‘Hiroshima mon amour’

Hiroshima (1)

The first thing we see is a textured image of ash covered bodies. Indistinctly illuminated limbs are entwined in what appears to be a passionate embrace. Glistening particles of dust sprinkle down like snowfall. Then comes the dialogue. A woman recalls the devastating effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945. She says she saw it all. A man says she didn’t see a thing. “How could I not have seen it?” she questions. We see images of it, but some of it is staged, presented for the camera, possibly from her point of view. That is, if she’s telling the truth. There is a graphically unsettling montage of photographs, reconstructions, and Japanese films, all chronicling the attack; there is a morbid museum containing artifacts of that fateful day, haunting reminders of the physical and material destruction. There are also atomic tour busses and gift shops. Are there explanations to be found in these images, those real and those created, those authentic and those developed into a capitalistic commodity? We hear statistics and see newsreels—documentary evidence. Do these make her memories real? Do they help us to understand what the explosion was like?

Hiroshima (4)

Though stated far less poetically expressive than the film itself is, this is essentially how Hiroshima mon amour begins. Alain Resnais’ staggering 1959 work, a French/Japanese coproduction, begins with this assembly of heart wrenching imagery and disembodied voices—a man and a woman’s—lasting for about 15 minutes. The physical experience of the then and now is represented by the depiction of this ash and body fusion, signifiers of death and life. During this abstract compilation, that which is vividly realistic or sufficiently fabricated is gradually given a thematic crescendo, as from the horror comes rebirth, renewal, survival, strength, and perseverance. The Japanese people, so utterly devastated by the assault, carry on and rebuild. What’s more is the possibility that love, too, can emerge from the ruins. Perhaps not immediately, perhaps not in 1945, but in 1959, years later, when superficial and far deeper wounds have both been healed.

This is where the film proper starts, and with this powerful preamble, Hiroshima mon amour establishes a context that will temper every scene to follow. Ultimately, it’s a love story, but it’s a love story irreversibly influenced by war. As Resnais scholar François Thomas suggests in an interview contained on the outstanding new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Hiroshima mon amour exists against something of an atomic landscape, where the bomb is not front and center, as it is in the opening, but hovering omnipresent in the background.

She is “Elle” (Emmanuelle Riva, in her first leading film role). He is “Lui” (Eiji Okada, a veteran with more than 25 films to his credit). She is French. He is Japanese. Both are in their early 20s and both are never named. She is an actress in Hiroshima to make a “film about peace.” They meet, they fall in love; they are both married, they must leave one another. Hiroshima mon amour is, then, a love story.

Hiroshima (2)

But that’s not really what the film is about. Like Resnais’ brilliant follow-up, Last Year at Marienbad (1961),Hiroshima mon amour is about the fallibility and function of memory, about where lies and truth merge and what distinguishes one or the other, and whether or not that designation is subjective or objective. “Have you ever noticed people have a way of noticing what they want?” he says. “I noticed you. That’s all.” Is that all? Do the past and the context of the present cease in their importance when trumped by an instantaneous, passionate observation? Is that where truth lies?

There’s a break in the developing romance when, over several glasses of beer, she recounts a moment from her past, one she did actually experience (we suppose). In her hometown of Nevers, during the occupation, she has a brief relationship with a German soldier. She is disgraced and condemned, by her family and her community. Her German lover is killed and she is stowed away in a cellar, only later being allowed to flee during night. During her bicycle trek to Paris, Hiroshima is attacked (so she wasn’t, in fact, there). In recounting this period in her life, she tells “Lui” just enough, but does she tell him, and therefore us, everything? We see her narrative in flashback, but given the nature of Hiroshima mon amour, how those events truly transpired is up for debate. In any case, what she has just told him she hasn’t told anyone, not even her husband. This makes “Lui” ecstatic. He’s overjoyed to be the only one who knows, to be the only one to have shared in this private memory. It is, to him, the ultimate evidence of their intimacy and trust. In this memory is their deepest love. Perhaps paradoxically, though, in retelling this personal experience, she is also keeping alive her deceased lover, if only though her memory and her recitation, even perhaps projecting their love onto that which she now has with “Lui,” which is likewise ill fated.

If the basic love story of Hiroshima mon amour comes across as less than unique—a brief encounter between doomed lovers—Resnais’ presentation amplifies the romance to make it something special. To a certain extent, Resnais got away from this after the 1960s, but here, as much as anywhere else in his early oeuvre, every image is so obviously constructed with great care that even the most banal moments are visually remarkable. Every single shot is lit and composed in such an overtly formalized fashion that a still frame taken from any part of the film is, in itself, even out of context, truly a thing of beauty.

Hiroshima (3)

All technical facets of Hiroshima mon amour are exceptional, making it the tremendous film that it is on so many levels. The black and white cinematography by Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny is dazzling (Vierny, who worked with Resnais on the great 1955 short Night and Fog, as well as Last Year at Marienbad). In their respective scenes and countries, Takahashi and Vierny utilize differing film stocks, focal lengths, and assorted visual strategies, yet everything seamlessly flows into the whole. Also receiving dual credit are the film’s composers, Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. While this film was released before both musicians would do their finest and most recognizable work — for Godard and Truffaut in the case of Delerue, for Antonioni, specifically  L’Avventura  (1960),  L’Eclisse (1962),  and Red Desert (1964),  in the case of Fusco — their work on Hiroshima mon amour combines their particular talents for romanticism and other-worldly unease. As Kent Jones notes in an essay that accompanies the Criterion release, “It’s possible that Hiroshima mon amour is the first modern sound film in every aspect of its conception and execution—construction, rhythm, dialogue, performance style, philosophical outlook, and even musical score.” One can see how the visual and aural so expertly mesh when “Elle” walks the neon Hiroshima streets one evening, the images of which are cut with shots of the dilapidated, less modern Nevers. Over this is the score: modern, jazzy, wistful. The result is a dual city symphony that reflects the vibrant present and the forlorn past of the two locations and of the young woman herself.

Save for the opening of the film, none of this would work as well as it does were it not for Riva and Okada. Spurred on by Marguerite Duras’ Oscar-nominated screenplay, a work of ostentatious stylization in the best possible sense, Riva and Okada epitomize the type of “art film” acting of the period, with gestures, comments, and emotions all heightened and not always reasonable, yet no less engaging.

Hiroshima (1)

There is the sense throughout Hiroshima mon amour that the two characters aren’t necessarily what they seem, that they aren’t singular people but are representative of their nationalities, and that theirs is a cultural romance as much as it is an individual one. The movie began as a documentary short about the bomb (presumably in the form of the completed film’s opening). Only later did Resnais and Duras decide to fashion a fictional story from the actual events. So perhaps as a result, the literal relationship between “Elle” and “Lui” is somewhat secondary; their deeper connection is a symbolic reckoning of French and Japanese reactions to the war, specifically the bombing, at the time and as years pass. Such an interpretation is hammered home in the film’s concluding sequence, when “Elle” and “Lui” call each other by their respective birth cities rather than their real names.

Finally, it’s hard to watch Hiroshima mon amour and not politicize the film, especially when viewing it in America and, I would assume, Japan. When “Lui” asks “Elle” what the bombing meant in France, she says it was mostly surprise in the fact that they [the United States] dared to do it, and that they succeeded—in dropping the bomb, in ending the war, both? Knowing what we know of the catastrophic horror and the bomb’s terrible impact, maybe that’s how Americans see it now, or at least some of us: pure shock that it ever even happened, amazement that life went on. As Resnais tackles the subject, broadens the narrative to integrate a romance, and gives it all such energy and emotion, we also come away somewhat satisfied, satisfied in the fact that love and passion carried on, even in war-ravaged Hiroshima.

‘The Killers’ (1946/1964)

Killers (2)

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, “The Killers,” inspired to varying degrees the 1946 and the 1964 screen versions of the same name. To varying degrees because the story is less than 3,000 words and essentially only covers the opening of the two films. A man—Ole “The Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster) in the first film, Johnny North (John Cassavetes) in the remake—is hunted down by two hired killers. Right before they shoot him, Ole and Johnny do something strange, or rather, they don’t do something they should: they don’t run, they don’t really move, they don’t even seem to care. Before Ole is killed, he admits he “did something wrong, once” (in film noir, that’s all it takes), and when Johnny is told two men are on their way to kill him, he responds with, “Oh, I see,” and says not to bother calling the cops. Why would this be? Why is this man, holed away working at a service station in the earlier film, teaching at a school for the blind in the later, so resigned to his fate and so accepting of his impending death? This is where the story ends. It’s where the films begin.

Killers (3)

Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version of The Killers takes this impetus and follows along as claims investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) attempts to piece together the puzzle of Ole’s past. His initial interest in the murder is primarily professional, as an odd insurance beneficiary triggers his investigation. In Don Siegel’s 1964 version, one of the killers, Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin), sets off on his own inquiry, with partner, Lee (Clu Gulager). He looks at the effortless hit as a professional anomaly, unnerved by Johnny’s acceptance. What both searches reveal is that Ole and Johnny, decent men to start, each took part in a robbery, and in each case, they made off with money that should have been disbursed among the others involved in the heist. (The prospect of $1 million being out there somewhere also appeals to Charlie.) Also in both films, entangling Ole/Johnny in this uncharacteristic life of crime is a woman, a classic femme fatale: Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in 1946, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) in 1964.

Despite these basic similarities, Siodmak and Siegel and their respective casts and crew integrate distinct divergences in story, style, and characterization, as much influenced by their corresponding years and conditions of production as by their unique directorial approaches.

Killers (1)

The German-born Siodmak brings to his version an expressionistic touch derived from the groundbreaking silent films of his homeland, a form to which film noir, his most proficient genre, was heavily indebted. His The Killers is noir through and through, with immensely vibrant light and shadow contrast: deep, dark blacks and bright whites with little shading in between—this is a black and white movie. Most notable are certain shots where shafts of light or shadow seem to swallow characters whole, casting pronounced accents that illuminate or obscure their faces and bodies.

Siegel, whom 1946 producer Mark Hellinger originally wanted to direct (he was under contract to Warner Bros. and couldn’t take on the project), ended up not being a fan of Siodmak’s film. This primarily had to do with how Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller (with uncredited scripting by John Huston and Richard Brooks) picked up from the Hemingway story. So once Universal offered him the chance to produce and direct the remake, this time working from a screenplay by Gene L. Coon, he decided to do things differently. Siegel’s version, which maintains manynoir sensibilities, eases up drastically on the noir style. Originally conceived of as the first television movie (an idea scrapped when producers saw how violent the picture was), this film is much brighter, has a garish color scheme, and is only periodically heightened formally by Siegel’s bold strokes of unusual camera angles, quick movements, and surges of spontaneous action.

Killers (1)

Given the nature of each film’s narrative—starting with the death of the main character—there are flashbacks aplenty. “It started Thursday, a week ago…” states Jim in the first feature, a standard verbal signal to one of an extraordinary number of back and forth recollections that reoccur throughout the 1946 film. There are far fewer such transitions in Siegel’s take; one of his big concerns when initially preparing the film for television was that the originally planned 22 flashbacks would disorient the viewer when coupled with commercial breaks. In any event, The Killers, particularly the 1946 version, covers checkered pasts, deceptively stable presents, and uncertain futures—the trifecta of noir narrative.

Killers (6)

The depiction of the killers differs a good deal as well, obviously so as the 1964 film continues with Charlie and Lee, whereas the 1946 film basically leaves Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) once Ole is dead (though they will reappear). All four men, however, are smart, cool, crass, and utterly careless in their regard for any degree of decency. They wear their cruel streaks on their faces and act with a pitiless detachment. They are there to kill, to routinely kill, to kill for money—it’s a job, nothing more. Veiller’s screenplay gives Al and Max crackling chatter that is short and sharp, a tough-guy dialogue in tune with Hemingway’s writing. Distinguishing Charlie and Lee is a capacity for even more brutality. Al and Max talk tough; Charlie and Lee are downright vicious.

Then there’s the characterization of Ole and Johnny. As played by Lancaster, Ole is initially a down on his luck boxer, way down. As his story plays out, he goes from Philadelphia to Atlantic City to Brentwood, New Jersey. (Brentwood itself representing so many noir characters and plot devices, in that it’s a nowhere town that becomes ground zero for a history of violence it could never have saw coming.)

Killers (4)

He’s a beaten down roamer with an equally roaming eye, which is what gets him into trouble with Kitty. He is pleasant enough for the most part, but he has an impulsive violent streak. Lancaster also imbues in Ole a personality that is both gallantly aggressive and pathetically unlucky. When we first see Johnny, on the other hand, he is a race car driver at the top of his game. It’s always hard to watch Cassavetes and not think of his naturalistic performances in his own films, but here he gives his character a melodramatically cocky swagger that is only bested by the appearance of Sheila. She’s pretty forward too, and he loves it. Unlike the Ole and Kitty relationship, which certainly has its obstacles, Johnny and Sheila seem to thrive on a challenging, almost combative, romance.

These male/female relationships form the crux of each film’s plot, though the 1964 film spends a considerably longer time on the romance between Johnny and Sheila (as well as on details of Johnny’s racing). In both stories though, it’s the women and their respective other men—the criminal masterminds in each of their lives—who lead Ole and Johnny to the eventual crimes and the ultimate consequences for all involved.

Killers (5)

With enough similarities and differences to make each film stand apart in their own right, Robert Siodmak’s version of The Killers is better in almost every way. Siegel’s take might have the more interestingly eclectic cast, with the beautiful and confident Dickinson, Ronald Reagan in his final film role, Marvin stealing the scene every time he enters the frame, Gulager in an exceptionally malicious turn, and Cassavetes, who presumably used the paycheck from this film to partially fund his next directorial effort, the brilliant 1968 film, Faces (look also for Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel in a brief role). But Siodmak’s direction is better, the script is tighter, and Elwood Bredell’s cinematography is gorgeous. And while Lancaster and Gardner are both great, Sam Levene and O’Brien both give excellent supporting performances as well; O’Brien in particular is almost giddy in his investigation, motivated by earnest curiosity and professional duty, eager to solve this “double cross to end all double crosses.” Finally, proving Roger Ebert’s view on the timelessness of black and white photography, it’s the more recent film that also appears most dated, at least stylistically.

A side note: For a third—and by far the most faithful—variation on the story, see Andrei Tarkovsky’s short film adaptation, which is included on the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray set of The Killers. This short was co directed by Tarkovsky, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, when all were students at the State Institute of Cinematography in 1956, and it starts and stops just as the story does. Its dialogue, too, depending on the translation, seems to adhere nearly word for word to Hemingway’s text.

‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’

Valerie (6)

Beginning with Jaroslava Schallerová’s glance directly into the camera,Valerie and Her Week of Wonders instantly and insistently unravels in playful nods of incongruous and intentionally self-conscious stylization. Directed by Jaromil Jireš, this 1970 feature, in classic art film tradition, takes a basic narrative with reasonably standard character types and turns the whole thing topsy-turvy via stunning imagery, a proliferation of ambiguous symbolism, and a structure that leads to places quite unexpected, if certain sequences lead anywhere at all. It certainly is a wondrous week for young Valerie, and the film itself is equally astounding.

Valerie (2)

After Eaglet (Petr Kopriva) steals Valerie’s (Schallerová) magical earrings, apparently at the behest of the Constable (Jirí Prýmek), otherwise referred to/existing as the malicious Polecat, a vampire-type monster who terrorizes a small Czech town, an opaque quest to retain ownership of the crucial jewelry is initiated. And thus begins a fantastic journey as Valerie delves deeper into the rabbit hole of her own existence. The film picks up as the 13-year-old girl enters a confusing and evocative phase of dramatic personal revelation and change—physical change (her first period) and spiritual change (the nature of mortality)—as well as a time rife with external conflicts and incidents far beyond her control and initial understanding. Valerie’s vivid awakening leads to discoveries regarding her town, her home, and even the composition of her family.

With some degree of regret, Eaglet returns the earrings to Valerie and the two fall in love. As the film progresses, details emerge involving the girl’s supposedly deceased parents, the dubious past and currently suspicious intentions of her grandmother (Helena Anyžová), and the true nature of the Polecat. None of this is as it seems, at least not for long, at least not as far as we can gather. As Valerie’s grandmother relates the story of the girl’s late parents, the ghastly woman expresses a foreboding anxiousness, hinting at the fallibility of her recounting. Was Valerie’s father really a bishop? Is the grandmother’s former lover the evil Constable? Is Eaglet Valerie’s brother? How does one explain Anyžová’s appearance as not only the grandmother but also Valerie’s cousin and mother?

Valerie (5)

Given the film’s recurrent fairy tale iconography, how much of what happens in Valerie is therefore magic put into practice or pure adolescent fantasy is up for debate. In her essay, “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Grandmother, What Big Fangs You Have!”, included with the new Criterion Collection release of the film, Jana Prikryl accurately states: “Valerie jolts along with the logic of a hallucination, its more conventional vampire plot intercut with odd visions and heightened by a soundtrack of choral chants and disembodied dialogue. Sometimes these dislocations bring us intimately close to Valerie herself, from various appealing angles, and on a second or third viewing you see how these shots often punctuate moments of conflict, as if Valerie’s inner equanimity were guiding the course of events.” Symbolism runs rampant, and as the suggestive imagery collides with the disjunctive narrative, the film becomes an allegory of contrasting dark and light, black and white, life and death, youth and old age. “Is all this but a dream?” Valerie ponders toward the end of film. Indeed, that may also be a possibility.

Valerie (1)

Schallerová, selected for the title role from about 1,500 young girls, gives a captivating performance with a compelling mixture of wide-eyed youthful wonder and surprisingly redolent sensuality. As this is a time of great change for pubescent Valerie, in terms of her own sexuality and her perception of related issues affecting those who surround her, the symbolism in the film forms along strong feminine themes. The impression of virginal female purity is suggested through the whiteness that adorns and envelops Valerie—her clothes and her stark white bedroom—and in the various incarnations of floral imagery and similarly associated signifiers, as well as in the more literal depictions of budding young maidens innocently splashing about in the water. Against the religious and moral rigor of the town, such provocative sexuality is made all the more pronounced, and Jan Curík’s corresponding cinematography has the gauzy luster that one would commonly see throughout the 1970s, particularly in soft-core European explorations of sexuality and womanhood. Along these lines, it’s worth acknowledging the production design by Ester Krumbachová, who also helped create the extraordinary world of Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), another fantastic Czech film about women coming to terms with their own identity and social placement. While Krumbachová’s specific contributions alone may not explicitly influence the feminine themes in the two films, the parallels are nonetheless noteworthy.

Valerie (3)

Complementing the naturally picturesque surroundings, Jireš films from high and low canted angles, incorporates an array of ethereal color, and composes singular still images that heighten the movie’s surreal beauty. As Jonathan Rosenbaum recently wrote of the film, “Virtually every shot is a knockout.” Of the three Jireš shorts included on the Criterion disc — Uncle (1959),Footprints (1960), and The Hall of Lost Footsteps (1960) — only the latter really comes close to approximating the avant-garde style and structure of ValerieThe Hall of Lost Footsteps is also simply the most interesting of the trio, with its powerfully disturbing political content (covering the Holocaust and the atomic bomb) and its striking formal experimentation, which also makes it undeniably akin to Valerie.

In an informative and concise interview, film scholar Peter Hames notes the mutability of Valerie’s categorization: is it soft porn (definitely not), fantasy, horror, art film, or all or none of the above? As he points out, it is, in any case, continually surprising; nothing at any time goes quite as one expects. With an equally surreal novel as its source, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders combines gothic and fairy tale conventions with Lubos Fiser’s whimsical score into what Hames says is a “montage film,” visually and aurally. It certainly is a fascinating confluence of spectacular, disconnected images and sounds, oftentimes exaggerated performance, and symbolism primed for diverse interpretation, all coalescing into one extraordinary motion picture. If this was indeed the last film of the Czech New Wave (roughly 1963-69), as Hames argues it is, at least the movement went out on a high note.

‘Five Easy Pieces’

Five (2)

Five Easy Pieces follows along an existential strain of American cinema that began with films like The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), where, in the latter example, two men went looking for America and, as its tagline states, couldn’t find it anywhere, and continued through the vehement introspection that emerged from the tormented minds of Martin Scorsese’s anti-heroes, like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver [1976]) and Jake La Motta (Raging Bull [1980]). Somewhere in between these two manifestations of anguish is Jack Nicholson’s Robert Eroica Dupea, the main character of Bob Rafelson’s 1970 feature. Disenchanted with life and the people who surround him, and utterly aimless in his restless, insatiable quest for self-contentment, Bobby is continually disheartened by the realization that his ideals of happiness and unhappiness don’t apply to everyone else, and may not even be applicable to himself.

In a 2010 essay that accompanied the Criterion Collection’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story box-set, of which Five Easy Pieces was a part (it’s out now as a solo edition), Kent Jones writes that those like Bobby were, “discontented with the choices offered to them. They were acutely aware of their discontent, and they were trying to find a way to act on that awareness.” Five Easy Pieces is and was a great film, he continues, “because it gives us such a clear and unobstructed view of this particular type of American existence, brought into being at a certain interval in our history when the expectations of class and family carried more weight than they do now…” So despite his artistic, upper middle class background, classically-trained musician Bobby has drifted—intentionally or as a matter of happenstance—to a life far less outwardly glamorous. He toils away on a California oil field and resides with his girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), a waitress with dreams of country music stardom. His free time is spent carousing with friend and co-worker Elton (Billy Green Bush): drinking, playing cards, bowling, having flings with other women. Rayette, on the opposite end of the personality spectrum, is a dutiful companion, naively obedient, patient, and forgiving. She embodies the rather antiquated lyrics of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” one of several songs by the singer featured in the film.

Five (2)

While Bobby has a physically demanding occupation, it’s also a job where one easily becomes an anonymous cog in the wheel of industry. This could be just as well for Bobby, whose loss of identity in such a position seems more than a little deliberate—it’s something he can do where he doesn’t stand out nor does he really need to. Repeatedly frustrated by one thing or another (and there will always be another for Bobby), he quits the job anyway, leaves Rayette, whom he was just told is pregnant, and visits his pianist sister, Partita (Lois Smith), in Los Angeles. There he learns of his estranged father’s severe illness and so, with a reconciled Rayette later in tow, he travels to Washington State to reunite with his family. This familial gathering is the last thing Bobby needs in terms of external pressures, but the dose of reality, of real suffering in particular, breaks down, if only temporarily, his veneer of cynicism.

Bobby Dupea is an exceptional figure, one of great contrasts and quirks. According to Partita, the piano she plays has “no objectionable idiosyncrasies,” which makes it the opposite of everyone in the film, Bobby not the least. He’s a difficult character to identify with, even though his concerns are universal and easily relatable. Giving one of his finest performances, Nicholson helps with the understanding. With his trademark madman expressions and wildly animated behavior, he shifts from deviousness to despair in the blink of an eye. He’s explosive and temperamental, and when he clears the diner table during the famous chicken salad sandwich scene, acting out against life’s little absurdities and frustrations, we can’t help but get behind the bastard.

Five (3)

Otherwise though, he’s crass and cruel and regards Rayette with an attitude that hovers between utter disdain and embarrassment. Still she keeps on coming back; what’s more, her love seems to grow with each affront. Bobby can’t make up his mind either though: One minute he’s calling Elton a “cracker asshole,” the next minute he’s running to his defense. Five Easy Piecesis full of such oscillations between conflicting emotions, ideas, and desires, and the music in the film further sets the tone for this recurrent theme of contrast, especially between “low” and “high” culture, with Wynette’s greatest hits playing opposite Chopin, Bach and Mozart. Throughout the film, Bobby inhabits both sides of this cultural division, apparently unhappy wherever he is. He looks down on his life with Rayette, as if activities such as bowling were somehow beneath him, but at the same time, he gets angry when she doesn’t play well enough. On the other hand, when a pretentious intellectual later drones on and mocks Rayette for her perceived simplicity, Bobby slams the “pompous celibate” for her derisive manner. But Bobby himself is also prone to mocking the ambitions and sentiments of others. When he and Rayette pick up some hitchhikers going to Alaska, where they say it is cleaner, Bobby questions condescendingly, “Cleaner than what?” Or, even while Bobby flirts with his brother’s fiancé, Catherine (Susan Anspach), he defies her sincerity when she is moved by his piano playing, ridiculing her reaction by stating, “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big response.”

Aided by László Kovács’ photography (Kovács who composed so many vivid cinematic portraits from the period), director Bob Rafelson delivers a textured realism in any setting. Again to quote Jones: “In order for such a narrative to work, every character and setting needs to be pungent and acutely drawn. So the oil fields and bars and bowling alleys and tiny houses in Bakersfield are as lovingly attended as the Pacific Northwestern Dupea compound.” There is no explicitly overriding style from Rafelson, save for the occasional use of hand-held camera, just enough to mirror and barely contain the vitality and volatility of Nicholson, but his ability to present a detailed and authentic atmosphere no matter the milieu is exceptional. Carole Eastman’s pitch-perfect screenplay further adds to the accuracy, as does Toby Rafelson’s interior design. Clothing, furniture, paintings and pictures on the wall, knick-knacks, etc.—it’s all just as it should be.

Five (1)

Five Easy Pieces is a film of big scenes. The chicken salad sandwich outburst is probably its most famous sequence, and understandably so (even if Rafelson remains disappointed that this one section of the film is more remembered than others). But when Bobby exits his car during a morning traffic jam, hops aboard the back of a truck and begins playing piano as it drives away, one gets the first real sense of just how unpredictable and dramatic this guy can be—and with the horns blaring over the classical music, we also get a further example of aural contrast. It is scenes like these two, where Bobby flaunts acceptable behavior and stolid social dictates, that make Five Easy Pieces as equally rebellious in its own way as Easy Rider was.

Five Easy Pieces is also a film of small moments and small performances. Certainly, Nicholson leaves a thundering impression, but credit should also go to Black, who is fantastic as the tragic, earnest, and sympathetic Rayette. Few actors can steal a scene from Jack Nicholson, or even just a two-shot for that matter, but here she does so repeatedly. Her sitting contently in the car singing Wynette’s “When There’s a Fire in Your Heart” is simply a thing of beauty. A quick survey of the film’s awards show that she, indeed, received more accolades that Nicholson, though neither won their respective Oscars (nor did the film take best picture or screenplay, for which it was also nominated). And then there’s Lois Smith. Five Easy Pieces is a film that rewards multiple viewings. As much as this has to do with its tonal subtitles and the maturity of the themes and character concerns, it also has to do with performers who, at first glance, are somewhat overshadowed by Nicholson. Such is the case when rewatching the film and paying particular attention to the brilliantly natural and understated Smith.

Five (1)

Having not seen Five Easy Pieces for some time, while viewing it again I was reminded of the Coen brothers’Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), in particular a comment written about that film being an ode to giving up. Ultimately, this is what Five Easy Pieces is as well, and Bobby voices as much when he admits a penchant for getting out of bad situations and moving on instead of facing or fixing the problems at hand. One of the defining features of these character-driven studies is that character development isn’t always a given. These are vibrant and multifaceted characters, but they aren’t necessary going to grow or evolve as human beings. As a result, the open ending of Five Easy Pieces is really the only ending possible, for when it comes to Bobby Dupea, there is no reasonably absolute conclusion or resolution, except, perhaps, death (as, incidentally, the original screenplay had it).