Summer 2015

Screening Room: Lisa Cholodenko dissects Five Easy Pieces, again

When Lisa Cholodenko first saw Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces in film school, it was a master class in psychological realism. The lesson of openness between director and actor still informs her work today.

By Robert Abele

Director Lisa Cholodenko (Photo: HBO

I just had a visceral reaction to it," says Lisa Cholodenko as she settles into a chair in the Robert E. Wise Library at the DGA to watch Bob Rafelson's 1970 masterpiece Five Easy Pieces. "I was a teaching assistant for Andrew Sarris at Columbia [University], and he showed this film in his 'Cinema of the '70s' class. It just had this searing impact on me, from script to visuals, all the components. I felt it appealed to my sensibility. Whatever that was!"

Rafelson's movie, considered an early benchmark of the new golden age of cinema, dips into the peripatetic life of willful outsider Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), whom we meet in the opening montage of still shots as he works on an oil rig against a big sky. As the sun sets, and Bobby drives away, Tammy Wynette's doleful "Stand By Your Man" replaces the sound of machinery. "I remember being impressed by these shots," says Cholodenko. "It introduced a kind of palette with this amber, magic-hour look. It was very stirring to me."

The Wynette song, we learn, is a source score of sorts, since it's playing on the phonograph of the modest one-bedroom house he shares with his girlfriend, diner waitress/aspiring country singer Rayette (Karen Black). "It's diegetic and non-diegetic sound," says Cholodenko. "At that time, there was a trend away from traditional score, and they used these needle drops. It was a way to identify with the real world. Plus, obviously, what the song is about: stand by your man." Though no one's said anything yet, a few shots of Bobby hesitating, entering and reacting to the music and Rayette says a lot. "He walks in and rolls his eyes. It's a small gesture, but you're like 'OK, I kind of get this guy. He's a dick. And I get who she is. He doesn't respect her.' You started off wondering where you are, but these little things help put it together, but in a fun way."

Later at a bowling alley with an oil rig pal and his wife, Bobby patronizes Rayette, who leaves in a huff. Bobby stays behind to flirt with a pair of women one lane over. Their silly, smiling exchange is mostly played out in one take framing Bobby's head between theirs. "There's not a lot of cutting, which gives the comedy a tension," explains Cholodenko, who notices that Rafelson takes the same approach when Bobby goes out to the parking lot to console Rayette, who's moping in the car. "I just love that this isn't cut. It's a two-shot that isn't milking the emotion. It's brave to trust your actors like that, to let the performances do their thing. Traditional Hollywood is close-ups and medium shots and overs, and this is very anti-Hollywood."

Exposed: Cholodenko admires how the film objectively presents the rather unpleasant world of its anti-hero Bobby Dupea, played by Jack Nicholson; (bottom) with his girlfriend Karen Black. (Photo/Screenpulls: (top) Columbia/Photofest; (bottom) The Criterion Collection)

The next hint that Bobby isn't really a blue-collar guy is during a traffic jam on a highway. First he gets out of his car, perturbed, and yells at drivers, a scene that shows Nicholson in full tantrum mode. "You sense this openness between actor and director," says Cholodenko. "This has been a big influence on me. I try to be very clear about what scripts and actors are about, where they're headed, and holding that space, and it's allowed me to let the actor go off book, to add things I might not have thought of. Annette Bening did that a lot on The Kids Are All Right (2010)."

Bobby then climbs atop a truck bed carting a piano and bangs out a song over the din of honking horns as the truck pulls away. Clearly, he's a musician. "Eighteen minutes in and we discover this about the guy," says Cholodenko. "It's beautiful that the piano's out of tune. It's a foreshadow. I like that it's a lot of simple metaphors, like this thing about the road. He never really cares where he's going. He's just going."

After discovering Rayette might be pregnant, Rafelson cuts to Bobby in a suit and tie driving into Los Angeles. He enters a recording studio booth where his nervous-looking sister, Partita (Lois Smith), is sitting at a grand piano recording an album. As we realize that this is where Bobby comes from—a family of oddball classical musicians—he learns that their father has suffered two strokes. Partita wants Bobby to visit him in Washington on their family's island estate. He reluctantly agrees and leaves the studio, at which point Rafelson cuts to a jarring, up-close, handheld shot of Bobby having torrid, furniture-crashing sex with the previously introduced bowling alley pickup.

"That cut is great, dynamic," says Cholodenko. "It says a lot about the character's inner life without being expository. He's got a lot of anxiety and stress, and wants to cut loose and be free. He's pent up. He's freaking out, and wants to fuck everything up. It said to me, really think about what you want to express subtextually with the camera. It can be in sync with whatever the emotion is."

Bobby hits the road, with Rayette tagging along, and stops to give a ride to two women stranded by a car wreck, one of whom (Helena Kallianiotes) immediately dominates the space with coarse harangues ("It's all crap!") about humanity. Though it's never stated clearly, Cholodenko voices what clued-in 1970 audiences might have educatedly guessed: "Here's the lesbians, right?" says a laughing Cholodenko, who's made a few films addressing the lesbian experience. "This was 1970. They're a little bit stereotypical, but it was probably avant-garde then."

Cholodenko points out the way Rafelson eases into the tense comedy of picking up a passenger who turns out to be a kook. "That's a great frame," she says of the first post-pickup shot, a long, through-the-windshield take, symmetrically placing Bobby and Rayette on the sides of the frame in the front seat, and the back-seat hitchhikers spatially in between them. "It's the tension of not cutting away. They're just there. You're the camera. You're trapped. There's this natural light, and these complicated, crazy characters, and you don't really know where the fuck it's going. Then [Rafelson] cuts to singles, and we're in the head of everybody as [Kallianiotes] becomes more and more unglued."

Though Cholodenko loves the famous diner scene in which Bobby slow burns to a boil, telling off a stickler waitress and sweeping the tableware onto the floor, she says it's aided by Rafelson's choice to frame it against a window showing the landscape. "It's another great, brave tableau," she says. "It perfectly expresses tonally what the film is, this man having an identity crisis, feeling hamstrung and hogtied and suffocated. When he walks into this space, it's all about conformity."

After dropping off Rayette at a motel, Bobby hops a ferry, and Rafelson once more takes time to frame Nicholson alone against the sky, only this time a cloudy Pacific Northwest one. "This kind of openness is just beautiful," says Cholodenko. "It's that classic motif, man against himself, isolated. It's foreboding. He's out to sea, basically. And it's very different from that warm, salt-of-the-earth thing earlier, where it was a lot of magic hour. This is grey. There's something bleak and all that reflects where he is emotionally."

Entering the family house, where a Mozart concerto can be heard, Rafelson lets us discover the place with Bobby with a slow follow shot. In one room, brother Carl (Ralph Waite) plays piano with new girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach). In another, Partita is shaving their father, a silent figure in a chair. Cholodenko likens the vibe to an "asylum." She adds, "I love these images, where you see him in context, what the world is without going to his face and cutting to a point of view. It's nice shorthand. So here are the 'civilized' people, the cultured people. But who's more bizarre? Rayette and that crew or these people?"

Over a few eating scenes around the dining room table composed mostly of tight close-ups and gentle interrogation, we grasp that Bobby's connection to his family is an obvious source of unease. In one meal scene, a quick edit between Bobby and Catherine, who seems normal, hints at his attraction to her. "Here's a new sex interest," notes Cholodenko. "It's such a peeling of the onion. These [pictures] really demand that you be in an uncomfortable space. There's no breathing room."

Escape: (top) Nicholson rants in the famous chicken salad sandwich scene, and (middle) is rejected by Susan Anspach; (bottom) in the last shot, he ditches his girlfriend in a gas station. (Screenpulls: The Criterion Collection)

When Catherine asks Bobby to play something, Rafelson initiates a slow pan from Bobby's fingers at the keyboard across Catherine's face, a resting violin, and several family portraits, before returning to Catherine. It's one of the few self-consciously "directed" shots, and Cholodenko finds it off-putting. "It's kind of clunky, really. He's trying to weave the whole world together, who the family is, what he broke away from, and that's a hard thing to do. There's an artifice to it. It doesn't feel in keeping with the style of the film, which is more organic and free. But I appreciate it, because it's also the kind of film where you can tell they're trying stuff." She's more taken by how Rafelson ends the shot, settling on Catherine in close-up looking deeply affected—she loved it—then cutting to Bobby in a medium shot looking blasé, because he was faking it. "It's simple shorthand: She's vulnerable and expressive, he's just detached—but it's effective."

Soon Bobby confronts Catherine about her signals, and they have sex. But when he introduces Rayette to the house, his embarrassment of her and interest in Catherine lead him to extremes of behavior again. At a dinner party during a thunderstorm, a pompous guest offends Catherine, who leaves. Bobby, noticing this, tells off the snobby woman and takes off to find Catherine. "I like this representation of highbrow, intellectual culture as ghoulish," says Cholodenko. "At this point, you've shape-shifted with Bobby so much, but now there's this sweet spot of understanding what his defenses are, his torment. Catherine represents who he wants to be, a sincere, genuine, integrated person." When Bobby runs through the house trying to locate Catherine, Cholodenko notices an expressionistic indoor lighting choice: dark vertical lines on the walls. "Those prison bars are stylistically beautiful. It's like he's running through the prison of his own mind, looking for himself."

Catherine has given up on Bobby, though. The next day, in an outdoor scene, she says she's going back to Carl, then bares Bobby's soul for him, explaining, "A person who has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love for his friends, family, work, something … how can he ask for love in return?" Bobby's and Catherine's close-ups are the biggest yet, filling the frame. "She's present; he's present; everyone's exposed," says Cholodenko. "That's the first exchange that's direct, that isn't layered with subtext, and it's earned. He's been outed. No going back."

Soon afterward, Bobby, once more bruised by interaction with his clan, leaves with Rayette. At a gas station, while Rayette's inside, he hitches a ride with a logger. Rafelson cuts to a wide view showing the logging truck pulling onto the road, a shot that lingers through superimposed end credits, while the small figure of Rayette can be seen wandering around, looking for a Bobby that isn't there, literally and figuratively.

"That's just a gut punch," says Cholodenko of Rafelson's sudden ending, which was true to the squirrelly nature of the movie's ambivalent protagonist, but shocking nonetheless to audiences at the time. "You know how they say a great ending is one that's surprising but inevitable? This end is really beautiful, this still camera, the wide composition. Even though on some level it feels like, 'Huh? Is that all there is?' it's a person who wants to disappear. He wants to be invisible. So we don't see him. It's a really sad ending."

Years after first seeing it, Cholo-denko realized that a woman—Carole Eastman—had written the screenplay and it added to her affection for it. "There's a female sensitivity in a way, an emotional searching and Rafelson doesn't shy away from that," she says. "Here's a character who's vulnerable, and we're walking through time and space with him. I think that's a beautifully female thing."

Cholodenko imagines how Five Easy Pieces must have played to moviegoers on the heels of the turbulent '60s, when personal freedom galvanized artists and art lovers. "It's interesting, maybe it's a bit of a rebuke to the ethos of the counterculture, because [Bobby] embodies the anti-social," she says. "It doesn't flinch from the complexity of that. What's so beautiful about it is that it's a genuine character piece, a real actors' piece. It's not a polemic. It doesn't reduce down into this black-and-white thing. You understand what he's rejecting, why he's rejecting it, and on the other hand, he's an asshole. It's that feeling of being in another character's point of view, and then being under his skin. With the open frames and tableaus, the seriousness of the compositions, you see him in his world, and Rafelson's not cutting it up and trying to direct the audience toward emotion. These characters are funny, you might laugh at them, but there's gravity here. I just think it's a great American New Wave approach to psychological realism."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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