Five Easy Pieces
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Five Easy Pieces embodies the frustrations of the gen-gap, and its release in the turbulent wake of the sixties only played to its strengths as a film full of questions without answers. Nicholson plays a tortured and emotionally overwrought man stranded between the values and ideals of his parents’ and his own era. In fact, he’s placed above and beyond both, incapable of emotional connection with either. He has turned his back on his classical-music training to drift from job to job in California, bowling, drinking beer under pink-blood skies, and taking every opportunity to cheat on his girlfriend. Penned in by his vapid but loving girlfriend, who he soon realizes is pregnant, he begins to chafe and strain against his surroundings.
Fortunately enough for our purposes here at A Kiss After Supper, Rafelson juxtaposes classical music with country strains to flush out Bobby’s struggle. The usage is almost too transparent, fitting the blue-blood’s gauze of stately strings and piano against the raucous, red-blooded hysterics of country music, but in a film of such subtle transgressions, this hyperbole seems fitting. Fantasies and fugues by Bach, Mozart, and Chopin strike against what might as well be a collection of Tammy Wynette’s greatest hits, the crystal set and their poor serving force. These are clearly the two components of Bobby’s desires, and yet neither fits him. Both are background, both unaccepted and tuned out by our protagonist, as he makes it clear that much of this fractured world has nowhere for him to settle.
Starting with the title sequence, as dusk settles over the oil rigs and the dusty nightset of California, Bobby drives home to the sound of “Stand By Your Man.” As he enters his house and opens a beer, his girlfriend, Rayette (played with effortless naivete by Karen Black), is putting on makeup by the mirror and listening to Wynette on the record player. We are introduced to the cruel way Bobby treats her here, a look into the emotional deficits we’ll see throughout the film, as he chastises her for her tastes. “It’s a question of musical integrity,” he says, a vague reference to his own upbringing in a classically-trained household as well as a rebuke against the society into which he’s fallen.
Later, as he returns from a brief tryst with a woman he met at the bowling alley, we hear the timely sound of Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” on Rayette’s record player. By now, he knows she’s pregnant, and he’s revolted against the impending responsibility by engaging in a stunted affair. He has visited his sister, whom he hasn’t seen in years, to remind himself of his past and to size up the possibility of a return to it. She told him his father is dying. Again, crossroaded, his decisions are hasty, offering us the rootless life he lives without care. Returning to find Rayette crying in bed, certain that Bobby has cheated on her that night, he sees a side of her he’s come to loathe and distrust, and he sets off to his father’s estate in Washington. Of course, in one of the film’s more emotionally marked moments, he settles into his car seat only to understand he’s still bound to Rayette, and he begrudgingly invites her along on his trip.
On the drive north to his family estate in Puget Sound, Wynette’s “When There’s a Fire in Your Heart” is used as road-trip backdrop. Between playing on the car stereo and Rayette singing it to herself, as well as several moments where the track’s loping guitar is spliced into brief fragments to indicate distance traveled and a new leg of the trip beginning, the song refers to the way Rayette has tainted Bobby’s original plans. He wanted to get away, by himself, to escape again and drop everything on those behind him, but now Rayette is along, and, appropriately, her music dominates the trip.
However, the moment he leaves Rayette behind at the motel to scope out his father’s house, classical music sets the staunch, proper environment of Bobby’s adolescence. In fact, it starts literally the moment he walks through the door, as the faint sound of piano, muffled and almost silent, greets him. The home is quiet and gray. His brother, Carl, is playing piano with his lover Catherine. Meeting his father for the first time in three years, Bobby realizes he no longer recognizes him, backed by the Carl’s mournful fantasia, and framed by yet another piano over his left shoulder. Everything revolves around the stately here, and from the first scene, the extent of Bobby’s life he’s spent serpenting between Doppelgangers is obvious.
Bobby’s stay is tense and unsteady, as he tries to balance a developing affair with Catherine and Rayette’s unexpected arrival after running out of money at the motel. His crisis deepens, and he drags his entire family onto his stage. At its heart is the scene in which Catherine asks him to play piano for her. Up to that point, a palpable sexual tension hung between the two, offset by Catherine’s curiosity over why anyone would give up such a gift, such a background, to hop between odd jobs. Her fascination is marked by disapproval and, at times, utter contempt. She needs to see that which he gave up so readily in order to better understand his loss.
As he sits down at the piano, he begins Chopin’s Prelude in E. Minor, op. 28 #4, with the steady slate gray of the Pacific Northwest lighting the room. The camera pans across Catherine’s face, and past a colorful flower bouquet, only to land on the pictures of Bobby and the rest of the family on the wall. Included alongside these portraits are framed photos of famous composers. The implication is clear: this is a family bound by their taste and talent for finer living, classical music only as one example. After all, Bobby’s middle name is “Eroica,” and his brother Carl’s is “Fidelio.” Nothing is understated for the Dupeas. They live out of time, outside of the conflicts and burn-outs of the era.
When he finishes, Catherine begins to tell him how moved she was by his playing. Bobby laughs. He insists he picked the easiest piece he could think of and tells her he played it better as a child. “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big response.” The loathing and frustration mount throughout the scene until it ends, in silence, as they sleep together for the first time.
After Rayette shows up at the house, Bobby, confronted with such a direct contrast between his two selves, loses touch of both. He’s suddenly cut off from Catherine, the person through whom he thought he might be able to reenter his old life happily. His quiet fury, and frustration over the inevitability of it all falling in, leads him to a bar. Here, for the first time since leaving Rayette behind, we hear country music. Yup, Bobby’s getting drunk to the slow drawl of Wynette’s “Don’t Touch Me.” It’s the reemergence of the pedestrian into his life, the all-too-modern, and perhaps the final realization that his life will be directed by that which he has yet to see, following in neither the footsteps of his family or maintaining the humdrum blue-collar existence of his life with Rayette.
If not, the epiphany is not far off, as the rest of the film drives home his isolation. He returns from a night out drinking to fight with his father’s nurse, shout at one of the family’s friends as a ‘pompous celibate,’ and find out Catherine sees no future with him. She wants to stay behind with Carl in their ‘rest-home asylum,” as Bobby refers to it. Desperate for a glimpse of something to stay behind for, he takes his father for a walk in his wheelchair, just the two of them, and tries to explain to him why he left in the first place. He knows his father wouldn’t approve of how he lives. He can only tell him now because he can’t speak, struck dumb by infirmity. As he says, “I don’t know that if you could talk we wouldn’t be talking.” Fittingly, since his night at the bar, the film is covered in silence, only cut by dialogue and Bobby’s attempts to find some final standing place in a home no longer his.
Following his talk with his father, he leaves, most likely forever. On the way home presumably, Rayette begins to sing her country songs again, and Bobby pushes her away. She reminds him, “Isn’t nobody gonna look after you and love you as good as I do.” And there it is. That’s what he had seen, only vaguely, and perhaps even wanted to overlook. Love isn’t what he needs. He was uncomfortable with it, and abuse all those who deigned to give it to him. Stranded between two places he doesn’t belong, feeling no draw but to that he doesn’t yet understand, he can’t tolerate love. He hitches a ride in a semi carrying timber up north at the next gas station, and leaves Rayette behind with the car. Interestingly, the credits begin to roll to the sound of the semi-truck gaining speed up the free way, and the sight of Rayette emerging from the gas station and looking for Bobby. There’s no music, and given the modern tendency to flood credit-scenes with bombastic singles or film-songs, the silence is all the more remarkable. Bobby is fleeing these two worlds of sound, the grime and the pristine, up north to the cold and an unknown future that, at the very least, is neither of those he’s been offered.