Monday, June 20, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "FIVE EASY PIECES"

FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) 

Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Adrien Joyce (alias of Carole Eastman), Story by Bob Rafelson and Adrien Joyce (alias of Carole Eastman)



It's kinda surreal that when people think about the great director/actor combinations in film history, you never hear Rafelson/Nicholson brought up. I guess there's a few reasons for that, but despite the fact that he's clearly the director you most associate with Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson's kind of a strange director to get ahold of, intellectually. He became famous for creating "The Monkees" TV series and his directorial debut, and his first of five films he made with Jack Nicholson was The Monkees foray into feature films, "Head", which he, Nicholson and The Monkees co-wrote during one drug-infused haze weekend. His next film, was "Five Easy Pieces", which solidified Jack Nicholson as a superstar and put Rafelson on the map as a director, and got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It also birthed probably the most famous Jack Nicholson scene in film history, when he berates a watiress who won't deviate from the menu items and eventually insisted that she hold the chicken on his chicken salad sandwich, by holding it between her knees. It's a memorable scene. What's no so memorable is that that Terry (Toni Basil, yes, the girl that sang "Mickey), one of the two hookers they pick up after there car got totaled, along with her friend Palm (Helena Kallianiotes) who hasn't stopped talking in general, talks about how awesome that was that Bobby (Nicholson) thought to order the sandwich to get the toast. The whole sequence with them picking up those girls is actually, just kinda weird. It's kinda like, that weird scene that happens at the beginning of most Steinbeck's novels except in happens in the middle of movie, and-, I don't know is it a counterpoint to anything? As far as I can tell, the entire scene sequence seems to exist just to make fun of the more insane and unknowledgeable aspects of the hippie counterculture of the time. That said, there's a lot about "Five Easy Pieces" you can look at while watching it and go, "Well, why is that scene here?" or "What do I make of this?" "Why is he doing that?" "Why is she putting up with what he's doing?"

Nicholson is Bobby Dupea, and when we meet him, he's working on an oil rig with his friend Elton (Billy "Green" Bush) and it seems his life is very eh, jeans-and-t-shirt. He has a waitress girlfriend that he lives with and seems to just ignore, Rayette (Karen Black), his world is full of machinery, traffic jams on a California freeway, and country music in his mobile home, both sung by Rayette and Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" on the record player. Elton and his wife Stoney (Fannie Flagg) go out bowling at nights with Bobby and Raylene, which Raylene hates, but everybody else enjoys it, particularly Bobby, who leaves Raylene in the car, and goes with a couple girls who think he's a car salesman from television, Betty and Twinky (Sally Struthers, pre "All in the Family" and Marlena MacGuire). This guy could live next door to Roseanne Connor, or be somebody's ex-husband on "Grace Under Fire", but then, Bobby, while raging at the traffic in the middle of the highway, sees a piano on the back of a flatbed truck, and begins to play. We were told that he, and all his family were musicians, but he's playing classical music, what piece I'm not exactly sure but, it's clear that he's way more talented than we're seeing. In fact, that's basically the movie; when we begin "Five Easy Pieces" he's not one of the most intriguing characters in film history, but he is one of the most enigmatic, and the more the movie goes on, the more rich the character becomes. He's still an enigma, but one that we kinda understand by the end.

He finds out from his sister Tita (Lois Smith) that his father (Willam Challee) is sick and hence the road trip with him and Raylene to a Washington state island compound of his family, all of whom are classical musicians. His brother Carl (Ralph Waite) is a violinist, but due to a neck injury is actually now teaching piano to a new pupil Catherine (Susan Aspache) who Bobby immediately has a flirtation/affair with. His father's had multiple strokes and is unable to talk anymore. He's looked over by a nurse Spicer (John Ryan) that his sister's trying to get into bed, and is now a shell of whatever former self he was. The other major scene that really digs into Bobby's character, is when Catherine asks him to play something on the piano. He does, and she says it's beautiful and moving and he just laughs, saying it was the easiest thing he could think of to play; he's been playing it since he was eight years old, and there was nothing emotional to him about it. I think that's the key to the character, he's spent his life surrounded by the highest of upper elite, by classical music, and so much so that it now means nothing to him and he's searching out around him for something real, whatever that is. Unfortunately, he doesn't know what that is, and therein lies his tragedy. This is one of those movies where the soundtrack and the score, if you can call it that, so forcefully changes based on where they are that it's actually are located that you could almost confuse it for two different movies, and it is two entirely different worlds even if it's only two states apart.

The next movie Rafelson made was "The King of Marvin Gardens" where Nicholson played an Atlantic City disc jockey; I might argue on some days that that was an even better Nicholson performance. He then did "Stay Hungry" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but after that, some film noirs like "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Blood and Wine" but other than that, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of the importance of music in any of his films. Strange from the guy who created "The Monkees"; maybe that's why "Five Easy Pieces" easily gets singled out as his Rafelson's best. Sad though, he always good movies, but you did get the sense that he just didn't make anything he was emotionally connected to. Perhaps, "Five Easy Pieces' gives us a good sense as to why.
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