Born: 21 February 1933, New York City, United States.
Directing Career: 1968 – 2002.
Movement: New Hollywood.
Traits: Known for forming BBS Productions, a key hub of activity for the New Hollywood movement. His best work as a director were character-driven dramas portraying marginal protagonists and the national disillusionment of a USA in transition in the 1960s and 1970s.
Collaborators: Jack Nicholson (actor), Michael Small (composer), Toby Rafelson (production designer), Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner (co-founders of BBS).
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
“You know, this used to be a hell of a good country, I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” — Bobby Dupea.
Five Easy Pieces, like all great works of the ’70s New Hollywood, is essentially about America seeking itself. A road movie, a search for meaning, a wanderlust, these are the elements that crop up time and again in the best New Hollywood works. The classical studio system had fallen apart and television had (temporarily) taken over movies’ role as the great mass medium for escapism and reassurance (The Brady Bunch was airing on home TV sets across the nation), leaving cinema to tackle personal and political issues in an adult, inquisitive, ambiguous and cynical manner for at least a few years.
By 1970, America was already long into its ‘Fall from Eden’ phase. The sixties counterculture movement had faded into chaotic despair. In 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot dead. In 1969, Charles Manson and his gang binged on their infamous murder spree. That same year, the horrific details of the My Lai massacre, where US soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese villagers, came to light and only further exacerbated the mood of tension and outrage at the USA’s military involvement in South East Asia. In 1970, domestic anti-war protests reached boiling point when 4 unarmed protesters were shot dead by national guards at Kent State University. Not even Neil Armstrong making his one small step on the Moon in Summer 1969, the one feel-good patriotic moment of the period, was enough to remedy America’s existential crisis.
Left to their own devices and artistic intuitions, the best of the New Hollywood products thus served as a societal mirror, diagnosing the dark and very un-American mood of self-doubt without any sugarcoating; Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is one of the perennial exemplars of such cinematic mirrors. Essentially a road movie, charting the physical and emotional perambulations of Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), an endless wanderer in pursuit of something he’s not even able to identify, but undoubtedly fleeing the imposed restrictions and neurosis his uptight, upper-class upbringing wrought upon him.
The road movie template here is no coincidence, it being an extension of that most American genre, the western, and although the New Hollywood era saw many revisionist westerns, in a way its road movies were a post-western offshoot (think of Monte Hellman’s great work in both genres during those years). Wandering and searching, in the western, are associated with the westward movement of the frontier, of the pioneers, the expansion of the settlers into new boundaries of America, bringing ‘civilisation’ to unmapped territories. The movement, the journey, back then was still goal-oriented, as were the road trips of Hollywood movies before the New Hollywood. But by the crisis in 1970, all that is long in the past. Everything is now on the map, California and the west coast has been reached, and short of wanting to ‘civilise’ the Pacific Ocean, there is no frontier left to expand geographically.
In a post-western road movie, when celebrating that geographical expansion is no longer possible due to the caustic atmosphere of national doubt, of generational tensions, of lacerating divides of beliefs and cultures, which defined the era and bear a legacy to this day, that wandering, travelling and searching can only be internal. Bobby Dupea is lost on the edge of the American continent, and though he speaks of continuing north towards Alaska, all he has left to wander is the desert of his own self and to search for meaning there.
The 1970 version of the frontiersman is now an aimless drifter. He moves around but ‘goes’ nowhere, following the template of so many other post-studio American movies: Two-Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider, The Last Detail, etc. Like many central characters around those years — Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate or Elgar Enders in The Landlord — Bobby is anchorless, existentially discontent, stuck at a perpetual crossroads in life, constantly looking for something elusive, and angrily and self-destructively rebelling against his parents’ generation. Perhaps in some ways he is an older version of Benjamin Braddock, and what might have happened to him ten years beyond the end of The Graduate. Both Ben and Bobby fervently reject the path chosen for them (‘Plastics’ for one, a future as virtuoso pianist for the other), and both run away simultaneously from their past and their future.
A few years later, the can-do attitude of Rocky and of Ronald Reagan will bring back the gung-ho self-belief into American values, one diametrically opposed with rolling stone drop-outs like Bobby, but before then Rafelson’s film and the other great New Hollywood works provided a fascinating window into a moment when the US and its cinema was seeking, searching, grasping for answers to questions it still has to face even today. (December 2017)