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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

I honestly believe that this is one of the best American films ever produced. The only problem? Most people have never even heard of it. I could be wrong in that fact, but I can count the amount of people I know who have seen it within ten fingers. Sure that makes me bad at statistics but you're picking up what is put down here. Upon first glance the film is a very simple tale but as things unfold it becomes much more complex, revealing much much more than you thought you were in for. Every time I watch this I realize just how magical films of this era can be.


For once I can say I am actually pleased that a film trailer falls short of the mark in telling us what exactly a given film is about. Five Easy Pieces is a simple film but loaded with complex things, something many modern films utterly lack. Plot synopsis you say? Fair enough: Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a seemingly simple blue collar oil field worker. He drinks beer with his buddies, plays poker, goes bowling, cheats on his girlfriend- you know, the usual. But for all of this image, Robert is actually a former child prodigy pianist, and for reasons unbeknownst to us, has turned his back on his past. After quitting his job and briefly taking off to Los Angeles, his older sister Partitia (Lois Smith) tells him that his father is tremendously ill after having strokes. Bobby sets off with Rayette (who through his friend he finds out is pregnant) to his family home in Washington, but to what end?

I admit I did water that down a little but in my everlasting zeal to not give each and every thing away in a film I truly love gets the better of me. This film is not always 100% serious but still is. I say this because there's a strange interlude on the way to Washington where Bobby and Rayette pick up two women (one played by Toni Basil- known for the 80's hit "Mickey") on their way to alaska. All they talk about is environmentalism and filth. I have a thing for serious messages delivered via comedy and I think they really hit the nail on the head. I won't post any clips of that to ruin it for you, but I just have to put in the infamous diner scene where Nicholson displays his supreme sarcastic abilities to their fullest.


I find it hard to believe that a diner wouldn't offer toast but the social context is obvious. So obvious in fact that I won't explain it, because if you're clever enough to be reading this far you probably already get it. But enough about shenanigans, this film has some truly fine acting from all members involved. I can't find one character that is cardboard for so much as a millisecond anywhere in the picture. How Karen Black never got more attention after being Rayette I'll never know (she of course has a terrific back catalog of films to boast of regardless) but after seeing her in this movie you realize she has tremendous acting ability. Susan Anspach (who plays his brother's fiancee') should not be overlooked either. She is a reminder of what Bobby could have if only he would allow himself to love himself, and her lines are so matter of fact I nearly burst into tears from the truth in them.

One really has to hand it to Nicholson as well as he is in top form here. Sure Chinatown is amazing but I feel this is his best effort, and the monologue he has with his disabled father is the clincher. I could post that for you as it is on youtube, but I would prefer you see it in its proper place in the film. Bobby is a man who cannot and will not accept the world as it is, and finds hiding and running away from his problems a more acceptable solution than owning up to them. He both cares and refuses to care. Where this mode of living will take him nobody knows, but such a misanthropic modus operandi tends to catch up with you sooner or later. To Bobby Dupea, everything truly is nothing at all.

One thing I regret not being able to post for you (maybe later but as I have no mp3 turntable so you'll have to wait indefinitely) is the soundtrack. It is a strange mixture of Tammy Wynette tracks mixed with the "five easy pieces" (from an early script reference left out of the finished picture) by Chopin, Bach, and Mozart. Also rare for a soundtrack of its era are loads of dialogue from the film, both as stand alone tracks and as intros and outros to several songs. Unfortunately the rather obscure nature of this film means it will likely never receive a CD release but thankfully the LP can be had for 2 dollars US if you know where to look. Anybody who likes country music of the era and Chopin like I do should love it.

For the sake of reference I will throw in a picture of it below:

Why see a film about a man who cannot be loved because he refuses to love himself? That is up to you to decide. The 70's in American cinema were touched by the misanthropy that lay underneath the nation's collective consciousness. By 1970 the hippie movement was winding down from their stupor and the counter culture started to look inward on itself, and I am glad films like this were the result of that soul searching. One can only talk about peace and love for so long before you realize that it starts from within you. I think it is a period for films that we will never see again, at least not in the way it was the first time around. Sure the tag line on the DVD cover is a bit lame (and I sincerely hope it wasn't used on any theatrical posters at the time), but don't let that deter you should you find this lying around in a Safeway store like I did.


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