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Saturday, 2 February 2008

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

The turn of the sixties into the seventies in American cinema is a real blank spot for me, not just because I haven't seen many of the key films but because there never seemed to be anything to connect them. If I looked at the thirties, I saw gangster movies and horror movies and screwball comedies. If I looked at the forties I saw film noir, but when I looked at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, I just saw important films with no common denominators. I hadn't even heard of many of those key names: of films, directors, actors, you name it.

Now I realise what the connection is: freedom. In 1967 the production code ceased to be and gradually key filmmakers realised just what that meant and they caught on a lot quicker than the studio execs whose gradual realisation was that they didn't have a clue any more. One of the things that started to appear in film was honest depictions of reality, and from completely different perspectives. Hollywood had always been great at the glamour business and any films that had social import tended to come from major playwrights, not apparent nobodies like Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper who made something of a splash with Easy Rider a year before this.

This isn't a road movie, or at least it's mostly not a road movie, but it has similarities. It deals with the sort of everyday people that Hollywood often ignored, deals with deliberate rejection of the norm by people embracing counterculture and even has some of the same actors. The middle of the film is spent in a car and three of the four people in it were also in Easy Rider: Jack Nicholson, gaining his first Best Actor nomination as Bobby Dupea, Karen Black as his girlfriend Rayette and Toni Basil as one of a pair of young ladies they give a lift to after their car wrecks.

The real question here is whether an analysis of the two ends up concluding that they're about the same thing or whether they're polar opposites. The answer is all about perspective. Are they about why it's a good idea to drop out from everything we're supposed to do or why it's a bad idea? In Easy Rider, the main characters experience the freedom of the road but they end up dead. In Five Easy Pieces, the main character leaves behind the life of privilege that he was born into but doesn't seem to end up any happier.

For a while we see him as a standard American nobody: working odd jobs at oil wells, spending his time drinking, bowling, gambling, cheating on his waitress girlfriend, not really going anywhere. Yet he has more depth than that. Our first realisation of something else comes during a traffic jam on the interstate when he gets fed up of sitting in the car and climbs up onto the truck in front to play the piano on the back. All we know about his musical interests up until that point are that he hates Tammy Wynette. Soon we discover that he's a talented pianist from a musical family but that he chose to leave all of that behind. The film has to do with his reasons why.

I've read a lot about how great this movie is and I still don't see it. It certainly let me with a whole bunch of questions and it would be a great candidate for discussion, and that's all to the good. It's done very well indeed, for what it is, and both the big picture and some of the little scenes suggest that they'll be memorable, but what is it really about? Maybe all that discussion ends up with the fact that we're watching a film about someone who doesn't know what he wants and can't ever make up his mind. Is that the point?

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