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James L. Brooks
Robert Dupea has given up his promising career as a concert pianist and is now working in oil fields. He lives together with Rayette, who's a waitress in a diner. When Robert hears from his sister that his father isn't well, he drives up to Washington to see him, taking Rayette with him. There he gets confronted with his rich, cultured family that he had left behind. Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
In discussing films with extraordinary characterization, Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces" is an exemplary example. The film is an intense character study of an alienated, misfit drifter who seems to have no specific direction or place in life. Jack Nicholson brings to life Robert Dupea, a man who has considerable natural musical talent, but has rejected that life and his family who is also musically talented. There are hints throughout the film that Robert had great promise as a concert pianist if only he had stuck with it. He contains many of the creative personality characteristics that would predispose him to musical greatness. Psychologists who study creativity have found that generally creative people contain a number of specific personality characteristics. Robert contains many of them, but has generally abandoned creating anything.
I would first like to comment on why I feel the film received the title, "Five Easy Pieces". I at first thought that it might be because Robert plays piano five times throughout the film. But in a second viewing, I counted and he only played piano four times, including the time where he mimics playing the piano at the dinner table when discussing his experience playing in Las Vegas. I pondered a little further and realized that the title was likely spawned from the five classical pieces listed in the introductory credits; Chopin's Fantasy in F minor, Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Mozart's E-flat major concerto, Chopin's Prelude in E minor, and finally Mozart's Fantasy in D minor. I myself am not a musician, but other people who do play music have told me that these pieces are somewhat difficult to play. But Robert can sit down and play them with no problem. In this sense, the title "Five Easy Pieces" is somewhat ironic.
One of the main characteristics of creative people is 'alienation'. I will discuss this concept first because alienation is one of the central themes of the film. The alienation that lies in Robert is a direct result of his lack of direction towards any one particular life. In his case, one life would be the average working class type of person and the other would be that of a musician. Robert seems to be caught somewhere between the two. He came from a talented, musically oriented family and was at one point, a promising pianist, but now engages in a common, working class lifestyle where he drinks beer, bowls, listens to country music and chases after women. But it is evident that he does not feel settled in this lifestyle. He is as much of a misfit among the common community as he is among the musical atmosphere of Puget Sound. In essence, he is a nowhere type of man.
Robert also displays the personality characteristic of 'naivete', meaning that a person tends to act somewhat child-like. Creative people tend to be quite impulsive and open to emotional display, and are quite often labeled as temperamental. Poet, Earl Birney states that "poets might just be people who have not overgrown their love for poetry as a child". Many researchers have theorized that the creator is like a child. Schiller argues that you can not create if your intellect (a uniquely adult attribute) hinders you. Another theorist, Osborne argues that to be creative one must eliminate the mature, intellectual attitude, and that creative people are able to resist premature judgements through the use of brainstorming techniques, producing many ideas and alternatives. Freud said that both the child and the creative person are similar in that both have unfulfilled wishes and desires. Satisfied people do not create. He argued that all people need an escape from reality; in adulthood we daydream (play internally) for wish fulfillment, but the creative person keeps it external by creating something such as a symphony, poem, or a painting etc. At many points in "Five Easy Pieces", Robert displays child like behavior. This is characterized most notably in the famous scene where he explodes at a waitress in a diner because the establishment does not have the meal that he desires. He flies into a temper tantrum and sweeps all of the glasses and menus off the table. Another wonderful scene illustrating Robert's naivete is the one when he jumps aboard a truck with a piano in the back and begins playing it during a traffic jam. Creative people, like children are often open to high emotional display, and hence Robert seizes the moment by playing the piano to get his mind off the traffic jam which he has lost patience with. He, like many other creative people is very confident, self assertive, dominant, and independent.
The film's narrative neatly unfolds, Robert's insecurity, another common creative trait. Many great creators have doubts about the quality of their product and the authenticity of their talent, hence the notion that creative people are never satisfied. It is quite evident that Robert has high doubts that he could be a great pianist. This is probably why he ended up being a drifter, choosing the common, trailer park sort of life. There is a scene near the end of the film where Robert is speaking with his father and in a way apologizing for his own life and not living up to the expectations of the family. He states that they both know that Robert is not any good anyway. This is a depiction of his insecurity. But not only is he insecure about his talent as a musician; he is also insecure about his life in general. He is caught somewhere in between two worlds, the world of the common man and the world of the creative musician, and thus is always running away from things as a result.
All of the creative theory aside, "Five Easy Pieces" is very enjoyable on the level of acting. Jack Nicholson nails the character of Robert Dupea dead on. The character called for a certain degree of arrogance and obnoxiousness which are characteristics that we all know that no one can portray better than Jack.
**** out of ****
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