no substitutions

With Sandwich Party #5 coming up this weekend, The Fella and I were brainstorming a list of sandwich-centric scenes in movies and TV. I’ve been thinking about the diner scene from Five Easy Pieces. You know the one I mean: the scene in which Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) wrangles with a waitress over a side order of wheat toast.

The scene is famous — or infamous — for good reasons, and complex ones at that. At its simplest level, the diner scene editorializes on the changing times: the iconoclast tries to indulge his modest tastes, only to be blocked by the traditionalist, an unyielding stickler mired in arbitrary rules. This scene helped to establish Jack Nicholson as a counter-culture hero, and why not? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules.

But there’s another level to this exchange, and I’d argue that it’s far more important than the inter-generational culture clash. Ultimately, the diner scene is about the confusion that comes with freedom, about the difficulty of discerning one’s own genuine desires.

Watch the scene carefully. Bobby seems to know exactly what he wants, and he seems to know how to get it, even from their ornery waitress. He keeps his voice calm and civil, he’s well in control of his temper, and he’s negotiated her to a point of decision: she’s about to choose whether to take his precisely phrased order or to deny it.

She’s peeved as she asks, “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?” But she hasn’t refused. Not yet. She’s noted down his many other requests: no potatoes, no mayo, no butter, no lettuce. She might, just might, jot down “no chicken” and curtly walk away to place the order. She’s balanced at the moment of decision.

Then he utters, still in his calm, civil voice, “I want you to hold it between your knees.”

Of course the waitress kicks them out. Of course Bobby explodes in a fit of anger. Because that is what he wanted all the time. He wanted a fight, and he carefully constructed one. No substitutions.

Because this is the center of Bobby’s character: he cannot be satisfied with what he has, and he will not be satisfied with anything he could receive. He doesn’t want what he has, he doesn’t want what you might offer freely, and he doesn’t want what he pursues.

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3 thoughts on “no substitutions

  1. Of course, the scene works as relationship metaphor, too: Bobby’s desperately adoring, desperately accommodating girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) also works as a diner waitress. Despite her pathetic willingness, she too cannot give him what he wants.

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