“Five Easy Pieces” - Bob Rafelson (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970) was a signal film for more than one reason.  For one thing, it was probably lead actor Jack Nicholson’s finest screen performance, and established him as a genuine superstar.  But more significantly at the time, the film became the flag carrier for what came to be known as the “American New Wave”, a time when a new, innovative, and more artistically oriented group of young filmmakers emerged on the Hollywood scene.  Five Easy Pieces was named the year’s Best Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, and it was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

Indeed, what distinguishes Five Easy Pieces is its meandering and anecdotal narrative style that still manages to hold the viewer’s attention on the main character’s troubled concerns about life [1,2].  This is because those anecdotal episodes are not just random bits, and they constitute an essential part of the main character’s sense of frustrated wandering [3].  This narrative cohesion may well have arisen from the fact that the film script is based on an original, probably semi-autobiographical, story by director Bob Rafelson.  The screenplay itself was written by Carole Eastman (using the name, Adrien Joyce), who was a personal friend of Nicholson and Rafelson, and together they must have fashioned the story in a collaborative and somewhat extemporaneous fashion.  It is reported that the film was shot in sequence (i.e. shooting in the order of the scripted scenes, which is more supportive of making last minute changes in the story) and that Rafelson could not decide on which of three proposed endings to use until the film shooting was completed [4]. Nevertheless, the script as it stands is a marvel [3] – one of the four Oscar nominations the film received was for Best Original Screenplay.

Another key feature of the film is its visual style, for which much credit may be given to the expressive cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs.  On the one hand many things look raw and gritty, as if we are getting slice-of-life, hardcore realism.  On the other hand, though, many of the characterizations are carefully enhanced exaggerations of social types, which emphatically contribute to a sense of the main character’s alienation.  In fact these depictions of eccentric American social types are part of the film’s charm.  America may have a wider range of social eccentricities than other parts of the world, and this film offers an opportunity to gaze at various slices of visceral Americana.

The story begins showing Bobby Eroica Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) engaged in the hard slogging of oil-rig work in the Bakersfield, California oil fields.  He and his coworker and buddy Elton (Billy "Green" Bush) are your typical working-class “good old boys”.  They eat in diners, go bowling, play poker, and get drunk routinely.  Bobby has a sexy but unpolished girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), who works as a waitress at a diner and who adores Bobby.  Although Bobby lives with Rayette and Elton is married with a kid, both men like to score sexually with other women they happen to meet at the bowling alley or at bars.  In fact, although Bobby is often good-humored, he can also be selfish and abusive, just to evoke laughs and to make light of the current situation he finds himself in.  We often see him struggling inside between following his immediate impulses and doing the right thing.

There is one absurd moment in this early account when Bobby and Elton get stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway.  Bobby sees that the stalled trailer truck in front of them is carrying a piano, and he gets out of his car, jumps onto the trailer, and begins manically playing a Chopin concerto.  What lies behind Bobby’s crazy actions only becomes clear later on.

This early part of the film wallows in the working-class milieu that seems to define Bobby’s existence, and it is colored by a soundtrack featuring songs sung by country & western icon Tammy Wynette, whom Rayette happens to idolize.   But things take a drastic turn when Elton  gets arrested for violating his parole and Bobby loses his job.  Bobby then goes to Los Angeles to visit his sister, Partita (Lois Smith), and we soon get an entirely new perspective on Bobby.

Partita is a concert pianist, and we gradually learn that Bobby comes from an educated and refined upperclass family of musicians. She urges Bobby to go to their family home in Washington state to visit their dying father, from whom Bobby has been estranged for several years.  Now that earlier mad scene on the trailer truck makes more sense: Bobby is actually a trained classical musician.

Reluctantly, Bobby decides that he has to drive up to Washington, and even more reluctantly, he gives in to Rayette’s demands that he take her with him.  Along the way, they give a ride to two women stranded on the road, one of whom offers a particularly offbeat slice of Americana.  This mannish woman continually rails against men for making the entire world a filthy place.  She is on her way to Alaska, because the white snow fields there suggest to her an absence of filth.  Although this episode seems like it is unconnected with the rest of the film, the manly woman’s  diatribe does echo metaphorically what may be going on in Bobby’s mind.  Bobby, we gradually learn, is continually running away from the world  – he doesn’t want to get stuck for long in any situation he finds himself in, because that will inevitably involve some cleaning up some of the “filth” created by life itself.

When Bobby arrives at the large Dupea family home on an island in Puget Sound, the film moves into a new sociocultural  dimension.  While the diegetic music up to this point has come from Tammy Wynette, the music from here on is dominated by five piano pieces of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin, to which the film’s title presumably refers.  The Dupea family is educated, accomplished, and refined, but they are no less eccentric than what we have seen up to this point.  And they are playing roles, too – just playing different kinds of roles than what we have seen so far.

In fact it is role-playing that is the key to Bobby’s problems and alienation.  He sees that all the people he meets are playing roles that soon become tiresome.  Like Kierkegaard’s aesthetic man, Bobby is always employing the rotation principle in order to opt out of the dead-end situations that inevitably arise [5,6].  It now becomes evident to the viewer that when Bobby was growing up in the Dupea household, he was always the impudent brat who didn’t do what he was told.  This made him lovable in the eyes of his older sister Partita, but barely tolerable in the eyes of his father and older brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite), who is a violinist.  Like his siblings, Bobby was trained in childhood as a pianist, too, but he didn’t want to end up there, and so he rebelled.

After dumping Rayette at a nearby motel so that her crass ways won’t embarrass him in front of his upscale family, Bobby goes to the Dupea home.  There he meets his brother’s fiancé, Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), and he is immediately attracted to her, and she to him.  Catherine is more natural and genuine than anyone we and Bobby have seen so far, but the cynical Bobby can’t help engaging in his own role-playing in order to attract her.  One time when the two are alone and Bobby plays a song on the piano for her, Catherine is honestly moved by his playing and tells him that.  But Bobby is too cynical to buy what she says and assumes she is role-playing just like he has been.  Misjudging her sincerity, he tells her that the two of them were both just faking it:
"I faked a little Chopin. You faked a little response."
Despite these missteps, the two do get together for a romantic encounter.  Catherine seems ideal, and Bobby, wondering if this is the authentic pairing that he has been looking for, asks her to run away with him.  But Catherine sees through him, and knows that a relationship with him wouldn’t work.  She identifies his basic problem when she tells him,
"You have no love for yourself, no love for family, for friends--how can you ask for love?"
The film’s ending is melancholy and memorable.  Bobby, now more alienated than ever, abandons Rayette and heads off into further isolation.   He is still running away.

Although Bobby is dropping out and can be selfish and sometimes obnoxious, many of us will be able to recognize something of ourselves in Bobby.  His alienation, like that of Camus’s Meursault (from Camus’s L’Etranger, 1942), is pervasive and existentialist.  He can still cope in the everyday world, but his engagements are invariably inauthentic and mostly playacting (as he said on that occasion to Catherine).  We might compare him to Francois Truffaut’s protagonist Charlie in Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a French New Wave film that probably influenced the American New Wave filmmakers.  Both protagonists are formally trained pianists who have dropped out and fallen into society’s lower scales.  But Bobby is more extraverted and loquacious than Charlie. Bobby can operate freely in most social situations, but they never seem to lead him to the satisfaction he is looking for.

All this is well conveyed through the superb acting performances in this film.   As already mentioned, Jack Nicholson’s characterization of Bobby is a seminal turn.  But Karen Black’s emotive performance as Rayette is equally compelling.  Both Nicholson and Black were nominated for Oscars.  Even the lesser roles are well performed.  For example, there is something about Susan Anspach’s portrayal of Catherine that persists in the memory long afterwards.

The key thing about this film is that Bobby Dupea is not a mysterious character.  We all know him and in some respects share his feelings and concerns.  The film is telling us that the mystery is not Bobby, but life, itself.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Five Easy Pieces”, Great Movie, Roger Ebert.com, (16 March 2003).
  2. Michael Dare, “Five Easy Pieces”, The Criterion Collection, (11 February 1990).
  3. Jugu Abraham, “154. US director Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970): One of the finest examples of screenplay-writing from Hollywood”, Movies that Make You Think, (9 December 2014).
  4. J. Hoberman, “One Big Real Place: BBS From Head to Hearts”, The Criterion Collection, (28 November 2010).
  5. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, (1843).
  6. The Film Sufi, “The Treatment of Love in Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or", The Film Sufi, (8 June 2011).

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