Sunday, September 12, 2010


If Only He Could Push Himself Away

By Iain Stott
By the time Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson, excellent) finds himself in melancholic staring at a gas station bathroom mirror at the end of Bob Rafelson’s magnum opus, Five Easy Pieces — a gently funny, deeply insightful, and profoundly moving masterpiece, released 40 years ago today — it should have become perfectly obvious to the viewer that this sorry figure doesn’t really know what he is looking at; and what he does recognize, he certainly doesn’t like. He spends the length of the film abusing (or being direct toward, as he like to call it) all that cross his path, but it’s really himself that he dislikes.

It is implied that as a child he spent every waking moment playing the piano, not for the love for it, but because that’s just what Dupeas do. Coming from a family of musicians who live in a beautifully situated home on a Washington island, goofing off was never really an option. And so, when most children his age were busy discovering who they were whilst exploring their own little worlds, young Robert Eroica Dupea was busy discovering who he wasn’t — a musician. Though he was more than competent, he just had no passion for it. So, when adulthood arrived, numerically at least, his arrested adolescence began to play itself out.

When we first encounter him, he is living with a passive, Tammy Wynette loving waitress, working casually as an oil rigger, and spending all his spare time bowling, gambling, drinking and womanizing. He has run as far away from his old life as he can get, and takes very little seriously; and after such a stifling childhood, who could blame him? For example: after a heavy night’s drinking, he and his friend Elton (the scene stealing Billy ‘Green’ Bush, who has one of the greatest laughs that you’re ever likely to hear) are deemed unfit for work, and are turned away. As they return home, not particularly bothered by the situation, and as they continue to drink (drinking and driving is a regular occurrence for Dupea), they suddenly find themselves in a traffic jam. Bobby, taking it personally, climbs up onto an open top wagon to try to get a better view. Admitting defeat, he sits down at a piano on the back of the wagon, and begins to play. There’s soon a magnificent cacophony of noise, as his notes thump out of the out-of-tune piano, car horns parp, and Elton’s incomparable laugh bellows into our ears. Nonplussed, he continues to tinkle away as the wagon leaves the queue of traffic to take an exit, whilst his garrulous friend looks on incredulously.

He’s also forever pushing people away from himself. After an argument with his friend Elton about parental responsibility, he dismisses him with the line — why am I listening to some cracker asshole, who lives in a trailer park, compare his life to mine? But he betrays his real feelings moments later when, as his friend is arrested for jumping bail, he comes to his assistance with his fists flying. He may talk down to him sometimes, but he clearly feels strongly for him — not that he want him to see it. Similarly, when he finds Rayette, his girlfriend, depressed and in bed listening to Tammy Wynette’s "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," just as he is about to leave to visit his ill father (and in all probability not return) he dismisses her with the line — I never told you it would work out to anything, did I? But moments later he’s sat in his car, swearing loudly and beating the dash, as he realises that he can’t just leave her, at least not like that.

And so he invites Rayette to join him on his journey, but before he does, he takes the time to turn off the Tammy Wynette record that she was listening to. As the film progresses you get the impression that he hates that side of her: the “Stand by Your Man,” passive, verbal punching bag part of her personality. The Mississippian songstress’s mellifluous tunes, which regularly punctuate the first half of the film, before being replaced with the more refined sounds of Chopin in the second half as he returns to his family home, seem to go through him like nails on a blackboard. And as he treats her like shit for the umpteenth time, you can see him wishing that she would just grow a pair and tell him to fuck off — which, of course, would suit him just fine, better allowing him to yet again (attempt) to run away from his life.

So intent upon pushing people away from him, he even does it whilst attempting to seduce them. Later in the film, after arriving back into the bosom of his (surprisingly) loving family — experiencing a level of comfort that he evidently hates — he takes a shine to his brother’s fiancée, Catherine. She’s also intrigued by him. Mainly because she can’t understand his decision to just stop playing the piano. Of course, with her being a committed, passionate pianist, it is not something that she would ever be able to comprehend. Nevertheless, she convinces him to play for her. And he chooses Chopin's Prelude in E minor Opus 28 No. 4, which he plays beautifully. She, evidently moved, compliments him on his playing. And whilst most men with sex on their mind would have taken that moment to make a move, he takes the opportunity to belittle her, denying having felt any emotion whilst playing it, declaring how hideously easy it was for him. Still, despite his treatment of her, she still falls into his arms.

And just when you think that you know him, he surprises you again. Bobby’s brother, Carl, and Catherine have invited some of their friends over for an evening of pontificating. And as they stroke their chins and smoke their pipes, spouting all manner of bullshit, Bobby just sits there rolling his eyes. But when Catherine takes umbrage at their dispassionate objectivity, and one particularly unpleasant woman begins to patronize and belittle Rayette, Bobby explodes with rage, and jumps uncharacteristically to their defense. But this showing of intense feeling merely serves as yet another nail in the coffin of their dying relationships. And so, by the time he wanders soberly out of that gas station bathroom at the end of the film, there will be few people surprised by his subsequent self-destructive actions.

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What "self-destructive actions"?

Doesn't he dump the benighted Rayette to bum a ride in an 18-wheeler heading north, way up north?

Self-destructive, how? He's only wearing a shirt/sweater and
will surely freeze? I have a hunch Jack would buy one of those big plaid hunting jackets en route or when he arrived. Heck, he'll don an "Elmer Fudd" hunting cap if that's what they wear up there.

It's been ages since I've seen this film, but I vaguely remember thinking Jack was the only character who had a firm grip on who he was. Everyone else struck me as empty-headed, needy, or just plain lost. In other words, inferior. It's no wonder he keeps walking away.

Many thanks,
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