Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Five Easy Pieces: making connections

One of the rewards of reading a lot/watching lots of movies is the thrill one gets from spotting little thematic connections between works that are otherwise completely unrelated in terms of genre, mood or time period. Experienced that again last night when I watched one of my neglected London-returned DVDs, the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, just hours after blogging on Kazuo Ishiguro and The Unconsoled.

This was Jack Nicholson’s first major film as a lead actor (he had won acclaim for his supporting performance in Easy Rider the year before). He plays Robert Dupea, a man who comes from a wealthy, intellectual family full of musical eccentrics and who once showed great promise as a classical pianist – but, for reasons never explicitly stated, turned his back on his roots and became a drifter, moving from one blue-collar job to another. There’s the hint of a suggestion that his father may have been too demanding, too authoritarian, and that’s what led Robert to go his own way.

It’s a wryly funny and often moving film, very acclaimed in its day but a wee bit dated now – being as it is over-preoccupied with the notion of the Drifter/Loner as a romantic figure. But I was struck by two unusually powerful scenes. One has Nicholson getting out of his car during a traffic jam, clambering onto a goods truck that has a piano in it and playing the instrument, oblivious of what is going on around him -- all this while still dressed in his oil-rig worker’s uniform! The other finds him at his family home (he’s returned to visit his dying, stroke-afflicted father) where he plays the piano for a friend, while the camera pans to show pictures on the wall – family photos from a happier time as well as portraits of great musicians/conductors who Robert might once have aspired to be like.

Back to the connection with The Unconsoled. Ishiguro’s novel of many layers has a world-renowned pianist as its central figure, and two other pianists as supporting characters – one a once-great musician now trying to regain his lost glory, the other a young man trying to make a start in the field, in the face of his parents’ apathy. Running through the lives of these men belonging to three different generations is the common theme of disenchantment with family. As struggling youngsters, they are emotionally crippled by lack of parental support and encouragement. Later, though acclaimed by the world, they are still making a desperate bid to prove themselves worthy in their parents’ eyes; and in the process, they neglect their own families, perpetuating a cycle of disappointment.

That’s it, really. I never claimed it was a strong connection. But it was sufficient for me to sit up and take notice, and maybe even enjoy the film a little more than I thought I would.

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