Criterion Files #546: The Vulgar and the Literate of ‘Five Easy Pieces’

By  · Published on July 13th, 2011

The most difficult thing about watching seminal, groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting movies is that it’s impossible to see them, feel them, or experience them the way they were in the moment, before they became influential enough to seem almost unexceptional by retrospective comparison. It’s difficult to marvel at the audacious camera angles or fragmented narrative of Citizen Kane in an age where Gaspar Noe and Guillermo Arriaga exist, or be shocked by the expertly-crafted profanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a post-David Mamet world. These movies may remain strong and, in other ways, timeless, but even with the very best, the “moment” of greatness is lost by the sheer force of its effect on cinema that came after. Films, after all, aren’t made in a vacuum. They are the constant subject of influence, and rarely anything influences a film more than another great film.

Criterion’s 2009 interview with director Bob Rafelson is introduced with a quote by Roger Ebert, explaining the phenomenon of the inevitable failure of attempting to understand greatness retrospectively in the case of Rafelson’s second feature film, Five Easy Pieces:

“It is difficult to explain today how much Bobby Dupea meant to the film’s first audiences. I was at the New York Film Festival for the premiere of Five Easy Pieces, and I remember the explosive laughter, the deep silences, the stunned attention as the final shot seemed to continue forever, and then the ovation.

“We had a revelation. This was the direction American movies should take: Into idiosyncratic characters, into dialogue with an ear for the vulgar and the literate, into a plot free to surprise us about the characters, into an existential ending not required to be happy. Five Easy Pieces was a fusion of the personal cinema of John Cassavetes and the new indie movement that was tentatively emerging.”

The broad understanding of why New Hollywood should be appreciated is based on a basic assumption that films have an essential relationship to their context. The great works of New Hollywood ostensibly captured a moment, a sensation, an ideology, an experience, a sensibility, and so much more. This thesis sounds simple and agreeable enough, but in a way it also subverts an understanding of how cinema is often conventionally thought to be acceptably appreciated. For instance, if great cinema is great storytelling (an equivalence I find distressingly reductive), then implied in this assertion is that there exists an objective standard for great storytelling that should be transcendent of context: great films, in other words, should be timeless according to such a proposition.

But that description couldn’t be further away from why New Hollywood is so continually revered today. Titles from the era, or movement (whatever you want to call it), can certainly be enjoyed in any number of ways without context, but if the capturing of a brief but powerful cultural moment is what makes New Hollywood exceptional, then these films are revered today because of their preservation of that moment. New Hollywood cinema is not timeless. It is time-dependent.

Freedom Of/Freedom From

In last week’s analysis of Easy Rider, Adam Charles observed the evolving notion of “freedom” that informed the counterculture:

“Where most saw homes of typical American values others saw prison bars or shackles. For these individuals those titular films (and television programs) that dominated the national consciousness of the healthy American lifestyle displayed a dream void of expression or adventure. These individuals wanted to be free of as much enforced responsibility as they possibly could; and a movie that tapped in to that couldn’t hurt.”

I’d like to take Adam’s perceptive point a step further in connecting this sentiment with New Hollywood. Films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces did not only express this “freedom from convention” mentality only in the narratives of people who seek those freedoms, but rather the proverbial “revolution” occurred through both form and content: filmmakers exercised a similar mentality, that freedom is escaping from conventional means of cinematic expression and storytelling and seeking out alternative, liberating ways of doing so. As Ebert observes, not only was Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) a character that audiences and critics had rarely seen before, but the structuring of the film itself: mixing comedy and drama without regard the consistent expectations of genre, long and unexpected stretches of plot-less silence and reflection, the dreaded ambiguous ending.

This understanding is where the essential time-specificity of a film like Five Easy Pieces comes into play. Rafleson’s film remains quite affecting and, from my personal experience having seen it over the weekend for the first time, great in a way that perhaps defies words. This does not necessarily mean the film has aged gracefully. One major complaint about the films of New Hollywood, or simply the films of this time writ large (think, for example, of the overwhelming “hipness” of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) coupled with its unapologetic objectification of women), is the lack of strong female characters or great female roles despite the incredible amount of female talent available (it is perhaps out of this urgency that Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape was first published in 1974).

Bobby’s dissatisfaction with the (many, and diverse) women in his life is exercised as simply an element in his dissatisfaction of life and people ad infinitum, and the character is hardly situated here as justified in his treatment of people (he is frequently reminded that he’s an asshole, as the asshole protagonist was perhaps another breakthrough of New Hollywood), but Bobby’s desperate search for freedom is certainly at the expense of others who are not immune to his affect on their life and who simply can’t get up and leave at a moment’s notice like he can.

The Easy Pieces

Five Easy Pieces is a far more devastating film than Easy Rider, and that’s because it is by contrast a counter-cultural film that exists without the counterculture (in fact, besides notable exceptions like Easy Rider, the characters in much of New Hollywood cinema were rarely those whose counter-cultural sentiment was supposedly being directly reflected). For a film that specifically needs time-context in order to fully understand its relevance to the year it was made, Five Easy Pieces is a strangely anachronistic film, positing Bobby as a lone wanderer without an outlet or a group with which he can productively transcend a shared discontent and dissatisfaction. He is a case study in the imprisoning former definition of “freedom” Adam Charles referred to.

And this is where Ebert’s observation of the “vulgar and literate” aspects of Five Easy Pieces enter the picture, for it is a film that, in terms of both its structure and subject matter, distinctly separates its elements into the vulgar and then the literate. Bobby lives in a world where there is only low culture (embodied by Karen Black’s Rayette) and high culture (encapsulated by his family home and their enculturation of classical music). With such stark distinctions, the third option – of “counterculture” – neither exists nor can it even be envisioned. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s use of music. Bobby’s life as a day laborer, “the vulgar,” is accompanied by low-rent country music, and his cultured family life by the eponymous five “easy” pieces. Nowhere to be found is the popular music that fueled the fire of the early sixties and seventies, which was featured so prominently in the iconography of Easy Rider.

Bobby proudly bridges the two, illustrated literally by the famous image of him playing piano on the back of a pickup truck. But a moment that’s more overlooked, I think, is where Bobby briefly performs (before an abrupt interruption) a mock burlesque show in reference to his only paying job as a musician. This is one of the rare moments of Five Easy Pieces where Bobby has that unmistakable Nicholsonian smile. It’s not high culture, it’s not low culture, but a wonderful and irreverent hybrid of the two. Both because it’s fun and it gives high culture the middle finger, it provides Bobby a sad, reflective, fleeting moment of meaning before the interruption returns him to the sulk of social strangulation.

Bobby Dupea seems less a product of the counter-cultural sixties than, as Ebert alluded, a character of an early Cassavetes movie like half-black half-white jazz musician Ben Carruthers walking alone in the final shot of Shadows: a bifurcated character caught between two worlds, wandering aimlessly, but decidedly and confrontationally out of tune with his surroundings. Bobby Dupea does first play Chopin in the back of a truck, but there’s some palpable ragtime pulsating underneath.

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