“Five Easy Pieces”: A lost soul points the way for independent film

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“We’d had a revelation. This is the direction American movies should take.”

That was the late Roger Ebert, tweeting about the rapturous audience reaction to Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.” And he was right — the 1970 film did point the way for a lot of American independent film to come.

The Criterion Collection first released the film on laserdisc 25 years ago, and again as part of a great 2010 boxed set of films by BBS, the independent company started by Rafelson and Bert Schneider that produced “Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Easy Rider” and more — all quintessentially, almost self-consciously American stories. Now it’s finally out on its own this week in a lovely Blu-ray edition.

If you only slightly know “Five Easy Pieces,” it’s from the iconic diner scene where Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) snarls at a waitress who insists on no substitution. (“Hold the chicken.” “You want me to hold the chicken?” “I want you to hold it between your knees.”) When the scene shows up in Oscar montages and other clip shows, it’s usually packaged as a defiant cry from the ’60s counterculture, a bookend to Marlon Brando’s “Whaddya got?” from 1961’s “The Wild Ones.”

But it’s key that “Five Easy Pieces” came out in 1970, when the counterculture ideals of the ’60s had started to crumble into the confusion, bloodshed and selfishness of the ’70s. In the end, they’re just arguing about toast. Taken as part of the film, Dupea’s snarl seems less like a rebel yell and more like an impotent yelp.

The film opens with Dupea working oil derricks in California, getting blitzed at night with his buddies and fooling around on his ditzy but sweet waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). He treats her with cruel disdain, as if being with her is some kind of self-imposed punishment. Blue-collar loser — we think we’ve got this guy all figured out.

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But then, as Carole Eastman’s screenplay reveals itself, we realize we don’t know Bobby at all. He’s the scion of an upper-class family in Washington State, and a gifted pianist to boot, who turned his back on the suffocating life fate had laid out for him. But for what? Nicholson’s tempestuous and wildly entertaining performance peels back the defense mechanisms of Dupea until we see the very unhappy man inside, able to run from things but never to anything. In both the California desert and Washington state scenes, Rafelson and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs deftly contrast the vast, often breathtaking expanses of the landscapes with Dupea’s closed-off interior life.

The famous final scene, in which Dupea abandons the good-hearted Rayette at a gas station on a seeming whim, could be misinterpreted as him finally leaving the dead-end blue-collar life behind. But it strikes me more as an act of self-obliteration — for all her faults, Rayette cared about Bobby, and she’s the final link tethering him to the world around him. So he must leave her behind without a glance backward.

The Criterion disc includes a commentary track from Rafelson, who is a great raconteur (and clearly knows it). The showpiece may be a documentary ported over from the BBS set, called “BBStory,” featuring interviews with Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern and more.

 

 

 

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