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"Five Easy Pieces"
Welcome to my page of notes on themes and characters in Bob Rafelson's excellent 1970 film, starring Jack Nicholson and Karen Black, among many others. This is not intended as a review of the film, but rather a discussion of some of the themes and ideas the film evoked in me.
I first saw "Five Easy Pieces" on television in 1976, shortly after I had seen "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed, though I found the film less "accessible" and far more "haunting" than I had anticipated.
In some ways the film seems very European in that it is more character driven than plot driven, and the characters themselves are beautifully fleshed out and "real". The plot is really just a device to allow us to get to know and try to understand Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson). We see his relationships, and follow him on his path of apparent self-destruction as he runs from responsibility and perhaps also from himself.
The film has been rightly praised for its performances, its depiction of genius/madness, and the "humanity" of the characters. I have, however, found little on the "net" beyond discussion of these aspects of the film, which I find disappointing and strange, as great films, like great literature, contain "messages" for us all. They do not restrict themselves to the recounting of a tale specific to the group of characters who inhabit the story, but contain feelings, situations and reactions which may be familiar to us all, and may offer something we recognise as true and which may be relevant to ourselves.
It seems to me that one of the principal areas of "discussion" in the film is responsibility (in various shapes and forms), from which Bobby is running away. At one point in his discussion with his wheelchair-bound father toward the end of the film, Bobby says he moves on not because he is looking for anything in particular, but because he is trying to get away from things that start to go bad. This is, I think, one of the key statements in the film and it is one which gives us a key to truly understanding Bobby's behaviour.
In his relationship with Rayette, Bobby constantly tries to distance himself from her and is often quite uncomfortable with her. He knows that Rayette loves him to the point of devotion, and she will tolerate his treatment of her. Bobby finds this devotion hard to accept because this total love creates demands on him in the form of responsibility for Rayette, who clearly wants to play a permanent part in his life, and pressure to reciprocate her love. By being unpleasant towards her, Bobby appears to be trying to force her into breaking off their relationship. In a curious (and existential) way, Bobby's insensitivity toward Rayette is actually the result of great sensitivity. He knows how painful it would be to her if he broke off their relationship, so he tries to engineer a situation where she will make the first move. Once again he is avoiding a "bad" situation by simply ignoring it (and pursuing other sexual adventures), or by taking steps to avoid responsibility for its end.
He is also fleeing responsibility in the form of his musical talents, or rather responsibility entailed in the development and displaying of these talents. Perhaps he is afraid of disappointing others (he certainly hints at this when talking to his father), or perhaps he is afraid of the constant pressure and loss of independence involved in the concert circuit. For further thoughts on this aspect of the film, please see David Dieni's thoughts below.
Perhaps one further reason might also lie in another significant aspect of the film (as I see it!) - class.
Bobby has opted out of a comfortable "middle class" existence to work as a labourer - why?
This element, perhaps more than any other, allows us to see just how torn Bobby is. By abandoning his middle class family (whose aspirations are embodied by elegant and classical music), and working with his hands (surrounded by feel-good and emotionally indulgent Country and Western music), Bobby is rejecting the rarefied (and vacuous?) existence he was destined for, and chooses instead to lead a "real" life, which presumably he feels is of greater value. Yet there are elements of his "working class" life he finds hard to bear. He cannot stand some of the more mundane aspects of this life - he wants more than Rayette (and possibly any other) can give him, yet he rejects the social sphere that can offer him more because of its implied intellectual (but vacuous) superiority. He is content in neither camp.
The scene in which Bobby converses with his wheelchair-bound (and mute) father is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and moving of the film.
As Bobby says, if his father were able to talk, they probably wouldn't be talking. This beautifully written scene does somewhat embody problems many of us have had in talking to our parents. Bobby tries to explain himself to his father who is incapable of giving a spoken response, thereby allowing Bobby the freedom to express himself without getting involved in any dispute. Here Bobby shows sensitivity and love, revealing an understanding of himself and his own problems, but also an incapacity to change and deal with his situation.
Our response to Bobby Dupea has varied from intrigue to sympathy, from contempt to admiration (especially in the famous scene in the diner in which he deals quite brilliantly with the "little man's" blind application of society's rules), but in the end, when he finally runs away from responsibility for good, we feel pity and hopelessness.
Bobby Dupea may not be an admirable character, but he is above all human and not easily forgettable. I can't say I found this an "easy" film, but it is most intriguing and watchable, with marvellous and compelling dialogue by Adrien Joyce. It may at times be quite painful, but as an examination of one man's questioning of his own existence and character, it is entirely compelling, and invites us to consider various aspects of our own lives - especially if we are critical of the way Bobby conducted his life.
Some illuminating observations from David Dieni:
I am currently reading the screenplay to 5 Easy Pieces and am blown away by its execution of the story and themes. I just read your essay on the film which is very informative. Everything I have found on the internet seems to miss one of the most basic points which lifts the film out of its 1970 cultural framework to a more universal setting -
The opening sequence of photos and scenes depicting the musical Dupea family sets up Bobby's character and his restless search for something in a way that is almost tragic and strongly resonates within us. He is the last child of a large family. He is clearly very special to his mother, who probably realizes that this will be her last time experiencing motherhood. There is a picture of a young Bobby asleep in his mother's arms as she looks down beaming at him. In the opening pages of the screenplay a special bond between Bobby and his mom is depicted. They are very close to one another. His mother is his teacher- he learns about music and the piano through her. When she dies, he runs out of her funeral service, unable to face the fact she's dead.
This is the point- Bobby's mother died when he was too young, when he still needed her. He didn't have the time a boy needs to grow towards his father and manhood. He was still deeply connected to her in the most fundamental way. And his mom is music. That is why he runs away from the musical life- it is too painful. The essence of music is the essence of his mother. Bobby tries to deal with the problem as an external landscape, not the internal landscape it really is and so his life is given to aimless wandering. Wherever he goes there can be no resolution. In a way a part of him has been frozen in time at the point of his mother's death and he cannot move forward with his life. There is only anger, frustration and a numbness to life that we can easily see in Bobby. When he plays the piano for his brother's student, she thinks it's beautiful, but he feels nothing. Much is made of the scene between him and his father, but of even greater importance is the ghost of his mother which hangs so close over him. We could even get Jungian about this and say the nurturing aspect of the mother archetype has been transformed into the negative side of the mother archetype- smothering and life suppressing. This archetype lies entirely within Bobby and is not his actual mother. Is there a resolution at the end, a realization and growth? No. That is the tragedy of the movie. Only a hope- by leaving his situation with Rayette for the unknown. By freeing himself of a deadend and going north - to a place that is still a frontier, a landscape that encourages introspection. That is the hope.
It doesn't matter what era of American history this story is placed - it would be equally valid and the hero would be just as restless, just as angry and just as seemingly selfish. Also - anger and frustration is something every man must confront in the modern industrial world as identity and self worth frequently collide, at least for a time, with society.
It should, perhaps, be pointed out that some of the scenes David refers to in the original screenplay did not make it to the final version of the film.
Than you for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value. I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss either the film or the contents of this page. I can be contacted email@example.com .
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