Thursday, November 14, 2013

154. US director Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970): One of the finest examples of screenplay-writing from Hollywood

A lot of thought goes into writing a good screenplay. Unfortunately movie directors often walk away with the credit that ought to be shared with the screenplay writer first unless, of course, the director comes up with a cocktail of visuals and music that takes center-stage pushing the script into the background. Among the best of American screenplay-writers that come to ones’s mind are Horton Foote (Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ernest Lehmann (Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).  Another brilliant screenplay-writer in the same league was the late Carole Eastman (credited under her pen name Adrien Joyce), who wrote the screenplay of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Going by the movie credits, the original story was co-written by Rafelson and Eastman, which was developed into a screenplay by Eastman.

Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, the blue-collar oil worker

Carole Eastman’s screenplay is simply brilliant. For nearly half of the film, she builds the character of Robert ("Bobby")  Eroica Dupea (played by Carole’s real-life friend, Jack Nicholson). The viewer is gradually convinced that Dupea is a blue-collar oil rig worker. The spoken words, the accent Nicholson employs for the first half of the film, and his body movements betray no evidence whatsoever that he was brought up in sophisticated white-collar world of fine tasteful living.

Nicholson as the blue-collar oil industry lout yelling at every one, even dogs

The first indication of the real “Bobby” Dupea is when he gets agitated at being caught in a traffic snarl, gets out of his car, and starts clambering up on another car before the owner yells at him to get off, only to get on the back of a truck carrying household goods that include a piano. The sight of a piano transforms the character of Booby and he sits down in front of the piano and plays Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor. The viewer is likely to be shocked for the first time—how come this blue collar oil-rig worker can play Chopin without notes minutes after he was ranting and raving as an ill-mannered ruffian. And Dupea gets so involved in playing Chopin that he does not realize that the traffic is now moving and that the truck he is in on is pulling away in a different direction to his friend’s car. Hats off to the brilliance of Carole Eastman to build up a character and then gradually peel off the made up personality of the oil-rigger Dupea so effectively and in such a dramatic manner!

If the viewer rewinds to what Eastman and director Rafelson have offered up to that point in the movie, Dupea’s disdain for Rayette‘s (Karen Black) Tammy Wynette songs suddenly makes sense. Dupea’s taste for music is apparently notches higher than that of Rayette—a fact that seemed clouded by Rayette’s not very bright demeanor.  But the strength of the screenplay is not limited to the mere ability of the writer to shroud a character and then reveal it. It is also in the second part of the script/movie that we realize that Bobby’s character is not just refined but smart, when he ia ble to order his omelette and toast when the combination is not available on a restaurant menu apart from revealing what he is used to having for breakfast with his real family.
The transformation of Bobby (Nicholson) is evident when he wants a more
sophisticated breakfast than what's on the menu, as Rayette (Black) looks on 

The deeper strength of the screenplay lies in using music to structure the tale.  The “five easy pieces” refer not to five easy women Bobby Dupea  interacts with (Rayette, the bowling alley girl, the two hitch-hikers and Carl’s girlfriend Catherine)  but instead with five classical pieces of music used in the second half of the film—Chopin’s Fantasy (played by Dupea on the truck),  Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue (played by Bobby Dupea’s sister in the recording studio, while Bobby watches), Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.9 (played by Bobby Dupea’s brother Carl and his friend  Catherine while bobby watches), Chopin’s Prelude in E minor or Op. 28, no.4 (played by Bobby Dupea at the request of Catherine and played on the soundtrack of Polanski’s The Pianist) and finally Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor played briefly after Bobby and Catherine have sex. These are all popular pieces for the piano but they are definitely not easy compositions but apparently given to music students as easy works to practice and master. 

Bobby Dupea proves on two occasions that he had fluent mastery of these pieces, that he was probably the most talented person in the musical family, and yet he had a disdain for all that his well heeled family stood for. He liked the family nonetheless, but he was running away from the comfort it offered to his own world of his choosing.

The brilliant screenplay has the Dupea family names linked to music as the family indeed is. Bobby or Robert Eroica Dupea has a middle name linked to the popular name of Beethoven’s Third Symphony,  Bobby Dupea’s sister name is Tita, short for Partita—a term in music for a suit of musical pieces, and  Bobby’s brother Carl has a middle name Fidelio, the name of Beethoven’s only opera (the very name Kubrick would later use enigmatically in his Eyes Wide Shut).

While viewers would wonder where Bobby Dupea is headed at the end of the film a close look at the Eastman’s screenplay provides all the answers. Bobby tells his sister that he will see his father before heading for Canada; the truck driver says he is heading north of Washington State, which would mean Canada or Alaska; and the hitch-hikers given a lift on Bobby’s car talked of Alaska being “clean.”

The transformed Bobby (Nicholson), suave in actions, speech and dress, as sister "Tita" watches 

Beyond the structure and the references to classical music that encompasses the Dupea family (in stark contrast to the Tammy Wynette world of the simple-minded Rayette), the film presents an alienated but very thoughtful Bobby Dupea. Bobby comes back to comfort a hurt Rayette who is sulking in a car lot alone in the night. Again Bobby could have left behind Rayette before going to see his family but he takes her along. When friends of his family poke fun of Rayette’s mental capacity, he comes to her rescue and rebukes her tormentor. Finally, when he wants to cut off his links with Rayette he gives her his entire wallet. So also Bobby cares for his father and his sister. The script builds up a caring Bobby Dupea, who even rushes to the aid of his male friend who is being chased by two strangers.

The script paints the world of USA upset with the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the drug culture, and what classical music meant for upper-class elite even if their lives were dysfunctional and lacked communication in contrast to the blue-collar workers who ‘seemed’ to be more responsible about family responsibilities. The long one-sided “conversation” between him and his father who cannot speak is memorable as it defines Bobby Dupea’s character so well “I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of... I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really... I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking... for auspicious beginnings, I guess... I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation... My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left... Are you all right? I don't know what to say... Tita suggested that we try to... I don't know. I think that she... seems to feel we've got... some understanding to reach... She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with... The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway..I am sorry it didn’t work out.” And Nicholson breaks down and cries. The end of the film reprises these very thoughts without those memorable words. Equally trenchant are the words sculpted by Eastman for Catherine to describe Bobby “You're a strange person, Robert. I mean, what would it come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something... How can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?” The words will be unforgettable for any sensitive viewer even after the movie ends. 

It is easy to misconstrue that the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces solely belongs to director Bob Rafelson, even though it is arguably Rafelson’s finest cinematic work, if not one of the two of his finest works, if one wishes to bracket it with King of the Marvin Gardens. The main architect of this film will remain Carole Eastman, who too, never reprised her feat in writing scripts as she accomplished in this film ever again. Eastman’s screenplays for Rafelson in Man Trouble (1992), for director Jerry Schatzberg in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), and for director Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) never got as sophisticated as in Five Easy Pieces. Just like many truly memorable works from Hollywood, Five Easy Pieces was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed win even a single one. It was nominated for in 1971 for Best Picture/Film, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Best Actor (Nicholson) and Best Actress (Karen Black for her convincing role as Rayette, the simpleton).

Transformed Bobby: Not relating to the way of life of his upper class family

To his credit Jack Nicholson is simply amazing in this film as when he breaks down in front of his father towards the end of his film. Nicholson might be remembered for his fascinating Oscar winning turns in Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brook’s As Good as It Gets but his role in Five Easy Pieces needs to be bracketed with those two.

Silent reflection: Rafelson's and Kovac's touches of creative masterstrokes

Director Rafelson went on subconsciously looking for scripts to make a trilogy on the male US adult that would progress from an alienated son (Five Easy Pieces) to brother (King of the Marvin Gardens) to father/stepfather (Blood and Wine) all with Jack Nicholson.  They never equaled the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces, because even though Nicholson was on hand and he had the Hungarian √©migr√© Laszlo Kovacs as the cinematographer, at least for the first two films of the trilogy, because the brilliant Carole Eastman was missing from the matrix.

P.S. Five Easy Pieces won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Director, and Best Actress (Karen Black) among several other awards.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

153. British filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott’s unsung debut feature film “The Duellists/Point of Honor” (1977): An awesome work that has never been given its due

Ask any film-goer familiar with Ridley Scott’s work and the movies he will be associated with are likely to be one of his blockbusters such as Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, or even Prometheus, all of which Scott directed. But it is unlikely that anyone will have seen or could recall his debut film The Duellists, which if re-released today could possibly make the box office jingle in response to the footfalls of knowledgeable cineastes.

The Duellists is a small budget film that resembles a big budget movie, tastefully photographed with a host of remarkable performances by a handful of talented actors. It is a film with finesse and subtlety rarely encountered among debut films. It is a film that introduces the viewer to a director who loves his craft and can hone it to perfection. It is not surprising that The Duellists went on to win the Cannes film festival’s best debut film award in 1977. None of his later, more popular Oscar-nominated films ever made the competition grade of the Cannes or the Berlin Film Festivals. The Venice film festival thought Scott’s film Legend (1985) was good enough for its competition line-up but the film failed to win any award. If we discount the three unsuccessful Oscar nominations for his later films, the Cannes festival award for The Duellists is truly Scott’s crowning artistic achievement to date. And yet few moviegoers today are even aware of this lovely impressive work that is superior to his later commercially successful works.

Honorably waiting for the duelling opponent to arrive

Now Ridley Scott is not a director who can develop his own original screenplay for his movies. He is one of those directors who utilize published works that are crying out loud to be made into great works of cinema. It takes talent to spot such works, and Ridley Scott found it in Joseph Conrad’s The Duel, a novella of some 60-odd pages. Various directors of repute have attempted to film Conrad’s works and have tasted success—Richard Brooks with Lord Jim (1965), Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse, Now (1979) that cleverly in incorporated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  into a modern Vietnam war tale, Hitchcock with Sabotage (1936) incorporating Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and Polish director Andrzej Wajda with his Shadow Line (1976). Conrad’s written works, like Shakespeare’s works, often make great movies, provided they are well directed. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Conrad’s The Duel falls in that category.

Directors who choose to film Conrad’s works are interested in delving into unusual human characters:  their moral growth, their hubris and eventually their fall from grace. Conrad did not develop heroes, he developed anti-heroes. Conrad’s father introduced his son to the works of Victor Hugo (specifically Toilers of the Sea)—and although to this critic’s knowledge no literary or movie critic has perceived the closeness of Hugo’s Les Miserables and Conrad’s The Duel, the two works have distinct parallel plot developments.

Playing with light and shadows indoors: the cinematography capturing the mind of the principal character,
 with books strewn on the floor...

..and the picture postcard exteriors of cinematographer Frank Tidy

The Duellists is about two honorable officers Gabriel  Ferraud  (Harvey Keitel) and  Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) of two different  French Hussar regiments of Napoleon’s army.  Ferraud is brash and argumentative, while d’Hubert is quiet and reflective.  That they are excellent soldiers is apparent as the film and novella reveals—eventually over decades both characters get promoted from mere Lieutenants to Brigadiers-General in their respective regiments.  Early in Conrad’s tale, d’Hubert unfortunately was ordered by his superior to arrest Ferraud for having grievously hurt a politically connected man in a fair duel, and d’Hubert does locate Ferruad in the company of a noble lady to reveal his purpose. For Ferruad, this was a dishonorable act as he was shamed in front of a lady, and challenges d’Hubert to a duel forthwith. Thus begins a series of honorable duels between the two officers in the novella/movie.

Ferraud (Kietel)  and d'Hubert (Carradine) duel
Laura (Diane Quick) realizes that "nothing cures a duellist"

No duel is completed as in each duel one of the duellists is grievously hurt. For Ferraud, the duel has to be completed even after decades of incomplete duelling as he sees it as a matter of honor and challenges d’Hubert whenever their paths cross. Armand d’Hubert loses Laura, his mistress, over these series of absurd unending series of duels. Laura had come to realize that “nothing cures a duellist” and even taunts Ferraud as a man who could beat a woman to death.  But at the final duel between the two  principal characters, there is a winner and a loser. Intrinsically the tale is very much like Hugo’s Les Miserables where an honorable convict is pursued by a policeman who believes it is his honorable mission to arrest the convict again, over the decades long pursuit.

Ridley Scott was making his first feature film and he used the adapted screenplay written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, a screenplay-writer who had only one obscure but entertaining movie called Sebastian (1968) to his credit apart from some TV movies. One cannot guess how much Scott contributed to the screenplay and how much of the final work belonged to Vaughan-Hughes.  Between the two of them, they recreated a brilliant opening sequence, a fascinating end sequence, and an incredible sequence of the two principal characters meeting in Russia as Napoleon’s army is defeated by the freezing cold temperatures. The visuals—whether it is the white geese in the opening shot or the clouds over a deep and silent river in the final shot—tell a psychological story that complements the actions of the principal characters.

These afore-mentioned three sequences in The Duellists will be indelible from the memory of any student of good cinema. These three sequences show the mettle of the director and screenplay-writer.  The opening sequence is how a young girl, guiding a gaggle of geese, perceives the absurdity of bloody duels between adults—a lovely picture of innocence versus gory games of “honor.” Conrad’s tale was just about that and Scott/ Vaughan-Hughes introduce the viewer to just that only a few minutes into the film.

Similarly, the final scene shows Ferraud (Kietel) contemplating a river flowing below silently for several minutes. Nothing happens. Not a word is spoken. Scott and Vaughan-Hughes achieve in this sequence what most other directors would have achieved with dialog. Here visuals and the silence do the talking.

An innocent girl watches the outcome of a gory duel
Offering a drink in cold Russia to a duelling opponent--honor of a different kind

Similarly the actions of Ferraud and d’Hubert in the Russia sequence reveal the differences and commonality of what honor means to both the principal characters. Again the spoken words are minimized—the verbal interaction is replaced by body movements. This is pure cinema that Conrad would have been proud to see on screen if he were alive—better than Peter O’Toole’s Lord Jim or Marlon Brando’s Kurtz. Scott had chosen Kietel and Carradine over the original choice of Oliver Reed and Michael York because of budgetary constraints, but the performances of the former duo tuned out to be exquisite. So are the brief roles of Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, Diane Quick, Tom Conti, Edward Fox, John McEnery and the late Pete Postlethwaite (in his first screen appearance).  Kietel’s brash and argumentative personality serves as the opposite of Carradine’s reserved and calculating persona of two very honorable Hussar officers.  Ridley Scott was able to guide the viewer inside the mind and soul of the anti-hero in each of us, to re-evaluate the concepts of honor and the variants acceptable to different audiences. Conrad was concerned with differing mindsets that led to the Napoleonic wars, 

The final scene: clever play of light and shadow with not a word spoken 

Ridley Scott was offering the viewer a chance to question why we take “honorable“ positions on various subjects—social and political, and duel to the death. Scott is to be appreciated for this delectable and wholesome film, but more so, the genius of Joseph Conrad that the film brings on screen. A sensitive viewer will dwell on the importance of the final silent scene and that makes the work a treat for the mind of the viewer.

P.S. Richard Brook's Lord  Jim, another adaptation of a Joseph Conrad tale, was reviewed on this blog earlier.