My parents tried to leave town Tuesday night. Their flight was cancelled. They tried to leave Wednesday morning. The airline bribed them to wait 24 hours. So on Wednesday night, we wrapped up 1970 with Five Easy Pieces. My dad and I both thought we had seen it before. I’m still pretty sure I did, though it was many years ago on video. My dad thinks he may have been confusing it with Carnal Knowledge. In any case, I was very glad to revisit this one as most of my memory of it has faded. If Easy Rider got Jack Nicholson noticed, this one solidified him as a star unique to the era and, obviously, one who has maintained and perhaps transcended it since. Nicholson plays a young man working in a California oil field. It’s clear that he doesn’t quite belong there. He doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, but he scoffs at the whole notion of getting up every morning to go do a job you hate. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that he comes from a wealthy family of artists and had been expected to follow in their footsteps. He developed piano skills but for reasons that are never quite clear, he abandoned it, perhaps to seek an existence among a more grounded world. But he doesn’t really fit in there either. He clearly has some affection for his waitress/ country singer wannabe girlfriend, but he constantly mocks her, cheats on her, and seems to be trying to drive her away. He enjoys hanging out with his buddy Elton, but when told that his girl’s knocked up and he should “do the right thing,” he dismisses his pal as a redneck living in a trailer. We see him trying and failing in the working class world for the first part of the film. Then we see him with his family. Though he alternately mocks them and tries to get along, he clearly doesn’t fit in there either. At the end of the film, we see him abandoning both of these lives to try something else similarly uncertain and likely just as unsatisfactory. Whatever’s wrong seems to be within him, which neither he nor the audience can discern. It’s a credit to Nicholson that he’s able to make such a character compelling and sympathetic, continuing with the antihero theme noted before. It occurred to me that this would be an interesting companion piece to The Graduate as Benjamin seemed similarly lost, though somewhat more inert. They both come from wealthy families with their paths mapped out for them and both have this indefinable yearning for something else. Of course, Benjamin comes from more of a business background, more often connected with conservatives or Republicans. Nicholson’s character, Bobby, comes from artists, more traditionally liberals or Democrats. But what these two sides have in common, aside from money, is that they both represent different sides of the establishment. Antiestablishment is more of a general term than merely the conservative side. To take things a step further, Bobby even seems to be aware of the emptiness of being antiestablishment in a general sense. The most frequently referenced scene in the film, often called the “chicken salad scene” is one where Bobby tries to order toast in a diner, concluding in him ordering a toasted chicken salad sandwich, and the waitress should hold the chicken salad “between her knees.” Rarely quoted is the following scene where a hitchhiker he’s picked up congratulates him on taking a stand. Bobby notes, “But I still didn’t get my toast.” Within the new Hollywood movement, Five Easy Pieces was especially significant as it marked the progression not only of Nicholson’s career as, by some accounts, he was getting a little disillusioned and possibly ready to hang it up, but as a progression of the brilliant but short lived producing organization BBS Productions, who made a splash with the previous list entry Easy Rider. BBS was run by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner. Nicholson was their star player. As a director himself, Rafelson(who directed Five Easy Pieces as well as upcoming list entry The King of Marvin Gardens) had immense respect for directors and supported their visions. Well, that does it for 1970. On to 1971.
Monday, January 10, 2011
Day 80: 1970(Part 2)
After Patton, we tried to venture out into the aftermath of the storm. It had pretty much subsided, but as the streets and sidewalks were still a mess, we went no further than we had to for dinner and came back to spend our evening watching Catch 22. None of us had seen it before and, quite honestly, we were all a little underwhelmed. Though I’d never seen it, I read the Joseph Heller novel years ago, maybe 1995 or 1996. I thought it was quite good, though specifics elude me. One memory sticks with me though. I was working as an actor at a theme park. One of my coworkers, let’s call him Dean, because that’s his name, noticed the book and mentioned something about the title and that it was a phrase people occasionally used. As he seemed unfamiliar with the book itself, I pointed out that the phrase came into existence because of the book. He insisted it hadn’t. I asked how he thought the expression came about. His response? “It just…uh…evolved.” Sigh. Anyway, I was looking forward to this film. I found it curious that so many of the titles in 1970 were focused on war. It was filled with actors I liked, both in general and specific to the list. And it was directed by Mike Nichols, who I’ve always liked, but for whom this project has given me an even deeper appreciation. The actors are all good. Some of the scenes work well. But it just doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. To be fair, seeing this so soon after M*A*S*H tilts the scales. But, of course, 1970 audiences had the same choice and is likely one of the reasons why it didn’t do well. Nichols himself, according to the book Easy Riders Raging Bulls said, “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch 22. It just cut us off at the knees.” I’ve really appreciated how much more of early Alan Arkin this list has exposed me to and he’s great here as Yossarian, the central figure. The title refers to a clause that keeps his character from being declared insane. His doctor can’t request that he be declared insane unless he asks to be removed from duty because he’s going insane. But if he asks to be removed from duty, he can’t be insane because no sane man would want to do the job, thus, he can’t remove him from duty. My take on the film is that Yossarian is legitimately going insane and that we’re seeing things through his perceptions, even though there are a small number of scenes where he’s off screen. The absurdism with which its presented is actually completely different from the naturalism of M*A*S*H, even though they both have somewhat comic takes on the subject. Clearly audiences were ready for challenging antiwar material as M*A*S*H was not only a critical but a commercial success. I think the reason lies in the fact that, though the war continues and people keep getting shot at, blown up, killed, maimed, and stitched up to go through the whole ridiculous cycle again, there’s an underlying sense in M*A*S*H that small victories are being achieved. Authority figures are constantly being undermined. The bureaucrats and sticklers for procedure are repeatedly bested and in the end our “heroes” get to go home. In Catch 22, it seems rationality never has a chance. The odds are stacked against us. The targets are broader and more ambitious. It not only takes on war but capitalism, in a sense taking on the entire military industrial complex. Using World War II as a frame is especially bold as it’s always the war that’s held up as the good war, the noble war, fought by the “greatest generation.” If even that war can be held up to the mirror of absurdity, what’s left? I greatly respect all these intentions, but I have to admit this. I was constantly enthralled by M*A*S*H. And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t really connect with Catch 22. I will probably watch M*A*S*H again. And I might read Catch 22 again. But I probably won’t watch it again. To give Nichols credit, I’d rather see three great films(I’m including the upcoming Carnal Knowledge) and one noble misfire than four mediocre yet watchable films.
Posted by Dr. Richard Cockrell at 3:05 PM