Mankind Cannot Bear Too Little Reality
Thoughts on Five Easy Pieces, Nope and the representation of life in art
My friend Joe Schwartz (he asked me to cite him by name) recently described an experience watching movies. He re-watched Kramer vs. Kramer and then When Harry Met Sally, and noticed that while both were well made and deeply enjoyable, there was a palpable difference. The former took place in something that felt like the real world, while the latter simply didn’t: its world was glossy, unrealistically well-off, more generally constructed to feel like a fantasy. And he found himself musing on that difference, how much was due to the difference in genre, how much to a simple reversion to Hollywood form after the aberration of the 1970s, how much that Hollywood was increasingly cut off in its insular bubble from the reality of American life.
But then he wondered if something more serious wasn’t afoot:
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It’s as though we’ve lost our collective capacity to imagine the world around us as it is. And I would date the loss of that capacity precisely to the late 80s. It’s not incidental that the “nostalgia” vogue for recent decades emerged in the 80s. It was then that there was a vintage 50s chic (The Big Chill, Peggy Sue Got Married, Stand By Me, Dirty Dancing, Back to the Future), followed by a 60s and 70s chic in the decades following, and today 80s nostalgia is still going strong.
Maybe these retro fashions emerge because we can no longer really see ourselves as we are or don’t care to. Or maybe it’s a feedback loop, because without popular art that serves as a mirror we lose the capacity to see. At some point the spectacle devoured the world it purported to represent, and now we put on its VR goggles to step back into some idealized world, as it might have been before it was devoured.
These are not new speculations, and if you want to read a good book about film in the 1980s as a reflection of America’s “dream life,” I cannot recommend J. Hoberman’s Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan highly enough. But even if they are well-known they can still smack you between the eyes. I had a similar experience recently re-watching Five Easy Pieces in the wake of director Bob Rafelson’s demise. The movie is a master class in so many ways and on so many dimensions, from the writing to the cinematography to the production and costume design to the acting, but what it adds up to above all is creating something downright Chekhovian in its reality. There’s a reason the late great Roger Ebert ended his superlative review of the film with the following paragraph:
"Five Easy Pieces" has the complexity, the nuance, the depth, of the best fiction. It involves us in these people, this time and place, and we care for them, even though they don't request our affection or applause. We remember Bobby and Rayette, because they are so completely themselves, so stuck, so needy, so brave in their loneliness. Once you have seen movie characters who are alive, it's harder to care about the robots in their puppet shows.
I’m going to be using “robots in their puppet shows” as a phrase going forward. I have a feeling I’ll have a lot of opportunity.
So here’s the funny thing about Five Easy Pieces: while the film itself feels precisely real, that feeling is precisely what Bobby, the protagonist, can’t hang on to, can’t seem to feel. For the first third of the film, Bobby (Jack Nicholson delivering what I would argue is that greatest performance of his career, certainly the deepest) is working on an oil rig and sleeping with Rayette (a heartbreaking Karen Black), a small town waitress. He appears to be a working class guy in a working class milieu, but from the beginning there’s something off about him. His diction and accent are wrong; he moves wrong; he’s obviously more intelligent than the people he’s surrounded by; and he’s fundamentally discontented in a way that leads to sudden explosions of anger, such as against Rayette for being lousy at bowling. We don’t yet know why Bobby doesn’t belong, but we know that he doesn’t.
Then we learn why: because this working class life that he’s put on is an affectation. Bobby goes home when he learns his father has had a stroke, and we discover that he comes from a wealthy and successful artistic family, and was raised to be a professional musician. He’s thrown that all that over, given up playing music and stopped speaking to his family; he just bops around from odd job to odd job, living a life that’s effectively in disguise. That’s why he didn’t belong.
Now, the idea that this is something a man—an artist, particularly—needs to do, get away from the world he grew up in and find himself by living an “authentic” life of labor, this is a trope that was already familiar when the film was made. I think of Edmund in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example. But that’s not exactly what Bobby is up to. There’s no sense that he’s having these experiences with a view to bringing them back with him and thereby deepening his art. On the contrary: he’s turned his back on his art. It’s not even really clear that Bobby is after any kind of experience; indeed, he has nothing but contempt for the world he’s chosen to assimilate to, just as he had nothing but contempt for the world he abandoned. He’s not running towards, but away.
The only explanation we get for why Bobby ran away is that he couldn’t get along with his domineering father. That suggests that a reconciliation with his father—or a final break from him—will be the climactic scene of the film that propels our protagonist in a new direction. But the film surprises us here again: we get the scene, but it isn’t what we expect. Bobby takes his father, now incapacitated by a stroke (and played with extraordinary quiet power by William Challee) out for a walk, and starts to explain himself to him. But he can’t, because he doesn’t really understand himself, and he starts to break down as he realizes he can’t; that even if he could it’s too late for any kind of reconciliation because his father can no longer communicate; and that he also knows he wouldn’t even be trying to do this if his father weren’t incapacitated. All of this is the emotional subtext of a halting, fragmentary text and, well, if that scene doesn’t break your heart I’m not sure you have a heart to break. But it’s important that it doesn’t fundamentally explain anything, not catalyze a new direction. It merely crystallizes what we already know, and lets us fully in to what it feels like to be this man who cannot be anywhere.
That’s a lot of reality—too much, maybe, for most people most of the time. I don’t blame Hollywood’s storytellers for, mostly, telling stories that go down easier. But it’s not like there aren’t directors out there who are trying to keep it real. I had mixed feelings about Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, but it’s definitely a movie interested in the reality of people’s lives, and her previous film, The Rider more successfully so. Sound of Metal is another recent film that I thought did a good job of doing that kind of delving, peopled with actual people, and crossing similar class lines to Five Easy Pieces (and also about music and musicians). Two films I loved from 2018, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and The Souvenir are more lyrical in their approach to world-building, but both are unquestionably are engaged with life as it is lived, and the materiality of that life. Writer/Director Sean Baker’s entire oeuvre is a rebuke to the contention that you can’t make entertaining movies that are firmly rooted in the dirty reality of people’s lives, particularly working-class or people living even more precariously than that. (Baker is particularly interested in the sexual underworld, the world of streetwalkers, porn performers, etc.) The films are out there if you want to find them. But you do have to want to find them.
I don’t think it’s weird at all that Hollywood long ago reverted to selling fantasy; after all, that’s what movies are. What worries me more is that it’s no longer trying to sell a fantasy of life. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing in a soap bubble when the real world had already popped, but their fantasy was a fantasy of life, even if it was a life that was impossible. But I think my friend Joe is onto something when he talks about VR goggles. Our fantasies, now, aren’t idealized versions of life, even lives the way they seem to be lived in the movies. They’re fantasies of existences that are entirely virtual.
I could point to any number of movies to make this point, but I’m going to focus on Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, because I think the artistic failure of that film is so directly related to this problem of virtuality.
Nope is a science-fiction fantasy and a western, as well as a self-conscious homage to earlier films of those genres, so maybe it feels reasonable that it wouldn't have much purchase on reality. But go back and watch Spielberg films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.—the reality of those worlds is very richly textured and fully realized. The uncanny in those movies intrudes on a reality that still feels fully real. That’s not just a matter of getting individual details right, though. The popular series Stranger Things is meticulous about getting details right, but it’s a Frankenstein world, built of spare parts from earlier movies; there is nothing genuinely real or living about it. Indeed, the entire premise of the series (a premise that has paid off handsomely) is that audiences would love to participate in a festival of pure nostalgia that isn’t at all about life, but entirely about how life was represented. The fantasy being sold is less of living in the 1980s than of watching 1980s-era movies. This is paradigmatically what my friend Joe was talking about.
The world into which the uncanny intrudes in Nope is to some degree fake in that way, but it’s primarily fake in a different way, because everybody in Nope is a rapidly-obsolescing part of the dream factory. The main characters, OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) provide horses for Hollywood, running a business their father bequeathed to them after his uncanny death, a business perpetually in danger of being replaced by CGI. Another key character, Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) is a former child actor who has taken over a failing Wild West theme park, but primarily makes a living by strip-mining his own childhood trauma: the time when his chimp co-star went ape on the actors playing his parents, leading to the end of the use of chimps in movies. (The chimp in Nope is a CGI creation). These people, desperate hangers-on in an industry all about creating illusions to be seen, must confront the intrusion of the uncanny, an alien spacecraft (or, as it turns out, being) that has made the area its hunting grounds. (Thus Close Encounters turns into Predator.) And what they all decide to do is turn the alien into a spectacle: OJ and Emerald want to capture it on film, while Ricky invites family crowds to come watch the aliens—whom he calls “viewers”—round up horses as if this were an interstellar rodeo show. Robots and their puppet shows indeed.
That sounds promising, doesn’t it? And if the goal was vicious satire, it would have been, and a film like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole would have shown Peele the way to go. But satire requires a contrast between the caricatured reality depicted—which the satirist claims the reality we live increasingly resembles—and some other, truer mode of being that we in the audience and the satirist alike still recognize. There’s little sense in Nope, though, that there’s another set of values, an actual reality that these characters have lost touch with; the world of illusion really is the only world. There’s a moment of satire when their grand plan to photograph the alien (also a piece of CGI, of course, which makes the ambition to capture its reality on film another mordant joke) gets disrupted by the arrival of a TMZ photographer, who keeps reaching for his camera even as the alien prepares to devour him. The grizzled old cinematographer whom OJ and Emerald have hired to get their footage meets a similar fate. But the problem is that OJ and Emerald are no different: Emerald’s only objective the whole film is also to get the “Oprah shot” that will catapult them into the limelight, and while OJ seems less invested in her quest, he participates fully, having no better idea what to do. The scientists in E.T. were at least interested in learning what the visitor was.
The only way in which OJ distinguishes himself from every other character in the movie is that he understands animals, and understands the alien as an animal, and is therefore able to trick and ultimately trap and kill it. It also means that OJ understands himself as being an animal, as having an embodied reality and not just a position relative to a spectacle. That, again, is a promising lead—but it goes nowhere, because it’s not clear where it could lead in this world, other than to yet another image, this time of OJ on a horse, signifying a Western hero. And to be clear, as I understood it he’s not just signifying that to us; he’s signifying that to himself and to his sister, not only to us. It’s signification all the way down. Unless we are to read the movie entirely allegorically and imagine that, with the destruction of the CGI alien, the dream factory has closed for good, then the moment after the film is done everyone will simply go on doing what they were doing before (like at the end of The Truman Show). And if we are to read it allegorically, then the question still remains: what are we to imagine as the remaining reality, the animal world to which we might be returned?
I’m being tough on Peele and on Nope for a reason: I think he’s a man with artistic ambitions, and I think he needs to be tougher on himself about whether he is achieving them. But I’m also being tough on him because I am genuinely, deeply worried about precisely what my friend Joe is worried about, that we’re losing touch with being able to imagine reality, and if Peele is worried about that too then he needs to do that imagining and not just point to its absence. He needs to do more than hold a funhouse mirror up to the world of illusion, and actually rebel against the flattening tyranny of the signifying image. That’s still an option, and if anyone has the Hollywood clout to take it, Peele does.
I’ve got movies on the mind right now because I’ll be spending the next few days at the Ghost Ranch on a screenwriting retreat, the same program I attended (and wrote about) last year. I had a wonderful time then, and I thought it might genuinely reset me writing-wise. That didn’t happen, as it turned out—but hope springs eternal and I’m back again to try again. Part of that hope, though, is that I’m consistent enough in my focus that I don’t engage on this platform for the rest of the week. So if you’re hoping for my take on Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, or Senator Manchin’s about-face on the energy and climate bill, or the ongoing war in Ukraine, or the primaries in Arizona, Michigan or Missouri . . . I hope you have to wait a little longer.
I hope I don’t lose too many of you in consequence.
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We don’t how to fictionally render lives lived in front of screens, so instead we get fantasies of those on-screen fantasies.