The Top of His Head:
Well before my 'wild days' I saw a little film called Koyaanisqatsi at the Cinema 21 in Portland. There's nothing you could even call a loose narrative in this movie, there is a monumental arc, but as far as movies go, it's strictly art. Nonetheless it's one of my all-time top-ten movies. The Top of His Head isn't in the same league as Reggio's classic, but it's a similar beast - a movie that will befuddle Joe Six-pack, but should pay decent dividends for the Liberal Elite.
Filmmaker Peter Mettler pays lip service to the multiplex-goer with a story that might make Big Lebowski fans wonder what the Coen brothers were watching. Head features hapless Augustus, (Stephen Ouimette) a daydreaming satellite dish salesman chasing a lovely performance artist who may be a terrorist, while being followed by three mysterious, bickering thugs. The cosmetic Lebowski similarities end there, as do any notions of comprehensibility or plot-engagement. Fortunately, if you're willing and able to hold on, the movie contains numerous sequences of rapturous, stunning beauty and an amazing music score by Fred Frith.
Mettler and Director of Photography Tobias Schliessler, while not monkeying around with scenes that advance the plot, produce sequence after sequence of beautiful imagery, sometimes relating to the theme of satellites, (more shades of Reggio) sometimes highlighting the sublimity of nature. The effect, of course, is to point up how far we get from the reality of the world when hypnotized by flickering images bounced out through cathode ray tubes by omnipresent heavenly satellites. The irony of being hypnotized by these images (like Augustus is hypnotized, say, by a slowly moving train) while we watch on our screens only deepens the intended effects.
Avant-guitarist and composer Fred Frith's score plays as big a role for Head as Glass's did for Koyaanisqatsi. Most movie scores underscore the action or telegraph what's happening, in the hands of Frith the score becomes not only a signifier but also a character, part of the plot, and as important as what we see. At times the music is insistent and poppy, such as during a weird performance art dance-party, at other times it's a sensuous drone, as when Augustus starts to fracture with the narrative - either swimming with the fishes or buying a car from an unctuous salesman in a mysterious junkyard. By the bravura finale, you may be checking Amazon.com for the soundtrack CD, which would be a great idea, if only you wouldn't be missing the pictures that at this point have reached a level of synthesis with the score that is astounding.
As an art piece, The Top of His Head is achingly beautiful and (after you make it through the attempts at plot) ultimately humbling, as a 'let's relax after work' movie, it's a flawed challenge that most people won't want to take. But cinema wouldn't be cinema if there weren't directors out there challenging us. What cinema would be is endless iterations of Wild Hogs, and that's an ugly, ugly thought.
The Top of His Head is presented in a color 16 x 9 transfer. Originally released in 1989, the film shows its age in this DVD presentation with a very small amount of film damage and plenty of film grain. The colors are never terribly vibrant, however there are plenty of nearly black and white sequences that lead one to believe that a lack of color depth and saturation was intentional. Overall it's not a shiny-look DVD, but of course the beauty on hand goes well deeper than the surface, and a crisp, popping picture may have been counter-productive.
Sound: Dolby Stereo audio is here not to accentuate the sparkling dialogue or elaborate sound design, but to do service to Frith's masterful score, and as such it sounds great. In general, the audio track is very straight forward, with no tricky 3D effects, even Frith's stuff is rather non-revolutionary production-wise - no thundering bass, and nothing much beyond your garden variety stereo separation, but damn is it good.
Extras:A decent load of Mettler-pushing extras is gifted to fans. A four page fold-out insert delivers a few critical snippets, as well as capsule reviews of Head and three others, plus Soundtrack, Book and Coming Soon and ordering information. Additionally, trailers, excerpts and synopses from three other Mettler releases are included. Gambling, Gods and LSD gets 17 minutes of excerpts, a one-and-a-half-minute trailer and a lengthy text synopsis with credits. It looks to be a fascinating and beautiful film. Picture of Light gets 12 minutes of excerpts and a synopsis. It definitely looks interesting, telling the story of a group of Arctic photographers capturing the Aurora Borealis. The Preludes DVD release includes three Mettler features, with ten minutes of excerpts spread between the three, and the usual synopses and credits. Ordering information that matches that included in the booklet is presented. You get a multi-page text excerpt of an interview with Mettler conducted by Wyndham Wise, wherein Mettler explains his processes, ideology and the nuts-and-bolts of his filmmaking. A multi-page text excerpt of a Geoff Pevere interview with Mettler is also there, plus a multi-page text biography and selected filmography. Finally a two-minute photo gallery slideshow of stills and behind the scenes from The Top of His Head is available.
There may be only one movie on the list of those that look like a cross between The Big Lebowski and Koyaanisqatsi, and The Top of His Head is probably it. Common sense would have it that such a movie probably has a very small audience, and common sense would likely be right. Even that small audience might find this movie tough going, as there are plenty of disconnect points where, for the home viewer, checking email seems like a better option. But for those who stick it out, the cumulative effect of the music and imagery culminates in a gorgeous sequence that will resonate strongly and pleasurably in the hours and days after, challenging you to take another look. For fans of art house cinema The Top of His Head is highly recommended, the shortcomings of the 'movie' side of things are trumped by its beauty, and you will certainly want to watch it again. I'll even challenge Joe Six-pack to Rent it, though I know he probably can't hack it. In the end, for the average viewer, I'll split the difference and call it Recommended.