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five easy pieces: 40 years later
a masterpiece about mid-life crisis has, ironically, aged well
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

Men learn differently than women. We already know that. And they accept responsibility differently as well. It has been said that for every old man, there is a younger man inside him wondering what in the hell happened. The plan is never to grow uncool or old. And even for people like me, who never were cool, or were never even young for that matter (I was shaving in 10th grade, for God's sake), there is always a sense that something was missed, that we better revert to (or unleash) our most selfish and primitive impulses before our vitality is submerged for good.

The year was 1968, and Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were having the same feeling. They were living in Los Angeles, each married with children, and both financially set after the boisterous TV show they developed, The Monkees, had become a monstrous hit. But God, were they restless and unfulfilled. The show had quickly become a source of shame to them. Particularly Rafelson, whom, like many young directors of his era, wanted to make serious feature films and be taken seriously, as well. He decided that the best way to do this would be to implode the Monkee mystique from within. Rafelson directed a trippy feature film called Head, which achieved its goal in that it effectively ended the Monkees, but undercut his goal in the sense that it did not make any money or have any critics actually like it. (The film has since developed a rather rabid cult following, mostly because it is so weird. I highly recommend the film for those who want to feel like they just got high without actually taking any drugs.) But Rafelson and Schneider still had a production company, then called Raybert (later renamed BBS), and they ran with a pack of ambitious, edge of Hollywood ruffians who wouldn't be denied.

One of those ruffians, a particularly uncontrollable actor named Dennis Hopper, somehow directed a low budget biker film named Easy Rider that put BBS on the map. How successful was it? It grossed 38 times its budget. (Take that, Avatar.) The Hollywood studio system was crumbling all around them. The inmates were running the asylum. One of Easy Rider's co-stars had been bumping his head around B-movies for a decade and wrote the script for Head because he was considering quitting acting. Suddenly, he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His name was Jack Nicholson. Rafelson had Hollywood's attention. He had his star on the rise. Now, he just had to tap into his own restlessness.

Five Easy Pieces is the story of Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) who works on an oil rig somewhere in central California. He lives with his dimwitted girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black) and does rednecky things with their redneck friends. He is not a good person. You think you know him. You start to question why you're watching this slowly paced movie about a redneck who cheats on his redneck girlfriend with even redneckier women. Then, out of nowhere, he puts on a suit and drives to Los Angeles. It turns out he has a sister, Partita (the always great Lois Smith) who is a talented (if frumpy and clinically depressed) classical pianist. She tells him their father is dying. He doesn't want to see him. She begs him to pay his final respects. He says ok. He drives to his father's home in Washington State.

And then, you discover what has been hinted at -- that Bobby is not a redneck. He is from a family that names their children after operas and symphonies. (Bobby's middle name is Eroica). It turns out that Bobby has worked very hard to create the redneck lifestyle we have seen him wear so naturally. And, in being forced to confront that he left and what he left and why he left, Five Easy Pieces says more than any movie I've ever seen about the masks we wear each day, and the price of running away from yourself. And, for a movie where no one dies, the ending is among the most abrupt, appropriate, heartbreaking and devastating in cinema history.

Confessions: I've gotten into arguments with people over Five Easy Pieces. I once stopped dating a girl because she didn't like Five Easy Pieces. Five Easy Pieces was a tremendous influence (plotwise, thematically etc.) on the first feature script I wrote 15 years ago, as well as the feature script I just finished this summer. Five Easy Pieces is the reason why I respect, but often ignore two screenwriting tenets: 1) that your main character has to be likable for the audience to follow/like the movie. 2) that there's automatically something wrong with your script if it doesn't follow the three act structure to a T.

If you don't know this movie, you probably still do know the diner scene. You've seen it. The one where Jack hassles the waitress who won't give him his chicken sandwich the way he'd like it. It's an easy clip to show because it is the Jack we know and love. But my favorite scene is the one Rafelson had to bully Nicholson into doing. It's the one where, after a weekend of dysfunction, Bobby wheels his wheelchair-bound father out to middle of nowhere and has a heart to heart with him about the choices he's made in his life. Everyone knows that this was the movie that turned Jack Nicholson into a star (at the ripe old age of 33), but I believe that this was the scene that did it.

Anyway, the movie turned 40 years old this year. It was a colossal box office and critical success. BBS was on top of the world. But the company was burning personal and professional bridges faster than they could build them and Schneider would be out of the movie business within five years. As Nicholson's star rose, Rafelson's plummeted, and though they would work together again, it would never be with the same magic. The two are neighbors, yet haven't spoken in decades. But at that moment in 1970, they caught the Hollywood bigwigs asleep at the wheel and proved that personal, contemplative expression and active cash registers can co-exist. It's ironic: A film about a man who did the very least he could do made me, as an artist, want to do more.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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mike julianelle
9.13.10 @ 10:46a

"...though they would work together again, it would never be with the same magic." Exhibit A = Blood and Wine. Ugh.

I've never understood the idea that the main character has to be likable. Some of the best movies/stories feature outright a-holes. The list is too long to include here.

jason gilmore
9.13.10 @ 4:38p

Mike -- Exhibit B: The King of Marvin Gardens, which you and I have talked about before. Although I did like their remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

mike julianelle
9.13.10 @ 4:45p

Marvin Gardens is far superior to Blood & Wine. I consider Gardens a compelling botched experiment. Blood & Wine stars Skeet Ulrich.

If a movie like Five Easy Pieces came out today, no one would know what to make of it. I'm forever amazed at not just the QUALITY of stuff that was coming out in the 70s but also the style of it. 5EP is deliberate, brooding and melancholy - and it's about a privileged kid who CHOOSES to be a bum.

Would never fly today.

mike julianelle
9.13.10 @ 4:46p

Of course, this was before Jaws ruined everything.

jason gilmore
9.13.10 @ 9:37p

I agree with you completely about if Five Easy Pieces came out today. I doubt if it would've gotten the support it got in 1970. People tease me about watching way more old movies than current ones but so many of them have an openness & toughness that I don't see in a lot of today's movies. Films of this era were content to make you think and leave unanswered questions or ambiguous endings. Nowadays, everything seems to be very cookie cutter.


mike julianelle
9.14.10 @ 9:44a

I follow you on Twitter, so I know what kind of movies you watch. Not sure how you make time for them all, but it's an interesting list. When I first got Netflix I loaded it with old and foreign movies, like homework.

Ambiguity - and Jael will agree with me - is the most underrated, overlooked quality in all of fiction, but especially in film. So when something like Inception plays with it - emphasis on "plays" - it's practically mind-blowing, even if ambiguity in plot is a lot less interesting than ambiguity in character and theme.

We've obviously both read "Raging Bulls", etc., and the reasons behind the changes in film-making are obvious. And while something like the new democratization of technology is making it easier for everyone to make movies, a generation raised on garbage isn't exactly destined to make art. So I'm not so sure things will change, especially when in the 70s, the audience was largely united and quality/success weren't divorced.

Nowadays, audiences are so fragmented that the best movies are marginalized and ignored, often inadvertently. There are too many places to look and not enough people looking for the right things.

russ carr
9.14.10 @ 9:57a

But that's what gets taught (cookie cutter), isn't it? Funny how the three act formula has devolved into something that now practically everyone in the seats can point out. It's become so rote, so predictable, and so integral to the film, that it's worth more to the story than the characters and plot. It's a cheap paperback instead of a novel.

It also hasn't helped that studio distributors are only chasing the sure buck, which these days means the meet-cute, the bodily-function jokes and the big explosions. It's gonna take a new pack of ambitious, edge of Hollywood ruffians to push past that.


mike julianelle
9.14.10 @ 10:27a

It is what gets taught. Syd Field BS. But film school is more irrelevant than ever, kids are learning as they go, at home, with a flipcam. Besides, teaching creativity is not exactly science. To cite just one example, Tarantino didn't go to film-school.

I don't think a studio revolution can happen these days. As audiences get more and more fragmented, it will just mean that the studios dig in deeper with the stuff they KNOW works: the formula, the explosions, the least-common-denominator humor.

It's harder and harder to get a big opening weekend, and that makes it less likely that studios will branch out or take chances. They'll just do more of the same in order to hang on to the one slice of the pie they can get. Sequels and reboots and etc.

And they'll just make it all 3-D, for a few extra bucks per ticket.

jael mchenry
9.14.10 @ 12:19p

Mike is right about me! I agree 100% about the joys of ambiguity, and our shared frustration that it's too often viewed as a negative instead of a positive in filmmaking.

russ carr
9.14.10 @ 12:24p

Tarantino used up his bag of tricks three films ago. There's no depth to him. He's down to an audience of hipsters and shock junkies.

Not to diminish BBS' work from a production standpoint, especially to wring a legit performance out of Nicholson before he became "Jack," but the biggest advantage they had was starting with exceptional source material. If 5EP -- and so many other classics of the era -- were not so well-written, they wouldn't have been so engaging, either. They lacked the eye-candy (either movie stars or special effects) that are enough to distract the audience these days. Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman*, Spacek, DeNiro*, et al -- not exactly pretty people. The movie had to engage with storytelling, starting with a solid script.

But since the writers (or the would-be writers) are just as caught up in the expectations of the production system as the directors/producers are, there's not going to be a major bust-out. You might get one or two indie projects emerging, becoming film festival darlings, but that's as far as they're gonna get.

*(Of course now you've got DeNiro and Hoffman in the "Meet the Fockers" series, so you can see how the mighty fall.)

mike julianelle
9.14.10 @ 12:39p

You don't have to tell me - or any of the writers here - that it starts with the script and that writers are devalued. But the writers are never going to run things the way directors did in the late 60s/early70s. At best, they can work hand-in-hand with their directors, and will hopefully share similar enough sensibilities that both their visions can coexist and inform each other (Scorcese/Schrader, Polanksi/Towne, etc.). Studios don't respect writers, they see them as hired guns - the best way for a writer to get control is to find a champion, and the director is the best (only?) bet. or else they direct their own scripts, but modern day instances of someone being able to do both are few and far between (Kevin Smith) and instances of someone being able to do both (or, in the case of Smith, even one of them) well are basically non-existent.

As for Tarantino, yes, his movies are shallow, but they are movies about movies. They use genre tropes to shatter genres, when they aren't specifically referencing film-making itself. But regardless of what you think of his style, it's clear he at least HAS style, and technical chops - and that's ostensibly what film school teaches, at best. Which is why I used him as an example, as opposed to someone like Guy Ritchie, who may or may not have gone to film school but confuses noise and tricks with style when his movies are really just tales "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."

jason gilmore
9.14.10 @ 1:13p

@Russ - To your point, I neglected to mention that 5EP was written by a woman that I'm quite fascinated with named Carole Eastman. I didn't know where to fit her into this piece. Being a good friend of Jack's, she basically wrote the script for him. Rafelson put in his touches and voilĂ . But like Mike said, writers weren't being treated well in the 70s either. It was better but not good.

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