Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
This week we continue our adventure in Criterion’s BBS Productions box set, which you can and should read the history of HERE before you dig into this movie. Today’s film is light on production history, focusing mostly on the tone of the movie and some bigger thoughts about these types of drama in general, so I think having the context is important but secondary, in this case, to approaching the movie itself in question. Of the three movies I’ve watched so far in this set, this is by far the most approachable, the one that still feels immediate and relevant, and I think that deserves some special examination.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
My problem with a lot of movies about people from rural areas, or about working class people in general, is that it’s so easy to get wrong. We live in a culture where the people depicted on film are almost always affluent and successful, and why not? When you plop down to watch whatever’s on, you don’t want to watch a loser (unless you’re watching reality television, I guess, but that’s a whole other thing). So much of our fiction is about people aspire to as much as identify with. We want to see ourselves in the heroes, the good guys, the people who win the day and get what they want, usually love and fame and status. I don’t think this is a particularly bad impulse, but it does make showing something that isn’t that tricky. Nobody aspires to work a shitty job and barely live on a meager paycheck for the rest of their lives, even if that’s where plenty of us are headed.
All too often when movies show poor people, or working class people, or uneducated people, it’s done with a heavy handedness that reeks of pandering and lazy writing. Rural people are all hick bigots. Working class folks are either mystically imbued with folk wisdom or lugs and louts. Stupid characters are rarely sympathetic, the set up to a joke or a constant dumping-on for the writer and the characters to act out their aggression. I don’t want to judge too harshly, as I think those are easy traps to fall into and very human tendencies (especially when we’re shaped and reinforced by a culture that’s been doing this for decades), but it does make instances where people break out of these rules all the more precious.
Five Easy Pieces is just such a movie. Written by Carole Eastman and Bob Rafelson, it presents a vision of working class America that isn’t easily pegged as anything. They are us, as flawed and diverse as any other group of people regularly shown in our media. And the story doesn’t back down from the disaffected, often angry way that this group of people engage with a world that is mostly concerned with ignoring them. Whole lives tucked away in modest, run down neighborhoods and dusty, dirty jobs and aspirations that seem doomed to never come to pass—there’s a deep sense of restlessness, of frustration, that runs deep in this kind of class of people. Especially when they butt up against the Other, or get a taste of how everyone else lives, no matter what they end up thinking about it.
The star of this story is Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), an oil rig worker who seems to have done a dozen other things before. Everyone likes him, but few people know him, a man who keeps every opinion to himself until it boils over in fits of angry outburst. If that wasn’t enough, Bobby is already an outsider by status: he grew up in California, a child prodigy of sorts from a family of musicians, leaving home to go search for some mysterious something that was missing from his live. When we first meet him, it seems like all he’s found are endless nights in bowling alleys, nights drinking with his best friend Elton in his trailer, or coming home to his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a woman who seems to know she’s with a man who mostly tolerates her.
When his best friend gets arrested out of the blue one day for a crime he committed years ago, and Bobby learns that his father is sick, he decides to pack it all up and travel home to visit his family. It’s a choice that’s made with all the fanfare of someone deciding to eat at the restaurant down the street instead of the usual haunt, leaving town one more time for a person who has spent a long time doing so. Rayette, upset at being left behind, gets a pity invitation to come along. She jumps at the opportunity, and the two of them take off. Rayette is an interesting character, as she’s clearly barely educated and of questionable objective intelligence, something that Bobby seems to know and resent. But at the same time, she’s not a complete idiot, and there’s a sort of protectiveness he has when dealing with her, a sense that she’s beneath him and thus everything she’s subjected to is somehow his fault. It’s not as though she’s entirely defenseless, but when Bobby’s around she sure acts that way, and the two of them exist in an uncomfortable co-dependency where each represents who the other wished they could be.
The trip is a series of misadventures, including picking up a pair of women who chatter on incessantly about how little they like everyone and everything, which is why they’re travelling across the country. Bobby takes an instant dislike to them, as they seem to have reasons (even if they’re crazy reasons, ranting about how filthy everyone and everything is) for doing the thing he does with only a primal directionlessness to guide him. In one of the more famous scenes of the movie, the four of them stop in a roadside diner, where Bobby only wants a side of toast, an item they don’t have on the menu. As the waitress—another haggard, uninterested character just doing her job and not giving a shit about the concerns of this uppity guy—continually tells him they have no toast, he eventually orders an extra chicken sandwich (which comes on toasted) bread, and tells her to hold everything, including the chicken, and tells her in explicit terms exactly where she can hold it. When the waitress (rightly, admittedly) kicks them out, Bobby sweeps the glasses off the table and storms out. It’s an impotent act of rebellion, winning him nothing. Back in the car, his travelling companions are impressed, but Bobby knows the truth. “Yeah, well, I didn’t get [the toast], did I?” he says glumly, as angry with himself as with the world.
By the time he reaches home, it’s no surprise what we discover: his family is a bourgeois nightmare of its own. Affluent, eccentric, and deeply emotionally abusive, it’s some twisted version of the Bluths played straight. There are live in musicians working with some of Bobby’s siblings, people who might or might not be in relationships with them. The dying patriarch has brought a pall of decay upon the whole mansion. The kids (even in their 30s, they’re all universally immature) have been given the keys to the kingdom, and it’s instantly obvious why Bobby got the hell out of there. The entire family is poisonous, full of an upper class dead-end snobbery masquerading as refinement. As they sit in a parlor and talk philosophy and metaphysics, Rayette asks the obvious question: “Don’t you all have TV?” They look at her like she landed from another planet. She might as well have.
Eventually, though, even here Bobby’s restlessness gets the better of him. It’s a slow build, a tension slowly being wound around him and his interactions with everyone. For a moment, it seems like he might have a romance with his brother’s musical teacher, but that fizzles as fast as it flares up. He finally does what he came to do after days spent trying to put it off, and on a lonely hillside he sits with his unresponsive father and unloads all that’s on his mind: the sense of hopelessness, his desire to find and make something of himself that’s more than his family and certainly more than his dusty dead-end life, and his regrets for some sort of reconciliation that seems impossible now. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” is the best he can manage, and even that is choked out through tears that threaten to wash his carefully constructed affectations away.
In the end, it’s no surprise then that he runs again. It’s all he knows, and all that he’s comfortable with. This time, though, he cuts ties completely—driving home with Rayette, they stop at a gas station and as she waits in the car, he walks over to a nearby semi and tells the driver that his car was in a wreck and he wants to hitch a ride north into Canada. The driver shrugs, has him hop in, and pulls away, leaving Rayette and all the rest of his two lives behind. It’s the kind of downer ending that seems indicative of the New Hollywood, but there was never any doubt that this was where he was headed. Even if he learned something from his adventure, which is very questionable, he certainly didn’t learn enough to break out of the cycle that had driven him so far.
Five Easy Pieces is a surprising movie, not least of which is because of Nicholson’s performance. I’m mostly aware of him, as is most of my generation, through his performances in the late 80s and 90s, where he became something of a self-parody of himself, a grinning hyper-arrogant avatar of a slimy sort of swagger. But this is so far removed from that it might as well be another person. Nicholson is understated, eloquent, and nuanced. It’s a quiet performance, the kind of thing that relies on what is unsaid and kept back as much as what we see on the screen. It’s something of a revelation to someone with a different context, and it’s nice to know that his Best Actor nomination that year was absolutely deserved.
But more importantly, this movie doesn’t feel old at all. Yes, it’s now 42 years out, but it bears a striking resemblance to a genre that lives a healthy life now: mumblecore. And before you roll your eyes, let me explain. It’s a similar type of movie, a low key film (often a travelogue) with a bunch of strange encounters and a character arc that more or less resembles a flat line. They’re often low budget, shot entirely naturally, and made up of these segmented sequences as people drift from place to place. Most mumblecore movies include this sort of reflection on life and place, love and destiny. What’s amazing, then, is how much better Five Easy Pieces is than most of the genre entries.
Maybe it’s because you have actually writer/directors who had worked on real movies before, and knew the rules they were breaking more than some 20-somethings shooting with a consumer grade camera. Maybe it’s that there’s actual purpose to the film, a guiding hand that makes every scene say something and the characters almost always speak with impact. Having a script helps, something the oft-improvised mumblecore genre fails to recognize often to its own profound detriment. It’s a comparison that probably doesn’t really require a lot of examination, but it crossed my mind as I was watching the movie, and reminded me just how frustrating the whole genre is many times. For as many good entries there are (and there really are quite a few) so often it becomes the dumping ground for people who should know better, waffling self-indulgent movies that don’t even know you have to have a purpose to purposelessness.
Either way, none of this does anything but make Five Easy Pieces look all the better to me. It’s a beautiful little film, the kind of thing that seems like it could only exist in a time like 1970, where the enthusiasm for new social movements was starting to burn out and people who weren’t even part of the ‘counterculture’ started tasting the dissatisfaction that seemed to be in the very air and water of the time. And few movies do it with such elegance, such even-handedness. I don’t typically go into these projects looking for movies to love, but I love Five Easy Pieces.
A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9 Look up! There it is!
Drive, He Said (1970) – 7/23
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3