Saturday, February 9, 2013

Five Easy Pieces

FIVE EASY PIECES           A                      
USA  (98 mi)  1970  d:  Bob Rafelson

You don’t sit down and say, “I’m feeling alienated today, I think I’ll make a movie about alienation.”         —Bob Rafelson (director)

Shot while Nixon was secretly bombing Cambodia in the winter of 1969 – 70 and released in September 1970, the same year as the Kent State shootings, 100,00 people marched on Washington D.C. protesting the war, and the Beatles released Let It Be.  A 60’s counterculture film, Counterculture of the 1960s, one that reflects the mood of rebellion and alienation during the Vietnam war era, one of the first to be viewed by mainstream audiences portraying the dissatisfaction of an anti-hero while also using a new indie style in American cinema, where the minimalist approach in telling a story is a different way of expressing itself, a complete turn away from the action and Hollywood glamorization which shoots for overkill, like PATTON (1970) which won the Best Picture and George C. Scott the Best Actor (which he refused to accept) at the Academy Awards that year.  Perhaps the industry wasn’t ready yet to recognize and herald in a new era in filmmaking driven by naturalistic performances, but the film, screenplay, and two acting performances were nominated for Academy Awards and certainly left its mark with pitch perfect direction and a moody self reflection that continues to challenge the collective consciousness of the nation.  It remains a classic example of dropping out of society, as seen today in the films of Kelly Reichardt like Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), where disenchantment with the system overall may not lead to any specific new answers, but it does send one in search of new directions.  Shot by the brilliant Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács, a lover of naturalist landscapes and fresh off his work in Easy Rider (1969), his use of differing location shots exquisitely depicts the central character’s state of mind, as it moves from the oil fields of Bakersfield, California to the scenic Pacific coast highway to the upper class exclusivity of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, Washington. 

Displaying an array of skills we only see early in his career, Jack Nicholson gives the performance of his career in Bobby Eroica Dupree, a brooding outsider layered in an understated and downbeat realism that borders on miserablism and discontent, a gifted classical piano student who left his upper class background and traded it in for a life on the road, working the hot and back breaking work as a rigger on the oil rigs, living in a trailer, spending his time drinking beer in cheap bars and motels and bowling alleys while living with his girl Rayette, Tammy Wynette stand-in Karen Black in one of her more superb roles as a pretty but dim-witted waitress with a mouth that won’t quit, where at one point he tells her “If you wouldn't open your mouth, everything would be just fine.”  She smothers him with her undying love, while he prefers to keep a safe distance, making no commitments which he obtains through male cruelty and infidelity, regularly spending nights away from Rayette and sleeping with whatever comes around, which includes Sally Struthers in one memorable scene.  When his co-worker on the rigs, Elton (Billy Green Bush) lets it slip that Rayette is pregnant, Bobby flips out in a full tantrum, pissed that his life is suddenly in full view for others to pass judgment upon, especially since he went to such trouble to disappear to the ends of the earth where no one would find him. 

Around this same time he visits his sister making a classical recording in Los Angeles and learns that their father has had several strokes and can no longer speak, where she urges him to visit, perhaps for the last time.  Initially walking out the door without her, Bobby repents in anger and disgust when he realizes he must ask Rayette to come along, which turns into the comic sequences of the film, acerbically written by Carole Eastman under the name Adrien Joyce at the time (the entire film is really a connection of extremely well written sequences), as they pick up two lesbian hitchhikers, one of whom (Helena Kallianiotes) constantly chatters away about how the world is filthy and fucked up and a waste of time to live in, like a Travis Bickel monologue from Taxi Driver (1976), endlessly griping and complaining for the duration of the trip, a marathon of annoyance that is a marvel of comic invention Crap and more crap and more crap - YouTube  (1:23).  During this segment they stop at a local diner where Nicholson does his infamous chicken sandwich request to a befuddled waitress (Lorna Thayer), hold the chicken, all in an attempt to get a side order of toast which was not on the menu Five Easy Pieces Diner Scene - YouTube (1:53).  When his sarcasm gets them kicked out, his iconic reputation for being a wise ass was solidified. 

By the time they get to Puget Sound, Bobby parks his girl in some cheap motel while he goes to visit his family, calling in every few days to report nothing’s happening, while in reality, he gets the hots for Susan Ansbach, a young pianist who is studying music and also engaged to his brother Carl.  In little time the audience gets a sense of what Bobby was running away from, as this little den of secluded artists is really a picture of family dysfunction, superbly exposed by the roving eye of the camera which catches every meticulous detail.  When Rayette shows up unannounced after a week or so with the subtlety of a Mack truck, it turns out to be a hilarious contrast in social class, each more contemptible than the other, where it’s difficult to tell which one he’s ashamed of the most, his family or Rayette.  In the end, of course, nothing compares to the loathing he feels for himself.  Nicholson does have a brilliant monologue alone with his father Jack Nicholson: Five Easy Pieces ("Life You Don't ... - YouTube (3:15), where he attempts to make some sense out of his messed up life, where he continually fouls things up so bad that he has to run away from his own stupid mistakes, a haunting scene that actually includes tears, perhaps the only Jack Nicholson scene on record to do so.  When he makes his escape, it comes in the most unexpected fashion, a moody, existential moment where he takes stock of his life, all shot in a masterful style of picturesque quiet and understatement Five Easy Pieces (8/8) Movie CLIP - I'm Fine (1970 ... YouTube (2:12).

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