Thursday 12 February 2015

1,001 Films: "Five Easy Pieces" (1970)

In Bob Rafelson's 1970 drama Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson plays Robert "Bobby" Dupea, a charismatic upper-middle class drifter who once harbored hopes of becoming a concert pianist; with those ambitions having long since subsided, he's lost himself in the middle of nowhere, making do with a job in the Californian oilfields and a relationship with a dim cocktail waitress (the incomparable Karen Black). As a bowling game early on in the film makes patently obvious, he's carrying her, and the terrible truth is that he knows it - which nevertheless doesn't excuse his callous indifference towards her. Having established its protagonist as at something of a dead end, the film watches - patiently, observantly - as Bobby is obliged to try and move on in his life. When his sole ally on the rigs is arrested for skipping bail (one of several males here just passing through), he grabs his girl with some reluctance and sets off upstate, aiming to reconcile with his ailing father.

40 years on, what seems so radical is how Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman give us a lead character who can never quite be. Bobby Dupea's middle name, not accidentally, is Eroica; he philanders in a Triumph T-shirt; Jack being Jack, he even has the grin of one of life's winners - but the truth is, for all the protagonist's restless, relentless movement, he simply cannot get anywhere. When a traffic jam snarls up his route home from work one afternoon - Rafelson turning the soundtrack over to blaring horns and barking dogs - Bobby leaves his stationary truck behind, climbs aboard an adjacent furniture removals wagon, and begins picking out notes on an old, out-of-tune piano - only for the vehicle to turn off at the nearest available exit, depositing its passenger right back where he began.

In seeing classical music as a civilising influence - and Five Easy Pieces is nothing if not the tragedy of an individual who once sought the permanency of Chopin, but now has to settle for Tammy Wynette - the film preempts James Toback's later Fingers, another feature about an angry young man faced with a simple existential dilemma that would take on greater resonance as the decade (and the Vietnam War) progressed: should I stay or should I go? It is, also, one of those American New Wave features to bear the marked influence of a nouvelle vague original: Godard's 1967 horror-show-on-wheels Week-End, as the overturned cars, rest-stop absurdism and psychotically boring hitchhikers of Rafelson's film suggest.

Like its forerunner, Easy is a comprehensive debunking of the myth of the road as somewhere one might go to find one's freedom - and, in so being, the film becomes either brethren or corrective to the endlessly celebrated Easy Rider. Rafelson's is the smarter, more critical film of the two, I think: where Captain America and chums are ultimately lionised for their martyrdom - to put it bluntly, the easy way out - Bobby Dupea is last seen heading towards a destination entirely befitting his emotional temperature. (Sometimes, the film tells us, there is such a thing as too cool.) The one time he attempts any real show of sincerity - driving off a ferry towards the conclusion, passing a prospective sister-in-law/lover (Susan Anspach) who's heading in the opposite direction, in every sense - he's told in no uncertain terms to keep moving, that he himself is holding up the road.

Staying put is no option, either, as the last of the film's near-classically structured three acts proves beyond all doubt. "He doesn't even know who the hell I am," Dupea rails, as his stroke-bound father sits mutely in front of him; with his past struck dumb, his rootlessness is very nearly complete. What Eastman grasped - and maybe it needed a woman to write this screenplay, to take one further step back from such a seductive central character - is that the A American movies had traditionally had down as for Adventure could also stand for Anomie; that the downside of living in a country where you're repeatedly told you can be anyone is that there's an equal, if not greater, likelihood you may end up being no-one, playing ping-pong in parking lots with absolute nitwits.

Even by the high standards of Nicholson's 70s output, Bobby Dupea sits among the actor's most rigorous performances, the wildness of the crazy Jack first showcased in Easy Rider here undercut by flickers of self-disgust and gentility, an understanding of the Robert Dupea who could have been, by the one who took a different road, and knows all his own failings in doing so. Well ahead of the curve of those landmark Vietnam-era features that sought to reassess the American dream in naturalistic fashion - and sporting a gallery of indelibly unconventional actresses through whom Rafelson holds off any notion of special pleading on his anti-hero's behalf - the film looks more than ever a founding countercultural myth.

Five Easy Pieces is available on DVD through UCA.

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