Bob Rafelson - Director

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1933. Education: Attended Dartmouth College. Family: Married Toby, one son. Military Service: Served with Occupation forces in Japan; worked as disc jockey for military radio station. Career: Advisor to Shochiku Films on American market; also worked as rodeo rider and horse breaker, and as jazz musician in Mexico; reader and story editor for David Susskind's Play of the Week , late 1950s; with Bert Schneider created TV pop group The Monkees, 1966, also directed episodes of their TV show; with Schneider and Steve Blauner formed BBS Productions, and directed first feature, Head , featuring The Monkees, 1968. Awards: Best Direction, New York Film Critics, for Five Easy Pieces , 1970.

Films as Director and Co-Producer:


Head (+ co-sc)


Five Easy Pieces (+ co-story)


The King of Marvin Gardens (pr, + co-story)


Stay Hungry (+ co-sc)


Brubaker (d 10 days only, then replaced by Stuart Rosenberg)


The Postman Always Rings Twice


Black Widow


Mountains of the Moon (+ co-sc)


Man Trouble




Segment titled "Wet" in Tales of Erotica


Blood and Wine (+ sc)


Poodle Springs (for TV)

Other Films:


Easy Rider (Hopper) (co-pr)


The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich) (co-pr)


Drive, He Said (Nicholson) (co-pr)


By RAFELSON: articles—

Interview with M. Grisolia, in Cinéma (Paris), June 1973.

"Staying Vulnerable," an interview with John Taylor, in Sight and Sound (London), no. 4, 1976.

"Raising Cain," an interview with D. Thompson, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1981.

Interview with Rob Edelman, in Films in Review (New York), May 1981.

"Prodigal's Progress," an interview with Richard Combs and John Pym, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1981.

Interview with F. Ramasse and M. Henry, in Positif (Paris), May 1987.

"Blood Brothers," an interview with Nigel Floyd, in Time Out (London), 5 March 1997.

Interview in Premiere (Boulder), February 1997.

"Jack, Jessica, David, and Me," an interview with Geoffrey Macnab, in Sight and Sound (London), August 1998.

On RAFELSON: book—

Boyer, Jay, Bob Rafelson: Hollywood Maverick (Twayne's Filmmakers Series) , New York, 1996.

Boyer, Jan, Bob Rafelson: Film Director , New York, 1996.

On RAFELSON: articles—

"Bob Rafelson," in New Yorker , 24 October 1970.

Lefanu, M., "Notes sur trois films de Bob Rafelson . . . ," in Positif (Paris), May 1978.

Carcassonne, P., "Dossier: Hollywood 79: Bob Rafelson," in Cinématographe (Paris), November 1979.

McGilligan, P., "The Postman Rings Again," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1981.

Milne, Tom, "Bob Rafelson," in International Film Guide 1983 , London, 1982.

Grimes, T., "BBS: Auspicious Beginnings, Open Endings," in Movie (London), Winter 1986.

Turan, K., "The Wanderer," in American Film , February 1990.

Pernod, P, in Positif (Paris), January 1991.

Cinémaction (Courbevoie), July 1992.

Knepperges, R., "Männer-Leiden," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 27 October 1992.

Segnocinema (Vicenza), March/April 1997.

* * *

Bob Rafelson is a neglected director mainly because he lays bare the myths essential to America. He does not sugarcoat the bitter dose of his satire, as do Coppola and Altman. A distaste on the part of mainstream critics has caused attacks upon, but mostly the neglect of, Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens , which is his most representative film. Head is bound by the conventions of the teenage-comedy genre and shows few marks of Rafelson's authorship; Stay Hungry is a minor work that sustains his standard theme of the dropout—this time it is a Southern aristocrat who falls into the underworld, which is ambiguously mixed with the business world above. Something of a popular success, Five Easy Pieces certainly demands attention.

Five Easy Pieces was the first expression of the burned-out liberalism that was to become the hallmark of American films of the

Bob Rafelson
Bob Rafelson
1970s. Rafelson's film expresses the intelligentsia's dissatisfaction with its impotency in light of an overweening socio-economic structure. Either capitulating or dropping out seemed the only choices. The film's protagonist seeks escape, from a successful but unsatisfying career as a concert pianist into the world of the working class—first as an oil-field worker and then, at the end of the film, as a logger. The film centers on his foray into the bourgeois bohemia of his family's home—a sort of ad hoc artist colony under the aegis of his sister. The world we see is both figuratively and literally one of cripples. His sister's lover is in traction. His father is a paralytic. All are emblems of a pseudoclass, without a vital motive force, that the protagonist rejects, but cannot replace. The protagonist's sole contribution to an intellectual discussion among his sister's friends is an obscene comment on the senselessness of their phrase-weaving. In the largest sense, Five Easy Pieces is about the American intellectual's self-hatred, his disorientation in an essentially anti-intellectual society, and his resulting inability to feel comfortable with his capacity to think and to create.

The King of Marvin Gardens cuts through the American dream—the belief that every man can achieve riches by ingenuity. The protagonist becomes drawn into his brother's success dream. Rafelson sets the film in pre-boom Atlantic City—an emblem of economic desolation. The locale's aptness is affirmed by the scene of the protagonist's sister-in-law throwing her make-up into a fire. Her ageing face, without make-up, is seen against the dilapidated facade of boardwalk hotels. Her gesture (and in Rafelson's uncommitted world we daren't ask for more) of defiance is directed against what has been the female share of the American Dream: the male has traditionally taken for himself the power that comes of wealth and left woman the illusion called "glamour." Another symbol is the blowing up of an old hotel; it collapses in a heap like the dream of entrepreneurship the protagonist momentarily shares with his brother.

Rafelson's elliptical style creates tension and interest in the opening moments of thrillers like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Black Widow , and Man Trouble , but this style makes for occasional plot confusion. It is often hard to tell whether the ellipses are accidental or part of aesthetic strategy. In one instance, whatever the intent, an ellipsis poetically seems to suggest a shudder of horror at the human condition and a desire to drop out entirely from it: Rafelson suddenly presents us with the strangely clipped, abrupt walkout of the protagonist at the end of Black Widow. The films focus on what is the main theme of Rafelson's films of the 1980s and 1990s: betrayal from those closest to you, especially from within the family group. Rafelson cannot ever be said to have been caught up in the recent sentimentalism about the traditional family structure. In his filmic vision, he places no trust in the values found there.

Only in the unconventional pairing between the explorer Burton and a liberated aristocrat (exhilaratingly played by Fiona Shaw) in Mountains of the Moon does one find a positive vision of marriage and human trust, achieved only after the hero drops out from the competitive struggle for grants toward explorations and for credit from the findings. Burton experiences betrayal from Spekes, his boon companion during the exploration of the mountains at the source of the Nile River. While the film tries but fails to exonerate Burton of any deep complicity in British imperialism, it does pointedly show how powerful English interests seek in every possible way to harm his career and discount his accomplishments because he is of Irish birth. The socio-historical impact is otherwise weakened by the narrative. Whereas Rafelson's thrillers benefit from elliptical expositions, they play considerable havoc with much of the first half of Mountains of the Moon. Rafelson has failed to gain audience popularity and rare critical approval because he does not soften brutal political deconstruction with dazzling techniques. He devotes his attention not only to the straightforward expression of his themes but to getting brilliant acting out of his casts. He forces them to explore the darker sides of their characters—each a microcosm of society.

—Rodney Farnsworth

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