There are wide orange skies, long arching beaches seen by night and day, and amazing silhouettes of people, pumps and scaffolding. It’s as if John Ford had decided to start a western among the California oil rigs, and track his story up the West Coast to Puget Sound. The space around the people in this movie is so large and so unambiguously beautiful you have to wonder what story it is trying to tell. Is it making an ironic commentary on the small, messy lives being lived? Reminding us of nature’s indifference to our follies? Or are we looking at a piece of old-fashioned aestheticism: every film should visually be as magnificent as it can be, regardless of its subject?
The film, now re-released in a new print, is Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), and the offending or over-achieving cinematographer is László Kovács, who also shot Easy Rider (1969), The Last Movie (1971), Shampoo (1975) and New York, New York (1977), among many other works. The question of the beauty of the film doesn’t seem to have attracted or bothered anyone at the time of its opening. The problem or allure then was Jack Nicholson as the wandering Bobby Dupea, classical pianist become worker on an oil-rig and a man who doesn’t like losing a game at the bowling alley. ‘It is difficult to explain today,’ Roger Ebert wrote in 2003, ‘how much Bobby Dupea meant to the film’s first audiences.’ Ebert remembers the premiere at the New York Film Festival, ‘the explosive laughter, the deep silences, the stunned attention … and then the ovation’. What they’d seen, Ebert says, was a new direction for American movies, the birth of the independent film, and a storyline willing to follow an uncertain character into his bewilderment. It’s a movie ‘about a character who doesn’t fit in the movie’. This is as good an explanation of the film’s mood as we are going to get, and it helps us think about the photography too. But let me fill in a few details before I pick up the question again.
When he is not looking like an icon of American labour, denim jacket, tilted safety helmet and all, Dupea is, at the start of the story, at home in a flimsy apartment with Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress at a diner. She is as devoted to Tammy Wynette as he is alienated from Chopin, although we don’t know about the Chopin bit yet.
Black gets pregnant. Nicholson expresses his displeasure to his workmate Elton (Billy Green Bush), who tells him parenthood isn’t so bad, he’s taken to it himself. Dupea is outraged at the association. ‘It’s ridiculous. I’m sitting here listening to some cracker asshole who lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine.’ Because Elton really lives there and works there, and Dupea … well, he lives and works there too, but he’s different. Not as different as Elton is, though. In the next scene Elton is arrested by the FBI for an old robbery and for jumping bail. He’s not a cracker in a rut, he’s a proper criminal who has dropped out of respectable society far further than Dupea ever will.
The story begins to move now. Dupea knows he’s got to get away. He visits his sister in Los Angeles, where she is making a heavy-going recording of a fantasy and fugue by Bach, and groaning like Glenn Gould. She tells him their father has had a stroke, may not live long, and Bobby should go and see him. We perceive the story of estrangement instantly, because it’s the basic relation of father and son in all American stories of this kind. Maybe Dupea will go up to Washington State, maybe he won’t. But he already looks and sounds different: jacket, tie, haircut, accent – he’s left the cracker world for good. It hasn’t left him, though, since in a moment of faintness or kindness of heart he takes Rayette with him when he does decide to head north.
Dupea drops Rayette off at a motel near his home, and goes to see his folks, sister, brother, paralysed father, in their music-making house. The other characters include the brother’s fiancée, whom Dupea sleeps with (of course – she said no, but she meant yes); and a hulky male nurse looking after dad. At this moment, we might want to think about the names of the family members: Partita (the sister), Carl Fidelio (the brother) and Robert Eroica (our hero). Within the plot the father was no doubt confusing destiny with a joke when he came up with these names, but Carole Eastman, the very sharp writer of the movie, must have been after something else: an implication perhaps that music, like class, can be a comfortable prison, a fantasy that won’t let you go.
Once home, Dupea settles into his routine nasty behaviour of the shallow kind, and you begin to think the plot and the director are terminally lost, have been following their noses long after the scent has run out. Then Rafelson pulls ten minutes of a masterpiece out of the bag, an ending so wonderful you keep trying to reconstruct in your mind the missing work you feel must have preceded it.
In a very long shot, we see Dupea pushing his father’s wheelchair across a field near a lake. Then in close-up they have the non-conversation they were always meant to have. The father says nothing, shows no reaction, the son talks and weeps. After this he’s travelling, Rayette singing her last Tammy Wynette song. She’s trying to be sentimental, he’s annoyed as usual. Is he going back to California, will he settle down with her? Is he going to do something horribly violent or get into a spectacular accident, or are we just projecting that thought backwards from later Nicholson movies? They stop for petrol, she asks for change for coffee, he gives her his wallet and goes to the men’s room. A huge truck looms into the shot and parks in such a way that you know it’s going to take over the story as it’s taken over the frame. Dupea comes out of the john, has a conversation with the truck driver, gets into the cabin, and they leave, headed further north, back the way Dupea and Rayette have just come. The camera holds on the petrol station, Dupea’s car sitting by the pump. Rayette gets out, walks about, leaves the frame. The credits start to roll over the same shot, which does not change, only registers passing cars, the desolate anonymous spot, the grey weather. The credits end, and the shot continues for another second or so.
Why don’t we have the movie to which this would be the ending? It’s possible that we do, and I’m not getting it. Possible too that we’re too far away in time to be interested in the troubles of a would-be angry young man who missed the 1960s. Dupea’s unfocused distress is very clear, as is his entrapment in privilege. But the movie that isn’t there for me, the one requiring and justifying the ending this one has, would show some depth of pain or anguish in the central character, and Dupea has only petulance. This is partly Nicholson’s fault. He can produce a range of antics – already, though this is only his second major movie and he’s not ‘Jack Nicholson’ yet – and he’s convincing when he’s not acting, just being photographed. But mainly he looks smug rather than troubled; convinced he’s right when he’s manifestly not.
This is especially true of the scene that everyone seems to remember with such pleasure as a triumph of the liberated man. Sitting in a diner, Dupea orders toast as a side dish, the waitress says they don’t do side dishes, only what’s put together as the specials. House rules. Dupea argues a bit – surely she could get him a piece of toast, what’s the problem – then devises a plan. He orders a chicken salad sandwich and asks the waitress to hold everything, chicken salad, dressing etc, and give him what’s left: the toast. The waitress refuses, he yells at her, and sweeps all the glasses and plates off the table in a fit of rage. The argument has a fine satirical edge, and the rule about the toast is stupid. But why isn’t this a scene of waitress abuse as much as it is the display of a free mind throwing off society’s restrictions? It compares unfavourably with the moment in Reservoir Dogs when the gangsters scrupulously worry about the ethics of tipping. But then they are working gangsters.
The title of the movie alludes to the two sets of pieces of music that are listed in the opening credits: five songs by Tammy Wynette, and five piano works (one Bach, two Chopin, two Mozart). All are heard at different moments in the film, in almost every case in a stealthy way which makes them seem part of the soundtrack before we learn they belong to the internal world of the story: they come from a record player, from two pianos playing behind a closed door, and so on. This is a device Renoir and Hitchcock are fond of, and it subtly realigns our perceptions, mildly blurs the distinction between what’s being told and what’s being shown. Here it makes us party to the worries of the movie. There are ten pieces after all, some of them far from easy, and we can cut them down to five only by excluding one whole set. Does it have to be country or classical? Rayette or the cultural elite at Dupea’s home? Could we mix them? The film itself is not choosing, since it uses both kinds of music with great affection and skill. But equally there is no place in the fictional world where the two sets could meet, and Dupea’s brief claim that his playing the piano for a floor show in Las Vegas was also music can’t be part of the argument if he’s making it just to annoy people.
We are left with the sense that there are no easy pieces here. The trouble is that scarcely anyone in the movie knows how hard any sort of piece is. This is why Ebert’s remark about the man who doesn’t fit – doesn’t fit in the movie, not only in his imagined society – helps us to see what is happening, and to think again about the cinematography. It’s not purely aesthetic, it does offer a kind of irony. But the irony concerns not the triviality of the lives on display or the indifference of nature but the inaccessibility to the characters of the art the film itself so manifestly possesses. Dupea thinks piano practice is just practice, a form of avoidance, and claims to have played a certain Chopin prelude better when he was eight than he does now. But then he can’t hear the soundtrack of the movie he is in, and can’t see the shots in which he is framed. There’s another sense of practice: not training to do something or faking it, but doing it.