Sunday, June 2, 2013

Five Easy Pieces: The pieces are greater than the whole

Reviewing Five Easy Pieces for The New York Times in 1970, Roger Greenspun said “I’m not sure how Five Easy Pieces will seem in retrospect – perhaps not that good.” I don’t know how Greenspun would feel about the movie now, but watching it recently I find it has held up nicely through the decades, though its power has diminished a bit with age.

I first saw Five Easy Pieces on TV, sometime around 1976, but was familiar with its most famous scene even earlier. That scene – which scene? Oh, come on, you know which scene – is still a keeper thanks to Jack Nicholson’s slow burn delivery (“You have bread, don’t you, and a toaster of some kind?”). The “diner scene” has had a life of its own, and is an absolute must in any “Great Moments in Cinema” compilation. Still, it was more effective in the ‘70s when Nicholson’s tirade could be seen as a reaction against Vietnam, the Nixon administration, and any other target of the counterculture, rather than a restaurant’s rules about strict adherence to its menu.

Nicholson’s character – Robert Dupea – is a rebel, but what is he rebelling against? Family expectations, mainly. The product of an affluent family of classical musicians, he has squandered his talent, which we suspect may be minimal, anyway, in a series of odd, mostly blue collar jobs. He’s shacked up with a country music loving waitress played by Karen Black, who accompanies him when he returns home to visit his dying father. He’s protective of her, but also a little ashamed. While he attempts to reconnect with his family, he keeps her hidden in a nearby motel. After several days with no word from her beau, she arrives at the remote house, “a rest home,” as Dupea calls it due to its isolated location and the cloistered lives of the inhabitants. She’s treated respectfully enough, but when a female guest pontificates on life, she’s bored and mentions her “fluffy little kitten” that was “squashed” to death. This leads the pontificator to pontificate about the “juxtaposition” of words. Dupea, who has been shifting uncomfortably in his seat, loses his temper. “You’re full of shit,” he says. “You’re all full of shit!”

And so they are.

Dupea is full of something else - resentment and rage - and after a fumbled attempt at a sexual encounter with his brother’s wife, turns his back on both his past and present by hitching a ride with a trucker while his girlfriend uses a gas station’s restroom. He doesn’t even bother taking his coat, an overt symbol of his decision to abandon everything and start life from scratch or, perhaps, to reject it completely.

Directed by Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces is one of the earliest films from a decade that would prove to be one of the greatest for American film. It was a decade when the critics and the public were often in agreement on a film’s quality, hence the popular and critical success of such titles as The French Connection, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Five Easy Pieces has some magnificent cinematography, a terrific Nicholson performance, and a lot of characters who are, as his character says, “full of shit.” It holds up, but it’s a movie whose parts, or pieces, are now greater than the whole.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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