Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) is a daring film insofar as it only tends to resonate at certain points in one’s life. For instance, when I watched the film for the first time in 2006, I had just moved to Los Angeles after being accepted to UCLA’s film studies program. I envisioned where I saw myself in five years or, perhaps more appropriately, ten years. My life was essentially a railroad track: I had to make the correct stops in a timely fashion but, for all intents and purposes, I felt as if the world was mine for the taking. Needless to say, a state of mind driven by confidence and presumption is not the ideal when it comes to watching Five Easy Pieces. I couldn’t understand Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea, a man in the midst of an existential crisis as he feels himself torn between social classes, never feeling comfortable anywhere…even his home. Four years later, a lot has happened to me, good and bad (as John Lennon once sang, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans) and, re-watching Rafelson’s filmic scream of frustration, I finally understood Bobby. Five Easy Pieces is the cinematic equivalent to a Rorschach test. One year, you’ll see a rose; the next you’ll see a pile of shit.
Dupea begins the film working in an oil field, taking his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) bowling with their “cracker” friends. Yet, while Dupea looks like an oil rigger/trailer park inhabitant, there’s something amiss when it comes to his social interactions. He walks the walk but he doesn’t talk the talk. As the film progresses and Dupea discovers that Rayette is pregnant with the couple’s unborn child, we slowly discover that Dupea comes from a rich family and has been schooled as a classical pianist. As he notes, “I move around a lot, not because I’m looking for anything really, but ‘cause I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.”
The reveal occurs when Dupea discovers that his elderly father has suffered a stroke and he is beckoned by his sister to try to make peace with him. Bobby checks Rayette into a local hotel as to avoid clashing together two disparate social spheres. He re-focuses his libido upon his brother’s girlfriend (Susan Anspach). When Rayette comes to the house in a flight of boredom, life gets complicated and Bobby does what he does best: moves.
Re-watching Five Easy Pieces, I was struck by two feelings. First, I realized that this is the film that Zach Braff’s Garden State tried to be, but failed miserably at matching. Generation Y has yet to have it’s angst registered upon celluloid. The closest a director has gotten is Noah Baumbach’s amazing Greenberg (2010), one of my favorite films of the year, but that film probably speaks more to X than to Y. The economic recession, coupled with student loan payments and raising unemployment, has produced a culture of young Bobby Dupeas: educated, unsatisfied with life and slowly realizing that the path they saw themselves on was an unattainable ideal. It’s not an enjoyable part of life, but it is liberating if treated with the correct mindset.
Obviously, that mindset is not the one taken by Dupea or his most contemporary re-incarnation, Kenny Powers of HBO’s Eastbound and Down (2009-Present). Movement, running away from one’s problems, will only prolong the process of the bottom dropping out. Yet, the self-realization that life is more of a series of uncontrollable variables than those within our control does not necessarily inspire denial of responsibility but the ability to call a mortal audible. That’s the philosophy that Five Easy Pieces inspired within me during the second viewing. Life may not be what we originally envisioned, but that doesn’t make it any less worth living. For a film to beg those questions is pretty discomforting but, like the best art, it is a journey very much worth taking.
The AV Quality
Criterion’s Blu-Ray treatment of Five Easy Pieces is, like the other entries, pretty damn strong. The 2.0 soundtrack is well-presented as well, offering a dynamic albeit, limited, range.
The Supplemental Features
Five Easy Pieces has some of my favorite supplements pf the films reviewed in Criterion’s “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story” set thus far. The commentary with Rafelson and his ex-wife, production designer Toby, is informative while the real gem here is the short documentary “BBStory,” which chronicles the formation and legacy of the company. Overall, this is a great set and is quickly becoming one of my favorites of 2010.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.