When the powers that be that controlled Hollywood from the onset of the silent era to well into the 1950's fell out of control, what happened to American filmmaking would forever change viewers understandings of cinematic narrative. With non-linear narratives and Soviet style montage sequences American moviegoers, thirsty for something revolutionary were enthralled by the psychedelic and cool stylings of New Hollywood filmmaking and while Easy Rider was not the first film to offer such imagery and commentary it has, undoubtedly, come to represent the era more so than any of its contemporaries. Between its drug-induced soundtrack, Odyssey-like quest story and its purely disparaging commentary on the state of youth in America, it represents the 60's masterfully and manages to still say something honest and uncomfortable about the state of society, regardless of being almost fifty years old. One of the many contenders on my "coolest movies" list, Easy Rider makes you want to jump back in time and strap on an American flag leather jacket and simply cruise the highways of America, not because you are out to prove yourself a bad-ass, but because you truly hope to find the meaning of everything between a cup of coffee in a diner and a revelatory trip on lsd next to some cacti. However, just like Jack Kerouac's prolific novel On The Road, Easy Rider takes away the coolness of nostalgia, by slapping on a harsh reality that the ideal world of the past is easily disrupted by those who interfere out of irrational hostility and a loathsome fear of change. Easy Rider is hardly a story of redemption and it is certainly not intended to be taken lightly, but between the magnitude of such a low-budget film and the fact that it was ever produced in the first place is something to celebrate in itself and let us not forget that the film is in the AFI Top 100 film list for a damn good reason, it is with little argument one of the most American films ever released.
Easy Rider follows the exploits of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) who also refer to himself as Captain America, in honor of his motorcycle and jacket adorned with the stars and stripes and Billy (Dennis Hopper) a leather jacket long haired hippy who is preoccupied with making money and getting stoned. After a successful drug sale, Wyatt and Billy decided to take their newfound fortunes and travel across The United States, with the ultimate intention of stopping in at Mardi Gras. Along the way, they meet a variety of individuals who provide them with details about the American experience, one that is clearly muddied by disillusionment. The first individual they encounter is simply known as The Stranger on the Highway (Luke Askew) and asks for a ride to his compound in the desert of the Midwest. There Wyatt and Billy witness an "off the grid" community of youth that have left the city in hopes of ascending their corporeal existence into something more spiritual. However, it is clear that their existence is more focused on orgiastic free love and heavy drug use than anything else. Itching to get to Louisiana Billy cuts their stay there short and they continue on the road towards the southern state. Along the way the are arrested for interfering with a town parade and are forced to spend a night in jail, there they meet a functional alcoholic named George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) who just happens to be a well known lawyer and helps the duo out of jail in exchange for tagging along with them on their trip. Donning his old football helmet, George becomes a pseudo-guide through the south and all seems fine until they enter into a local diner, only to be ridiculed and ignored by the servers due to their unconventional attire. Distraught the three spend the night in the woods outside the town and are eventually attacked by a group of locals, which results in the death of George and injuries to both Wyatt and Billy. Enraged the two continue on their quest to New Orleans and eventually make it to an infamous brothel. There they meet two girls and spend the night together, partaking in acid and having a crazy trip. After this experience Billy and Wyatt hit the road again and have become quite upset with the state of their trip and decide to call things off completely, however, before they can return from where they came they are gun downed by two rednecks who think it a fun game to fire a shot gun at the passing motorcyclists. The film then ends not with a nostalgic remembrance of the two travelers, but instead, just an image of the flaming motorcycle as the screen pans out in an incredibly reflective moment.
Easy Rider is not the first motorcycle movie released by any means, nor is it even the first movie with either Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper that places its central focus on the experiences of motorcycle driving rebels. What Easy Rider is the first to do, however, is to condense all the concerns, commentaries and dilemmas that plagued young America post-1968 into one film and boy does it make a lasting impression. While it is never fully acknowledged, we can come to assume that Wyatt is a Vietnam veteran, his choice to wear the American flag being an ironic homage of sacrifice to an ungrateful nation. His relatively clean look suggests a man traveling cross-country in the hopes of finding an answer to his existential sense of loss. He seems to interact earnestly with each person he encounters; hoping that they will provide him a reason to continue on, sadly this never seems the case. In opposition then, is Billy, whose constant state of intoxication and anger suggest a man who is trying to outrun something. If we find ourselves confused about Wyatt's past, even less is known about Billy aside from the fact that he really wants to get laid and retire with money in Florida. In fact, it is quite clear that many of the characters within Easy Rider combine into a pastiche of the collective disillusionment of sixties America. Whether it be the stranger who desires a complete disconnect from technology, or George who is so overwhelmed by his parental expectations that he spends his days drinking himself into oblivion, simply because he cannot stand to reside in the harshness that is reality. The film is problematic in that it only focuses on the narratives of white males, but there is certainly a possibility that Hopper intended this as another layer of commentary on the issues of America during the time, it is impossible to say, but worth considering.
Key Scene: The drug trip scene in the New Orleans mausoleums, as filmed by Laslo Kovacs is hands down the best drug sequence in a movie ever....and I mean ever.
I was ecstatic when Criterion released its box set of the "America: Lost and Found" series and was finally able to purchase it about a month ago. This is one of many films in the set and is well worth purchasing, the Bluray transfer of Easy Rider looks phenomenal.