Essentially a road movie that goes well into the past, Bob Rafelson’s 1970 Five Easy Pieces examines class relations in America through the eyes of a spoilt rebel, who is unsure whether to gurgle down beer in bowling alleys or sip wine with sophisticated and yet cold intellectuals.
Who is Robert Eroica Dupea? Is he an egocentric cynic – the unwanted consequence of a counterculture focused on self-improvement? Or a principled idealist, who likes to fight the conformist status quo? Is Dupea’s arrogance a sign of despair or the trait of a truly Übermensch? What is at the core of his dissatisfaction? What is behind his resentment?
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), from a wealthy musical family, lives in a trailer in California with his girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), works in an oil-rig and socialises with married couple Elton and Stoney. When he learns of his father’s worsening condition after a stroke, Bobby decides to go and visit his family in Washington State. Although Rayette is pregnant, Dupea wants to dump her, and once more hide behind typical behaviour. Later in the film, he himself confesses to his father: “I’m getting away from things that get bad… if I stay.”
The angst that permeates Five Easy Pieces, as depicted by Bobby’s outbursts of violence, hitchhiker Palm Apodaca’s (Helena Kallianiotes) rant on consumerism and filth, and Samia Glavia’s (Irene Dailey) petulant discourse on man’s inhumanity, might be understood as exclusively related to America in the 1970s. It is in fact – like Dupea’s trip itself – universal, in time and space.
..Robert Eroica Dupea: No Inner Feelings or Easy Pieces.
Bobby’s problem is mainly one of disconnection. Disconnection from every person he encounters and every place he inhabits. Disconnection from the ideals of both mainstream society and the alternative counterculture. Unlike the characters in Easy Riders (1969, Dennis Hopper), the film which propelled Nicholson to the forefront of his acting generation, Bobby could not stand being either a hippy or a lawyer.
Bobby Dupea is not fulfilled in either of his incarnations as a blue-collar smartass or an easy-going musical talent. But his frustration is not the result of confusion or indecisiveness. He is unhappy because he aims too high. There is a huge gulf between what he is aware of and desires and his ability to achieve such a goal. He seems lost, but is, in fact, living the life he has chosen. The problem is that the synthesis of the upper classes’ refinement and sophistication and the working man’s warmth and carefree spirit, which he is looking for, is unattainable,
When Bobby is at his family’s home he seduces his brother’s girlfriend Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), a confident and clear-minded young woman. Although they spend a romantic afternoon together and seem to have connected on a deeper level, few days later she declines his offer to leave with him. She understands that his inner conflict will curtail his chances of being happy. And at the cost of his personal happiness, Bobby insists on a fusion of two divergent ideals. And there lies Dupea’s tragic anti-hero’s relevance. He aims for the unattainable, and in the process is left with a restlessness that cannot be mitigated.
The scene at the diner, where Bobby fails to get an order of wheat toast, might be the most memorable one of the film, but it is not as significant for the understanding of his character as the one that follows it. Back in the car, after Bobby throws their drinks on the floor, in another outburst of violence, Palm Apocada, one of the hitchhikers, is mesmerised by Dupea’s quick wit. ‘Fantastic,’ she says ‘that you could figure that all out and lie that down on her so that you could come up with a way to get your toast!’ Bobby’s response (‘Yeah, well, I didn’t get it, did I?’) sums up exactly what is at the core of his self-inflicting pain. It is not knowledge or awareness that he lacks, but a willingness to compromise.
Suffocated by the snobbish attitude of his upper class family, he leaves home to live among working folks. Then, soon enough he finds himself among people with little sophistication. Time and again, Bobby displays an ambiguity of attitude and behaviour. First, he belittles and scolds his working mate Elton, then soon after Bobby rushes to help him in a fight. He claims to feel no emotion when playing a beautiful Chopin piece but is sensitive and affectionate with Catherine later on. Bobby despises Rayette’s lack of sophistication but comes to her rescue when she is mistreated by a guest of his brother.
This ambivalence, this near desperate balancing act of trying to synthesize contradictory ideals is the representation, on an individual level, of the logical consequences of the countercultural movement. The resulting struggle was not supposed to be part of the equation, but it is what we end up getting after the 60s and 70s tried to change the world. Youthful rebellion demanded more freedom, more rights and more justice, but we inherited a society that has been curtailing individual rights and freedoms for the last three decades now. Moreover, America at the beginning of the 21st Century is more unequal than ever.
Then, perhaps Robert Eroica Dupea is the perfect hero for our age – a cynic, ironic and ultimately tragic man of the people. Somehow, in Five Easy Pieces, he was already carrying the expectations of generations yet to come.