Monday, July 17, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #170 - Five Easy Pieces (1970, dir. Bob Rafelson)

Why does this movie have a reflective hold on my mind and soul? It is flawed and dated, and yet, the underlying theme of a confused man’s search for meaning in modern America holds truer than almost any other movie of the era. Released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is THE movie that sums up the confusing malaise that settled upon the survivors of the 60’s as the far bleaker 1970’s rose on the horizon like the glow of an errant atomic blast. The secret to the movie, however is not the hefty cultural baggage it carries with it, but the career defining performance by Jack Nicholson and, to a lesser degree, Karen Black. Nicholson’s Bobby Eroica Dupea is a Russian nesting doll of psychological complexity, whose tormented path through life slowly reveals itself as the confused details of his past and the uncertain direction of his future come colliding in on him during an unwelcome family reckoning.

The movie opens on a Bobby Dupea who is easily recognizable to most of us: a working stiff with a dead-end job, a loveless relationship and a nonexistent piece of the American dream. He works in the oil fields with his buddy Elton, drinks beer at night and barely tolerates his attractive but dim girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto, a waitress with hopes of being a country singer ala Tammy Wynette (whose songs effectively provide much of the movie’s soundtrack.) Bobby’s life seems to be going nowhere, and when he quits his job we feel like this is just another step on his way down to utter failure. This first part of the movie is shot with a simple beauty that betrays none of the complexity of character that will follow.

We next see Bobby incongruously dressed in a suit and wandering into a recording studio in Hollywood. He is here to see his sister, Partita, an eccentric classical pianist (modeled on Glen Gould) whose presence immediately starts filling in gaps of our understanding of who this man really is. She tells him their father is ill and Bobby should visit. We come to understand that Bobby is from a family of musical prodigies, and that his relationship is fractured and removed from the reality he once lived. Bobby’s journey home to his family compound on a private island signals a change in tone and temperament for Five Easy Pieces as it changes from a study of characters to a character study. Once Bobby is back among the wealth, education, privilege and expectations of his family, his lifestyle choices, as depicted in the first half of the movie, become understandable. The Dupea family, including the mute, stroke-damaged patriarch represent everything the 60’s rebelled against: pompous, over-bred, classist creeps, impotent in their achievement, yet certain they are above it all. Bobby sets his sights on his brother’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach) and seduces her in an uncomfortable clash of cultures that signals a final break within the family. In the pivotal scene of the movie, Bobby pours his heart out to his unspeaking father. He breaks down and shares his feelings of worthlessness and regret. It is the single greatest moment of Jack Nicholson’s career and one of the most affecting scenes in all of American cinema. It is hard to imagine a person in post-euphoric America who would not be affected by this moment. This masterful scene illustrates the moment in every young person’s life when artifice and swagger turn to actual emotion.

As the movie comes to its conclusion, Bobby introduces Rayette to his family, including Catherine, and the difference between the two women is as stark as the two lives they live.  It is Bobby’s discontent that cuts through both of them with stinging realism - both sides are broadly drawn to the point of being caricatures, with Bobby being the believable “everyman.” Bobby’s experience implies that there was no answer to American life - the tradition of European-style intellectualism was ultimately as hollow as working in the oil fields to Bobby. The schism between 60’s and 70’s intellectuals and the common man was gulfed with expectation and disappointment.

Five Easy Pieces is much more than its plot indicates. In a way it is a turning point for American cinema and national self-reflection. The reality is that American life is simultaneously a rich and beautiful panoply as well as being totally dead at its core. It is Bobby’s internal struggle that has the most relevance to me. The scenes that have the most cultural resonance are disposable (the famous luncheonette scene); rather the heart of the movie rests in Nicholson’s quiet and understated portrayal of a man with depth, and his rejection of that depth for what he considers a “real” existence. It ultimately points to the hollowness of ALL American life. The film ends with Bobby once again running out on his responsibilities and leaving it all behind in an existential turning away from all expectation in modern society - free to be a drifter - yet shackled to his own sense of failure and meaninglessness. With nearly fifty years of American experience since this film was made, its enigmatic message feels more relevant than ever.

-         Paul Epstein

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