Robert Dupea has given up his promising career as a concert pianist and is now working in oil fields. He lives together with Rayette, who's a waitress in a diner. When Robert hears from his sister that his father isn't well, he drives up to Washington to see him, taking Rayette with him. There he gets confronted with his rich, cultured family that he had left behind.Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
When Bobby plays the piano for Catherine about three quarters through the movie, the music in front of him is clearly not what he is playing (Chopin's "Prelude in E Minor"). On one hand, this emphasizes his improvisational nature and rejection of the life prescribed to him by his class, but it also shows his musical prowess and memory. He reveals that the song was memorized when he later says "I picked the easiest piece I could think of". See more »
Well, what if she was, Bob? I can't see nothin' so bad in that. Well, what if I were to let you in on a little secret that she is? That's right. She told me. She's all torn up about it, too, which I hate to see. Well hell, isn't it somethin' you just have to face up to? I tell ya, somewhere along the line, you even get to likin' the whole idea. When Stoney first give me the news, I coulda shit!
[Bobby spits out his food and throws down his food in disgust]
Well isn't that nice?
It's ridiculous. ...
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This film is a classic because it operates and works on every level imaginable, a truly evocative film. Other posters have elucidated upon and discussed the musicology of it, and the significance of Chopin. I'll take their word for it, and not go there. That's out of my league. And, as others have noted, the film is an exploration and study of character, which it certainly is. All that and more. I see the film as being in its own way a period piece unto itself, the period being films made in the late 60s and early 70s. It is quintessentially representative of what was an important movie circa 1970. Of course the storyline of an alienated young man (Jack Nicholson as Robert Dupea), walking away from all that is expected of him, and indeed walking away --if not running away-- from his prodigious gifts, and doing it all with a cocky attitude, no longer resonates quite the way it did in 1970. But, if you weren't around in 1970, trust me, it resonated well then. It was a theme that seemed important and meaningful at the time, even though the character's motivations for his actions are never really explained and remain something of a blank slate for the viewer to fill in. In 1970, when the concept of an "identity crises" was big, it worked to just suggest and imply that Dupea felt the need to Quixotically search out and determine for himself what was important for him. That dovetailed with another important component in many movies of that era --you never explain yourself, because if you explain things, you trivialize it all and ruin it. Or, as Jenny, Ali McGraw's character in Love Story (also a 1970 film) put it, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Meanwhile, unfolding alongside the Dupea character, was Karen Black's tour de force performance as the big-haired clingy-dependent waitress girlfriend, Rayette, and doing it to a medley of apropos Tammy Wynette tunes. Karen Black's performance perfectly captured and spot-on nailed an almost ubiquitous sort of woman prevalent in that era, when the social changes wrought by the women's movement had not yet taken fruit.
As for the notorious diner scene, this one scene essentially dominates the whole movie. It is something that people who have seen the movie will bring up and talk about, even decades later. Yet the scene is in no way pivotal or important to the story. At most it once and for all permanently affixes in the viewers' minds that Dupea was an impulsively flippant and angry person, not one to meekly abide any of life's minor frustrations. But we were already getting that picture of him before this scene happens. And, courtesy of Dupea, the scene provides a snippet of gratuitous social commentary about inflexibility and the stupidity of mindless adherence to meaningless rules. Something for the viewers to cheer and say, "I can relate to that!" Those things aside, to me the real value of the scene was that it provided an entertaining contrast in a bleak drama, a needed change of pace. But regardless of whether it was a statement about Dupea's attitude, or a social comment about stupid rules, or a needed amusing interlude, no matter which of those it is, its lasting impression renders its importance out of proportion to the movie as a whole. Surely, as he made this film, director Bob Rafelson's never intended that 35 years later this particular scene be the main thing viewers took away and remembered about the film. In this sense, as entertaining as it is, the scene therefore must be viewed as being a bit of a story-telling flaw. In retrospect, it should have been toned down just a skosh. But, then, on the other hand, were it not for this scene, perhaps the film would hardly be remembered at all. It is already a largely overlooked masterpiece.
This movie pops up on the movie channels on a semi-regular basis, and when it does I always stop and am riveted. The cinematography is superb. The acting is superb. Nicholson turning in one of the performances from that era that made him the unhinged star in the first place, long before he became a parody of himself. But be warned, it is not a "happy" film. It is the product of an era that did not as a rule produce happy films. But it is nevertheless a film that must be seen.
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