Welcome to my page of notes on themes and characters in Bob Rafelson's excellent 1970 film, starring Jack Nicholson and Karen Black, among many others. This is not intended as a review of the film, but rather a discussion of some of the themes and ideas the film evoked in me.
I first saw "Five Easy Pieces" on television in 1976, shortly after I had seen "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed, though I found the film less "accessible" and far more "haunting" than I had anticipated.
In some ways the film seems very European in that it is more character driven than plot driven, and the characters themselves are beautifully fleshed out and "real". The plot is really just a device to allow us to get to know and try to understand Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson). We see his relationships, and follow him on his path of apparent self-destruction as he runs from responsibility and perhaps also from himself.
The film has been rightly praised for its performances, its depiction of genius/madness, and the "humanity" of the characters. I have, however, found little on the "net" beyond discussion of these aspects of the film, which I find disappointing and strange, as great films, like great literature, contain "messages" for us all. They do not restrict themselves to the recounting of a tale specific to the group of characters who inhabit the story, but contain feelings, situations and reactions which may be familiar to us all, and may offer something we recognise as true and which may be relevant to ourselves.
It seems to me that one of the principal areas of "discussion" in the film is responsibility (in various shapes and forms), from which Bobby is running away. At one point in his discussion with his wheelchair-bound father toward the end of the film, Bobby says he moves on not because he is looking for anything in particular, but because he is trying to get away from things that start to go bad. This is, I think, one of the key statements in the film and it is one which gives us a key to truly understanding Bobby's behaviour.
In his relationship with Rayette, Bobby constantly tries to distance himself from her and is often quite uncomfortable with her. He knows that Rayette loves him to the point of devotion, and she will tolerate his treatment of her. Bobby finds this devotion hard to accept because this total love creates demands on him in the form of responsibility for Rayette, who clearly wants to play a permanent part in his life, and pressure to reciprocate her love. By being unpleasant towards her, Bobby appears to be trying to force her into breaking off their relationship. In a curious (and existential) way, Bobby's insensitivity toward Rayette is actually the result of great sensitivity. He knows how painful it would be to her if he broke off their relationship, so he tries to engineer a situation where she will make the first move. Once again he is avoiding a "bad" situation by simply ignoring it (and pursuing other sexual adventures), or by taking steps to avoid responsibility for its end.
He is also fleeing responsibility in the form of his musical talents, or rather responsibility entailed in the development and displaying of these talents. Perhaps he is afraid of disappointing others (he certainly hints at this when talking to his father), or perhaps he is afraid of the constant pressure and loss of independence involved in the concert circuit. For further thoughts on this aspect of the film, please see David Dieni's thoughts below.
Perhaps one further reason might also lie in another significant aspect of the film (as I see it!) - class.
Bobby has opted out of a comfortable "middle class" existence to work as a labourer - why?
This element, perhaps more than any other, allows us to see just how torn Bobby is. By abandoning his middle class family (whose aspirations are embodied by elegant and classical music), and working with his hands (surrounded by feel-good and emotionally indulgent Country and Western music), Bobby is rejecting the rarefied (and vacuous?) existence he was destined for, and chooses instead to lead a "real" life, which presumably he feels is of greater value. Yet there are elements of his "working class" life he finds hard to bear. He cannot stand some of the more mundane aspects of this life - he wants more than Rayette (and possibly any other) can give him, yet he rejects the social sphere that can offer him more because of its implied intellectual (but vacuous) superiority. He is content in neither camp.
The scene in which Bobby converses with his wheelchair-bound (and mute) father is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and moving of the film.
As Bobby says, if his father were able to talk, they probably wouldn't be talking. This beautifully written scene does somewhat embody problems many of us have had in talking to our parents. Bobby tries to explain himself to his father who is incapable of giving a spoken response, thereby allowing Bobby the freedom to express himself without getting involved in any dispute. Here Bobby shows sensitivity and love, revealing an understanding of himself and his own problems, but also an incapacity to change and deal with his situation.
Our response to Bobby Dupea has varied from intrigue to sympathy, from contempt to admiration (especially in the famous scene in the diner in which he deals quite brilliantly with the "little man's" blind application of society's rules), but in the end, when he finally runs away from responsibility for good, we feel pity and hopelessness.
Bobby Dupea may not be an admirable character, but he is above all human and not easily forgettable. I can't say I found this an "easy" film, but it is most intriguing and watchable, with marvellous and compelling dialogue by Adrien Joyce. It may at times be quite painful, but as an examination of one man's questioning of his own existence and character, it is entirely compelling, and invites us to consider various aspects of our own lives - especially if we are critical of the way Bobby conducted his life.
Some illuminating observations from David Dieni:
I am currently reading the screenplay to 5 Easy Pieces and am blown away by its execution of the story and themes. I just read your essay on the film which is very informative. Everything I have found on the internet seems to miss one of the most basic points which lifts the film out of its 1970 cultural framework to a more universal setting -
The opening sequence of photos and scenes depicting the musical Dupea family sets up Bobby's character and his restless search for something in a way that is almost tragic and strongly resonates within us. He is the last child of a large family. He is clearly very special to his mother, who probably realizes that this will be her last time experiencing motherhood. There is a picture of a young Bobby asleep in his mother's arms as she looks down beaming at him. In the opening pages of the screenplay a special bond between Bobby and his mom is depicted. They are very close to one another. His mother is his teacher- he learns about music and the piano through her. When she dies, he runs out of her funeral service, unable to face the fact she's dead.
This is the point- Bobby's mother died when he was too young, when he still needed her. He didn't have the time a boy needs to grow towards his father and manhood. He was still deeply connected to her in the most fundamental way. And his mom is music. That is why he runs away from the musical life- it is too painful. The essence of music is the essence of his mother. Bobby tries to deal with the problem as an external landscape, not the internal landscape it really is and so his life is given to aimless wandering. Wherever he goes there can be no resolution. In a way a part of him has been frozen in time at the point of his mother's death and he cannot move forward with his life. There is only anger, frustration and a numbness to life that we can easily see in Bobby. When he plays the piano for his brother's student, she thinks it's beautiful, but he feels nothing. Much is made of the scene between him and his father, but of even greater importance is the ghost of his mother which hangs so close over him. We could even get Jungian about this and say the nurturing aspect of the mother archetype has been transformed into the negative side of the mother archetype- smothering and life suppressing. This archetype lies entirely within Bobby and is not his actual mother. Is there a resolution at the end, a realization and growth? No. That is the tragedy of the movie. Only a hope- by leaving his situation with Rayette for the unknown. By freeing himself of a deadend and going north - to a place that is still a frontier, a landscape that encourages introspection. That is the hope.
It doesn't matter what era of American history this story is placed - it would be equally valid and the hero would be just as restless, just as angry and just as seemingly selfish. Also - anger and frustration is something every man must confront in the modern industrial world as identity and self worth frequently collide, at least for a time, with society.
It should, perhaps, be pointed out that some of the scenes David refers to in the original screenplay did not make it to the final version of the film.
Thoughts on “Five Easy Pieces”
Ken D. Craiker
Well, I wonder why you think this is such an important film that people would have a web page for it? I suspect that it has some deep personal meaning to them. If so, great - we all benefit from art speaking to us, and this is probably in that top 1% of film art.
The script has some early childhood scenes that point to the importance of the main character's mother and the importance of music in the family. I have read that there was some debate about putting this in. I think they made a wise decision to leave it out. By taking that part out, his story becomes more universal, rather than a story about a guy whose mother died too young and left scars on his soul. The conflict is extremely universal, and by taking this out, the main character becomes more like all of us.
Some historical perspective first: This movie came out in 1970. Most of us know that this was during a period of extreme upheaval culturally. I think the conflict in the movie points to the universal bewilderment of that loss, and it still speaks today, because we are still bewildered culturally, in fact, even more so. Therefore, this movie has lasting power, and resonates more as time goes on. In fact, it can be better understood today, looking back in a soul-searching mode, rather than when it came out, when one may have gone to see the chicken salad sequence as the thrill of the moment.
Personally, I am what is called a "Traditional Catholic" - like Mel Gibson. In fact, an acquaintance of mine was the main commentator for Mel Gibson's 'Passion' DVD (the one with all the extras). Talk about universal pain and confusion: When 'Five Easy Pieces' came out, the Catholic Church had sustained a 10 year period of almost complete desolation, in particular the lose of the hierarchy, teachings and sacraments. Something that was sure to last forever was suddenly and stealthily pulled from under us. Catholicism was the religion of about a quarter of the earth's population at the time, as well as the main driver of Western culture for centuries. I don't think I could see the fine brush stokes of 'Five Easy Pieces' without understanding that history and the religious aspect. I can't apologize for my religion seeping in, because I think it is true, and if I'm going to comment, I need to be truthful, so I ask that you bear with me on that. Even so, I think that this cultural destruction was and is universal, but harder to understand without knowing it at its roots.
It is awe-striking that there are so many different ways of pointing to the theme in this movie. The early scenes of oil field life point to the destructiveness of the industrial revolution. This occurred centuries ago, however it was more bearable with the rest of true culture to prop us up. Take away that true culture, which happened more abruptly in the 1960's, and you have a real clear look at the empty non-humanness of the industrial revolution. Those early scenes unmask that revolution in all its perversion. Here is your new "culture" - stark, soulless oil fields and workers - their only comforts are sex, booze, bowling... The meaningful God, or a benevolent country, or even the concept of family are wiped out. We find out later that 'Bobby' is not trapped in this particular place; however, because of the universal loss, no matter what strata he is in, he will run into the same desolation. Jack Nicholson plays a chameleon going from one culture to the next with different clothing and accents. Notice his 'trailer trash' accent in the oil fields and his refined upper middle class accent with his family. The reason for this is that no matter where he goes, what he wears, or how he talks, he will not be able to find his place.
It's not just the oil field, but the loss has destroyed the town too. In his lonely walk through the town after his 'piano in the truck' ride, we see the town montage: Adult Theatres, Loan Shops, Palm Readers. Not only that, but the town seems desolate and lonely. Should towns be places of desolation and loneliness? Isn't that where people gather? He does stop and wave at the barber shop. Is it the only thing left that speaks of the true culture that was destroyed? Perhaps that is why he waves there. Perhaps there is always a little remnant of life. Each little scene paints volumes when one looks with eyes that see. The end of that montage leaves us with Bobby waiting for Rayette to finish at the diner. We see two women at work, and notice the male customer and the crying baby. Isn't this upside-down from the norm? It points to the destruction of culture with the women working and the men and children waiting. Is that why the baby is crying - because of the disorder? Where is his mother?
The scene wrestling with the cops. They are not even dressed as cops. Bobby does not even know they are cops. Who is in charge of this culture? Who are the "good guys" and the "bad guys". Has all that been destroyed too? After the cop scene, we are left with a brief moment of quiet with the sun shining down on the oil field. It's the end of Act I.
So much for hope in the lower classes - he can't find dignity even in a hard days work and the "simple" life. As each brush stroke of this masterpiece has deep meaning, this moment points to God in the sunshine. Bobby is looking for Our Father, and He is there, somehow, in the sunshine. Is that enough? The horror is that it is not enough for Bobby. That God is millions of miles away, but it does point to remnants like the barber shop. That's all that is left.
What a leap - to Hollywood: the shining city. There are trees there, and soulful music, soulful, but highly manufactured. Tita is told, it's "not an opera or a musical comedy". What is it? A plastic mass produced impersonal record? Notice there is no time for a real break. Hollywood is not about art, but production, like the industrial revolution. His sister, Tita, is not happy there. She cries. She talks of their father, but I think the deeper meaning may better describe God or true culture:
"Daddy is very ill" "Don't you think you should see him at least once?" And, as soon as this is asked, the Godless machine is on the intercom to end the break. Luckily, they ignore the man on the intercom. But the machine still tries to interfere, "We've had our break, Miss Dupea." Also notice the strange backtracking recording sound interference as if to say, "Stop your meaningful conversation, and get back to the soulless machine." I don't think the film maker did this unintentionally. Like I say, each brush stroke a masterpiece.
The two women who hitch a ride. This is our prophet. I love the actress and the character 'Palm Apodaca'. Strongly played with blown out zombie-like perfection - such is the life of a prophet. She has the solution to all the "crap". Alaska - "She wants to live there, because its cleaner." She saw a picture. It appeared clean, because it "appeared to look very white to me". Many people fall for this illusion in their life, and Bobby replies, "Yep, that was before the big thaw". Bobby sees through her comical solution, but he will make that same choice in the end of the film, hitching a ride on the truck heading north from Washington to where it is "colder than hell". Is it the people who are filthy or has this been forced on them by their leadership? Likely both, but who has the greater responsibility?
I hope I don't spend much time commenting on the chicken salad scene. It is not an important scene any more than the rest. Everyone is frustrated and feels trapped in the "system". What is relevant is that as cute and "fantastic" as it was, Bobby points out that he still didn't get his food. Nobody got any food. So much for fighting the system. Are we left in a world where that does not provide a solution either? Is there any solution? Ultimately, no, not in this movie, and not in our world without divine intervention.
The family home on the "island": Certainly this should be an island of retreat from the destruction. But it is not. There is nowhere to hide from it. There is some quality soul in his angelic sister Tita, some remnant in her compassion for her family, like the barber shop or the sunshine quietly and majestically looking down on the oil field. She longs for the soul of the family, but the only one with a soul, Bobby, won't play ping pong with her. She turns to the male nurse, Spicer, her only option. Is that any better than Bobby's choice of Rayette? The brother with the bad neck is a joke, well cultured but silly and soulless. He has the sound of truth in his music, but his soul is vacant. It turns his music into "crap". Only Bobby can play with feeling, because he is searching. He still has a soul and hope, even though he has "failed". Bobby's brother's girlfriend, Catherine, has been searching too and this appeals to Bobby. But ultimately, she gives up her soul for "fishing, boating, concerts on the mainland". Bobby sees it for what it really is, a "rest-home asylum" dead and meaningless, even though it shines with the remnants of true culture, but without the meaning behind that culture.
When Bobby plays the piano for Catherine, everyone is moved - Catherine, the film's audience, but Bobby says he feels nothing. He is not satisfied with the aggiornamentto or adornments of truth in its sound, because the one behind that sound, God, is not there. It's only a distorted echo. Notice the interruption, "Catherine your game", the ping pong beckons, a distraction from what will be a brief touching moment within her soul. Even though Bobby does not feel this moment, Catherine and the audience do. It is there, somehow, but not for Bobby. Notice the panning through the family pictures while he plays, pictures of the past. They play the same music as in the past. Something was there, but was lost. What was lost? The pictures are painful.
Rayette helps unmask the void of the high art of the "island". She is shown to be more human and more noble, in many ways, than the high thinkers. Is there any hope in our brightest philosophers? The pompous woman views mankind as mere soulless animals. Her evolutionary thinking leads her to see love as ill, rational thought as "a tool or a gadget". She says, "I do not make poetry", because she is inhuman and dead inside. There is no help in our great thinkers - all is desolate. In fact, she is the most inhumane of all the characters, representing the leaders of our modern world. They told us their way would create Heaven on Earth, but they really point to hellishness. It's hell for Bobby. Still, the other people show signs of a remnant of truth - they'd rather listen to Rayette than the "pompous celibate" Sonia.
The meeting between Bobby and Father is the real chicken salad sandwich scene - the pinnacle of the film, what we've all been waiting for. We want answers as well as Bobby. Is he really talking more to Our Father? He can only imagine God's half of the conversation, as God is silent. Is he completely silent? Bobby makes his confession, almost kneeling at the feet of his Father. He cries in contrition. What are his 'sins'? It isnoticeable that he really does not point out any. He is sorry for anything and everything, as all men of good will. The prominent word in Bobby's confession is "auspicious". It means promising success, but a little more digging into the word's meaning brings up 'auspice': He is looking for the patronage or support of the King, a favorable sign or divination from above. This verifies that he is not so much talking to his father on earth, but to Our Father. In his desolated culture, how can he live out his contrition? Alaska ? Will it really be 'white' there? The father is not completely unresponsive. One may notice that he does slightly change the position of his head, looking down in sad union with his son. That's about all we have left, like the sun shining on the perverted oil field, or the wave from the barbers.
The film ends perfectly in that there is no resolution. He'll try Alaska, which is no answer. The film ends effectively by bringing us not to Bobby, but to ourselves. Where can we go?
The name of the film is significant. 'Five Easy Pieces' is a mythical method for learning to play the piano. Is it true that there really are no five easy pieces to learn to play the piano? Does this parallel in life?
I would say that here is where my particular faith, parallels the answer. The 'five easy pieces' reminds me of the Rosary, which is separated into five decades. I would think that one would be tempted to think that the Rosary is only of myth like the mythical 'five easy pieces' of piano instruction. Modern man has outgrown the childish needs of the old culture that has been swept away. In traditional Catholic terms, we are in a time where God is in eclipse, almost completely silent and removed, just as in this film.
I think the resolution of the film, which we can only ponder, is that Bobby will go back to Rayette, just as he did earlier in the film, after having a kicking fit in his car. The relationship with Rayette is not perfect by any means, but she is pregnant with his child. I think he will support her and his child as best he can, and suffer with the "crap" and "filth" in his culture and himself - probably after the snow thaws in Alaska. Will he play the piano, or for that matter, pray the Rosary? If he does not, where is his hope? It seems he would be giving up something he can take hold of, and instead waiting for those unpredictable sentimental moments of sunshine in the oil field.
Than you for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value. I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss either the film or the contents of this page. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .