For a brief moment near the end of the 1960s, all the possibilities of American cinema were glimpsed.
It's that period (1968-1972) that serves as the focus for one of the best retrospective box sets of the year, the Criterion Collection's America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. (The six-disc Blu-ray edition is in stores now; the seven-disc DVD version arrives Dec. 14.)
As the traditional Hollywood power structure imploded, young, risk-taking filmmakers infiltrated major studios and, in the process, fused art and commerce as never before. One such vanguard was BBS, the infamous production company formed by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, which is responsible for overseeing and releasing 1969's Easy Rider, the film that fired the opening salvo in a cinematic revolution that would last nearly a decade.
The Dennis Hopper-directed "biker movie" about two men traveling across a country they no longer recognize is but one of the classics contained within America Lost and Found.
The set also features Head, the controversial cult classic that rang down the curtain on the Monkees; Five Easy Pieces, one of Jack Nicholson's early tour de forces; the Oscar-winning The Last Picture Show, a film that T Bone Burnett described during his recent visit to Fort Worth as "the best movie ever made about Texas" and The King of Marvin Gardens, a bleak, brilliant drama that hinges upon another terrific Nicholson performance.
In addition, a pair of never-before-released films -- Nicholson's directorial debut, Drive, He Said, and Henry Jaglom's experimental A Safe Place -- round out the set. If the box contained just the movies themselves, it would be considered a trove of riches for cinephiles. But, in the Criterion Collection's inimitable way, there is so much more.
Every film is outfitted with extensive supplements, from revealing documentaries to fascinating commentary tracks, which provide rich context for this extraordinarily fertile segment of film history. All of the films have been visually and aurally remastered; The Last Picture Show and The King of Marvin Gardens, especially, look immaculate.
BBS, which signed a six-picture deal with Columbia after the raging global success of Easy Rider, was allowed, virtually unchecked, to create the sort of films popular in Europe but which had yet to find a foothold in America. Consider the austere, restrained compositions of Five Easy Pieces or the Dadaist convolutions of Head, with its lysergic deconstruction of a prefab pop band.
These works are far afield from the blockbusters to come: Jaws and Star Wars would circle back to the grand, bloated tradition of epic Hollywood entertainment, rather than channeling the febrile, cerebral momentum of the BBS brand. Reality has a way of intruding, even on a business built upon fantasy.
But America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, an essential addition to any serious film fan's library, gives the glorious hurrah of Rafelson and company its extraordinary due.