“Because the plot thickens every day and the pieces of my puzzle keep crumblin’ away, but I know, there’s a picture beneath…”-Faith No More
When does one become content with their course in life? Some find contentment in their 20s or 30s, while others discover it later in life, when patience, wisdom, and understanding epiphanies our weathered intellects. Sadly, some will never find their meaning or happiness in this life. Finding happiness or your reason in this undetermined appointment of life, is pretty important to an individual. Restlessness of spirit, discontent with society, fueled by frustrations with the system, are old gripes, that have been present as long as the rains have poured down on us from the heavens above. This dissatisfaction with life, was loudly expressed in the
late 60s/ early 70s due to the death of the 50s conventional family, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam conflict, pre/post Nixon politics, accentuated by excitement of the birth & ideological demise of the counterculture. This angst is effectively addressed in the subtle, dramatic character study released 45 years ago this week, Five Easy Pieces (1970).
Bobby, Jack Nicholson of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), is a blue collar guy, with a secret, sweating day after day in a hot California oil field. Bobby is a hard working gent, beer guzzling bowling bloke who enjoys chumming around with Elton, Billy “Green” Bush of Electra Glide in Blue (1973), while balancing his time between his childlike, aspiring singer girlfriend, Rayette, Karen Black of House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), and random female he beds to satisfy his carnal cravings.
Bobby’s stress and dissatisfaction grows when Rayette reveals she is pregnant and best friend Elton, is incarcerated for a robbery which he took part in a year prior. Disillusioned with his life and purpose, Bobby quits his job, and travels to the City of Angels, to visit his successful pianist sister, Partita, Lois Smith of Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). While catching up, Bobby learns that his father is gravely ill after a series of strokes and persuaded to take a trip, a guilt trip that is, to Washington for a visit at the family estate.
Bobby hits the road to venture north, reluctantly taking along the needy Rayette, and picking up two highly opinionated female hitchhikers (one Toni Basil of “Mickey Your So Fine” fame), along the way. The four discuss, argue, and eventually thrown out of a road side diner in a memorable scene where Bobby makes an odd, humorous request to an item served off the menu. Disillusioned with everybody, carrying the burden of never wanting to be born, and embarrassed by the lack of culture Rayette exudes, he registers her in a local motel before returning to his family estate.
Reaching his destination, we find that Bobby comes from a well to do family, and that he and kin are all classically trained musicians. There is an ongoing tension within the family relations, smugness of status, and sadness due to the current physical and mental state of the patriarch. Bobby, lacking morals, meets and eventually sleeps with Catherine, Susan Anspach of The Landlord (1970), who happens to be the fiancé of his brother Carl, Ralph Waite of Cool Hand Luke (1967).
It doesn’t take long till Bobby’s other life becomes exposed to his family, when Rayette comes a knockin’ as she runs low on funds. If the tense group dynamics of this family wasn’t enough to bear, added to the fact that Bobby is conflicted with both of his personas (loathing both), Rayette’s presence creates more awkwardness for all involved. Angry with himself, life, and everyone he knows, Bobby decides the best way to put together the pieces to his personal puzzle is to flee all responsibility, ties, and conventions.
Five Easy Pieces was directed by Bob Rafelson of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), with a screenplay by Rafelson and Carole Eastman of The Shooting (1967). Five Easy Pieces has sparse spots of comedy to help lighten the ongoing mood of conflict and regret while Nicholson searches for the truth of his existence, taking the viewer along for an introspective analysis of life. Five Easy Pieces is one of the best films that was produced by New Wave Hollywood after the success of Easy Rider (1969), which gave struggling filmmakers on the fringe, the key to the kingdom to work outside of the studio system, with the luxury of utilizing the Hollywood’s funds and guaranteed distribution deals.
The New Wave Hollywood stable of filmmakers adopted the freedoms of European directors, the fiscal mindset & DIY mantra of Roger Corman, motivated by the ideology of the disfranchised youth of the later 60s/early 70s to push the envelope. Mavericks, independents, true artist, call them what you will, like the lifespan of the counterculture movement the New Wave embraced, was short-lived for such talents as Nicholson, Rafelson, Dennis “The Last Movie” Hopper, Henry “Easy Rider” Fonda, and Bruce “King of Marvin Gardens” Dern’s artistic controls were reigned in the mid-seventies when the studios gained power back from the artists due to the blockbuster “yes” men, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas coming along. Sure all involved of New Hollywood had pretty prominent careers, when not dealing with substance abuse issues, budget issues or scandals, but the studio has never gone back to giving such power to nonstudio players. Even today, Indie Films are controlled by the studios and disguised by their own “Independent/Art House” companies. Anything for a buck.
Overall, Five Easy Pieces is slow paced but very entertaining while it examines Bobby and his unhappiness with just being alive. Nicholson and Black’s performances are dead on, and Black’s maybe too believable, because her dependence does become annoying and a bit overbearing at times. However, Nicholson’s character is to be shown a little sympathy for his dilemma, and any that a viewer does have is quickly thrown aside when you find that he comes from a life of opulence, chose his current situation, and opts to neglect his responsibilities as a son, sibling, and most of all, a man. Five Easy Pieces isn’t preachy, but if you are perceptive, you get the message loud and clear. It’s a shame that Bobby didn’t get it.
So if you are having a quagmire of sorts, juggling your responsibilities bestowed upon you by family, friends, society, and self, be honest in your pursuits. No one, no matter what medical professionals, philosophers, or street corner soothsayers’ claim, the exact instance an individual leaves their mortal shell behind to join the light is and always will be a mystery. Our time is short, try to make the most of it in a positive way. Most personal anguish is guilt and anger from playing the “what if” game and reliving regrets. Remember what Gibby Haynes shared, “It’s better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven’t done.”
Check out the Five Easy Pieces Trailer
- Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker, film/music historian, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rick.baldwin.568
- Twitter Rick Baldwin @RickBaldwin79 and firstname.lastname@example.org