Speaking of context, Peter Wood’s terrific new book, A Bee In The Mouth: Anger In America Now does a great job of setting modern anger into historical context. Along the way, he references two very disparate films that reference anger. One is obvious: Return of the Jedi, with the Emporer’s attempts to turn Luke to “the dark side” by having him tap into his anger and hate. (Or as James Lileks once put it, “we had Luke and Vader fighting as in the second movie, while the Emperor cackles and uses the words ‘join’ ‘dark’ ‘side’ ‘inevitable’ and ‘die’ in every possible combination”.)
The other is an infinitely less obvious choice, which Wood admits “was seen by far fewer people, but I found it was mentioned again and again by people I talked to while working on the book”: Jack Nicholson’s seminal 1970 movie, Five Easy Pieces:
The movie depicts a trip home to his dying father by Bobby Dupea, a scruffy, disaffected oil rig worker who had been a child prodigy on the piano. Dupea, played by Jack Nicholson, gets angry at a waitress in a diner who refuses his order for an omelet with tomatoes instead of potatoes, and toast on the side. “No substitutions,” says the waitress, but Dupea proceeds to chart his own menu:
Waitress:I don’t make the rules.Dupea: OK, I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A number two, chicken salad sandwich. Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Dupea: Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Waitress (spitefully): You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Dupea: I want you to hold it between your knees.
The waitress then asks Dupea to leave (“I’m not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm”) and Dupea dumps the table, water glasses and all.The movie offers this scene semi-seriously as a battle between an uptight, rule-bound waitress and a man who has no patience for arbitrary rules. Dupea is not an attractive character, but we are meant to see his anger at the waitress in a light similar to the frustration that the ‘60s generation felt with the meaningless strictures of “the system.” Alienated from American society (“I move around a lot. Not because I’m looking for anything really, but ‘cause I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.”), Dupea seems to be granted a license by the movie to behave outrageously toward the waitress because of her unaccommodating attitude.
The scene became famous as a showpiece for Nicholson, who is himself famous for his bursts of destructive anger, but it has also become a cultural touchstone. For some, it is “the best waitress scene ever,” a memorable putdown of annoying waitresses. Nearly a thousand websites cast it in such approving terms. But when people brought it up in conversations with me about anger, the sentiment was the reverse. One woman told me that her sympathies were entirely with the waitress, who is humiliated while just trying to do her job. A male film critic mentioned the scene as the point where American movies began to celebrate gratuitous anger. Another woman brought it up saying she was appalled when she first saw the scene and remains puzzled that people think it humorous.
This scene is generally remembered more than the rest of the movie. In context, however, it is even more telling. Dupea isn’t really a working-class guy. He was born to wealth and was successful as a concert pianist, and his work as an oil rigger is just his personal quest for authenticity. The waitress, however, is the real thing: a woman with few other options trying to make a living at a tough job. So the restaurant scene really offers a privileged elitist who has the freedom to float among whatever social roles he pleases, raging against someone he regards as beneath him because she is so bound to the conventions of her job. She is a resident of the working class; he is merely a truculent visitor. But the movie essentially invites us to see things his way. We, the sophisticated audience, are asked to share in Dupea’s contempt for meaningless conventions, even if we squirm a little at his cruelty to the waitress.
As Wood concludes, Five Easy Pieces “gives us an early version of anger as an egotistic performance of the liberated individual displaying his superiority to the dumb conformists who are aggravating props in his drama”. Both Jedi and Five Easy Pieces“look with seeming disapproval on the anger they portray, but make that anger look delicious.”