A month or so ago, I wrote about one weekend I spent lying in bed doing nothing but watching TV. It was initially depressing, of course, but at one point a string of fluffy "feel-good" movies started coming on on various channels, and I ended up getting in a pretty good mood. (I remember one was "Serendipity," another "Harvey Girls"...)
A couple of nights ago, the exact OPPOSITE happened: I actually wasn't depressed at all, and then, on TCM, came the Big Downer "Five Easy Pieces" (with Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach). Jesus!
I'd seen it years and years ago, and loooooved it: the intensity, the "its ugly truthfulness about human/societal relations," etc. etc. But way back when I first saw it, I was just a kid and not stuck in the same sort of quagmire that Nicholson's character's in... Back then, I could watch the misery disinterestedly, as "art." (And, boy, did I feel grown up and voyeuristic getting to see what I felt/knew were real adults with real angst not connecting with each other.)
Watching it this time, I still admired the truthfulness of it. But I certainly wasn't a kid, removed from its harsh realities, which made it pretty depressing viewing.
Nicholson's character first appears as a working-class guy -- drinking, fucking, bowling, working in an oil-field. But he's annoyed most of the time. By his guffawing drinking buddy; by his idiotic fucks (one is Sally Struthers, of all people!); and especially by his simpering live-in girlfriend (Black), whose overt neediness and constant playing of Tammy Wynette records around the house drive him nuts. (The film's credits open to "Stand By Your Man," and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and a couple of other of her songs are also featured. I was torn -- I love Tammy Wynette! But the movie programmed me to cringe whenever one of her songs came on, because I knew that Black was about to act in an embarrassing fashion.)
On the surface, the above sounds like a comedy. Done today, it would be. But as is, everything was kind of painful to watch. Nicholson's no better than his buddy: He makes the same dumb jokes, participates in the same mindless activities. Nicholson's no better than his fucks: He's just as bored and light-weight-sleazy as they are. He's no better than his girlfriend: He might have the upper hand in the relationship because he's clearly not in love with her, but she is also, despite her clinginess, portrayed as a genuinely loving person, while Nicholson's behavior toward her is often unnecessarily harsh and cruel.
With these initial scenes, you might think: "Well, Nicholson's mean, but maybe he's just a restless, sensitive soul. He just needs to get away from these yahoos and he'll be fine..." A-ha! Here comes the plot instigator: He finds out that his father has had a stroke, and guilt propels him to return home, which he's apparently been away from for years (without anyone there knowing his whereabouts).
When he gets back home, we learn that he's from a very wealthy family, that he used to be a talented classical pianist (oh, so THAT's why so anti-Tammy...)And that he hated/hates his pretentious, pseudo-intellectual upper-crust family/friends just as much as he hates the working-class companions in his new life.
His brother's wife (Anspach) is one glimmer of hope for him -- she's a free spirit, too: smart, nice, insightful, a pianist herself, AND she fucks him (all good qualities). But she's also self-aware and realistic: Despite their sex and conversation, she's happy with her life. And he's obviously not. No, aside from the fucking, she doesn't want to be with him. Why on earth would she want to run off and be with someone who hates himself?
In a film made today, at this point Jack would now turn on the devilish, boyish charm and win the girl over, convincing her to dump her staid life and run off into the Great Unknown with him (while assuring us viewers with a wink that he's not mean any more, that this wonderful woman has brought out his "real" self). But this is an adult, realistic movie, made in 1970, and Anspach is exactly right: Nicholson's a desperate, not-very-emotionally-attractive mess. And he's ultimately left to his own devices.
Funnily, in a grim way, his path at the end of the film had been suggested earlier by a verbose anti-society lesbian hitchhiker that he and Black picked up while driving to his family's home. The hitchhiker had been as annoying in her own cliche-ridden "society sucks" way as had Black in her "stand-by-your-man" vapidity, yet... something about what she was blathering on about obviously stuck in his mind... She had, after all, applauded his denigration of a literal-minded roadside waitress...
You know, after writing the above, I'm not so depressed about the film after all... I think when I was watching it (at 4am) a couple of nights ago, I had no emotional shield up. I was seeing myself in almost every character. I often feel extremely dissatisfied and judgmental, like Nicholson, but I also saw how ugly he was acting and how unlovable he was. I saw how annoying Black was, but also realized that I sometimes act just as clingily and don't censor myself when I find myself repulsing people with my enthusiasms. I saw myself in the angry, annoyingly grim hitchhiker. And in the smug, condescending "intellectual" expounding at length during a get-together at the family home.
Whew! What a mirror!
Stepping back a bit, though: Sure, I'm unpleasant in many ways. For a film to make me think about my own behavior and life (for a film to make anyone think about their own behavior and life) is a real artistic accomplishment. This movie wasn't didactic, though. While it did portray Tammy-fans in a bad light, it also shone the same dark light on the opposite end of the spectrum. And on the in-betweens, like the hitchhiker (although the latter was, ultimately, the source of a slightly enlightening, glimmer).
"Five Easy Pieces," now that I think about it more, reminds me of one movie that I've long put on my "Top Twenty Favorites" list: "Naked," directed by Mike Leigh. David Thewlis's character was a complete loser, on the one hand; yet, at the end as he was hobbling off down the street and rejecting the figurative hand of hope that had been held out to him, a loser completely true to himself.
A loser terribly triumphant.