01 April 2022

52 for '22: Five Easy Pieces

Movie: Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Method: Netflix DVD

Just another day of sun!

Why Did I watch this?

Oh, I forget. It's been on my Netflix DVD queue forever and is part of me trying to burn through a lot of it this year. I'm sure I put it on because it has fame as an early Jack Nicholson role that cemented his stardom in the early 70s and it has quite a laudable following. As for what pushed me to watch it at this particular moment in time...I dunno. It was just sticking out to me, really as something very different than what I had been watching.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Shit, like most of these movies, basically nothing. It's amazing how these films are these indelible parts of our culture but we have no idea what they're even about. Or at least I didn't. I knew it had Jack Nicholson in it, it was from the early 70s, it was some kind of drama, and so really I could piece together that it would be some kind of New Hollywood, likely borderline experimental, conflicted domestic drama film.

How Was It?

I didn't know what the hell I was watching here. Jack Nicholson is with this girl that he clearly hates, they go bowling and she's terrible and he gets embarrassed, then he's working on an oil rig with his buddy who gets arrested for some reason, and then he goes to visit his sister who is a classical pianist, but so is he, then his dad gets sick and he goes to Washington State where he actually comes from a renowned wealthy family, and then he cries, gets pissed and takes a truck up to Alaska.

That's this whole movie. A lot of it seems to just kind of flow into the next sequence very casually, which I didn't totally appreciate when I was watching it. I had to sit with it for a second and just contemplate how much these early 70s dramas are drastically different from modern films. It is said often that they wouldn't make a movie like this today, and it's really true. Studios would just never ever make a film like this that lacks a driving narrative.

Instead it's really a character piece, although Jack's character is hard to pin down. He's just kind of a dick who is unhappy everywhere. He hates the woman he's with, he doesn't really like his friends, he thinks he's better than them, he hates his job, he's just eternally dissatisfied. There are hints to overarching themes, notably when they pick up hitchhikers headed up to the clean pastures of Alaska to get away from the filth and grime of commercial capitalism. Their inclusion was baffling to me upon first viewing, because they just pop in, spew a bunch of environmentalist clean living stuff and then peace out. But really, they're there because they're just like Jack, except they're open about it. Nicholson keeps trying to fit in but he can't. He can't live the blue collar lifestyle, but he also hates the rich snob lifestyle.

Apparently the famous scene is where he tries and fails to order toast at a diner. It is the most entertaining scene, and equally baffling that this restaurant makes no substitutions and can't give him toast. So he orders a chicken salad sandwich minus the lettuce, mayonnaise, and chicken. It's maybe a take on how much we just follow the natural order of things that don't make any sense and lack any kind of free judgment, but it also serves to further isolate Jack. Whether white or blue collar he can't even order the meal he wants. He just doesn't fit in anywhere.

Once they get up to Washington he tries to bang his brother's fiance and just kind of pouts around until his girlfriend shows up after she spent two weeks at a motel and ran out of money. It's insane how he treats this woman and how she puts up with him. To be fair, she is fantastically annoying, played with aplomb by Karen Black, but he just keeps hanging out with her. Maybe because he feels guilt built up from leaving other women or his family in his life? He's clearly conflicted when he tries to break up with her and peace out to Washington without her before he relents and brings her along. It's just another example of how stuck he feels, but he's really just a dick for no reason.

There is a nice scene though where he defends her hick ways to possibly the most pretentious character ever put on television. Anyway, he can't bang the other girl he wants so he just leaves after having a breakdown in front of his wheelchair-bound father who may or may not even be able to understand and process what he's saying. It's as close we get to any kind of vulnerability from him and it's truly amazing how much acting Nicholson can do with just his eyebrows.

After all this we get to the end, which is heartbreaking, but also if you follow the throughline, expected. At a gas stop he ditches his hick girlfriend and hops in a logging truck for even more remote country, the naked wilds of Alaska! He's been drifting around and just screwing up everywhere he goes, and even though he was estranged from his father, his family really was the last bit tying him to anything. He has a bit of remorse, but just can't stand anything and decides to go where it's clean. The last shot of the cloudy dismal day as Karen Black just wanders around, not sure if she should wait or leave is haunting as hell.

We never really find out the source of Nicholson's anger or trauma nor is it really resolved. It's fun when movies used to do this, just show characters instead of explaining everything. This is a great film although it's admittedly a little tough to get into, although I think most of that is just our modern film brains being really compounded by a film that explains nothing, starts right away, and then just keeps chugging with slice of life stuff until it just sort of ends.

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