Five Easy Pieces / Wanda / Everyman

As I was thinking about the activation of ideas and the different intensities of ‘impression’ that material can make over time – whether it involves interrupted reading, looking away from the page/object, watching movies and then forgetting them, then having them reanimated for you, etc. – I was struck by a confluence of various things coming together in the last few days. Amounting to what? An intersection of Five Easy Pieces, Philip Roth’s short novel Everyman and Wanda, a film I’d half forgotten having seen at Documenta XII. In fact the screenings in Kassel played up to precisely these kinds of presentations of resonance – films were scheduled in double bills with the intention of setting off associations, echoes and disjunctions, etc. which may or may not be exposed until much later, as I myself found out – so perhaps this got me thinking. In saying that, I’m not sure I can even recall what Wanda was paired with. Nonetheless, these extractions of structural impressions or getting a sense of material echoes or shared forms/images is no doubt an everyday procedure, but it’s not often that I get the sense of a few things coming together in such a particular way that try to force an articulation of their shared potential as if it were always bound to be of crucial importance.

Still, in addition to the fact that the two films were released in 1970, there were other striking similarities between them. Barbara Loden’s Wanda, her only directorial effort (which she also wrote and starred in) sees the title character drifting, initially away from her young family (quite a radical theme for a film at that time), then across a bleak Pennsylvanian landscape in the company of an lowlife bank robber, before eventually withdrawing into extreme loneliness and disengagement from the world. The coal-mining country that Wanda is drawn against – in one scene a long shot watches her walking through an open quarry – is easily to associate with the similarly bleak oil fields that provide the backdrop for the opening sections of Five Easy Pieces, but can the main characters be so easily related? I’m not sure about this yet. It’s true that both films contain  beaten down female characters – one in the dominant leading role, the other a minor character that is drawn rather slightly, perhaps even unsympathetically, simply to provide a context for the behaviour of the male lead. A further point of possible similarity and difference stems from Wanda being the work of Loden and Five Easy Pieces being written for the screen by Carole Eastman yet directed by a man, Robert Rafelson. The most obvious point of comparison, however, lies in the contrasts between central characters, Wanda and Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson). These figures surely relate to one another in relation to a kind of disengagement, withdrawal and gesture of ‘running away’, even though it might be argued that Wanda’s bleaker downward spiral, her ‘meaningless fate’, has more in common with Melville’s Bartleby than with Nicholson’s black sheep.

Dupea is a young man who has drifted away from a life of privilege and culture, “moving around a lot” between odd jobs and superficial personal relationships. We are introduced to him when he is working on oil rigs, drinking with his temporary friend Elton (who is married with a child – emblematic of a kind of domesticity and stasis that Bobby reacts against violently at one point, as his own frustrations and disappointments boil over – only for Elton’s own illusory security to go up in flames immediately after) and living with Rayette (Karen Black), a young, uneducated waitress that Dupea seems to tolerate rather than have any real affection for. As already mentioned, the portrayal of Rayette is interesting in terms of its function in the film’s structure, but it seems a little too sketchy. Rayette is played almost like a child, excessively needy and facile – her supposed ‘simpleness’ symbolised by an obsession with Country & Western and an advocating of television – a stance which seems a little creaky. Both Rayette and Wanda are presented as uneducated, working class women (one a waitress, the other a housewife) who are relentlessly vulnerable to the whims of self-obsessed, abusive men who treat them with near total disregard, as well as to a wider society that systematically keeps them contained or disenfranchised. Wanda‘s tender depiction of the suffering of its main character (apparently Loden took inspiration from the story of Wanda Goranski who, after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in a bank robbery, thanked the judge), which exposes the emptiness that awaits any woman (of a certain ‘standing’) who steps outside conventional social structures in 1970s America, may offer another perspective on a consideration of a female character such as Rayette. There may be other comparisons to be drawn with other female characters in the film, as indeed there is potential to compare the wandering of Wanda with the incessant restlessness of Dupea.

Even though Karen Black’s character is not fully fleshed out, her performance of the material she is given is convincing. The character’s need for constant attention, her absent-minded singing, as well as her determination to be happy (to live in the Polaroid moment), soon become annoying to the extent that she assumes the role of an easy indicator of the unfulfilled relationship Dupea has found himself embroiled in, both in relation to Rayette, but also to his father, family and the world at large. His contempt for her almost always shines through his reluctant bouts of affection – he is usually ashamed to be with her and on one occasion says to her, “if you would just stop talking, everything would be alright.” If the intention was to simply show a pair of mismatched lovers, the pudding is over-egged. If the point is to build up to a strategic collision between the working classes and the middle class world that Bobby has left behind, this is achieved in a particularly clumsy manner. Yet everything in the film is refracted through the relationship to Bobby’s aimlessness and disillusionment – supporting characters are drawn specifically to reflect the lead character’s flaws, angst and generally self-absorbed behaviour. This is why the film is so striking perhaps – you start to get a sense of his frustrations, even though you cannot quite get an handle on his behaviour or his specific motivations. For all this, the relationship between Bobby and Rayette is not straightforward – which is why he has such indecision about being with her or leaving her (including a great Nicholson hissy fit™ in the car). He hates her for the same reasons he is attracted to her – a coordinate of the same conflict that runs through the film that he cannot resolve or, at least until the very end, extricate himself from. In the end he takes a absurd, childish action, slinking away like a fugitive. He simply decides (and is this a protective gesture? Is that too generous?) to disappear.

Again, it is as if the film is deliberately slanted through Dupea’s perspective – the Dupea family, who Bobby goes to visit after hearing of his father’s recent stroke, are all portrayed as damaged – the sister (one of the few people for whom Bobby seems to have unmediated affection) is an eccentric, awkward misfit; the father is now mute and statuesque following his illness; and the older brother wears a ludicrous neck brace after an accident with a truck. When back in the affluent family home, the only connection Bobby can make is with his brother’s beautiful, and seemingly well-adjusted, fiancée Catherine (Susan Anspach), a musician who he sense may just offer him understanding or be able to absorb his frustrations. Having reluctantly taken Rayette with him in his trip north, Bobby continues his attempts to keep a distance between his two lives, leaving his girlfriend at a motel before going on to the house alone. However, after a while Rayette invites herself to the house and breaks this division, setting up the stand off between the life Bobby ‘should’ be living (and isn’t) and the life he is absorbed into (but cannot figure how to exit). Obviously, the main theme of the film is this very sense of the need for escape and extrication, together with the impossibility of doing so. This is encompassed at various points through the image of dirt and cleanliness, again clumsily symbolic of messy relationships and clean slates, etc. It seems to start from from the opening shot, which looked to me (possibly in need of a new prescription) like a painted trompe l’oeil landscape or some holographic image of a burnished forest, but turned out to be the scarred surface of an earthmover’s bucket, which then rises up to deposit waste soil and detritus in front of the camera. There is also a comic interlude in the middle of the film, when Bobby and Rayette pick up two stranded women when they are travelling north. One of these hitchers continues to rant about the excesses of consumer society and man’s ‘filth’, explaining that they are on their way to the snowy-white cleanliness of Alaska (a destination that takes on the mirage-like resonance of the incongruent image of ‘Australia’ in Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent). As it turns out it is back to this seed that the film turns at the final scene – when stopped for petrol on the way back south, Bobby surreptitiously hitches a ride on a logging truck heading, as the driver says, where it’s “colder than hell”, leaving Rayette alone in the middle of nowhere.

Beyond these interesting themes of abandonment, acceptance and reconciliation (where even after a tearful apology to his mute father, Bobby has to face the fact that he still has to make some kind of decision about his situation – messy choices have to be made, lovers to be left, etc. even if it is to sneak into a passing vehicle and escape),  I think I was particularly interested in the film’s portrayal of deluded idealism, or how it captured the obscure desire for the world to conform to a personal vision (not full-blown megalomania, but an easily missed disconnect between the self and the other) and the inability to deal with the inevitable disappointment of this type of outlook. Such delusions are usually exacerbated by the vision being obscured by the strength of the desire, it being drained by the unapologetic way the world presents itself, or from being incoherent in the first place. It ties in with a general anxiousness concerning the reasons why I was so moved by similarly deluded characters in recent films I’ve seen (which may be another focus of future writing), such as George Perec and Bernard Queysanne’s Un Homme Qui Dort (A Man Asleep) and in the recent Sean Penn film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. But there is also another aspect to this – perhaps I see something of a creative spark in these characters (or is it in the way they are portrayed? Do I want to try to write such a character myself?) that is not usual or conventional, and which needs to be framed in a very particular way for its creative potential to be shown in the light – the creator of worlds or a deluded idiot? As an example of this, there is a famous scene in the diner where Bobby tries to order something not listed on the menu and the waitress responds with irritating stubbornness that there can be “no substitutions”. Although Bobby says “I know what I want” (but don’t know how to go about getting it, as Jimi Hendrix might have quipped), what he has so clearly marked out as being what will satisfy him is not available. As I say, the whole film is to an extent always concerned with the failure of meeting of expectations, exemplified by Bobby’s relationship with his family and cultured upbringing, abandoning his father’s approval, etc. which is in effect a very localised set of expectations that Bobby himself turns outward on to the wider world, which does not (and cannot) measure up. Yet it is telling, in some sense, that he earns a strangely emphatic admiration from one of the women picked up in the highway (the motormouth who carries on about filth and whitest Alaska) for the ‘clever’ way he attempted to establish a system by which the waitress could give him what he wanted without breaking any rules (before losing his temper) – an indication that there is an audience for this type of construction, which might be considered an abstracted view of creativity in the sense of the manufacture of fictions: extrapolations by which a given situation can be shaped in order that things be kept moving. In fact, the more I think about these scenes, the more interesting they become as a point of possible extrapolation. Even more so than the scenes in which Bobby reveals his former life and talent by playing the piano – either on the back of a truck in a traffic jam, where he becomes so engrossed that he doesn’t notice the truck moving off on a slip road, or playing for Catherine in his father’s house when he scorns and demeans her emotional response – the scene in the diner and the reaction it gets become an indication of Dupea’s contained intelligence or his inherent creativity that is arguably going to waste (without an indication of which, the film’s tension – particularly in the family home sections – would dissipate). Of course, the diner scene is also demonstrative of Dupea’s arrogance, as he almost implores the waitress: ‘‘if only you would think like me, we would all get along fine and no one would get hurt.” But anyway, where does Philip Roth’s novel come into this? Perhaps I saw some relation between the thematic “stoicism” that ran through the book (or rather the acceptance that is worked slowly toward the end pages, like a a pus being dragged out of the character) as the narrator slowly slowly comes to terms with the death that we know from the first pages has already taken him. There seemed to me to be a consonance between the two films and the book through their shared presentation of a certain constancy of unhappiness, what might otherwise be called the stoicism of disappointment. Between the three of them there was a suspended terrain of poignancy, a landscape drawn between the imperfect meeting points between the self and others, the endless struggles of disjunctive expectations, as well as a sense of guilt that is never acknowledged but is known to be possessed.