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A Manufactured Image/With No Philosophies: Art and Peace in Head (1968)

    Trigger warning: suicide

    The Monkees were a hybrid acting group/rock band formed in the early 1960s by producer and director Bob Rafelson. The group and resulting show, also called The Monkees, ran from 1966 to 1968. Band members used their own names on the show, leading to a sort of blending effect between each member’s show persona, band persona, and real self. Throughout the run of the show, executives frequently clashed with the band, who at first were not permitted to write their own music or play their own instruments. In 1968 the show based on the band ended and the only film the band produced, Head, was released. The film was considered a flop, and the band dissolved in 1970.

    The film Head attempts to present the fraught issues both, within the band and within the music industry of the time, through a series of surreal and absurdist sketches and musical numbers. It begins with the mock suicide of all four Monkees via a bridge during a public presentation. There then follows a bizarre opening number in which stills from each of the scenes or sketches to follow are shown onscreen. We are then shown footage of a man being shot in the street, followed by footage of a concert. This violent, off-putting opening to the film sets up a slow moral decline, as the characters become more and more de-sensitized to violence and tragedy as a result of their time in the industry and the era in which they live. We watch as what a group of people who, two years earlier were young musicians and comedians, nonchalantly chews bubblegum in war trenches, places bets on whether a woman will kill herself, and allows their bandmate to be beaten in a boxing ring because the ‘money’s on [him losing].’ References to the Vietnam War, World War II, casual violence for entertainment, and the gruelling conditions of filming all serve to create a bleak image of what it was like for the Monkees both as a band and as a TV series.

    Source: Mark Sardella on Flickr

    There is humor of the film, however, which comes from the Monkees’ acknowledgement of their own existence as a product, rather than as artists or even people. After being shoved onto the set of a dandruff commercial and pulled away from walks through nature or time spent outside, the characters begin to fight back, albeit in a slapstick, choreographed fashion. These efforts are in vain. In one musical sequence, footage of nature becomes increasingly and erratically intercut with footage of billboards and advertisements, illustrating the encroachment of products and marketing onto people, TV, and the natural world. The effect of this is to obliterate any sense we had of peace within these characters. At the end of the film, they once again jump off a bridge and land in a fish tank, which is driven off a Hollywood lot as the credits roll. (The fish tank is itself an interesting final image, as it implies entrapment and being constantly observed for spectacle).

    Source: Picryl

    This brings up what is arguably the most interesting aspect of the film to study: the plot is essentially a time loop. The characters start and end in the water, following a bridge jump, and the events of the film serve only to bring them back to the simultaneous start and end point. This makes the series of stills from the beginning of the film even more interesting. The film’s plot is laid out at the beginning because the characters have experienced each scene a number of times before. They know from the beginning of the film that their actions won’t matter, since they will inevitably jump into the fish tank at the end of the film. The song nearing the end/beginning entitled ‘Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?’ is a lamentation as well as a musical break. The characters, and presumably the people they represent, have spent years trying to break out of the identities assigned to them by studio executives and creative decision-makers. The Monkees as a group of actors and as a band was not created out of a love for music or a desire to make art. According to the film, it was motivated by a desire for profit and a clamping down of control over artists. The ability for these characters to grow and mature as people is inhibited by their ‘manufactured image’ just as it is inhibited by the time loop. The TV industry of the 1960s prohibits the curation of identity as well as a sense of inner peace and desire to create, and this fictional case study Head explores that violent cycle.

    The relationship between art and peace is an interesting one, and one we have tried to document in this project alongside other visualisations of peace. The ability of art, and especially narrative art, to provide pockets of peace for individuals, visions of peace for communities, and even act as a catalyst for peacemaking is powerful. Head is inherently concerned with art and artists and their ability to make their art despite being inhibited by outside factors. These characters’ sense of personal peace is tied up in their identities, which in turn is defined by their ability to make art. When that ability is taken away – either by an outside force, such as a TV executive, or by a more surreal circumstance, such as being trapped in a workplace, imprisoned in a dark meat locker, or drafted for the Vietnam War – they suffer from their inhibited freedom and ability to pursue their passions. Head asks us whether personal peace can be obtained despite the stripping of identity or the limiting of personal freedoms, and whether commodification and depersonalization of society contributes to that stripped identity.

    What do you think?

    • Does this film help us understand peace and violence in new ways?
    • Do the connections drawn in Head between war and other kinds of violence make sense to you?
    • Does this film perpetuate or challenge de-sensitization? And what does it tell us about the relationship between de-sensitization and peace?
    • What role do commodification, marketisation and capitalism play in promoting or limiting people’s experiences of peace?
    • To what extent is personal peace connected to personal freedoms and freedom of expression?
    • To what extent can peace facilitate art, and can art facilitate peace?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum, you may also enjoy…

    Our work on  Pockets of Peace in Ukraine, Spring 2022: Care through Music, Pockets of Peace in Ukraine, Spring 2022: Care for Nature, and Jean Gritsfeldt, Berlin Fashion Week 2022.

    Arden Henley, December 2022

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