Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Ooh, a classic R. It has an oaky flavor and taste of occasional brief nudity with a pretty overt sexual content. There is some fighting and some piano playing. Admittedly, piano playing shouldn't affect an MPAA rating, but it is some pretty aggressive piano playing.
DIRECTOR: Bob Rafelson
Look! I do watch classy movies that bring me some credibility. I also watched this one because I wanted to watch this one, so nyah! I got the BBS Criterion box a million years ago and I got it because I was excited to see Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. It was one of those movies that I had always meant to watch. I mean, look at it! It just fits perfectly into what I snobbily like and unabashedly like. I don't know if those words are necessarily antonyms, but I've come too far now. If you've read and argued over my love for the other BBS movies, the one thing I never really dug was the lack of narrative. Five Easy Pieces is the first in the set to have an actual full on story. (I still argue that Easy Rider is more of a character exploration than an actual narrative, but I can be swayed on that pretty easily.) I'm not saying that there's much of a story. If anything, these are vignettes stitched together focusing on the same character, Bob played by Jack Nicholson. But I'm not sure if this met the expectations I had for this movie.
I will say that I liked it. My buddy Dan is really aware that I like too much stuff. I'm going to take his argument and go one step further. If something is revered as a classic, I tend to give it way more than the benefit of the doubt. When I was in college, I poo pooed a lot of classics. It was only later that I realized that I really didn't understand them at a first glance and learned to love them later. Now that I have that belief up front, I really look for what people find valuable in these movies. This sounds like I'm ignoring my actual taste and that might be the case, but I find these movies and books far more enriching analyzing what really makes them work. Five Easy Pieces works on a lot of levels. It takes the best parts of Easy Rider and focuses that attention in a fairly well developed character. There are these moments that are just absolutely perfect. The image I always have is the one that is on the Criterion cover. (Oooh, how fancy!) It's Bob sitting on a piano in the back of a truck stuck in the middle of traffic. It's a cool image and I'd like to take it at face value. It's a fun shot. But that scene may be telling of what the attitude of counter-culture was. I'm sorry, but I can't help but overanalyze...or as scholars call it: analyze. The idea of protesting traffic is an interesting one. Everyone in their cars are literally doing nothing. They are staring and they are honking. (I'm fairly glad to say that I haven't been in many traffic jams that actually have people honking the entire time. That seems to be a movie trope.) Jack Nicholson getting out of his car and walking down the traffic jam while standing on cars is just the right amount of showing without telling what kind of character he is. He doesn't care about social conventions, but is not angry enough to try to collapse the system. He plays the piano in the back of the truck because he wants to. When the truck takes him somewhere he didn't plan to go, he just goes there. It's 1970. We're ending the hippie movement with nonviolent protests. Jack, like his characters tend to be, is just angry and still upset at societal norms. He has no time for traffic.
My bigger beef with the movie is why Jack Nicholson always plays the same roles. Is he this person in real life? He always seems to be an antihero or a full on villain. His antiheroes are always so attractive because there's something amazing about only caring about oneself. But the more I view of this character that he is also playing in Five Easy Pieces, the more I just get bummed out about the state of humanity. Honestly, I'm really trying to think of one character who is completely altruistic that he plays. I don't even mind if he starts off as a good person and spirals into deplorability, I just want to know that he can play that. He's always an awful person. I just wrote a long hullaballoo over One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and I still love that movie. He's gross as get-out in that movie, but his heart ends up being in the right place. Bob in Five Easy Pieces really has no redeeming traits except for the fact that he can play piano, which he hides under a bushel basket. The one major criticism that his family finds in him is that he doesn't use that talent that he has. I hope that this criticism was dealt as an ironic trait on the part of the filmmakers because he is such a worse person than that. I don't know why adultery in a protagonist always makes me so mad in a movie. Is it meant to simply show that he is fallible? If that is the case, Five Easy Pieces doesn't really need it because his fallibility is over the top. Every time he has the chance (for the most part) to do the right thing, he does something evil. There is one moment when he chooses the good of a situation, but that is only because he initially chose the evil and felt bad about the whole situation. It's weird. I like bad characters as the protagonists, but there's not much buildup or reasoning for his mistreatment of humanity. It isn't even meant to be shown as funny so much as it is just bleak. And Jack keeps playing these characters! Is this him? I certainly hope not. I kind of want Jack Nicholson to be a saint, but I have the vibe that he's probably not.
This is me just spouting off at this point. Bob Rafelson writes and directs a movie with a selfish jerk named Bob. That had to be a choice. Lord knows, I'm not going to write something where the protagonist has my name and assume that there isn't some sort of connection. I know that Nicholson tended to be his writing partner on a lot of his films, so I'm going to guess that Nicholson had some of the choices going into that character. But what is Rafelson trying to say with this movie? Does he hold humanity in contempt? I think that many of the characters are fairly awful. The morally good character, Rayette, is vapid and moronic. Most of the other characters in the story are petty and selfish. There is one scene with a baby that just made the thought of parenting revolting to its core. The intellectuals are seen as pretentious. The sister is morally good, but is viewed as pathetic. I don't know why Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson has such a disdain for civilization. I wonder if that's playing through throughout the films. In Easy Rider, I commented that the movie started off with the Catholic family starting with prayers. But throughout that film, the filmmakers seemed to crap all over the faith with the exception of those characters. Head seemed pretty attacking of corporate influence in America and I think we can all get behind that. But are the BBS films just a look at how awful people are? Maybe we're drawn to how terrible people really are. I don't think that Rafelson wants us to feel good about ourselves. Rather, it is an odd acceptance of vice and misery as a way of life. Man, I think I bummed myself out analyzing this movie.
The movie isn't even bad. I enjoyed my way through this. I just kind of wanted some storytelling element. In my grad class, we often look at stories like this. The idea that a story needs to have character changes or positive messages is very old fashioned. I suppose I can get behind that. But there is a toll that it takes on the soul (I'm a poet and who'da thunk?) gets to be a bit high. I know, the bulk of movies follow a formula that allows me to feel some hope for humanity, but these movies can kind of bring me down. There are these moments, but I don't think they make up for the fact that Jack Nicholson treats his girlfriend like dirt and steals ladies from their men. It does make me feel pretty gross.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.