Saturday, March 2, 2013

Stubs - Five Easy Pieces


FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Ralph Waite and Sally Struthers. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Screenplay by Adrien Joyce Based on s Story by Adrien Joyce and Bob Rafelson. Produced by Bob Rafelson, Richard Wechster. Run Time: 96 minutes. Color. U.S. Drama.

Sometimes when you look back on an older film, especially one that earned a lot of praise and award nominations at the time of its release, you wonder what all the fuss was about. When Five Easy Pieces was released in 1970, Rafelson, the man behind the Monkees TV show, and Nicholson, who co-wrote that same group’s mystifying film, Head (1969), were both in demand. Nicholson had received attention the year before in a supporting role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but now he was the leading man. While Rafelson’s career as a director would be somewhat spotty, Nicholson, who had been acting in films since the end of the 50’s, would go on to become a rich icon of Hollywood power and excess.

But watching the film over forty years later, one wonders what all the fuss was about. The film, which garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, thankfully did not win any of these awards. I can see why the film would have gotten attention at the time. While this is a linear narrative, it is also less a whole story than a series of sketches about a man who seems discontent for no real good reason other than he can’t deal with himself. He takes it out on everyone around him, in one way or another.

At the same time, the film spends too much time on the trivial scenes that don’t really move the story forward and doesn’t really come to any real conclusion. For a film that is only a little over an hour and a half it drags in places. We never really get inside our characters and the relationships the film sets up seems unrealistic.

Five Easy Pieces tells the story of Robert “Bobby” Eroica Dupea (Nicholson), a California oil field worker who is a classically-trained pianist and from a family of musicians. But that comes out later in the film. In the beginning, we see Bobby working in the fields with his friend Elton (Billy “Green” Bush), who has a laugh that gets on your nerves pretty quickly. Then Bobby goes home to his live-in girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), a waitress with whom he has little in common with, he dislikes her music, or little respect for. The two of them go bowling with Elton and his wife Stoney (Fannie Flagg) and argue throughout because Rayette is not much of a bowler. 

Bobby (Jack Nicholson) working in the oil fields.
Afterwards, while Rayette waits in the car, Bobby starts up a conversation with two girls from the next lane, Betty (Sally Ann Struthers, better known as Sally Struthers from All in the Family fame) and Twinky (Marlene MacGuire). Betty and Twinky mistake him for a TV announcer and Bobby does little to persuade them otherwise.

Betty (Sally Ann Struthers) (l) and Twinky (Marlene MacGuire (r) mistake Bobby for someone from TV

Between scenes of work, in which we’re led to believe Robert and Elton are old friends, and scenes of domesticity with Elton’s and Stoney’s child, we see Bobby and Elton sitting around with Betty and Twinky in someone’s living room drinking. Betty and Twinky are down to their bras and we hear Betty talk about some anecdotal event in her life that she feels compelled to share at that moment, though it has nothing to do with the scene or resonates with the rest of the movie.

Betty tells a story no one really cares about.
When Bobby and Elton show up drunk to work, they are sent home, which leaves them stuck in morning rush hour traffic on their way back into town. Restless, Bobby gets out of the car and eventually climbs into the bed of a truck with a piano in it. Bobby starts to play Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor and gets so carried away that he doesn’t notice that when the traffic starts moving the truck takes off in a different direction. But somehow, Bobby ends up back in town and at the diner where Rayette is working.

Bobby Dupea plays Chopin's Fantasy in F minor during a traffic jam. 
Bobby sort of finds out that Rayette is pregnant from Elton, though nothing is ever really talked about her condition for the rest of the film. Bobby reacts to the news by pushing Elton away and then quitting his job at the oil field. The second after he does, Elton gets arrested for a gas station robbery a year before that he has neglected to tell Bobby about. (So much for being old friends.) Immediately, it seems Bobby heads for Los Angeles. No reason is given, but he knows that his sister, Partita (Lois Smith), also a pianist, is making a recording there. Partita informs Bobby that their father, Nicholas (William Challee), has suffered a series of strokes. Bobby agrees to visit him on Pugent Sound in Washington state. Next we see Bobby having sex with Betty before going back to Rayette. Again no reason is given for the scene, but it just underlines what a rat Bobby is to Rayette. He packs a bag, just suits and shirts, and starts to leave. Obviously though, Rayette has gotten under his skin, because before he drives away he gets mad at himself and goes back to ask her along.

On the way, they pick up two women, who are referred to in other synopsis about the film as lesbians, Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) and Terry Grouse (Toni Basil). Apparently, their car broke down and they force themselves on Bobby and Rayette. For a man that has little time for the rest of the world, the fact he lets them come along is a bit of a surprise and out of character. The two women are headed for Alaska, because Palm thinks there won’t be as much filth there. Palm literally talks so much Rayette and Terry fall asleep (and so could the audience). 

Pot calling the kettle black. Cigarette smoking Palm lectures the car about filth.  
This sequence goes on longer than was needed, if it was needed at all. The only purpose seems to set up the film’s most famous scene in which Bobby gets into a discussion about substitutions on the menu with a waitress (Lorna Thayer), involving wheat toast and chicken salad. Needless to say, Bobby’s solution gets the four kicked out. After more talk about filth, Palm and Terry are dropped off. It is not made clear if Bobby has tired of them or if this is the place they wanted to get dropped off. This lack of motivation is a hallmark of the movie.

Most memorable scene in the movie. "I want you to put it between your knees."
Instead of taking Rayette home with him, Bobby sets her up in a motel with the promise to try to call her in a couple of days. It seems left to Rayette to decide how long she wants to wait and what she’ll do when she gets tired of waiting. When Bobby goes to his family home he meets Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), a pianist, the fiancée of his brother, Carl Fidelio Dupea (Ralph Waite), a violinist, who has suffered a freak accident and has a permanently strained neck. Nicholas is an emotionless blob being cared for by a male nurse, Spicer (John Ryan). Over dinner, Bobby is attracted to Catherine and later tries to find some time they can be alone. She tells him she’ll be free when Carl goes into the mainland for treatment.

Before he goes to catch the ferry, Carl and Bobby, with Partita watching, play a game of ping pong. The purpose of this seems to be that Bobby can belittle Carl and feel better about his wanting to bed Catherine. Catherine asks Bobby to play something for her and he plays what he claims to be the easiest piece he knows, Chopin’s Prelude in E minor. While Catherine at first scorns him for his lack of feeling, she nevertheless sleeps with him and wants to sleep with him again while Carl is away.

Catherine (Susan Anspach) doesn't really like Bobby, but she's just about to sleep with him.

Rayette, after two weeks, gets bored at the motel and goes to the Dupea house unannounced. Her presence creates an awkward situation. Bobby, as is his way, runs away, only to return, crossing paths with Catherine who is on her way to pick up some friends. The most annoying friend turns out to be Samia Glavia (Irene Dailey), who talks in esoteric terms about everything and belittles Rayette about the latter’s love of television. But Bobby defends Rayette and lashes out at Samia for being a pompous ass. Storming from the room, Bobby goes looking for Catherine, instead finding his half-naked sister Partita getting a massage from Spicer. Angry now without cause, Bobby picks a senseless fight with Spicer, who easily overpowers him.

Bobby tries to convince Catherine to run away with him, but she refuses, telling him that she cannot because he doesn’t love himself and can’t expect love in return. In what is the closest thing to a climax Bobby tries to talk to his father. He tells him that he runs away from life when things get bad so that they don’t get worse. Seeing how Nicholas is comatose, he doesn’t respond. Frustrated, Bobby leaves with Rayette and heads back home. When they stop at a gas station, Rayette goes to get coffee at the diner next door. While she’s gone, Bobby abandons her, hitching a ride on a truck for Alaska while she’s inside. We watch as the truck drives off and Rayette goes looking for him.

Bobby tries to have a heart to heart with his father, Nicholas.
Praised at the time of its release as the future of Hollywood films, thankfully that has not proven to be the case. I don’t have a problem with stories that meander, since sometimes the journey is the best part of the adventure, but this is a film full of unsympathetic characters that ultimately ends without any sort of resolution. While these sort of films make for great fodder in film critical studies classes, they are not really all that entertaining or ultimately enlightening. This is an esoteric joyride, which is to say there is no joy at all.

Five Easy Pieces came out at the time when the anti-hero was emerging in Hollywood. The anti-hero is a protagonist without qualities we usually expect in the hero: morally good, idealistic, courageous, noble, etc. Under the production code, Hollywood had been forced to make films about upstanding people, so when the code went away, films could explore the darker side of the human equation. But all that doesn’t mean that the anti-hero can’t also be sympathetic. If we’re supposed to invest our time in a character, there should be some way for us to connect with him. Even Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was portrayed as a victim of his circumstances and with some redeeming quality.

But Bobby has none and as an audience we’re not given any reason to care or root for him. He is a misogynistic self-absorbed ass, with talent that he’s squandered. He cannot fit in with the intellectual world of his family nor can he make a place for himself in the blue-collar world of the California oil-fields.

Rayette is too dumb for words and cannot see that Bobby doesn’t care for her only that he puts up with her when it suits him. She is the puppy he kicks, but expects to lick his face when he wants attention. Catherine doesn’t love Bobby but sleeps with him anyway. Afterwards, she can’t tell him enough about what a great man his brother Carl is and how good he’s been to her. What a prize she turns out to be.

Rayette (Karen Black) is too dumb for words in Five Easy Pieces.
Jack Nicholson is really good at playing Bobby. And except for squandering his talent, you have to think there is something of Nicholson in the character. To list all the films Nicholson has been in would take pages. He is a great success at playing misfits and outsiders and is good in lead roles as well as playing supporting characters. He has thrice won the Academy Award for acting, twice as Best Actor in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and As Good As it Gets (1997). He won for Best Supporting Actor in Terms Of Endearment (1983).  While his career has slowed down as of late, his last film was James L. Brook’s How Do You Know (2010), he can afford to rest on his acting laurels if he so chooses.

Rafelson, who would team up again with Nicholson for a somewhat similar story, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), would see his career get derailed by the popularity of such films as Jaws (1976) and Star Wars (1977), in which tastes shifted to spectacle and special effects. Rafelson’s films didn’t seem to fit in as studios shifted their attention from small films to ones that were supposed to hit home runs financially. He only made two more films in the 70’s, King of Marvin Gardens and Stay Hungry (1976). In 1981, he reteamed with Nicholson in a failed remake of the classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. (Note: don’t remake good films.) The last film he directed was No Good Deed (2002).

The title of Five Easy Pieces refers to five simple pieces that are a primer for piano players: Frederic Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor; Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major; Chopin’s Prelude in E minor; and Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor. All of which get played in the film.

After watching this film again, I cannot recommend it. There are some interesting moments, some gems of dialogue, but they are too few and far between to make Five Easy Pieces worthwhile. This is a film whose big statement is to make no statement at all.

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