The BBS Films are Full of Wanderers
Five Easy Pieces begins with a familiar, but altered image that represents this shift in perspective. As in Easy Rider, men’s silhouettes are framed against the sunset, but unlike the dusky desert vista of Easy Rider, the men stand on oil rigs rather than rocks. Life is no longer an open adventure, but instead a routine, a machine.
Jack Nicholson, whose performance in Easy Rider brought him back to acting after considering retirement, plays Bobby Dupea, the central character of Five Easy Pieces. For a while, Bobby’s life goes nowhere beyond the rig, the home, and the bowling alley. He doesn’t appreciate his domestic life, which includes an emotional and very sympathetic girlfriend (Karen Black). His sexual affairs are unfulfilling.
Although there is a hint or two of wildness in the first act of the film (the highlight being an impromptu traffic jam/piano jam session), Five Easy Pieces is a strangely flat film. One might expect Bobby to find what he’s looking for when he has a chance to return home to a sick father and to the passions of his youth. Yet he rejects feeling anything too deeply, except resentment, which seems to be his overriding response to both love and loss. Nicholson’s performance is magnetic, but the real energy of Five Easy Pieces is in its female characters, played by Black, Lois Smith (as Bobby’s sister), and Susan Anspach (as his brother’s wife-to-be). The fullness of life within these characters can probably be attributed to the script’s co-writer, Carole Eastman, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the film.
The BBS films are full of wanderers, but Bobby Dupea is so dissatisfied with all of the options available to him, that he’s never likely to be happy. Five Easy Pieces could be called honest for its depiction of a lead character that fundamentally refuses to commit to a traditional lifestyle. However, his self-imposed alienation, and the film’s non-conclusion leave the audience with none of the poetic possibilities of Easy Rider or the dazzling dissonance of Head.
Without America Lost and Found: The BBS Story two lesser-known films in the box set might have been “lost” entirely within cinematic history. The box set revives Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said and Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place, films that are premiering on home video in this collection. Perhaps coincidentally, these are also the two most obviously dated films of the set.
Five Easy Pieces
Drive, He Said, Nicholson’s directorial debut, is a spirited but flawed movie. Covering much of the same ground as Head (as well as Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, a BBS production not included here), the film connects sports, war, and what it means to be a man. However, it lacks Head’s vaudeville playfulness or the bravura editing and intellectual heft of Hearts and Minds. Shot on the University of Oregon campus, Drive, He Said is on one hand a basketball movie about the pressures facing Hector (William Tepper) on the court and in his personal life with girlfriend Olive (Karen Black, in another powerful performance).
On the other hand, Nicholson’s scattershot film (adapted from Jeremy Larner’s book) is an anti-war piece that challenges the draft and attempts to educate the audience on the horrors of war, all from the safety of a University campus. Although it seems unlikely that a film could overcome that distance between setting and subject matter, the war material is much more effective than the individual plot of Hector, who would be the star in a more traditional sports film. His friend Gabriel (Michael Margotta) is terrified of being drafted and increasingly moved to take counter measures on campus.
Through Margotta’s totally committed performance and other directorial touches, such as rousing footage of a real riot on campus, Drive, He Said communicates a genuine fear about going to war. One antiwar student in the film describes the difference between the “theater” and real life as being that in real life, when you’re dead, you’re dead. Gabriel cannot accept that reality, even as it seems inevitable. Hector doesn’t need to consider war and death, because basketball allows his escape. What makes Hector a classic BBS leading man is that he’s lost passion for his game and for his lover, and there’s little hope that he will return to them. Like Bobby Dupea, he risks becoming option-less by design.
In a supplemental interview on the Drive, He Said DVD, Nicholson describes the environment that motivated his film: “It was gradually getting more open, more expressive, freer. Fame, money, the war—the tragedy of the story is the problems with free love.” Nicholson’s unexpected admission of the failure of free love to cure the mounting pressures of the day does cast the film in a slightly different, more conservative light. Despite their distinctive crusades to destroy the paths the system provides, Hector and Gabriel are in the end victims of a generation that “blew it” by latching onto shortsighted solutions.
Drive, He Said
A Safe Place, Jaglom’s directorial debut, is the only film in the BBS box to put a woman front and center. Tuesday Weld is Susan, a woman who seems to literally float through her bohemian New York City surroundings. Orson Welles appears as a park magician, recounting a dream and describing the uncertainty of waking and sleep, of reality and dream. This serene foundation is broken once it becomes apparent that Susan (called Noah) is indeed a very lost woman. The magician is her refuge from hurt in the “real” world, and his floating orbs become a sign that Susan risks drifting away entirely if she doesn’t find some way to connect to life around her.
The cutting pace and soundtrack of A Safe Place emphasize her dislocation, as straight cuts and discontinuity between picture and sound remove Susan from present, continuous action. On one of Easy Rider’s commentaries, Dennis Hopper comments that he knew he had to use straight cuts adventurously if he wanted to win at Cannes, and Jaglom appears to have tried the same bold editing strategy here, though to different effect.
Weld is fascinating to watch. She is flighty and birdlike, always on the verge of a new mood or discovery. She kisses her reflection in the mirror and remembers having flown as a little girl. The film consistently presents objects—“Ouija”-like messages, a magic box, and the park magician’s collection of illusions—that play into and preserve her fantasies. Jaglom says in the disc’s supplemental interview that the character was inspired in equal thirds by Weld, Karen Black, and himself. He also discusses the roots of the film as a mixture of improvisational theatre, European art films, and John Cassavetes. The latter comparison in particular rings true because Weld’s performance in A Safe Place contains the same sort of unpredictability that was present in Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands.
A Safe Place
Jaglom also says the film was an attempt to reflect how the dreams of a generation were being shattered, and that Susan is like America at the time—happy in dreams, but tormented in reality. Gwen Welles’ brief but pivotal performance in the film connects strongly to this theme of creeping death within a dream. Though Weld does all she can to communicate her character’s strange magic, A Safe Place tests our patience with free-spiritedness. The film rarely challenges Susan in any direct fashion. As a result we meander too frequently in her dreams. The aesthetic of the film follows along, with excessive montages eventually deadening the narrative development. As in Drive, He Said, the film is full of the idealism and fatalism of being young in America during the Vietnam War. Despite their shortcomings, both films are worthwhile for the snapshots they provide into that mindset and moment in time.