“They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”
I’ve been trying to hit the AFI Top 100 especially hard lately, and after being utterly enchanted by The Graduate last week, I turned my attention to another landmark American film from the late 60s. Easy Rider served as a voice for the hippie movement, and it oozes with counter-culture significance from start to finish. Perhaps I was still riding a quality film high from the week before, but I’m sad to say that I was let down by this film. It’s not a film that’s discussed in many circles these days, but its legacy can still be traced back to a time when it was challenging norms of what belonged on the silver screen in this country. Sadly, what the film represented and its impact on American culture are probably far more noteworthy than the film’s merit as a work of cinema alone. It has its flaws as a narrative work which I would like to discuss.
Easy Rider follows the story of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two motorcycle-wielding champions of the counterculture movement. After a successful cocaine transaction in Los Angeles, the two men ride East in hopes of reaching New Orleans for the Mardi Gras festival. Along the way, they observe various communities and styles of life, exchanging conversation with locals and discovering what the American way means for different groups of people. They also face persecution as they seek some sort of peace or acceptance with their way of living. The film is pretty light on plot, and it feels more like a glorification of a movement than any sort of character exploration or dramatic structure. Wyatt and Billy represent something far greater than themselves, and the obstacles they face are indicative of struggles of an entire group of people in this era. Again, this lends the film more towards a grand, symbolic sort of significance that can undermine its success as an exciting piece of narrative, but such is the case with this kind of movie.
I find that this is a film best appreciated as a statement by the filmmakers themselves. (The script was written by Fonda and Hopper with Hopper credited as the film’s sole director.) Everything is focused in a tight indie style that certainly reflects the relative ease with which Fonda and Hopper were able to tell this story. Many of the motorcycle sequences serve as an exciting glorification of hippie culture separate from any plot advancement, but this choice itself reflects the care-free nature of the hippie movement, so it actually works for the film’s benefit. It’s just hard to get excited about the film if you aren’t too attached to the concept from the start. Perhaps this is a generational issue, but I appreciated Easy Rider as more of a glimpse into the counterculture movement as opposed to a celebration of it, for which the film is often praised for achieving. I think the cinematography, the mostly natural lighting and almost Messiah-like portrayal of Fonda and Hopper’s characters at times, coupled with a powerful soundtrack make the film a really exciting piece of cinema, indicating real talent from the creative duo at the helm; it’s just a film in which it’s hard to get invested.
I actually found Jack Nicholson’s appearance in the film to be one of the most fascinating sections. Nicholson plays George Hanson, a civil liberties lawyer who joins the two leads for a large chunk of their journey essentially on a whim. It’s really fun to see Nicholson having fun with the role, a character who already appreciates but really comes to embrace the hippie way of living as the plot progresses and he grows closer with the two leads. Whenever I think of the film, the first image that comes to mind is Nicholson with his arms in the air, shouting with joy on the back of Fonda’s motorcycle. It’s also worth noting that real drugs were used in the film, and a bit of IMDB trivia claims that Hopper was keen on getting Nicholson high for his famous UFO monologue, which explains how candid and genuine of a moment it proves to be.
While I wouldn’t necessarily want to watch Easy Rider again soon, I think there’s something to be said about how the message of the film matches the spirit of the film’s production. Hopper and Fonda didn’t have much of a script, and most footage was shot on-the-fly with nonprofessional actors – hippies living on real communes. The two men faced encounters with police and engaged in numerous unorthodox practices when shooting the film relative to conventional Hollywood standards. It’s this resistance to the norm that helped this movie achieve its legacy, and it helped usher in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Using past recorded, already charted popular music is another strange innovation that came out of Easy Rider, and it’s a practice still widely used today. Fonda and Hopper demonstrated a fun, counterculture spirit to filmmaking, and I think watching the film with this context in mind will help anyone appreciate more easily what the two men were going for (and perhaps why it doesn’t hit all the marks of a successful movie).
To throw out some more specifics in terms of the film’s flaws, the ending is a big one that comes to mind. The message they’re going for is pretty obvious due to the over-the-top symbolism of the main characters themselves, but it just feels sort of silly to end this fun celebration of a film with a cheap one-off punch. I think the film’s climax should have come about ten minutes before with what I believe was an actual, powerful, genuine scene, and I think the film should have ended where it primarily endured: with Hopper and Fonda riding into the distance. The ending indicates the most uncomfortable element for a lot of viewers when it comes to Easy Rider: the concept and the fanfare of it all get in the way of cohesive narrative filmmaking. I think there are ways to find a middle ground more successfully with this kind of film, but Easy Rider just wasn’t able to find it.
Regardless of these faults, I think Easy Rider definitely deserves its labels as an important piece of American cinema. While I would argue that “important” and “great” are too often muddled, particularly when a film ages, there’s no reason to throw a film such as this one aside as unworthy of discussion. There’s likely no better film that encapsulates the cultural hurricane of the late 60s, and I’m sure that it holds up far better for those with more investment in this time period. Even if you can’t end up enjoying it, it’s a fun slice of American history, and its relevance will hold true for years to come.
Films Left to Watch: 914