Sunday, May 8, 2016

Jack in the Box: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Five Easy Pieces

Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces.

Unlike many of the key actors who became part of the American New Wave of the Seventies, Jack Nicholson was paradoxically alluring. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty etched their eccentricities and differences in characters that formed clear lines of definition to form a close rapport with the audience. Whereas Nicholson rode a wobbly wavelength in search of a port that never arrived. There was no perceived goal of resolution in the characters he played early in his career. He was the man in the mirror seeking out definition while simultaneously railing at the world around him for continually honing him in. And, yet, movie audiences still became closely allied with his smart-ass independence. As critic Steve Vineberg remarked in his book Method Actors: Three Generations of an Acting Style, if Nicholson was playing a son of a bitch, he was his own man, and on terms that had their own unorthodox integrity. Hoffman and Pacino tied themselves close to the Method style and that inspired them to dig for the passport that defined their characters, Vineberg went on to suggest, but Nicholson cut loose from all those ties to create a compelling portrait of solitude.

In his Westerns, John Wayne sought to build a sense of community out of his stance as a loner, but he was always cast out in the end into the very wilderness that spawned him. Nicholson was instead a hermetic figure forever living in bustling communities, but more content to be the jack-in-the-box surprise who popped out aggressively with a lewd grin and bopping eyebrows and keeping everyone on their toes. This aggression he displayed was also key to the roles that made him a star. It set him apart from his contemporaries who chose instead to go deeper into the interior of their characters to explore the promise that abandoned them. In an age when America's greatest ideals were up against defeat and failure, it was no surprise that Jack Nicholson didn't wear that defeat quietly – or passively. His George Hansen in Easy Rider (1969) warned Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper that their country would strike out violently at those seeking freedom, but his spiky humour made him a more memorable victim than Fonda or Hopper's mythic martyrs would be by the end. Detective J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (1974) didn't simply recoil from the evil deeds of John Huston's powerfully rich patriarch, he mocked them. In The Last Detail (1973), his navy lifer, Billy Buddusky (perhaps the doppelganger of Melville's Billy Budd), could be the cock-of-the-walk showing a good time to a young navy recruit he's taking to the brig, but his tap-dancing profanities proved to also mask his own impotence. Nicholson's sly and subtle paradoxes, a key to his success as a movie star, would bloom even later in his career in movies nobody saw. In The Border (1982), playing a quietly righteous border patrol agent, he defies the corruption offered by his partner (Harvey Keitel) by confronting him and literally drawing a line in the sand that he says he won't cross – only to walk over that line right after he finishes his confrontation. In that lightning quick moment, Nicholson reminds us of both his defiance and his vulnerability.

That curious combination of defiance and vulnerability fused perhaps best in Nicholson's role as the itinerant drifter, Bobby Dupea, in Bob Rafelson's 1970 Five Easy Pieces (which the Criterion Collection brought out in 2010 in a sparkling Blu-ray print). Although Nicholson's Dupea is first introduced to us as a restless blue-collar worker toiling on an oil rig, his past as a privileged piano prodigy from a wealthy family soon lies in sharp contrast to what we initially see. His early life was shaped by the contemplative melodies of Chopin and Bach while his adult world now included a working-class waitress, Rayette (Karen Black), whose soundtrack featured the biographical country twang of Tammy Wynette. (Karen Black would even extend that connection a few years later playing a composite of Wynette in Robert Altman's Nashville.) The clash of class conflict and alienation – often self-consciously imposed on the drama in Carole Eastman's script (under the pseudonym of Adrien Joyce) – catches the mood of the country by 1970.

In his Criterion essay, "The Solitude," critic Kent Jones tells us that Five Easy Pieces gives us "a clear and unobstructed view of this particular type of American existence, brought into being at a certain interval in our history when the expectations of class and family carried more weight than they do now." In one sense, he's absolutely right. If the Sixties were a bold attempt to assert an egalitarian culture that erased the divisions of class, where music and movies could find room for both Ravi Shankar and The Rolling Stones, by the Seventies, a nascent narcissism (coming out of a need for self-protection) widened the gap again. If people once became itinerant and started hitch-hiking to find the country they were part of, now they were looking for ways to escape it. In 1960, JFK asked American citizens to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. Ten years later, after assassinations, riots and an escalating war, people were no longer asking anything of what they could do for their country – they simply wanted to escape it and the endless trauma surrounding it.

For Bobby Dupea, he tries to get away from the expectations of others and what he immediately defines as "things getting bad." When he visits his pianist sister, Tita (Lois Smith), in the solitude of a recording studio, she tells him that their father is ill and he should go home. While leaving Rayette in a heartbreak hotel, he heads out from the arid heat of Bakersfield to the fall lushness of Washington state to confront a past he's already fled. But that confrontation, and the revelations revealed, don't change Dupea's consciousness. His family reunion – which is as emotionally stark as Ingmar Bergman in bloom – brings him in sharper contact with his pain rather than any reason to heal it. All the fractured parts of his character actually come into play. As Nicholson plays him, Dupea is as much a bastard to the needy Rayette as he is a salve to his neurotic sibling Tita. He can be cutting to his pompous brother Carl (Ralph Waite) as he is revealing in his emptiness to Carl's emotionally direct girlfriend, Catherine (Susan Anspach), after he plays her Chopin's Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4.  (As he puts it, "it's the easiest piece to play.") With his mute father, on a hill where the beautifully quaint desolation of László Kovács' moody cinematography still creates shivers, Nicholson does some of his best acting and it's uncharacteristic of what we've come to know about him and Bobby Dupea. Struggling for words to define their relationship (that comes out of "auspicious beginnings"), his tears which reveal both loss and a sense of being lost don't put him in touch with a healthy sense of independence. What he discovers – especially when a seductive play for Catherine comes to nothing – is a further affirmation in him to disappear.

While there's no question that Five Easy Pieces caught the zeitgeist of the early Seventies, it wasn't really a "clear and unobstructed view" of it. Director Bob Rafelson imposes on the material the kind of spiritual ennui that hangs over the movie like a noose. Rather than lifting the lid on post-Sixties despair, Five Easy Pieces prefers to cork it in a bottle. You can see that in the picture's most famous scene when Nicholson tells off the waitress who won't bring him substitutions because she follows the rules, just as you can in the cynically battling couple (Helena Kallaniotes and Toni Basil) he and Rayette pick up on the road. (Their scenes echo the one featuring the arguing duo in Bergman's Wild Strawberries which also had its share of self-conscious angst.) Five Easy Pieces (much like Easy Rider) plays to the disaffection of the culture rather than exploring it (as Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant did a year earlier).

Curiously, Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said (1971), his debut as director, was more potent at capturing the political alienation in the wind than Five Easy Pieces. Based on Jeremy Larner's 1964 novel, Drive, He Said is about a college basketball star, Hector Bloom (William Tepper), who is caught between becoming a star athlete and joining the Revolution. Formally, the picture is a mess and as much confused as caught up in the confusions of the era, but its uncertainties seem much freer and open-ended than the closed doors that lock Five Easy Pieces. Tepper's performance as Bloom is particularly undefined and yet the role never becomes amorphous. Karen Black as the professor's wife that he's sleeping with and Michael Warren (who would later become a star on Hill Street Blues) as a campus radical suggest the possibilities in people who ultimately hit walls, but the characters aren't hung by their hang-ups. In Drive, He Said, Nicholson brings to the table a risky ambiguity that would go totally missing in his later directed films like Goin' South (1978) and The Two Jakes (1991), the sequel to Chinatown. Much like Cisco Pike (1972), made a year later, which also breathed in the air of post-Sixties discontent (in fact, more believably than Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Inherent Vice did), Drive, He Said was on a quest for clarity rather than arriving there. Five Easy Pieces has an open ending that offers no solutions, but the picture's grey mood still hangs over its narrative like a wraith. Yet despite the hermetic seal of dissatisfaction that cloaks Five Easy Pieces, the ghostly quality of Nicholson's performance, especially as we watch Dupea disappear up a cold, desolate highway, still resonates and reverberates with the quiet despair of an underground man's lonely confession.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.         

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