Retro Review: Easy Rider

EASYRIDER-SPTI-18.tifby Brad Nelson
So much has been said and written about this movie that it takes the pressure off. I don’t have to say anything clever. And I never have lived the Easy Rider lifestyle, so I’m just as likely to take a shotgun to this movie, if only inadvertently. And Peter Fonda ain’t exactly a rocket surgeon, even to this day.

What is interesting to know beforehand is that this is a movie written by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (and Terry Southern) and directed by Dennis Hopper. It was filmed on a shoestring. And it was truly a transitional film. It represented a new style and ethos that was largely foreign to the reigning influence in Hollywood.

But that would change, and Easy Rider had a lot to do with that. But what about the movie itself? Rosa Parks might have refused to sit in the back of the bus, and that had importance, but how was the bus ride?

Not all that bumpy, really. This is a beautifully photographed movie. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs had a lot to do with the success of this film. It’s easy to imagine that this movie could have crumbled under the weight of its own self-indulgence. The acting is not particularly good. And it probably didn’t help that they were apparently stoned most of the time.

But a relatively simple plot dressed up in that cinematography  — and the glorious soundtrack — presented much resistance to any kind of crumbling. You could have gone down an endless sidewalk on a skateboard slurping Go-gurt saying hip things, and with that music and  scenery, you would have had something interesting.

Easy Rider is somewhat a sight and sound-seeing tour of America. It just happens to have the accouterments of hippie culture. And, frankly, the sights and sounds (as opposed to the plot or hippie culture) are what I enjoyed most about the film. A bit of dialogue here or there was good, but mostly it was just “shut up and ride and let me listen to the music and watch the beauty of America go by.”

But this is probably one of those movies that can’t be entirely judged by what is shown on the screen. It has to also be judged by what it represents. As one review marvelously said at IMDB.com:

As artistic expression during an angry era of war and social change, the film communicates a powerful philosophy, in lieu of a complex plot.

Most scenes take place outdoors, in the American South and Southwest. Laszlo Kovacs’ adroit cinematography, combined with an expansive soundtrack, hippie lingo, and “cool” clothes, convey the film’s underlying message of individual freedom and nonconformity. The film is significant in that it was one of several successful 60’s films made by individuals outside the traditional Hollywood studio structure. As such, “Easy Rider” broke new ground in film-making.

Another reviewer said:

We are afraid of what is different. We are a culture that is afraid of change, yet seek it so badly. We are a society of hypocrites, androids, and ignorants. We thrive on the fact that we are the best country in the world, yet somebody shows any disassociation of routine, we are the first to question and get angry. I would dare say that we have moved so far from the 60s that I cannot see why our parents do not cry everyday. Their generations was a free-spirited, mind challenging culture that explored all possibilities no matter the cost. The experience was all they needed as a reward. Now, we are more concerned about money and the family-plan that we sometimes place ourselves on the backburner to life. Wake, eat, and pay the bills. What a sad daily structure that we have. When was the last time you considered the possibility of just jumping on your bike and riding until you hit water? Probably not for a long time … why? It is called ‘bills’ and ‘responsibilities’. These are the choices that we chose to make, and for anyone to say that they cannot do it, I would have to challenge. You CAN do anything, it is whether you chose to do it is another question. I wonder what it will be like in another 30 years. Where will we be, and will the idea of individualism be lost?

I think the above represents a lot of people’s attitudes. But Fonda and Hopper had a lot more going on than just a simple “let’s get stoned” attitude. If this was not the case, Easy Rider would have been forgotten long ago. This other reviewer exactly nails another side of the movie (major spoilers in the rest of this review…don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie):

So why are our heroes going through all of this? They are searching for their own version of the American Dream. Although they may be motorcycle riding hippies of the counterculture of the 1960’s, their goal was to make some quick money so that they could retire from the worries of life. It is very symbolic that they kept their drug-earned money hidded in one bike’s gasoline tank that is painted with an American flag. Rather than conforming to the world of the time by getting haircuts and finding jobs, they pursue their dream by getting some quick money and seeking the freedom to enjoy themselves for the rest of their lives. The dream is the same, the motives are the same, but the methods are different.

At the end they realize that they are really no different from the culture they sought to escape from. Peter Fonda’s character sums it all up with the simple line, “We blew it” toward the end of the movie. Shortly after that is the famous scene of them getting blown away with a shotgun by some ignorant rednecks in a pickup truck on some southern backcountry road. They start their noble quest in secret with a drug deal, and their quest and very lives are ended in secret on an obscure country road. But their terrible end doesn’t just happen. They find out that the freedom they sought wasn’t at all what they expected it would be.

I think this film still has a strong message even today. Many of the social ills of our culture have their roots in the misguided ideals of the 1960’s counterculture. Those who think they can become truly free by rejecting the hard-learned principles that served previous generations tend to find that life has a way of enslaving them in other ways

The genius of this film, such as it is, is that it is most definitely not a hippie-thon that Hopper and Fonda were trying to write, although that is all some people see in it. This film also takes a hard look sometimes at the hippie mentality.

The best part of the movie is when they stop by a commune. They see these people struggling incredibly hard to live their dream. One can see that it was much harder than anybody thought it would be. There is real suffering and privation. And that is when the leader of the group offers the prayer when they are all sitting down at a meal, “Thank you for a place to make a stand.”

That is just soooo traditional. Everyone is looking for meaning in their suffering. These hippies were just a stone’s throw away from any other pioneer of the American West. Big Dreams. Harsh Reality. Once one has had one’s illusions blown away, is there enough left to build a life on? That is what those hippies at this commune were figuring out. And doing.

Hopper and Fonda could easily have written themselves riding off into the sunset. But they didn’t. Instead they were both blown away by shotguns out on that road of freedom. And these two fellows weren’t exactly Robin Hoods. They were drug dealers looking for the big score that would buy them some easy time in Florida.

In that way they were very conventional. Even so, perhaps they did show what freedom really was. It wasn’t the airy dreams. It wasn’t connecting with any grand illusion or ideology. It was just getting on the bike, putting miles under you, and seeing what happens. But it was no guarantee of nirvana. The way these guys kept imbibing drugs makes you think that freedom itself wasn’t particularly satisfying in and off itself. You needed a good drug cocktail to make things interesting.

This tends to be the kind of movie where you read into it what you want. It’s a lot of things. It’s a commentary on freedom, on bigotry, on drugs, on iconoclasm, on wandering, and on being un-rooted. It’s easy to forget that Hopper and Fonda have a destination in mind. They weren’t going to ride around America forever.

That one farm that they visited in order to fix a flat tire showed their fondness for rooted-ness. Easy Rider can almost be seen as the inevitable resistance that youth puts up against what is surely coming for most: domesticity. And it does no good (as one reviewer above did) to look back and decry how society has “lost it” and screwed up that magic 60’s dream. That dream never was very substantial. You can pass through it, like Hopper and Fonda do on their motorcycle. But it is really no place to stay.

I’ve seen parts of this movie here and there over the years. But this was the first time I ever sat down and watched it all the way through. I knew what was coming all along. There were no surprises. But it struck me just how beautiful this movie was. Presumably Hopper and his staff had a lot to do with scouting out the locations. They did a wonderful job.

That is where this movie’s success was substantially secured. And I was particularly enamored by The Byrds song, I wasn’t Born to Follow, that I just don’t recall hearing much before this movie.

The acting is iffy, at best. I think especially that Hopper would have played a much more convincing stoned hippie if he hadn’t actually been so stoned himself. And Nicholson has his moments, but just about any competent actor could have said those same lines. I didn’t see him bringing anything particularly unique to this picture.

And that weird cut-cut-cut transition effect between some scenes is just so amateurish. And it’s debatable whether or not the LSD trip in the graveyard adds anything to this movie. But overall I think this movie is a success because it is so relatively honest about itself. It stays away from cheap shots and cheap answers to anything.

Would anyone relate to an Easy Rider film that had a happy ending? Well, I’m pretty sure there are hordes of ex-hippies out there who intuitively know now, and knew then, the perils of hippie freedom. Answers look so easy until you try them. But getting on that motorcycle is just what some people have to do. I give this movie 3.2 bogarts on that joint out of 5.

EastRiderPoster

As Billy and “Captain America,” Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda motored down the highway on their Harley Davidsons to the roaring strains of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” the definitive counterculture blockbuster was born. Former clean-cut teen star Hopper’s down-and-dirty directorial debut, Easy Rider heralded the arrival of a new voice in film, one pitched angrily against the mainstream. After Easy Rider’s cross-country journey—with its radical, New Wave–style editing, outsider-rock soundtrack, revelatory performance by a young Jack Nicholson, and explosive ending—the American road trip would never be the same. More »

Easy Rider: Wild at Heart
by Matt Zoller Seitz

George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.

Billy: Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.

George Hanson: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.

When you think of Dennis Hopper’s debut feature, Easy Rider, this hushed, almost tender exchange probably isn’t the first moment that comes to mind. You’re more likely to think of the coke-dealing bikers Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) tripping on LSD with prostitutes in a cemetery, or roaring down the road while “Born to Be Wild” blasts on the soundtrack—if only because those signature “big” moments have been quoted, parodied, and ripped off so often since.

But that conversation between Billy and the alcoholic ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), I would argue, distills the film to its essence. Easy Rider is a record of a certain time in American history, and a chronicle of a culture clash that never quite ended. But it’s no mere historical document or cinematic curiosity. It’s a freewheeling take on freedom—what it means and what it costs. More »

Available on DVD (Special Edition: $11.68 new, $1.19 used), Blu Ray ($14.23 new), or Amazon Prime members from Amazon.com. Not available on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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2 Responses to Retro Review: Easy Rider

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    There are a couple of interesting points to make about this movie. For one thing, note that the drug deal at the beginning is matched with “God Damn the Pusherman” by Steppenwolf on the soundtrack, so perhaps the heroes aren’t considered quite such heroes (which, I suppose, would fit in with that anti-heroic era). Also, one might note that the one who looks more like a hippie in the movie is also the one who is more concerned about making sure their money is safe at one point.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Interesting points, Timothy. And I can’t help thinking that the hippie generation that has grown up today, elected Marxists all across the country (including the office of president), shit on our Constitution, and run up such debt are also thinking “We blew it.”

      They did indeed blow it. I grew up just behind the hippie generation. I hope I’m not a fuddy-duddy. But I venture to say that not one idea in the psychedelic 60’s was a good one. It was all destructive. It was all based on BS. It was all self-indulgent and narcissistic. It was all a relinquishing of manly responsibility and the start of what we now have which is extended juvenilism.

      I see people now in their 60’s with tie-dye and pony tails and they remind me of anything but the greatest generation. Many of them never did grow up. If you ask me, they simply went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to sex, drugs, and entitlements. This generation still refuses to live in reality. They’re still chasing their naive multi-hued Utopia.

      California is living proof of that. To have elected Governor Moonbeam when everyone knew the state needed an adult showed just how ruinous the 60’s were.

      But what a good movie. The first time I saw this, I fully expected something as indulgent and stupid as “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” I expected hip for hip’s sake. And not only that, but a kind of hipness that could only be appreciated if one was stoned.

      But “Easy Rider” is much more complex than this. This is not a pro-hippie movie by any means. It’s certainly not a pro-Utopian one. It celebrates that era, but it doesn’t drown in fantasy. It’s much more honest than I ever expected.

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