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ON FILM: What's the allure of Nicholson's Five Easy Pieces?

By Philip Martin

This article was published December 7, 2007 at 3:08 a.m.

stan-henry-g-sanders-struggles-to-provide-for-his-family-in-killer-of-sheep-which-can-be-considered-the-philosophical-opposite-of-five-easy-pieces

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) struggles to provide for his family in Killer of Sheep, which can be considered the philosophical opposite of Five Easy Pieces.

— Dear Mr. Big Shot Movie Man, So I woke up in the middle of thenight a few nights ago, went downstairs and clicked on the old movie channel. I watched something called Five Easy Pieces (starring Jack Nicholson and Lois Smith,among others) for the first time.

My thoughts/questions:

1. Why did anybody make this movie? I saw no plot. I saw no ending. I saw not much. Tammy Wynette for a soundtrack? What the hell?

2. So why couldn't I take my eyes off the screen long enough even to make coffee? I mean, it was one of those extended-play, few commercials, middle of the night things, and ... I couldn't stop watching ... What a great movie.

3. The diner scene with the waitress ... has to be the best diner scene this side of Pulp Fiction. And it was, what, a minute and some change? The 20-second-freakout-in-the-car-scene when Jack's trying to leave his girlfriend had me laughing out loud.

4. Seriously, what was the movie about? Why would anybody make it? Why would good actors read this script and think it was something they'd want to do? And how do I get a copy so I can watch it over and over?

- Besmitten in Bauxite

Grasshopper,

Thanks for making me feel old. Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970) is one of my favorite movies and one I also rewatched recently. I see it as a secret sequel to Easy Rider and think that there must be some generational disconnect - remember what Allan Bloom said about kids today disconnecting from the Great Tradition of Western Civilization and Culture? - because I can't imagine anyone who was sentient in the 1960s not grokking the flick. They might disapprove of it, but its message would be clear.

What we have here is a guy, Bobby Eroica Duprea (Nicholson) who has had the misfortunes of advantage, having grown up medium rich on an island estate off the coast of Washington. A gifted classical pianist who was something of a child prodigy, Bobby has rejected his privileged lifestyle for the presumably more authentic experience of being a trailer park-dwelling oilfield roughneck with a waitress girlfriend named Rayette (Karen Black) who sounds just like Tammy when she sings "Stand By Your Man."

Though Bobby has disguised himself as a working man, he can't deny his background and the values he assimilated as a child. He has his talent and his education and a genuine feeling for the music he has consciously rejected - remember the scene where he jumps onto the back of the pickup to play the piano? (The "five easy pieces" of the title refer to five pieces of classical music - two by Chopin, two by Mozart, one by Bach - Duprea played in recital as a child. A scene showing the 10-year-old Duprea in concert was cut from the film, but all five pieces are part of the soundtrack, balancing five Wynette songs.)

Bobby's rebellion is the freefloating kind, akin to the general dissatisfaction with everything expressed by Brando in The Wild One - a stance that someone once called the "unregenerate pose" and posited as the prime imperative of rock 'n' roll. He doesn't fit in with his bowling buddies either, and his contempt for Rayette is apparent.

When Bobby is called back to confront his old life - his father is dying - he re-enters this rarefied world, but not before depositing faithful Ray in a mainland motel. A more integrated personality might have been eager to show off his salt-of-the-earth lover, to flaunt her before the disapproving eyes of the society he left behind. But Bobby doesn't know what he wants, or - if he thinks he does - how to get it.

The famous diner scene - and it is very famous- demonstrates this. There Bobby seems to know exactly what he wants - a side order of toast - but in the end he fails even to achieve this simple goal. (A fact he points out to a hitchhiker he'd picked up.)

This tendency to cruelty is repeated in the scene - my favorite - where he plays Chopin's Prelude in E Minor etude for hisb rother's fiancee Catherine (Susan Anspach). When she's visibly moved by his performance and tells him it's beautiful, Bobby responds dismissively:

"I picked the easiest piece that I could think of. I first played it when I was 8, and I played it better then ... I faked a little Chopin. You faked a big response."

The movie ends the only way a discursive film like this could - enigmatically - with Bobby running away from a pregnant Rayette, presumably to Alaska. He leaves behind everything, including his wallet (an act echoed by the real-life Chris McCandless, whose story is told in Into the Wild). In context, this might be seen as less an abandonment than a refusal to participate in a society that one finds corrupt. Bobby can be seen as spiritual descendant of Melville's scrivener Bartleby, preferring not to participate in a world to which he doesn't subscribe. As Bobby tells his dying father, his chief impulse is to escape his "auspicious beginnings"; he moves around a lot "not because I'm looking for anything really, but ... 'cause I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay."

For a corrective perspective, I'd suggest Charles Burnett's 1977 film Killer of Sheep which has some of the discursive, deeply-felt ambience of Five Easy Pieces, but can in some respects be seen as its photo negative image. Where Five Easy Pieces is about drifting and the abrogation of responsibility, Killer is about staying put and standing up - about what it means to be a man, or more precisely an adult, in a battering world that, at the end of the day, leaves you too tired to move, let alone argue about a side order of toast in Denny's.

Mr. Big Shot Movie Man is a fictive personality who answers actual questions in this space from time to time. Write him at:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 39, 42 on 12/07/2007

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