition our perception of it" -- the overall response was negative (Thomas,…[continue]
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