Since its television air date on February 2nd, 1971, the psychedelic-pop-sketch-video-experiment, The Point, has become a cult classic, and for good reason.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is the wasteland into which it entered. All through 1971, at 6:30 (Mountain Time) on Tuesdays, ABC aired its Movie of the Week. Though there were visionary contributions here (remember Dennis Weaver in Steven Spielberg’s Duel?), most of the offerings that year were merely forgettable efforts to pilot series (e.g. Alias Smith and Jones; Sweet, Sweet Rachel; Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law) or to advance truly dreadful and exploitative efforts at original drama (e.g. Congratulations, It’s a Boy!; The Feminist and the Fuzz; The Devil and Miss Sarah).
And yet through this unlikely medium, The Point – which was simultaneously released as a long-playing pop album, reached countless televisions across America and became a buzz in every schoolyard, almost immediately. A Peter Max-inspired, cartoon fairy tale, with a rollicking soundtrack, The Point had no antecedent, and combined a loose pop sensibility and a narrative of acceptance, tolerance, and the celebration of difference.
Figure 1: Surreal musings are the core of The Point. The Pointless Man says: “A point in every direction… is the same as… No point at all”
The story is rather busy.
In the Land of Point, all people and things are literally pointed, and the people shuffle around the pyramids of their land with points on the tips of their heads. A round-headed boy, Oblio (voiced by Mike Lookinland, best known as Bobby Brady), is born, discriminated against, and falls afoul of the evil son of a maniacal and powerful “count”. He and his dog Arrow get banished by the land’s king into the wilderness, a “pointless forest”. There, they meet a number of interesting characters, including the Pointless Man (with points protruding everywhere) a Leaf Man (who urges them to go into the leaf-growing business), and a Rock Man (whose groovy jazz wisdom is truly memorable). Here they learn that everything has a point. Eventually, the heroes survive to return home, are vindicated, and cause a revolutionary transformation where the points of all the people and objects in their world melt away, even while Oblio’s head grows a point.
Figure 2: Oblio and Arrow on their way in to the “Pointless Forest”; sketchy animation carries the film’s pop-art charm.
The production is simple and compelling. A modern narrator actually reads the tale to his son in the film version (unlike in the stereo album). The father’s voice has variously been acted by luminaries including Dustin Hoffman, Ringo Starr, and Alan Thicke in differing releases of the movie over the years. The animation is weird and sketchy, sort of like bringing a 1965 Jules Feiffer cartoon strip to life, with saturated water colors interspersed to create a sense of jagged pop art.
But the movie’s highlights are the musical numbers, songs written and performed by Harry Nilsson, and many well-known today. These include the quasi-hit “Me and My Arrow” and the spectacularly reflective ballad “Think about your Troubles”, among many others. It is Nilsson’s genius that sits at the heart of this oddity.
Figure 3: The watercolor style of the musical animations is especially rich, reminding the viewer of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine during its best moments
Domesticating Harry Nilsson
And that’s strange. Child-friendly family entertainment is not necessarily what one might have expected of Harry Nilsson, a recording artist who released the psychedelic-paranormal-carnival album Pandemonium Shadow Show in 1969. Nilsson was a reckless rogue, who famously joined John Lennon in a fistfight with bar bouncers at West Hollywood’s Troubadour nightclub in 1974 after too many brandy Alexanders, while heckling the Smothers Brothers (!). More to the point, Nilsson was said to have devised the themes for The Point while tripping on acid. That story might be apocryphal… but, it’s plausible. Troubadour fighting-drunk, tune-smith trip-head, sell-out anti-capitalist; Harry Nilsson is not really what audiences would expect to find on the ABC Movie of the Week in 1971. But there he was.
This is not to say Nilsson was an alien to film and television songwriting. Far from it. Keep in mind that years before he had penned and sung both “Everybody’s Talking at Me (from Midnight Cowboy in 1969) and the theme song from the TV show Courtship of Eddy’s Father (also premiering in 1969). He was no stranger to mainstream sensibilities and play-for-cash. The best comparison to him is probably Randy Newman (and they did an album together), who went back and forth between caustic pop and movies soundtracks for years. But Nilsson’s mainstream flirtations here would only lead him back to studio work in the end, with his peak experimental pop effort in 1972, with the album Nilsson Schmilsson, followed by a slow, weird, declining career.
Figure 4: Oblio and Arrow meditate on a bottomless hole, providing an excuse for Nilsson’s haunting song, Lifeline
In between these bookends came the now-famous TV movie. And to make a made-for-TV version of his strange album would mean some trade-offs. The price of admission, in this case, was a kind of taming of the reckless narrative style and musical focus of The Point. Having myself grown up with the RCA long-playing stereo album (the deeply worn vinyl is still in my possession), I know it as a work of catchy and sometimes-visionary pop music, clocking-in at a lean 45 minutes (whereas the movie filled a two-hour television slot, albeit including advertisements). The differences between film and album have always been notable to me.
Figure 5: The author is still in possession of his original, vintage copy of Harry Nilsson’s 1972 RCA long-playing record album, The Point. My first “rock” album.
First among these is the obvious fact that the songs have absolutely no relationship to the narrative. This is a loose collection of clever, often-challenging, but always-catchy 3-minute radio numbers, strung together – by force less than art – into a story. In this, the cartoon is much like the Beatles’ movies in any number of ways. Taking already-written music, ordering it into a semi-coherent series, and narrating the pieces between with care, the album goes from simple record to: concept.
The movie must force these even harder into something like narrative structure, with the results feeling random and scattershot (more Magical Mystery Tour than Yellow Submarine). For kids, it’s possible the cartoon story is more fun than the disconnected music; for me and many other adults, I’d guess, the reverse is true. The music is still fun and trippy, but the story feels forced, figure-wagging, and somewhat incoherent.
The Moral is Beside The Point
This is mostly because the moral themes of the cartoon don’t make too much sense. The main point of the film, of course, is laudable and transparent: treat people well, don’t discriminate against folks who are different, accept all humanity. That’s all really good.
But beyond this, we have all kinds of contradictory and murky quasi-Buddhist meditations. We meet characters like the Leaf Man who tell us to embrace a disciplined kind of natural capitalism, while others, like the three bouncing “Fat Sisters” seem to point to happy excess. All the while the contradictory Pointed Man seems to spout Alice in Wonderland contradictions that defy logic, merely to seem clever, but which mostly seem to be hunting for some justification. And the story’s end, in which Oblio is rewarded for his journeys by growing a point on his head, even while the townspeople lose theirs, is quite simply confused. Only the lengthy conversation with the Rock Man seems to carry any philosophical punch.
Figure 6: The Rock Man: “The thing is, you see what you want to see, you hear what you want to hear”
The thing is, all these moral points seem totally uninteresting in retrospect, as the morals from all stories eventually do.
After all, the story of Little Red Riding Hood changed very little over the centuries, even while its imposed moral shifted as a transient, movable cultural feast: “Girls beware” in 1790, gives way to “Don’t mess with strangers” in 1890, and, in turn, to “Girl power” by 1990. The conclusions we are told to draw from this same folk tale drifted with time. But do we remember any of these? No. What we do remember, which makes the story so special: a wolf in drag.
And so it is with The Point. The sketchy animation, the rich psychedelia of the style, the layered riffs of the music, and the catchy refrains of the songs all linger on decades later, after the incoherent “lessons” of the tale fade into obscurity.
The result is patchy, but probably resonant. Indeed, would we remember these excellent tunes today without the effort to make them a story? As much as I love this record, I would think not. Moreover, would casual viewers remember this concept album without the cartoon? Even less likely.
So, in the end, The Point is a great little piece of unlikely animated entertainment, which opens the door onto Harry Nilsson, whose career is one of great ingenious musical survival, bridging the era of turbulent 1968 across to grim 1972, all the way to the upheavals of 2016.
The movie is good for old men and their sons, in short, so many years later.
Chances Alexander will enjoy this film: Good.