I’d like to start a new set of posts called ‘My Favorite Scenes’, in which I post a scene I appreciate and a short description of that scene and what it means to me. The first scene I’d like to begin this series with is the “Freeway Performance” in 5 Easy Pieces.
In a film with so many great set pieces, it’s difficult to choose just one, (and many would argue it’s the “Hold the chicken” diner sequence), but for me the standout scene in arguably one of the greatest American movies ever made with a great performance by Nicholson is this, a scene that starts with our lead character getting out of the car not to admonish the man honking his horn, but to admonish the people for sitting in the never-ending traffic jam to only then be answered by a snarling, growling dog, and his response in kind, and it encapsulates, quite strongly, and brilliantly, the ‘caged animals’ honking their horns. The dog’s head replaces the driver of the other car, and rather than have a rote scene of two people yelling at each other, Rafelson chooses to show the simple animalistic growling, with an actor perhaps best-suited to get that point across, and it’s shot perfectly, with Nicholson center-frame in long shot, chrome and steel and macadam surrounding him. Dupea then smiles as only Nicholson can and climbs up onto a truck to begin playing a piano. The crescendo of horns and keys mix on the soundtrack, to fill the space with ‘modern’ music of horns and the ‘classical’ music (or simply mashing of keys) Dupea escapes into. The suffocating sense of heat and noise is palpable.
The truck starts moving, his friend tries to tell him it’s leaving the highway, but he doesn’t listen, and the best part of the scene occurs (though it’s not in this scene), where there’s a brilliant little coda that shows where Dupea’s little detour took him as he walks along the small main street and sees the people and the businesses and waves to a barber and it says so much that dialogue couldn’t. Dupea goes to see the woman he scorned and reconcile with her.
In this short instance, Rafelson says everything there is to say about a man and what motivates that man and how sometimes there’s nothing left to do but play a piano and let the truck take you where it will and see what you can find at the end of it, but it really just always takes us back where we were.