Blu-ray Review: Five Easy Pieces, Criterion Collection

Five Easy Pieces
Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, William Challee, Lois Smith, Susan Anspach, Ralph Waite
Blu-ray Release Date: June 23, 2015
Theatrical Release: September 11, 1970

For a brief moment of time Robert Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson), in probably the first time in a very long while, finds himself totally immersed in something that makes him oblivious to all the chaos and rampant disorganization plaguing his life. After a grueling day of work in a California oil field Bobby finds himself stuck in traffic with his friend and coworker Elton (Billy Green Bush).

The heat is unbearable and Bobby’s patience has long been approaching an inevitable explosion. Unable to restrain himself he gets out of his car mid-traffic to see what the hold-up is. Looking far ahead by standing on other vehicles stuck in traffic Bobby sees nothing responsible for the jam. Absolutely commanding his attention, though, is an upright piano on the bed of a truck that is being hauled away somewhere. He leaps on back of the truck, throws off the sheet covering the piano and displays his magnificent talent, that, up to this point in the film, we had no clue he possessed. Completely consumed by his playing he quickly forgets the bustle surrounding him, paying no attention when the truck begins to drift out of traffic and on to an exit that takes Bobby to a different part of town. But he doesn’t care.

This specific scene is so crucial to the film because it reveals something in Bobby that makes us ask questions such as: What happened to this man? Why did he give up playing? What is he looking for in life? These questions are enormous ones and we perceive in astonishment when director Bob Rafelson, with an immaculate script by Carole Eastman (credited as Adrien Joyce), grants us access to Bobby’s former life, one that is in complete contrast with his current oil-rigging days.

Five Easy Pieces is a haunting film. One that inspects the existence of a man and yet finding no true diagnosis of why one is continuously confounded by life. This was a novelty in 1970 and would still be one today thanks to the depths that are invested in Nicholson’s character. The film considers the life of a man (Nicholson conveys confusion and angst better than anyone) whose dreams and ambitions are deceased or on the verge of it. With this film we trespass into a man’s life that has no true meaning and where purpose is indiscoverable. And yet we are intrigued beyond comprehension. This is because at one point or another we may have all experienced such a sinister day that dared us to ask ourselves “What’s my life amounting to?”

With this bleak and despairing premise Rafelson crafts a wonderful film that endeavors to make something out of the pitiable condition that Bobby is experiencing. When Bobby sees that piano it is a faint reminder of why he was placed on this earth and soon his angst and depression dissipates, but rapidly overtakes him once he is done playing and he has to go back to his tiny home, rigorous job and his annoying, yet overwhelmingly loving girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black).

Born into a privileged family replete with musicians, Bobby Eroica Dupea, whose middle name evokes Beethoven’s Third Symphony, is a tempest that hardly relents. Whether he is working on oilrigs, cracking open a beer at home, or trying to order a meal at a diner, one can sense a palpable emotion struggling to be kept at bay. Some urges are kept at bay, while others instinctively emerge from within his deepest confines, ones that scarcely convey his blue-collar upbringing.

We are all familiar with Bobby’s chicken salad sandwich outburst. Let’s skip that one and look at another one of his outbursts that seems to cut really deep. When he and Elton double date at a bowling alley Bobby can barely stomach Rayette’s inability to not roll a gutter ball. When she does get a strike he dismisses her happiness saying, “You throw the big Z’s for 19 frames, and then you throw a strike on the last ball of a losing game. Wonderful. Just wonderful.” If Bobby isn’t happy then no one should be happy.

Once informed that his father (William Challee) has had his second stroke Bobby sinks into deep thought, partly because he feels sorry for his father but mostly because he knows he has to go back to a life that he neglected for the longest time. Situated in a beautiful idyllic rainy Washington state, the Dupea residence is a house full of music and refinement but lacking true affection. Bobby’ sister, Partita (Lois Smith), and brother, Carl (Robert Waite), along with Carl’s girlfriend, Catherine (Susan Anspach), are all still living there and all are musical prodigies. Rafelson presents this new locale to us in a very becoming manner (Laszlo Kovacs‘ cinematography is perfection), but he never provides us with clear evidence of why Bobby chose to abandon a life of potential riches, refinement, and fame. Neither does Bobby.

It is Bobby’s inability to communicate and inability to conceal his deep inner emotions that render him a difficult character to fully comprehend. Neither Rafelson nor Eastman expects their audience or their characters to embrace or faintly understand Bobby. How can we when Bobby hardly provides himself with any affection?

Five Easy Pieces was made in 1970 when American independent cinema was just starting to bloom. Rafelson and his friends, who were responsible for New Hollywood (a movement akin to the independent films of John Cassavetes) decided to make films that were slightly in the vein of 1960s Italian cinema that dreadfully contemplated man’s existence. Michelangelo Antonioni was an apparently huge influence on Rafelson. Gathering ideas from Antonioni, Rafelson tried to capture the isolated, lonely perspective of Bobby Dupea. He succeeds beyond expectation, creating one of cinema’s most existentially haunting films. The search for meaning and happiness can be endless. At the end of the day one has to stare back at the reflection in the mirror. Do I want to go at life alone, or do I want to go at it by myself?

Special Features:

Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography László Kovács, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson
Soul Searching in “Five Easy Pieces,” a 2009 video piece featuring Rafelson
BBStory, a 2009 documentary about the legendary film company BBS Productions, with Rafelson; actors Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and Ellen Burstyn; filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom; and others
Documentary from 2009 about BBS featuring critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley
Audio excerpts from a 1976 AFI interview with Rafelson
Trailers and teasers
PLUS: An essay by critic Kent Jones



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