Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, a host of films-- which now are acknowledged classics-- literally changed the tenor of American filmmaking. And in retrospect, they serve as mirrors of their time. Films like THE GRADUATE and FIVE EASY PIECES, which helped establish Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson as major stars and which are as fresh and invigorating today as when first released, spotlight characters who are alone, confused, and alienated, and are drifting aimlessly through life.
Back then, America was divided into a them-versus-us culture-- a culture, if you will, of hawks versus doves-- and this was memorably depicted in Peter Fonda’s and Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER. One of my personal favorite films of this period is SERPICO, the fact-based account of a young New York City cop, played by Al Pacino, who just wants to do his job and work to rid his city of crime. But he exists in a culture that is rife with corruption, one in which an entire police force from the Commissioner’s office all the way down to the cop-on-the-beat is riddled with bureaucracy and hypocrisy.
Beyond the specifics of their plots and the struggles of their characters, films like THE GRADUATE, FIVE EASY PIECES, EASY RIDER, and SERPICO are directly connected to the confusion and dissention that was endemic of the era: a time in which the increasingly unpopular and controversial war in Vietnam was raging and too many of our country’s leaders, starting with Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were being assassinated.
All of this came to mind while watching a new film, titled FOR ELLEN, that was released last year and has just come out on DVD. FOR ELLEN, like THE GRADUATE and especially FIVE EASY PIECES, centers on a character who is the definition of alienation. His name is Joby Taylor, and he is played by Paul Dano. Joby is a wannabe rock star who is facing a crisis. His wife is about to divorce him and she wants full custody of their young daughter.
While watching FOR ELLEN and pondering the character of Joby Taylor, I could not stop thinking about Bobby Dupea, the character played by Jack Nicholson in FIVE EASY PIECES. For one thing, both men are musicians, but that is just a superficial similarity. Most tellingly, the manner in which both their stories play themselves out is jarringly similar, and it would not surprise me to learn that So Yong Kim, the writer-director of FOR ELLEN, screened FIVE EASY PIECES just before concocting FOR ELLEN.
But there is one additional similarity here, and that involves the manner in which both films are reflections of their time. Granted, FIVE EASY PIECES is not an overtly political film. Bobby Dupea is not contemplating whether to protest the Vietnam War or participate in a civil rights demonstration. Nevertheless, his confusion and alienation do mirror the confusion and alienation that permeated our country when FIVE EASY PIECES was made.
Of course, FOR ELLEN also is not overtly political. But the angst of Joby Taylor cannot be connected to any political cause because, simply put and despite all that is amiss in our culture, there are no issues these days that seem to be transforming masses of Americans into activists. So many Americans seem content to complain, complain, complain-- but that is as far as it goes.
And while watching FOR ELLEN, it dawned on me that this lack of political or social action is reflected in the Joby Taylor character, who is nothing more than an irresponsible, self-involved “Me-Generation” kind of guy.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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