Easy Rider

MPW-14112
Nothing witty to say this time, but red and black is a great color scheme for a poster.

Let me preface this by saying that I was originally going to put up a review of Finding Dory today,  but someone reminded me that A) I am considerably older than the core demographic expected to see this movie; B) I have no one younger to see it with in order to provide a sufficient excuse for viewing it; and C) it would potentially raise a few red flags with people if I saw it alone. I assure you that Finding Dory review will come between now and the next ice age, just not right now.

So, in order to fill the time, I guess I’ll review a more adult movie. And for what it’s worth, 1969’s Easy Rider, with its unique story and lasting impact, isn’t a bad movie to look back at.

Starring Peter Fonda (who also produced) as Wyatt/Captain America (no, not that Captain America), and Dennis Hopper (who also directed) as Billy, Easy Rider is, most obviously, a road picture, telling the story of two hippie-bikers journeying across the country from Las Angeles to Florida. Along the way, they make various stops and meet various people that offer commentary on the noteworthy parts–drugs, hippie communes, and wacky fashion*– of late 60s counterculture.

This trip has something of an episodic, odyssey-feel to it; each episode is significant and offers a different perspective on counterculture. For instance a hippie commune that these bikers visit, presents a full on endorsement of it: there’s traveling minstrels, free love, bandanas, and LSD. If not for the fact that these things actually existed, you’d swear it was some kind of parody of this lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a southern town that Wyatt and Billy later stop at whose residents are violently critical of any man with long hair, to say nothing of the other trappings of the hippie way of life. These represent the most extreme ends of the spectrum in terms of how the counterculture is viewed.

The one that I, personally, like the most, though, presents an intermediate perspective. It happens early on in the film when the bikers briefly stay with a farmer. The farmer himself seems to be mostly conservative– an older family man– but he’s rather welcoming towards Wyatt and Billy, offering them food and a place to fix their bikes. There’s also a nice (though perhaps unintentional) contrast between this farmer and the hippies at the commune (who double as aspiring farmers) we see later on. This farmer leads a simple, traditional life, unaffected by the counterculture; but he is successful at what he does, to Wyatt’s admiration; whereas the commune hippies, who wish to make an ideological stand against society, struggle to actually grow anything on their land. This is also an example of the film’s nuanced approach to the counterculture. While the filmmakers clearly endorse it as a whole, they also seem critical of some parts of it.

The most important part of the movie, though, involves the character of George Hanson, played in a breakout performance by a young Jack Nicholson. He’s a southern lawyer who helps get Wyatt and Billy out of jail (they were put there for a seemingly frivolous, unfair reason) and later joins them on their way to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. George is very kind towards Wyatt and Billy and gets along with them well; but he is by, his own admission, a square. His drug of choice is alcohol (he also displays alcoholic behavior) and is unfamiliar, even, with the joints that Wyatt and Billy use regularly. Gradually he opens up more to their lifestyle, even later being seen as indistinguishable from Wyatt and Billy by some cantankerous southerners. His highlights are two different speeches that he gives. One involves aliens living among us, which is certainly silly but nevertheless funny and even sort of endearing in the way George delivers it. The other is his view on the recent hate that Wyatt and Billy have begun to experience during their trip (their acceptance has worsened the deeper they get into the American South). In George’s view, what Wyatt and Billy represent is true freedom, something of a pure manifestation of the American dream, and the hatred and violence they experience from others comes from their own fears that they themselves are not truly free. Shortly after giving this speech, George becomes a martyr for the cause after he is beaten to death by some enraged Southerners.

The story certainly peaks with George, but it continues for some time afterword. Wyatt and Billy proceed on to New Orleans, go to a brothel (recommended by George), and then drop LSD with two prostitutes. What follows, I guess, is a filmic representation of what an LSD trip** is like, which involves many quick cuts, timing irregularity, and odd use of religious symbolism. I never knew really what to make of it beyond that; only that it’s evidently intense.

After that nuttiness comes a surprisingly simple scene that is quite poignant. Nearing Florida, where they plan to retire (more on that in a second), Billy comments that their trip has been a success. But, Wyatt somewhat solemnly, disagrees, saying, “We blew it.” For a long time, I was confused about what this meant. I only recently came up with (what I viewed was) a satisfying interpretation. In the beginning of the film, we see Wyatt and Billy making a large amount of money (their retirement fund) on a drug sale prior to taking off on their journey. They were quite secretive about this on their journey: the cash was hidden inside one of their motorcycles, and no one ever discovered it. When Wyatt says, that they blew it, I think he is thinking about their money, George’s freedom speech, and, to some extent, their time in New Orleans.

George was somewhat enamored with Wyatt and Billy and really seemed to believe that they  and the counterculture at large really stood for something, in the same way that we saw that the hippies back at the commune stood (or at least attempted to stand) for something. When we get down to it, though, Wyatt and Billy have mostly just used the counterculture for their own benefit: selling drugs to get rich, doing drugs to feel good, and not really thinking of the grander idea of freedom or making a statement against society or anything else along those lines. I also think that, when Wyatt says they blew it, he realizes that responding to George’s death by continuing on to New Orleans for prostitution and drug use (even if George himself recommended it) was probably not the most altruistic thing in the world to do or the best way to honor him as a human being. No, in lieu of whatever stands they could have taken or symbols they could have become, they are, in some sense, just a couple of rich stoners thinking for themselves; and they indirectly got an innocent man killed in the process.

In an interesting case of history mirroring art, this idea of the compromising of the counterculture for personal gain also foreshadows the real life fate of the hippie way of life. The aesthetics and recreational activities of hippie culture– long hair, tie dye, and drug use– would be codified, monetarized, and exploited for the coming decades, while the ideological principles that guided the movement would be watered down and fade from all but the most hardcore followers. One possible, albeit pessimistic, view of Easy Rider, then, is that it is not so much a celebration of the counterculture as it is a eulogy for it.

Speaking of which, just as with George, Wyatt and Billy end up getting killed by some prejudiced Southerners. It’s actually foreshadowed earlier in the film, while Wyatt and Billy are in the New Orleans brothel, Wyatt reads a sign that says, “Death only closes a man’s reputation and determines it as good or bad,” and then we see a brief jump-cut clip of his motorcycle in flames. I interpret that as, once you die, you can’t be redeemed. Whether or not you see Wyatt and Billy as good or bad–martyrs or posers– depends on how you view their actions prior to their deaths. Given that Wyatt thinks they blew it, I guess he doesn’t think well of them.

Or something like that. I am an amateur at this stuff, so don’t take my thoughts on this too seriously. At any rate, I feel I have pontificated enough for today.

Easy Rider was a landmark film when it came out. Compared to what movie goers normally saw at the time, it was bold and raw movie making. Both fresh and exciting, it was a box office smash. As a side note, the choice to use entirely popular music– with such names as Steppenwolf, The Band, and Jimi Hendrix showing up on the soundtrack–rather than an original score, was an unorthodox decision, but it paid off in spades. Few cinematic moments carry more wait than Billy and Wyatt starting their journey to the tune of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”

Easy Rider is also noteworthy in how a high minded film could be produced more or less outside of the normal Hollywood system and for very little money. It was shot rather cheaply on location throughout the U.S. as opposed to all in California or on some sound stage. It was a sign of what young filmmakers with original ideas could achieve if given the chance, and the success of Easy Rider is often credited with kickstarting the New Hollywood era of filmmaking; a period when auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg flourished.

The last thing worth mentioning comes courtesy of Wikipedia. Evidently there was, at one point, going to be something like a four-hour cut of the movie (the theatrical cut is only about an hour and a half, so this would have been over twice as long); which would have detailed Billy and Wyatt in more depth (including what their lives were like prior to their trip) and had more stops on their journey. I’d be interested to see what a four-hour Easy Rider: Redux would have looked like, but I also think that it would have demystified Billy and Wyatt (whom we know next to nothing about in the theatrical cut) quite a bit and would have ultimately undercut the film; not to mention that it probably would have deterred many people from going to see so long a movie. It just goes to show the importance of editors in filmmaking.

Anyways, if you haven’t seen this one, I would recommend it. And if you’re either too young or not up for it, go see Finding Dory. I hear that’s okay.

*Or no fashion at all, in the sense of open nudity.

**Prior to making Easy Rider, Peter Fonda starred in the Roger Corman movie, The Wild Angels, a biker film, and both Fonda and Hopper starred in the Corman’s The Trip, which details the use of LSD and was written by none other than Jack Nicholson. In some sense, Easy Rider began as a fusion of these two films.

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