“Five Easy Pieces” (1970): Thoughts

Bobby works on oil rigs in southern California, hangs out with his girlfriend Rayette, and the two end up on a road trip to the Northwest to visit Bobby’s ill father. And while that’s the movie in a nutshell it says nothing about it.

We’re up the the 1970s now, and we began that decade with “Five Easy Pieces” (1970, from here FEP), a relatively early Jack Nicholson picture featuring a famous diner scene. I’d never seen the movie, never seen the scene, and only heard about the latter through oblique references; it was not a cultural touchstone of any sort for me. That’s just me admitting a certain ignorance, but at the same time it was a kind of liberation, as I could go into the film, knowing Nicholson was in it, but seeing Karen Black, not expecting her, and saying, “hey, that’s Karen Black!” or “oh my, it’s Sally Struthers pre-‘All in the Family’!”; it was a fresh and refreshing experience.


The film’s title refers to a beginner’s piano primer and also references the five classical pieces played during the movie — by Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Mozart –, but I think of these as also corresponding to five aspects or segments of the film. While the movie begins somewhat episodically, it seems to come into focus with these scenes clustering into several narrative and stylistic groups. A hypothesis framed while observing the first, hard shift was that there would be five such clusters and that they’d more or less correspond to a five-act structure:

  1. We have Bobby’s life with Rayette and Elton around L.A. doing work, relaxing, and so on. We have bowling, cards, drinking, verbal sparring. Life is routine; it is all quite episodic and we jump into the middle of scenes, the ‘during’ of an action without significant before or after. These are glimpses of life. In the end of the act Bobby is shaken out of it by (a) visiting his sister and finding out his father is ill (his past and future colliding in his present), (b) hearing from Elton that Rayette is pregnant (an uncertain future), and (c) seeing Elton arrested (the past catching up with him).
  2. We have a linear road trip divided into its own narrative arc. After deciding to go he has to decide whether or not to take Rayette (which he does). Then they pick up Palm and Terry (some tension with Rayette over this), which infuses their trip with a torrent of ideas. We have the (in)famous diner scene with its confrontation between Bobby and the waitress, the group leaving the diner, and our leads eventually dropping off Palm and Terry. The road trip ends as Bobby and Rayette reach a motel.
  3. Bobby returns to his family, without Rayette. It’s a different world, different architecture and objects, slower, more refined yet insular — and on an island –; he even dresses differently. Here his life is compartmentalized and limited to a singular domain (vs. the cycle of locations in the first part, and the linearity of the second). Life there is stasis, but Bobby is (a) always dissatisfied and (b) always in motion.
  4. Rayette shows up (intrudes) and Bobby’s two worlds collide. All is conflict under the surface waiting to break out. We have a dinner tantrum, verbal dueling with ‘intellectuals’, and a fight with the nurse (Spicer) [all fights with or about women].
  5. Closure and resolutions … Bobby with Catherine, who diagnoses and rejects him, lecturing him on love; Bobby alone with his father; and with Rayette, whom he leaves.


The movie’s “structure” is not limited to such an overarching formal overview.

Repetition and recycling, much like musical motifs, permeate FEP. We have the ‘active’ women Bobby sleeps with (Rayette, Betty, Catherine) and the colder, more intellectual ones with whom he does not (his sister Partita, Palm, Samia; the waitress stands apart). There’s the repetition of diner-bar locales (where Rayette works, the diner scene, Bobby drinking alone on the mainland). We have parallel traffic jams, one in which Bobby is stuck and one that he causes. Driving is a constant motif, but it’s not exactly a road movie. Music is only diegetic and therefore rare overall, yet it is constant in Bobby’s life.

Although it’s a movie about Bobby, Rayette receives some significant parallelism, notably two moments of verbal sparring centered around her in the second and fourth acts, both involving ‘intellectuals’ of sorts. During the road trip it’s her back and forth with Palm; toward the end it’s with or against Samia Glavia. Here, rather than elsewhere in the movie, Rayette’s traits and points of view — singing country music — are not merely presented or observed by others as standalone objects, but interact and conflict with other points of view. Both Palm and Samia are not merely Rayette’s intellectual opposites but also her sexual opposites, the former a lesbian and the latter described as celibate. Neither in engaged in the world; the former finds it full of filth and the latter abstracts everything to the level of philosophy and criticism without engaging it (such as not watching television).

Rayette and Bobby also get act I and V reversals. After a night of bowling in the first act Rayette sits alone in the car and Bobby berates her, tearing down her self-esteem, telling her that she’s a woman no man would want to flirt with (attacking her mood rather than her looks in this instance); this is one of several scenes in this segment in which Rayette and the audience wonder about why Bobby treats her so badly and why she is (still) with him. In the fifth, however, we have the counterpoint, as Rayette tells him, “There isn’t anybody gonna look after you and love you as good as I do.” It’s a scene also serving as rejoinder to Bobby’s last scene with Catherine (“A person who has no love for himself, no respect for himself […] How can he ask for love in return?”) a few minutes of screen time earlier. Bobby is negligent and borderline abusive, in short, a jerk; Rayette is needy, clingy, and dependent. Neither is “good” for the other, yet they’re in a localized minimum, a trough of sorts, with too much inertia and too little impetus to change.

Repetition and reversal are not unique to FEP, but they’re still significant poetic devices employed in an otherwise ‘realistic’ movie with a direct and uncomplicated narrative structure. On the way to Washington Bobby picks up two hitchhikers; on the way out he becomes one and, like Palm, heads toward Alaska. While Palm is mainly a sharp-tongued caricature during her time onscreen, and her lines come across almost as wonderfully improvised snippets even though they’re scripted, she’s also the key in a dialect apparent only in the conclusion. For Bobby living in California — and in Vegas before that — is a reaction against the ‘traditional’ and purpose-driven (children named after musical compositions, trained as musicians) life provided by his family and upbringing (our thesis or starting point); that life with Rayette is more sensual, unfocused, and inclusive of social spheres besides family (our antithesis). Rayette and Catherine are opposites in their interests, but both share seeking stability and having everyday activities. Both worlds — thesis and antithesis — are grounded in accepting modern life and the modern world (life with his family is full of instruments; life with Rayette is instrumental … working for money, driving to get to work, boozing and whoring to forget it all); in both Bobby feels the need to be in control and in both he is always unsatisfied. Returning to hitchhiking: the end is a reversal of picking up Palm and Terry, but it’s also a callback to something that should have been obvious. It appears to be the first time that Bobby is a passenger rather than the driver, but that’s not true, as toward the end of our “first act” he steps out of traffic, climbs in the back of a truck, and plays the piano … he’s plays, he shows joy, and he’s a passenger.


As for the “act structure”, just as a 3-act structure is deemed “natural” insofar as you have a beginning, middle, and end, a 5-act structure is “natural” insofar as a story has a starting point or introduction, a complication and rising action, a climax or turning point, that fallout from the point, and a resolution or conclusion.

It is therefore not surprising to find this structure in broad strokes in so many “traditional” narratives; it is not something creators have to consciously do and it’s not a sign of hidden meaning; it’s a relic a narratives of a certain kind. We therefore need a tighter definition of this structure in order to make it meaningful. To follow such a structure means more than just demonstrating these five story aspects in order; it also means at least roughly and partitioning them proportionally. As a counter-example we might consider a crime drama that has almost no introduction or groundwork laying to speak of — the characters may be known from previous episodes, their situation may be inferred from the genre, whatever –, and we might instead jump straight into an instantiating event that kicks off the rising action or development. Likewise a movie like “Bonnie and Clyde” starts out without any fuss or mess, without warming up.

Why would this even be relevant? FEP is a raw, poetic, mostly naturalistic, and in a way quite radical story. We think of it as part of the “New Hollywood”, it would these days be an “indie film”, and it’s a story focused on one disgruntled Modern that does not formulaically fit most of the genres in which it participates. But the movie is rather meticulously composed even as it smoothly flows.

Andrew Culberton writes:

The nature of the film is such that divulging the final scene reveals little. If Bobby has a “character arc,” it resides primarily outside the confines of the film. When the viewer comes in, much of the drama in Bobby’s life has already unfolded. Despite the film’s minimalist plot, it does possess a surprising revelation central to the story’s premise.

The plot is minimalist in terms of extra-personal stakes and twists and turns, but it’s hardly minimalist in terms of detail, little movements and moments that signify without abstracting the film to the realm of the merely symbolic. The acts as described are his character arc. Each of the acts has its own internal structure and is not just a plot point. The first introduces our characters not through exposition but through demonstrating their day to day lives, a blue collar routine that is far from ideal or idyll — and for which Bobby is in a way far too good … too good at cards, at bowling, with women … it all comes easily … — and into which other concerns intrude, making it unsustainable. It’s also intentionally misleading, withholding from us until near the end Bobby’s origin in an entirely different social class. The second has a beginning and end by virtue of having a starting point in California and destination in the Northwest; and it creates tension by constraining our characters in tight spaces. The third begins with Bobby’s — now Robert — intrusion and ends with Rayette’s, but likewise has an arc in its sequence of scenes that builds tension(s) and disturbs existing relationships; although the movie is about ever-moving Bobby, here he serves more as catalyst (intruding into Catherine’s life, needling his brother, by not interacting with Partita driving her toward Spicer) for others. Once Rayette arrives tensions move from building to bubbling and then to boiling over, progressing from a tantrum and retreat to verbal outbursts and finally fisticuffs … well, one-sided wrestling. The conclusion point-by-point resolves Bobby’s most significant relationships (bookended by Catherine and Rayette, his opposing love interests, rejected by one and rejecting the other), and finishes not by having him choose between the bourgeois or the blue collar, but by finally rejecting both.

Internally each act has its own structure, its own story; but each act also serves the whole, not just constructing but composing the story. Dissatisfaction is the end product of all attempted strategies: work and play, being on the road, family, conflict, and coming to terms.


Some associations, personal and otherwise …

… There’s a way in which the thematic parallels between FEP — “a moody, thoughtful character study of an alienated, misfit drifter and drop-out” — and a movie/story like “Bonnie and Clyde” — and “Clyde’s rise and self-destructive fall as an anti-authoritarian criminal gangster” — (both descriptions from Filmsite.com) are obvious: dissatisfied outsiders on the move, a brief family idyll, both set in concrete political-historical contexts, and in both cases protagonists whose outsider-lives are defined as reactions against certain societal or familial norms. Both movies defy easy genre classification, both feature great or famous actors in early roles, and so on. And of course the differences are even more obvious: the one is propulsive and almost always forward moving at great pace, the other is more languid and almost elliptical despite its linearity; one ends in the sudden full-stop of death, the other is in some ways sad but open-ended … they’re not at all the same stories, but they are products of a similar creative culture. There is little reason to smash them together except that I’ve watched them about a week apart. “Bonnie and Clyde” is exciting and fresh; “Five Easy Pieces” is personal.

… None of us wants to be Bobby Eroica Dupea, but it’s perhaps a sad sign of the times that we so easily — still! — see ourselves in him. The movie — right after Kent State, during bombings in Vietnam — is in some ways radical, but its critique of American life seems archaic insofar as its a rehash of early Thomas Mann and mid-life Hermann Hesse, among others. The yearning romantic who finds his passion in music was the subject of a work by the short-lived Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, the “Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar” (1797) and that’s clearly not Bobby Dupea in the making, but in the same course in which I first read that piece I was led to Mann’s “Tonio Kröger” (1901) and its attempted rejection of the bourgeois by Tonio, son of a practical merchant and an Italian artist. And later to Steppenwolf (1927) I moved, itself the story of an outsider intellectual and his problematic relationship to bourgeois society, a work that was “rediscovered” in the late-60s as New Hollywood and the counter-culture blossomed.

… Like Bobby I wish — or wished — to escape the top-down planning of the middle class; I fear the hand-to-mouth, bottom-up, cause-and-effect world of the working class. We suspect he’s disingenuous when Bobby tells Catherine he “feels nothing” when playing music, yet I can believe that he is hardened to “playing for …”, to music (art) being reduced to something so instrumental. Samia is — almost? — a caricature of a certain kind of intellectual, but her analysis and criticism is something I’m familiar with, cold and dead as it is; Palm is almost paranoid and puritan in her purging, but in her diagnostic ranting there are these flashes of truth it’s almost painful to recognize, even as we note that her conclusions are a weird kind of utopian nonsense.

… In the beginning of the movie Rayette, facing away from Bobby on the bed, says, “You are never satisfied,” to which he replies, “That’s right.” He refuses to be tied down; he won’t tell Rayette that he loves her. At that point in the movie it seems he’s a kind of American Dreamer not satisfied with his working class lot who wants more, as that’s all we’ve seen of him. Yet we learn to see his working class existence as a rejection of his privileged upbringing, his dissatisfaction with that. He can’t find satisfaction in returning home (the one person he cannot fight with is his father, whose stroke has left him unresponsive). There is nothing that will satisfy Bobby and he’s always moving, always on the move.

… In the figure of a former child prodigy for whom music has been greatly but not entirely ruined I recognize echoes from the Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide, which I read and reread in my childhood, always worrying about burning out.

… When I hear the title “Five Easy Pieces” and think of the limited but specific way music is used in it, I think back to “Nine Songs” (2004), which portrays the rise and fall of a romantic relationship as structured by nine concert performances, and in the structural parallels of the titles I in a way want to see the latter as a rejoinder to the former, perhaps a variation on a theme, even though it’s not. And even though Bobby Dupea heads toward the North Pole and Alaska, and in “Nine Songs” our male leads ends up in Antarctica, both outside society, though here he leaves her and there she leaves him.

And so I find it weird yet engaging that in FEP, a movie so concretely realized, lived-in, and idiosyncratic — so “for and of itself” in a way — , I can’t stop connecting it to other things.

V. Notes

See also:

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