Wednesday, August 31, 2011

FIve Easy Pieces and the tone of the times

Before the 1992 release of A Few Good Men in which Jack Nicholson delivered the much quoted line, "You can't handle the truth," his most famous screen moment was probably in 1970's Five Easy Pieces, the first film in which he claimed top billing since being noticed with his supporting role in the previous year's Easy Rider. It's the chicken salad sandwich scene that was chosen to represent the film during the clips from the best picture nominees at that year's Academy Awards.

Nicholson and Karen Black, as his sort-of girlfriend, stop at a diner with two hitchhikers they've picked up. Nicholson orders toast which is not on the menu, and a contentious exchange follows in which he explains to the waitress how she can fill his order without breaking the rules that she insists on following.

"You have bread, and a toaster of some kind?" he tells the frustrated woman, then instructs her to "hold the chicken," bring him a check for the chicken salad sandwich "and you haven't broken any rules."

"You want me to hold the chicken?" she asks in a tone of defiant sarcasm.

"I want you to hold it between your knees," he sneers.

With that remark, the waitress orders Nicholson and his companions to leave, and points to a sign that states the management's policy ("We reserve the right to refuse service").

"Do you see this sign?" Nicholson says, then violently clears the table of its glassware and metal utensils.

More than 40 years later, Nicholson's character looks more like an obnoxious boor than the rebel he may have seemed originally. He's a rude bully abusing a low-wage employee who is, after all, only doing her job. In 1970, when the film was released, it played a little differently, its rage colored by the tone of the times. To the young people of what would have been called the "counterculture," Nicholson's character wasn't merely abusing a waitress, but taking on Nixon, Vietnam, the assassins of JFK, RFK, and MLK, along with all the pointless rules of our straight-jacketed repressed society. He was "stickin' it to the man," challenging the "system," kicking the Establishment's ass, and putting down the whole rotten "scene" (add a "man" after "scene" for added hipness, 1970's style).

Nicholson's character was the rebel seizing his freedom and ignoring the "sign" that the waitress points to in her defense. A hit song by a group called the Five Man Electrical Band titled "Signs" that hit the airwaves in summer 1971 ("Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?") may have even been inspired by the scene. Once Nicholson and his companions leave the diner, one of the hitchhikers praises his miniature act of rebellion. He's less impressed with himself than she is, and recognizes the futility of, shall we say, fighting the system. In regard to that toast without the chicken, he says, "Well, I didn't get it, did I?"

A movie, like any creative work, does not exist in a void. It reflects its time, but time moves on while the work of art is static, frozen on canvas, on a page, or on frames of film. If its truths are universal, the art transcends the time in which it was made and communicates as effectively to its own generation as it does to those that follow. Five Easy Pieces, like that previous Nicholson movie with "easy" in the title, is probably a satisfying film to watch even now, four decades after its release, but its power has almost certainly diminished. In 1970, some of its strength was in its symbolism, which may not have even been deliberate, but what it symbolized for many members of its original audience has changed. Nixon is gone, Vietnam is over, and our government, though actually more oppressive than ever, is seen as less corrupt and authoritarian, certainly by filmmakers, most of whom lean left politically and are inclined to see a democratic president as a man in a white hat, especially when he's black.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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