Essay #6, Five Easy Pieces

Click here for explanation of the essays. My last essay to date (two more coming eventually though) is focused on Five Easy Pieces (1970, dir. Bob Rafaelson). I’d say it’s the best one since Nashville? It did get the highest grade and the most praise.

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Disassembling Five Easy Pieces

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970) is primarily focused on Bobby Dupea, an oil field worker who at first glance appears to be a bit of a loser. He cheats on his mentally unstable waitress girlfriend Rayette, and spends most of his free time drinking and sleeping with other women alongside his equally lazy friend Elton. However, he is actually from a family of talented pianists and intellectuals who he has chosen to reject. He then finds out his father has suffered two strokes from his pianist sister and decides to travel from California to Washington in order to visit him (reluctantly bringing Rayette along), and along the way, is forced to confront the conflict between the highbrow and the lowbrow lives he lives, before ultimately rejecting both in a case of self-destructive behavior.

The film opens with a shot of what appears to be a landscape before we realize that it is some Earth that has been scooped up by a bulldozer [00:14-20]. The very first sound the viewer hears, which runs over most of these shots, is the bulldozer’s loud engine. It is nothing more than a loud, tuneless noise, which serves as contrast to the sophistication of the piano’s music that Bobby was brought up with-we the audience do not expect a film about a family of intellectuals from these opening shots. The dirty but wide open appearance of the oil fields is also heavily contrasted later on when Bobby visits his family. This motif of the contrast between sophistication and a lack of it is repeated heavily throughout the film, i.e. when a scene of Bobby visiting his sophisticated pianist sister is followed by an incredibly jarring transition to Bobby having violent sex with a woman named Betty as the camera tracks them in a manner that is incredibly disorienting [34:48-36:00]

The song playing over the opening credits and as Bobby comes home from work is “Stand by Your Man,” which leads us to the introduction of Rayette as the song finishes, where the first words heard are her saying she wants to play it again, revealing that the music was in fact diegetic and Rayette likely knows all about Bobby’s affairs [3:10-12]. This will not be the last time that Rayette uses country music, specifically songs by Tammy Wynette, to deal with her feelings over Bobby’s casual cruelty to her in the relationship. After Bobby returns home one day later in the film, Rayette is once again listening to country music to deal with her feelings, in this case the song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, while lying in bed [36:11].

Bobby criticizes the song, saying it’s a question of “musical integrity,” a hint at his knowledge of more stereotypically highbrow songs [3:24]. Rayette herself is portrayed as a ditz who clearly loves Bobby too much and is sadly all too willing to put up with his harsh treatment of her admittedly annoying behaviors.

Rayette tries to needle Bobby into helping her pick out a song for her attempts at a singing career, but when he is casually dismissive of her, she plays flirty, saying she’ll go out with Bobby or stay in with him if he tells her that he loves her, a typical example of her irritating moodiness that earns her ire from the more educated characters of the story [4:25-37]. He avoids saying it, and she goes from pouty, to giggling and embracing Bobby quickly the minute he says something else to her [4:50-5:03]. Rayette’s treatment by Bobby is another case of him being unable to make a choice and thus rejecting both options. He is clearly uninterested in a relationship with her, but he is aware of how emotionally needy she is and how badly rejection will hurt her, so he is simply dismissive to her. Even this does not end well for Bobby, with his avoidance of responsibility causing him too much guilt to continue functioning in his present life.

We then see Bobby and Rayette playing against Elton and his girlfriend in a couples’ bowling night [5:05-8:23]. In addition to meeting Elton, who is established as immature and sleazy, Rayette is once again treated badly by Bobby due to her poor bowling performance. Everyone except Bobby leaves (a common trend), and he settles the bill [8:43-49]. Two women in the bowling alley then make advances on him due to thinking he is a salesman from a televisions shopping show [8:50-9:00].

The two women are portrayed as being rather dumb, vacantly chewing gum (a motif that reappears with Rayette and Elton’s girlfriend to signify a lack of intelligence) and introducing themselves as “Betty and Twinkie,” with the latter going by that name for the nonsense reason of “she’s so twinkie!” [9:14-23] We are reunited with them at Elton’s trailer, where Bobby and Elton are with Betty and Twinkie while wearing very little clothing [15:28], firmly establishing “Stand By Your Man’s” earlier allusion to Bobby cheating on Rayette with a similar type of woman, reinforced after a monologue from Betty that demonstrates a lack of intelligence and a similar voice to Rayette’s [15:41-16:16].

Bobby and Elton then go to work, get stuck in traffic, and Bobby leaves the car to play a piano on the back of a truck while the car horns honk and Elton laughs idiotically [19:07-20:20]. This is effectively a summing up of the themes of the movie in one image, the conflict between the sophisticated and lowbrow lifestyles Bobby must choose between. It is the one time where he is able to have both, with the car horns complimenting the piano in an odd way.

After a fight at work with Elton where Elton (in a surprising twist of character) reveals that Rayette is pregnant and tells Bobby off for his treatment of Rayette [24:11-25:23]. A furious Bobby decides to quit his job, but Elton is then immediately arrested afterwards for committing a robbery [26:17-27:30]. Bobby travels to Los Angeles to see his sister, Partita, a pianist who has an unfortunate habit of singing opera while playing and does not like taking breaks [29:05-30:40]. She is essentially the opposite of Bobby, as she strives for the highest possible level of sophistication rather than a straddling of the middle. We also learn about Mr. Dupea’s two strokes from Partita, which Bobby immediately wishes he could not hear as a denial mechanism and to avoid facing his past rejection of his family’s ideals [32:55-33:20], but he decides to visit anyway.

When Bobby tells Rayette he is heading home to visit his father for a few weeks during the “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” scene, she immediately assumes he is leaving for good [37:12-24], so he reluctantly takes her along. She becomes much more affectionate and sings a much more optimistic song in “When There’s A Fire in Your Heart” on the road, yet another depressingly ironic justification for Bobby’s behavior [40:09-28]. The song is interrupted by the couple witnessing two women who have crashed their car on the side of the road (who are bizarrely arguing over which one was driving, firmly establishing them as unstable), and he is roped into giving them a ride [40:43-41:11].

The women, Palm and Terry, are going to Alaska [41:43]. Terry (a name that is very similar to Rayette) is quiet and when Palm is asked why she wants to go to Alaska, Terry replies with “She wants to live there because it’s cleaner” in a rather resigned way, as if she was being forced to live in Alaska, more or less outright confirming a lesbian relationship between the two [41:50]. Palm is far more vocal and ridiculous, insisting that she is going to Alaska because it is cleaner and ranting about the “crap” and “filth” that mankind is selling, repeating the words incessantly and with great emphasis and getting into an argument with Rayette when she mocks her waitress job and calls her “Mac,” [42:36-45:12], which serves as reinforcement for a scene that in itself reinforces Bobby’s issues with women.

The group stops at a diner and a waitress refuses to give Bobby his ideal meal, saying “no substitutions” [45:16-25]. A defensive Palm calls the waitress “Mac,” a callback to the fact that Rayette is a waitress to make Bobby’s upcoming outburst even more psychologically twisted [46:02]. He eventually snaps and tells the waitress to “hold the chicken between her knees” before sweeping everything off the table [46:40-54]. Back in the car, Palm praises Bobby before ranting about how she hates people, a hint that while she may be unstable, she is probably a better match for Bobby than Rayette, complete with both of them treating waitresses/their partners poorly [46:55-47:16]. We also get shots of Rayette and Terry sleeping when Palm is ranting [47:17-30], underlining the parallels of Rayette/Terry, which thus leads to Bobby/Palm comparisons.

Eventually, the ladies get dropped off on the side of the road in Washington, and Bobby immediately makes a remark at their motel over Rayette’s prior suicide threats and constant talking, to which Rayette responds with loudly counting sheep to fall asleep until Bobby has sex with her [49:40-51:07]. Bobby makes the long trip alone to his family’s house, where the contrast to the oil fields is made quickly apparent upon arrival-it is clean and filled with piano music (which becomes louder the closer Bobby gets to seeing his family members in the first shots of him arriving and is frequently used to signal a foul change in mood from Bobby), but also feels claustrophobic and is shot level with Bobby to emphasize this [53:23-54:54]. Bobby sees his father (along with Partita), but Mr. Dupea is wheelchair ridden, needs help from Partita in getting his hair cut, and does not recognize Bobby nor speak [55:42]. The family dinner that follows is quiet, with no conversation for what feels like a long time and shots of the family members in close-up with their eyes darting around and watching everyone as they silently eat [55:43-56:00].

When the conversation eventually starts up, it is awkward and stilted, with Bobby’s brother Carl and his fiancée Catherine talking about themselves, only inquiring about Bobby’s piano playing on a personal level, and making tone-deaf remarks like calling the more sympathetic (and more genuinely interested in Bobby’s welfare) family member Partita “Penis Envy” (the sort of joke that Elton or Rayette would never make) and basically implying that Bobby’s various jobs are a joke [56:01-58:16]. Bobby also unwillingly goes by an entirely different identity at his family home when taking to Carl/Catherine, the more fittingly formal name of Robert.

Bobby and Catherine’s relationship is messy, with a moment of Catherine singing opera while playing the piano hinting at similarities between her and Bobby’s only ally in Partita [59:44-54]. She also has a similar hairstyle to Rayette, essentially making her a blend of his two ideal types of women and lifestyle. He immediately begins flirting with her one day and it is reciprocated [1:00:15-30]. It quickly becomes plain that they are not compatible when she mocks his job performing piano for a Vegas musical revue and he responds by launching into a phony “lowbrow” musical number that irritates the snobby, elitist Catherine and Carl [1:02:34-03:14]. There is also a scene in which Bobby plays a piece on the piano for Catherine while the camera focuses on Carl’s violin and family photos, hinting at the inability to escape memory [1:08:57-11:11]. She is moved by the piece, but he brushes her off, saying he picked the easiest piece that he knew and there was no feeling in his playing, before flirting with her again as she storms off due to embarrassment [1:11:13-12:00].

When they meet by a shelf containing some bath oils, Bobby’s typical response of being dismissive to a woman before trying to flirt with them is attempted again. Catherine denies any reciprocated interest before going to take a bath with the oils [1:12:15-59]. We get echoes of both the restaurant scene and Bobby’s paralell in Palm when Bobby once again goes into a rage and sweeps everything off the ledge, while calling the oils “crap,” only for Catherine to rebuff him [1:12:59-13:18]. She ultimately has sex with him, but dismisses him immediately afterwards.

Rayette shows up the next day and immediately gets on everyone’s nerves due to her tactlessness and the Dupeas’ snobbery, most notably when she asks Catherine about her (near-identical) hairstyle [1:16:03-17:22]. Bobby leaves the dinner angrily but is totally unable to escape due to another Tammy Wynette song, “Don’t Touch Me,” playing at the bar he goes to [1:18:05].

He returns to the home, hungover, where an intellectual friend of the family, Samia, claims that aggression is part of human nature and love is a problem. Catherine ends up storming off due to how condescending Samia is, and when Rayette makes unhelpful remarks due to her inability to comprehend the conversation, Samia uses them as examples to make her point [1:20:28-23:09]. Bobby replies by calling Samia “a pompous celibate” and “full of shit,” yet another case of contrasting lifestyles, as well as it being the first time he has defended Rayette [1:23:11-33]. He goes looking for Catherine but finds Partita with Mr. Dupea’s male nurse, and proceeds to promptly prove Samia’s point about aggression by fighting until he is knocked down [1:23:41-24:53]. Samia is both the intellectual snob that Bobby makes her out as and someone who is proven right in her ideas.

We cut to Catherine telling Bobby that a relationship with them will not work out due to his lack of self-respect, respect for others, or love for anything, but he calls the family home a “rest home asylum” and is completely unable to understand why anyone would want to live in Washington with Carl [1:25:11-26:32]. He then talks to his father, admitting that he has failed but completely unable to explain why other than a vague and likely false rationalization of his lack of talent at the piano [1:27:12-30:03].

After attempting to leave without telling anyone (although he ends up saying goodbye only to Partita), Bobby and Rayette leave [1:30:04-38]. Rayette sings the same song Bobby heard in the bar while kissing him as he drives, and when he predictably reacts to it with hostility, she finally has an outburst over how badly he treats her all the time and points out that she is the only one who will ever truly love him [1:31:23-32:59]. She is not entirely correct due to Partita, but Bobby ignores her. When they arrive at a gas station, he gives her his wallet to buy coffee and leaves his jacket behind in the men’s room, looking into the mirror before and after he does this in an attempt at seeing if he has been able to escape himself [1:33:13-35:17].

A truck has pulled into the gas station and Bobby hitches a ride, claiming that he lost everything except the little clothing he has on in a car fire-“Everything got the shit burned out of it” [1:35:35-36:10]. He is warned that the weather is going to get incredibly cold, but refuses offers of a jacket from the driver as we see Rayette looking around for the now-departed Bobby [1:36:24-37:21]. With his reiterations about “shit” and heading north, it seems incredibly likely that Bobby has thrown away everything he has in life just to travel to Palm’s illusion of a clean place in Alaska, as she is depressingly the closest thing he has to a kindred spirit.

Bobby’s inability to find a place where he fits in is never given a full backstory, with his conversation with his father being too vague and hinting at old history that we are unable to explore due to the circumstances. He definitely reflects a certain product of discontentment from the late 1960s/early 1970s who would go on to become a figure of rebellion later in the decade. The film’s ending is cynical no matter the time period, but now that it has been over 40 years, Bobby’s escaping of his issues with women, family, and society by going to a mystical “clean” place feels like both an indictment and an inevitability. The character of Bobby is a product of his era, but he is not let off the hook for treating the people who are kind to him so badly, and his twisted issues with the women and family in his life are displayed fully due to the film being first and foremost a character study of a damaged individual who is unable to cope with conflict and suffers throughout the film for it.

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