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Five Easy Pieces
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Adrien Joyce (story by Adrien Joyce and Bob Rafelson)
Stars: Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea), Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto), Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Oost), Lois Smith (Partita Dupea), Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea), Billy “Green” Bush (Elton), Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia), Toni Basil (Terry Grouse), Lorna Thayer (Waitress), Richard Stahl (Recording Engineer), Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca), William Challee (Nicholas Dupea), John P. Ryan (Spicer), Fannie Flagg (Stoney), Marlena MacGuire (Twinky), Sally Struthers (Betty)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1970
Country: U.S.
Five Easy Pieces Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Five Easy Pieces A character study as opaque as it is penetrating, Five Easy Pieces was the second film to emerge from BBS, the independent production company started in the mid-1960s by producer Bert Schneider and producer/director Bob Rafelson (it was originally called Raybert before they were joined by Screen Gems executive Steve Blauner). After the massive success of their first film, the counterculture road movie Easy Rider (1969), BBS struck a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures that allowed them complete control of their films (everything from script, to casting, to final cut), as long as they kept the budget under $1 million. It was an unprecedented arrangement for an upstart production company and a major Hollywood studio, but it worked because BBS so fully embodied the new wave of American cinema: personal, political, and intense, not to mention youth-oriented. It was a new era, and Five Easy Pieces was definitive proof that the tides were turning.

The film plays as a kind of companion piece to Easy Rider, at least thematically and narratively, although their differences are as instructive as their similarities. Both are essentially road movies featuring disaffected young protagonists searching from some kind of place to call their own, and both convey the same fundamental message that the frontier is closed, there is nowhere left to go, and no place is home. While Easy Rider concludes unambiguously with violent death, Five Easy Pieces is open-ended, suggesting that its unsettled antihero is doomed to a life of perpetual wandering, moving across the American landscape with no real hope of ever finding himself because, as the film suggests, there is nothing to find. He is an empty shell, a reflection of the discontent that had seized the nation by the end of the 1960s, and the fact that he doesn’t stand out from the crowd with long hair and beads ala Easy Rider’s Billy and Captain America is a crucial point: Dissatisfaction was creeping out of the counterculture and snaking its way through the middle class, leaving chaos in its wake.

The film’s protagonist is Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), who we first meet working in an oil field in Bakersfield, California. On the surface, Bobby appears to be a typical denizen of the blue-collar working class. He lives with his pregnant girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a genial dim bulb who works as a waitress and endures Bobby’s self-centeredness and bursts of anger and rejection because he represents the extent of her prospects. He goes bowling, drinks beer, and listens to country music, yet nothing in his life appears to give him any sense of satisfaction. There is great internal turmoil in Bobby, but because he is loath to express himself except when his anger and frustration finally boil over, he remains insistently enigmatic, a closed circuit of resentment that is both sad and deplorable.

The film shifts halfway through when Bobby learns that his father has been substantially debilitated by a stroke, which compels him drive to his familial home in upstate Washington (Rayette emotionally bullies him into taking her with him, the only kind of power she is ever allowed to wield). It is here that we learn of Bobby’s backstory, which is quite different from what we might have expected. Rather than being the child of the working class, he is one of three gifted siblings from a wealthy, erudite family of musicians. Bobby’s father, now mute and wheelchair-bound, was a great concert pianist and teacher, a path that his pompous older brother Carl (Ralph Waite) is actively pursuing. Bobby’s sister Partita (Lois Smith), also a pianist, is the closest character to him, but even she can never get too close because Bobby eventually rejects all human contact, even as he pursues is aggressively. Bobby’s sense of connection is always surface, expressed primarily in terms of sexual attraction and conquest, which is why it is not terribly surprising that he immediately begins to pursue Carl’s young, headstrong fiancée Catherine (Susan Anspach). We are left to wonder, though, why a woman as intelligent and willful as Catherine would be attracted to Bobby and susceptible to his advances. The film suggests that perhaps she is just as discontented as he is, but does a better job of putting up a front, convincing herself that a staid life with Carl is the path to happiness. Bobby, however, simply resists any form of actual human connection, which is epitomized in the scene in which he plays a piece of Chopin for Catherine and then rejects her emotional response to it because he can’t imagine that it could possibly be genuine.

As written by Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) and directed by Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces is American Antonioni, with its associations between characters and landscapes and its willingness to subvert conventional narrative for character exploration (the irony, of course, is that Antonioni made a film in the U.S. that very same year, Zabriskie Point, which bombed with audiences and critics because it was such a naked attempt to emulate the American counterculture by a European who clearly didn’t fully understand it). It is also very much the modern heir to Italian neorealism, with its insistence on actual locations and a focus on common people, the kind of characters that the Hollywood studio system tended to either ignore or inflate into unrecognizable proportions (Laszlo Kovac’s gorgeous cinematography, on the other hand, is decidedly non-neorealistic).

Director Bob Rafelson’s only prior feature was Head (1968), a subversive, experimental collage starring the Monkees, a pop quartet he had helped put together for television in 1966. Thus, there was nothing in his previous work to suggest that he was capable of handling a somber character study like Five Easy Pieces, which explains why there was some resistance to his directing the film (it also didn’t help that Head was a commercial flop and had yet to develop its cult reputation). Yet, Rafelson proved to have an innate sense of how to handle the material, which is reflected in his patient and effective use of long takes to emphasize the performances and the distances between the characters. There are a few points when he slips into caricature, particularly the scenes at Bobby’s family home, which overstress the hermetically sealed pretensions of upper-class artistes and intellectuals; however, these are small missteps and not entirely unearned.

The film could never work without the stellar performances by its eclectic cast of character actors, many of whom collected multiple trophies from various critics groups. Karen Black is particularly effective as Rayette, a sweetly unpretentious character who constantly means well, but can’t help but annoy with her alternate lack of self-awareness and melodramatic emotional manipulations. The role of Bobby made Jack Nicholson into a movie star and critic’s darling, a rare one-two punch that came after nearly 15 years of toiling in the business in multiple roles (actor, writer, and even co-director in some cases) in various B-movies and independent productions. Most of his work had been done under the aegis of producer Roger Corman, although he was also deeply involved in two anti-westerns by Monte Hellman in the late 1960s and had earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for his work as a disillusioned ACLU lawyer running from his heritage in Easy Rider. In some ways it is not surprising because the role of Bobby Dupea was tailor-made for him by Eastman, who was a personal friend and therefore knew how to interweave Nicholson’s personality and disposition into the character.

In addition to drawing out great performances from his cast, Rafelson also demonstrated a deft ability to juggle tones, as the film moves from scenes of quiet desperation to moments of great black humor, including an extended sequence in which Bobby and Rayette pick up an eccentric couple (Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil), one of whom jabbers obsessively about waste and filth. The film’s most famous scene finds Bobby at a roadside dinner arguing with the stern waitress about the restaurant’s policy of no substitutions. The scene has rightly entered the pantheon of memorable movie moments primarily because of its sense of wish fulfillment (how many of us haven’t wanted to clear a table like Bobby does when faced with someone who is needlessly incalcitrant?). Yet, it also plays as a sharp distillation of the film’s core theme of the American culture’s discontentment, particularly as embodied in the generation gap (Bobby is the willful young man who wants things the way he wants them, and the waitress is the hardened establishment still trying to tell him what he can have and how). In that moment we truly feel Bobby’s rage and can easily identify with it; it is a kind of “gimme” moment in a film that otherwise challenges both our identification and our sympathy as it asks us to understand a character who refuses to be understood, by himself or others. That is why the film’s open-ended final scene is so perfect, so distressing, and so telling, all at the same time. It couldn’t end any other way.

Five Easy Pieces Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story Criterion Collection Blu-Ray SetFive Easy Pieces is availably exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s six-disc box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, which also includes Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Drive, He Said (1970), A Safe Place (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972).
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio English PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson
  • “Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces” featurette
  • BBStory: An American Film Renaissance documentary
  • Audio excerpts from a 1976 AFI interview with Rafelson
  • Theatrical trailer and two teaser trailers
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$124.95 (box set)
    Release DateNovember 16, 2010

    The 4K 1080p high-definition transfer on Criterion’s Blu-Ray was taken from the original camera negative and black-and-white separate masters and supervised by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Given the film’s subject matter and tone, you might expect it to be a visually low-key film with muted colors, but it is quite the opposite. Kovac’s cinematography is bright and intensely colorful, from the intense hues of various characters’ clothing (note the hot pink shirt in the bowling alley and Bobby’s red and yellow flower shirt later in the film), to the vivid greens of the trees and foliage once the setting shifts to Washington. The image is overall clean and well-detailed, but with an obvious presence of grain. The monaural soundtrack, transferred from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters, is presented in a lossless, linear PCM mix that is clean and clear. It is a somewhat subdued soundtrack, and I found myself having to turn up the volume more than usual to hear all the dialogue clearly. The Tammy Wynette songs sound great, as do the various piano pieces from Chopin, Mozart, and Bach.
    Co-writer/director Bob Rafelson and his ex-wife Toby Rafelson, who worked on the film as a production designer, contribute an excellent new audio commentary. Although they were recorded separately, their combined insights into the film and reminiscences of its production makes for a great listen (I was surprised to find that Toby actually had more incisive things to say about the film’s themes and characters than Bob). Also included on the disc are two new video programs: “Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces,” a 10-minute interview with Rafelson, and BBStory: An American Film Renaissance, a 49-minute documentary about BBS Productions that features new interviews with Rafelson; actors Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and Ellen Burstyn; and directors Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom. There are also about 40 minutes of audio excerpts from a 1976 American Film Institute interview with Rafelson that, while a bit hard to hear at times, is still fascinating, and a theatrical trailer and two teaser trailers.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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