I was 17 when I first watched Jack Nicholson play gloomy oilfield worker Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces. Bob Rafelson's 1970 ode to misanthropy hit me in the chest in a way that few other things had. I was living "the days of my life," or, rather, living under the tyranny of expectation. The expectation to have a fucking good time all of the time. And I couldn't.
Why? Because I was too busy with childish self-loathing. But when I watched Five Easy Pieces it was a relief to see that, in the film, no one told Nicholson's character to cheer up. No one apologized for him or said it would get better. There was no redemption for this churlish asshole, and if that didn't give me hope for the future, at least there was a refreshing honesty to it.
Bob Rafelson also produced Easy Rider, and the two films are often compared in because they focus on that other American Dream: not prosperity, but freedom. Unlike those other other films and books about the counterculture, though, Five Easy Pieces is a film with far more to say than that infantile protestation, "I'll do what I want." It's certainly not about youthful hope or being earnest.
It also takes apart the kind of blue-collar fetishism of those kinds of books and films. Bobby Dupea lives a calculated and meaningless existence out in the desert. He drinks, he works on an oilfield, he bowls with his friend Elton, and he cheats on his pregnant girlfriend, Rayette. He had dropped out of his life as a musical prodigy to go do... well, nothing. And it's miserable. There is nothing romantic about Bobby, least of all his fate. It's the truth that books like On the Road ignore: That when the party is over, Dean Moriarty is still a dick.
Escape weighed heavily on my mind when I was 17. I am from Wandsworth, an insipid little colony in south-west London that became a hatchery for the future Foxtons estate agents of the world. Wandsworth is not really London. It's London for people who would rather live in the Zone 2 version of the Home Counties. I spent as much time as I could away from their VE Day parties and real ale. In this sense, Bobby's story gelled quite nicely with my contempt for anything too earnest or cheerful. Whatever didn't suit him, he just threw out.
I was suspicious of my classmates' unbridled enthusiasm for life and clung to a small group of friends who shared my distaste for them. We would sneak off to smoke weed and bitch about the others: they would peak when they were in sixth form and go on to lead bland, unsatisfying lives. We pretended we were different, but secretly I knew I wasn't. My contempt for everything around me was directed just as easily inward. Like Bobby, I had adopted misanthropy as a kind of angry rebellion, but in actuality it was just a stunted way of opting out of the world. There was nothing original to it: I just didn't really want to be me.
The main "action" in Five Easy Pieces comes along when Bobby finds out his father has suffered two strokes. He drags himself to Washington State to visit the family and the legacy he had hoped to escape. At the house, the family exchange cheerful nothings and Bobby steers clear of answering questions about where he's been for the last several years. He avoids his father over the weekend while he has an affair with his brother's girlfriend, Catherine. When he decides to make another run for it, he asks her to come with him.
Predictably, she rejects him, asking why a person who offers nothing should expect anything in return. He's left alone with himself. His dissatisfaction is of no use to him and he's left to endure being the mercurial prick that he is. To me it was a stern warning that has served me well: If you hate yourself, then being stuck with no one but yourself is torture.
Despite the veneer of working-class heroics, Bobby chafes under the lifestyle. In fact, Bobby chafes under any lifestyle he gets too familiar with before he dumps it and goes looking for something else. Bobby's rebellion has nothing to do with politics or some kind of bourgeois guilt—he just rejects everything that intimidates him, like an infant.
Take for example the final scene of the film, where Bobby drives home. He stops at a gas station and gets out of the car—leaving his wallet, jacket and ID—and hops in a truck headed north. Rayette waits for him by the car, deluded that he might come back and play families. This kind of hopeless ending has always been rare in films, but at 17, to me, it was deeply discomforting that Bobby—who I felt was so much like myself—might never find any relief from the self-hatred that hounded him.
It occurred to me that I had been a latent and far less magnetic Bobby Dupea, pissy and unwilling to involve myself in my own life. The film showed me in technicolor exactly who I didn't want to be: a charismatic prick who can't look in the mirror and treats others like human napkins. I'm still suspicious of overt-friendliness and maintain a low-grade self-loathing, but what I owe Bobby is the lesson that, for all my desire to escape my life, there really is nothing to escape to.
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