Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Karen Black Film Festival: Five Easy Pieces.

What seems like an outsider movie, is really about insiders. Co-written with it's star Jack Nickolson, the 1970 film marks the second collaboration between Nickolson and Rafelson. Their first was the Monkees movie Head, in which they did their best to destroy the Monkees wholesome image. Five Easy Pieces is a film immersed in pointless cruelty. Bobby Dupea, played by Nickolson, is a classical pianist on the run from his social class. He is slumming it, taking jobs on oil rigs, and hanging out with the locals who he reviles. He has particular contempt for his girlfriend, Rayette, played by Karen Black, misty-eyed (and possibly pregnant) in false eyelashes, willing to supply all the love in the relationship.

There are only two types of music in Five Easy Pieces, country and classical. The world too is divided into thems that got class and thems that ain't. Tammy Wynette plays in the home Bobby shares with Rayette, and Ms. Black sings a number of country songs a capella, showing a lovely voice that is later used to such effect in the film Nashville. Bobby can barely contain his hatred for her, and when he's not busy cheating on her (with Sally Struthers, for one, and she has a great monologue about the dimple in her chin), he spends his time insulting her or literally shoving her away. When compelled to visit his family, we discover that Bobby hates them too, but he's just a little more sophisticated about how he shows it.

Ooh, what an angry young man, this Bobby. He's so alienated (or something) always rebelling against something or other (society? practicing piano?) by being really mean to women. In a famous scene he even yells at a waitress and smashes some cups over the absurdity of ordering a chicken salad sandwich. How is some privileged white dude terrorizing the help supposed to be transgressive? Isn't that just what privileged white dudes do? Take out their aggression on the nearest person who can't (or won't) strike back? Now while a closer reading of this scene could posit the waitress character as an allegory of arbitrary rules, she's also a middle aged lady trying to do her job. (Not to mention that poor Rayette is a waitress as well, and it doesn't look like she has a lot of other career prospects.) Yet this scene is beloved, and there is much dudely identification with his anger. Perhaps it is the rage of the privileged over losing privilege?

Nickolson, to his credit, does manage to infuse this wholly repugnant character with some traces of slimy charisma. He is acting his foot off here. There is a bit of breathing room when the film becomes a road movie and picks up two soft butch hitch-hikers, played by Toni Basil (Hey, Mickey!)and Helena Kallianiotes. Ms. Kallianiotes has a hilarious monologue about garbage and the supposed cleanliness of Alaska. Karen Black is believably besotted, though her real triumph here is the scene where she visits his family. Her decent dress, stilted manners and attempts to restrain her accent show just how much this girl wants to make a good impression.

Sadly, as I often find with late 60's counter culture, the dudes get to have all the fun. Like Jack Kerouac, they can thumb a ride away from the mediocrity and total bummer of responsibility. They may be alienated, they may be critical of consumer society. They may be conscientious objectors to the rotten American dream, but women are left like Rayette at the end, with all the consequences.