Commentary Magazine


Three Easy Pieces

Robert Dupea, the alienated hero of Five Easy Pieces, was a concert pianist, and has become an oil rigger. Among the various questions which may occur to you while watching the film are: Why has he dropped out? From what is he alienated? Was there any period of transition between his having been a pianist and having become a laborer? Did music ever really mean anything in his life? And is it music or something else that he means when he says to his father, late in the film, “Anyway, we both know I was never that good at it”? Among the questions which occurred to me was: How did this modest film of modest virtues, the equivalent in films of what is usually thought of as a good “first novel,” ever manage to elicit such extravagant press notices as are being quoted in the ads for it?—and this question provoked in me a good deal more real curiosity than did any of the others.

I have no certain answer to the last question, and Five Easy Pieces provides none to the others. This reticence of the film might be regarded as one of its modest virtues, to the extent that it is a kind of tact, an avoidance of the usual set of alienated-hero-from-overprivileged-family clichés. But it is also, to the extent that it generalizes and diffuses the specific human drama, a defect, and a crippling one. The problem isn’t the lack of information as such; rather the lack of a sense of the particularity of this character’s despair. We probably don’t “know” any more, biographically, of the heroine of Eclipse than we do of Robert Dupea, but, for all the time that Dupea is on screen, we actually “see” much less of him; her alienation is brought before us in all its crushing immediacy while his remains always something of an abstraction. The defect of Five Easy Pieces is that we don’t really know the character sufficiently, but what is lacking is not information so much as an acuity of observation. He lacks vividness.

Robert’s father doesn’t answer the line quoted earlier because the father has been left mute and paralyzed by a stroke, and though his affliction “universalizes” him, making him into all our remote, failed fathers, one feels he has been imagined thus less in the interests of dramatic metaphor than of tractable convenience; there can be no real confrontation between son and this father, and, when Robert says, “I’m getting away from things that look bad if I stay—auspicious beginnings,” the line is allowed both to seem the most revelatory in the film and to retain all its portentous generality (as well as to remain in apparent contradiction to Robert’s protraction of an obviously hopeless affair with his waitress girlfriend). Given the vagueness at the role’s center, Jack Nicholson brings all his intelligence and charm, which are considerable, to bear on the playing of it, and still makes less of an impression than he did in no more than a third the screen time in Easy Rider. And, in the absence of a binding center, the film itself splinters into bits and pieces of quite variable quality: a maudlin illustration of our being all bruised people in the form of a monologue by a girl Robert picks up about how she was told as a child that her cleft chin signified God’s disfavor: a Second-City-like skit (good) of a doomed attempt to obtain a side order of toast at a roadside café, and another (fair) of a filth-obsessed lesbian hitchhiker; a ludicrous caricature of intellectual society within the circle of the family and its friends that provides Robert with still another easy mark with which to score against the sterility of the background he has rejected. A brief scene of sexual frenzy offers nothing so much as a horrible example by the standard of which to appreciate the general sobriety and restraint of Bob Rafelson’s direction. In view of such previous work as that in Targets and Easy Rider, one should probably credit the photographer, Laslo Kovacs, with the film’s rather crude color sense and its occasional excursions into a flaccid prettiness. The script by Adrien Joyce is probably the principal cause of the blur that is the film’s main character, but it also contributes its share of Five Easy Pieces’ virtues.

And yet I suspect it is not the film’s modest virtues—its tact and its seriousness—but rather its chief defect which accounts for its reception. Robert Dupea’s alienation is virtually a stimulus to free association, an inkblot onto which, given only an accordance with the general contours of the flight from a somehow culturally overbred family, one can project what one will out of one’s own reserves of loss and disaffiliation. It is our ability to project, to identify with the alienated hero, that completes his character; and, for our willingness to identify, the film returns glamor: the glamor of its hero, romantically resigned to his emotional expatriation, his feelings revealing themselves only insofar as they can be expressed in their occasional eruption into violence; and the glamor of this figure’s incarnation by the film’s leading actor. Were this figure to be looked at more closely, he might be seen in his particularity, but the sense of his glamor would probably not be served, for to look at him closely would inevitably be to throw him open to question. Yet the heroine of Eclipse can be seen to be at times both silly and posturing without this in any way diminishing the seriousness of her disaffection. The heroine of Eclipse exists for us as a created character, retaining always her inviolable otherness, not inviting identification but demanding a disciplined understanding and compassion. For the creation of and response to a character in a work of art requires finally a kind of rigor; a willingness to maintain critical distance. And it is this, above all, that Five Easy Pieces lacks, and that accounts, I think, for the readiness with which people give themselves to it, and the ease with which it gives itself to them in return.

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I first became aware of Stuart Rosenberg as one of the house directors on The Defenders, where his ham-fisted, emphatic style ably served the essentially editorial purposes of that television show’s liberaloid think pieces; for what it was, I enjoyed The Defenders, didn’t much mind Rosenberg, and thought it, to the extent that I thought about it at all, a compatible marriage of qualities. I first became aware of Paul Newman as a promising young actor in the Marlon Brando mold in films such as Somebody up There Likes Me, where, despite the indebtedness to Brando of a kind almost no new actor in the 50′s was able to escape, he seemed, for a time, on the verge of realizing a talent and personality distinctively his own. Stuart Rosenberg “met” Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, a film aptly characterized by Pauline Kael as an exercise in “cut-rate” alienation, and one which remains memorable to me chiefly for my having been asked by the usher to stop laughing or leave the theater during the scene of Jo Van Fleet’s delivery, as the hero’s mother, of some of the ripest folk-poetry ever uttered on the screen by anyone other than a Mexican peasant; by this time Stuart Rosenberg had left television long enough to have made two un-memorable films before, and Paul Newman had become the expert purveyor of the Paul Newman performance, coasting through films like The Hustler and Hud on an ingratiating combination of brooding sexuality and facile charm, an actor whose promise seemed increasingly a thing of the long-buried past.

By the time Stuart Rosenberg next met Paul Newman, the former had directed two leaden comedies in The April Fools and Move, and the latter, apart from the anomaly of one genuinely felt performance in Winning, a freshly observed genre film, had solidified his position of before; and, by this time, their encounter had taken on the mythic proportions of Frankenstein meeting the Wolf Man. The issue of that encounter (with Robert Stone’s overblown script as midwife) is WUSA, and, if it provides still another occasion for observing the extent to which Newman, as an actor, has gone nowhere, it gives one no less some ample grounds for wishing, while watching the director wield the blunt instrument of his style, that Rosenberg had stayed where he belonged. For, bad as WUSA is, there is no reason it might not have made for a passable sixty minutes including commercial breaks for toilet and refrigerator, with Ken and Larry Preston defending Anthony Perkins against the charge of murder, and disclosing, in flashback, how Perkins, as a dedicated welfare worker in New Orleans, discovered the evidence of a right-wing conspiracy to “expose” some trumped-up welfare fraud, traced the conspiracy’s source to the owner of radio station WUSA, and then, made mad by his own powerlessness, attempted to assassinate him. Which is to say that even such mechanical conventions as those of The Defenders might have exerted a needed discipline on what is now a two-hour extravaganza of liberal hysteria—America as a freak show, in wide screen and color, featuring Paul Newman delivering the Paul Newman performance, Joanne Woodward delivering one of the two Joanne Woodward performances (in the other one she has a college education), and Anthony Perkins suffering a severe relapse of the jitters (except for one stunning scene of his confrontation with one of the conspirators in a Playboy Club that is by far the most powerful and unsettling thing in the film).

But, while such discipline might have intensified the paranoid vision of WUSA (and it cannot complacently be said that the film’s paranoia has no basis in reality), it might have also thrown into relief the wishful fantasy on which the film’s action hinges—the assassination of the right-wing leader by a zealot of “humanity.” And, at least in its relation to the realities of our political life to date, this is fantasy—a right-wing takeover may arguably be only an extrapolation from what now exists, but, so far, it has been the Martin Luther Kings and not the Carl McIntires who have been assassins’ victims. The assassination attempt in WUSA fails; one of the leader’s flunkies accidentally leans into the path of the bullet; but I think it would be hard to argue that the audience’s hopes are not, at that moment, with the assassin, in the wish that he succeed. It cannot, of course, be said that the film in any sense advocates assassination, but since the target is depicted simply as an ogre, and his would-be assassin, however deranged, as one of the film’s two sympathetic characters (the other hangs herself in jail; the failed assassin is beaten to death by a right-wing mob), the film, in some sense, does lend sanction to the idea. And it is this fantasy on the part of a film whose discernible political sentiments seem very mild indeed that makes it truly, as it claims, a creation of its times; of a liberalism which flirts with violence and yet can imagine only its own impotence before reprisals; of the Nixon era, and a President who promised to bring us together and acts to tear us apart.

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Joe, like Patton, enjoys a false reputation for ambiguity, for being assimilable to the views of both Middle America and its dissident borderlands. The method of the two films is vastly different. Patton, like Lawrence of Arabia, takes a historical figure of some controversial status, and offers, side by side, various contradictory views of him in hopes that, from this indecision, some complexity of characterization will emerge; what emerges is not a complex but an uninterpreted character; the film’s “ambiguity” is really just ambivalence. And yet, in the case of Patton, this failure of the film’s makers to “create” a character out of the bundle of vacillating alternatives largely accounts for the film’s interest. An “interpreted” Patton, whether from Right or Left, would be insufferably one-dimensional; the film’s makers at least allow of two dimensions even if they seem incapable of suggesting three. And what is missing in depth is made up for by the forcefulness of George C. Scott; as in Lawrence of Arabia, an actor’s personality fills the character’s void. But, since Scott’s Patton is directed chiefly to a tour de force of physical recreation, it, too, manages to sidestep interpretation for all its verve.

For ambivalence, Joe substitutes an unselective distaste for middle and marginal Americans alike. Although I have read several reports of audiences of hippies shouting, “Next time we’ll get you, Joe,” and the like, at the film’s personification of hard-hat violence, it’s difficult to imagine this response made in any but the spirit in which redneck audiences were said to have cheered the end of Easy Rider; that is, not so much in an expression of identification with any portrayal of themselves as one of solidarity in their hostility toward the portrait of an antagonist. The hippies in Joe—other than the girls, who are seen solely as drug-dazed victims of their predatory boy friends—are without exception a repellent lot, swindling dealers and thieves. But Joe, from the first moment that we meet him in drunken mid-soliloquy, declaring his hatred for hippies, blacks, and welfare recipients as he sits in the America Bar and Grill, is another matter, and, though it seems clear to me that the film’s makers regard him as no less detestable than the hippies he execrates, one can more readily understand the cheers he is reported to have elicited in Queens. Indeed, in the largely hippie audience in which I saw the film, it was Joe alone who drew sympathetic laughter. In part, this was simply because he is so clearly a version of that archetypal sympathetic American figure, the deflator of cultural pretensions. But also because, in the absence of other values, theatricality takes on a positive value of its own. And, much as I found myself, in the context of Patton, “rooting” for the gunslinging general, a figure whose actual counterpart I hardly admire, so, too, does Joe, in Peter Boyle’s shrewd performance, become, by liveliness alone, the most likable character in a film which ends with his committing mass murder.

The trouble is that, given the purposes of the film, which are essentially exploitative of group fears and animosities, the character of Joe both gets out of hand and isn’t allowed room enough. The film’s clever premise—that Joe, the $160-a-week factory worker, should run into a flabby, $60,000-a-year advertising executive who has just unintentionally murdered a hippie, and that a relationship between the two should form from Joe’s admiration for the killer—isn’t sustained even at its own cheap level, and the film soon runs down into familiar genre comedy—the advertising man and his wife to Joe’s house in Astoria for dinner, and a pot party with the two men and some hippies they encounter while searching for the ad man’s runaway daughter that seems right out of The Bachelor Party. By the time the film ends, as cleverly, and cheaply, as it began, its force has already been spent, and the fact of the ad man accidentally killing his daughter in a group of hippies that he and Joe slaughter seems less neat contrivance than desperate gimmick.

And yet this skillfully made and thoroughly meretricious film does have some force to spend, and even a certain kind of unusual excitement. Joe may be a caricature as he sits in his kitchen after work, belching over his beer, and asking his wife how things went that day on Secret Storm, but one watches with a considerable sense of missed opportunities, and of an authentic and (in films) fresh character latent but never quite allowed to emerge; a character of real (if extra-aesthetic) importance, and one whose alienation is such as to make Robert Dupea’s pale by comparison. This is the true American lumpen man; leveler of cultural distinctions but respecter of social ones; the victim who zealously defends his victimizers; who chews the bone of welfare recipients while his income is being eaten up by a defense department; who has been dealt the drug of patriotism. This character isn’t likable, though he could be sympathetic, but he probably wouldn’t require the filmmakers’ sympathy, only their artistic intelligence, in order to exist; indeed the film’s “coldness” needn’t have been a liability; given a Bufiuel, a disinterestedly ferocious comedy of the slaughter of the long-hairs by the short (and vice versa) might be considerably more salubrious than such sentimental and/ or hysterical paranoid fantasies as we have been getting. Certainly the Joe who never quite comes to life in this film would be at the center of that one. He already speaks a line from it when he says, “You ever get the feeling that everything you do—your whole life—is one big crock of shit?”

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