Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Dir. Bob Rafelson. Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach

As much as any of the promising American directors of the early 1970s, Bob Rafelson was a victim of his own hype. Five Easy Pieces is an American entry into “angry young man”-ism which twists the typically industrial roots of that very British genre into an upper-middle-class background for its protagonist. It is one of the great films of New Hollywood, one of the great Nicholson performances, shot with pretended effortlessness, and in the story I think you can see the seeds of Rafelson’s own self-immolation. Bobby (Nicholson) is not precisely a deep character, but we sure as heck are supposed to be more interested in him than we are in any of the women in the picture. Rayette (Black) is little more than a forerunner for Sueleen Gay in Nashville, although, funnily enough, Black sings much better as Rayette in this movie than she does as Connie White. Catherine (Anspach) is the good girl that difficult men like Bobby seem to be attracted to in movies like this one. Bobby’s sister Partita (Lois Smith) is a sister first and foremost, then a pseudo-mother to her dying father. Even bit parts, like the comic one for Helena Kallianiotes, fall into repetitive notes almost at once, as if there’s nothing really behind that woman besides her obsession with cleanliness. Women are divided into two categories in Five Easy Pieces—the ones Bobby can bang and the ones he can’t—and it’s a characterization that early ’70s Bob Rafelson might, if he were honest, have copped to in his own life. (At the very least there’s a whore-Madonna duality that is almost as threadbare in discussion as it is in narrative art forms, so we’ll leave off.) One doesn’t want to overstep that line of inquiry, seeing as Carole Eastman has the screenplay credit and shares the story credit with Rafelson; all the same, genre and hindsight make for a potent cocktail, and knowing that this is Rafelson’s only bona fide classic gives the movie an extra patina of sadness.

Bobby reminds me of Herman from Cabaret. (“You know the funny thing about Herman?…there’s nothing funny about Herman.”) Bobby lacks the animal humor one expects in Nicholson’s earthier roles, and this is certainly one of them. There is always a chip on his shoulder. Nicholson plays a man who has simply lost the ability to find humor or grace in any situation, embittered by years of resentment directed at his father. The scene where he has it out with the old man is something of a flop, really, one of those scenes you think have to be in the movie and which don’t add anything to it once they’re there. It is significantly more compelling to watch Bobby as he vents his spleen in tiny doses on the people around them. He knows Rayette is as dumb as a brick, keeps her around for the sex, and then makes her feel like a heel when she initiates contact. (It doesn’t help that Rayette’s eyelashes are like the gone with the wind version of Shelley Duvall’s in Brewster McCloud.) His best friend on the oil rig, Elton (Billy Bush) is a fool as well, a father who is on the right track to make more babies with women he hasn’t settled down with, and Bobby encourages this wild infidelity. Bobby double dates at bowling with Elton, and it’s a great vessel to watch his inability to take it down from 11. Rayette can’t bowl worth a darn, swinging her limbs wildly and probably endangering the lives of people a few lanes down, and instead of taking it in stride—y’know, telling oneself it’s drunk bowling—he gets mad at her when she hits a strike on her last ball. You throw frame after frame of terrible play, he says in that very Nicholson whisper, and then you get a strike when it doesn’t even matter anymore. This happens in the first fifteen minutes or so of the film. It’s ever so much more so from there, perhaps culminating in a scene where he loses his temper with a waitress while he’s on the road with Rayette and their two hippie hangers-on. The scene shows that he has the analytical reasoning to work through his problems, or to improve his lot. It also shows that he lacks the patience to live by someone else’s rules, that he is incapable of going along to get along. Given the movie’s production team and its milieu, it’s tempting to read that scene as a praiseworthy inability to suffer fools; in our own time, it feels like self-importance in the extreme.

Discovering that Bobby is harboring a secret talent, hiding a treasure like Fagin hid his own private stash, is the kind of thing that shows up in trailers and previews and synopses and which still takes one by surprise in practice. Having been turned away from the oil rig because they’re still drunk from last night’s shenanigans, Bobby and Elton pile back into a car and drive back home, only to discover what the traffic is like when they’re on the road at this time. Frustrated, honking his horn, getting out of his car and generally making a ruckus, Bobby climbs into the flatbed of the truck in front of him, finds a little vertical piano hiding under a blanket, and starts playing, unperturbed by a chorus of horns and shouts and engines and the thousands of other little sounds that hook into each other. It’s not some dinky tune he has in his head, either. What we can hear of the piece shows that it’s a classical piece written for piano, buried deep inside Bobby’s head, expressed with only token hesitation before he bows his head and explodes into the performance. In the moment, it seems like a personal gesture, although the rest of the movie deflects that interpretation. Bobby is not just someone who took ten years of piano lessons and is showing off for Elton; he’s someone for whom music, and the piano in particular, are signifiers of a past he has bodily cut off. His family lives on a picturesque little island in the Evergreen State while he works on pedantic, dusty oil claim in the unglamorous parts of Southern California. They elocute gently while Rayette and Elton declaim piggishly. Their fidelity to classical music is part and parcel of who the family is, down to their names: Bobby’s middle name is “Eroica” and Partita, of course, is a type of composition. On the other side of Bobby’s life, Rayette has a bad case of Tammy Wynette. (In one scene, Bobby and Rayette have a mostly wordless fight in which she feels ignored by him and he struggles with his noblesse oblige for this white trash girl he’s knocked up. The soundtrack for this vignette, in a whining blare over Rayette’s supine sadness and Bobby’s lean frustration, is “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and it’s hilarious.) The performance he gives on that flatbed is, in the end, for Partita and his father, a return to them. Absence is a presence in Bobby’s life, perhaps the single greatest presence, and when he takes the blanket off the piano and is drawn to it, rather than spitting on it or kicking it or jumping down, the absence appears like a toothache again. It’s no wonder that he doesn’t get off the truck before it takes the exit to who knows where. If there’s a reason why Bobby remains interesting to us despite working very hard to be the kind of person we’d hope never to run into personally, it’s in this scene, and it has much more to do with the feeling of being haunted than it does with the enigmatic talents he possesses.

The courtship of Bobby and Catherine is an interesting commentary on what happens to prodigals. Even if they are welcomed home with open arms, as Bobby is by his sister, they still have the stink of the pigsty on them. Catherine plays piano, goes horseback riding, is engaged to Bobby’s older brother Carl (Ralph Waite), wears silver-white eyeshadow that could not be more different from Rayette’s Madame Medusa eyelashes. Carl has a permanently sprained neck, and Bobby is Jack Nicholson and doesn’t have a sprained anything, and there are certainly vibes emanating from Catherine whenever she and Bobby are in the same room. The ultimate flirtation is musical, as it must be in this house. She asks Bobby to play something; when he plays a good but slightly off rendition of Chopin’s Prelude No. 4, she praises him lavishly. It’s too reminiscent of Rayette for Bobby, who dismisses her praise venomously. It’s an incredibly easy piece, he sneers, and I played it better when I was eight. Yet he continues to pursue her even after this misstep in more and more embarrassing ways until it becomes clear that she will not run off with him, and thank heavens, because no one needs to watch a woman “save” a man like Bobby. If he could have been saved, then he would have saved himself a great many years ago.

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