June 26, 2012

List of Shame: Easy Rider (1969)

Henry Fonda in Easy Rider

Standing alongside Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Easy Rider is an iconic film that embodies a worldview from a specific time period. Earning a remarkable $41 million at the box office, the low-budget road movie remains well-known today. The latest version of the American Film Institute's 100 Movies list places it at #84. While I don't put too much stock in those rankings, it's interesting to note its staying power. The movie is trapped in the late '60s, yet its themes of being free and stepping away from society remain with us. It's a definitive example of the New Hollywood and gained extra notoriety for its tumultuous production. Director Dennis Hopper clashed repeatedly with the crew, and most of the drug use on screen was real. I've resisted this movie for a long time, so this List of Shame series has finally pushed me to check it out. Will I pack up my bags and head out in the countryside? Let's get to the questions while I get the camp fire ready.

Easy Rider – Directed by Dennis Hopper; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Antonio Mendoza, Phil Spector, Mac Mashourian, and Karen Black

So, what's this story about?
After completing a drug deal, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are flush with cash. They hop aboard their motorcycles in California and start a long journey to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they meet up with some hippies at a commune, pick up small-town lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), and dodge close-minded rednecks. Their days are spent on the endless roads of the American countryside, while the nights include drugs and chatter around the campfire. By the time they get to New Orleans, it might not be such an idyllic spot for the outsiders. While they aim to be free, these guys may have problems escaping the confines of the dominant system.

Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider and acted in it.

Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
Honestly, watching hippies taking drugs and riding motorcycles didn't sound like a thrilling movie. It seemed like a relic that wouldn't offer much to me today. The clips of Hopper stumbling around New Orleans and their campfire chats looked pretty dull. I acknowledge this wasn't a fair assessment. It was on my radar as a film that I should see, but I kept finding reasons to avoid it. This was an obvious choice for this series because I'd resisted many chances to seek it out in the past. In one sense, my expectations were correct, but they also simplified an interesting and pretty depressing look at the future of this country.

Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper

Does the story hold up well today?
This is a tricky subject because it depends on which aspect of the story is the focus. Looking specifically at the styles and manner of speaking, Easy Rider is locked into its late-'60s era. On the other hand, Wyatt and Billy's motivations are pretty universal. Like so many disaffected groups over the years, they're looking to step apart from the conventional society. Their success in actually fulfilling that goal is another story. All they really do is ride around and do a lot of drugs, culminating in an LSD trip at St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans. By that point, it's difficult to take their honorable intents too seriously. Considering the counter-culture themes, it's interesting that Wyatt goes by Captain America. His jacket includes a giant American flag, and he seems fairly positive about what people can do. This isn't an ironic outfit designed to get a laugh, which would be the case today. In a weird sense, he expects too much from this country and is destined for grave disappointment.

Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The story focuses mostly on the leading duo, though many others enter and leave the scene. Peter Fonda is perfect to play a laid-back biker, and he's the moral center for the movie. This Christ-like role could easily feel heavy-handed, but he underplays the big moments. On the other hand, Hopper stumbles through the movie and seems as lost as his character. He's the right guy to play the more volatile Billy, but it doesn't make him very interesting. The supporting player who steals the show is Jack Nicholson's George, an eccentric lawyer along for the rider. The image of him wearing a football helmet on the back of Fonda's motorcycle is priceless. Nicholson gets the best lines and doesn't waste them in this star-making role. He's only around for a limited time but sticks with you more than anything else. The neurotic but well-meaning George is the right part for an actor who plays crazy better than anyone. It's sad that the female roles are so inconsequential; they're reduced to prostitutes and hippies looking to hook up with the leads. Hopper and Fonda might have idealistic views of America, but they fall short with the opposite sex.

Easy Rider, released in 1969

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The first act spends a lot of time on Wyatt and Billy riding while rock tunes blare on the soundtrack. Everyone remembers "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf, which is strongly identified with this movie. When you combine that with songs from Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and other prominent artists, you have what amounts to a '60s version of a music video. While those iconic moments stick with you for a while, it isn't enough to carry an entire movie. The other major scene is the final campfire talk where Fonda utters the famous "we blew it" line. There are several ways you could read this statement. On a basic level, he's saying that Wyatt and Billy have wasted their time and money on drugs and prostitutes. I believe that's too simple. The next step is indicting the entire hippie generation, which had a chance to make a difference and failed. If you want to go another level, Fonda could be summarizing the U.S. itself. Has this country become a corporate, uncaring mess? Regardless of its meaning, it doesn't completely make sense in the direct context of their discussion. It's like he knows what's to come and is just foreshadowing their inevitable demise.

Henry Fonda in Easy Rider

How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
Unlike earlier choices like In the Mood for Love and Once Upon a Time in the West, my expectations weren't as high for Easy Rider. Like I explained above, my reservations about seeing it were pretty high. In one sense, it's an entertaining movie with engaging themes and several interesting characters. I don't expect to return to it any time soon, however. I understand why it's become such a cultural linchpin, but it also meanders into fairly dull territory. There's a point where their goofball behavior starts getting irritating. Even so, the downbeat ending is stunning and avoids getting overly sentimental. The dominant society wins the day, and loners stepping away from the fold are proceeding at their own risk.

6 comments:

  1. Wow. This is a brilliant film and, I think hugely rewatchable!

    "watching hippies taking drugs and riding motorcycles didn't sound like a thrilling movie"

    Are you kidding me? That sounds like an awesome movie. The fact that it is so much more is what is great. The profound points about society - the people they meet and their attitudes towards america, however disillusioend. I think alot of the themes are still relevant too.

    But thats just me. You should hunt down the BFI Modern Classic book on Easy Rider by Lee Child. A real eye opener about the depth and importance of the film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Simon, I agree with you that the themes are still relevant and Easy Rider is making important points about society. That quote was talking about why I hadn't seen it to this point. I'm still not sure I'd describe it as a thrilling movie, though.

      Still, I am interested to read more about the background and how important it was at the time. I love those BFI Modern Classics books, so I may have to check that one out. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Delete
  2. Very fair review. I think I like this a little more than you, but I completely agree with everything you said about it. It's important, but, for me also, not necessarily rewatchable. At least compulsively. I think what it DID for movies is arguably more substantial than the movie itself. Again, I'd probably give this an A-, but any sort of reservations with it are understandable.

    (I do, however, LOVE how it often goes from one scene to another, by flashing back and forth between the two. That was revelatory.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alex, I know it sounds like I didn't like Easy Rider, but I'd probably still give it a B/B+ if I was rating it. I do think it was highly influential, especially coming before the heyday of the film-school generation in the '70s.

      One thing that I thought was really interesting was the teaser shot of the last scene that comes pretty early. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was a cool device.

      Delete
  3. I saw this several years ago, and other than the soundtrack, I felt the movie didn't hold up very well. A scene where hippies very seriously talk about living off the land while they drop seeds onto the surface of obviously dead earth just made me laugh, even though the scene was intended to make an Important Message.

    While I didn't predict the ending, it didn't exactly surprise me, nor did it stir any emotions in me, unlike, say, Midnight Cowboy's.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Chip, it's definitely a much different story than something like Midnight Cowboy, which is more character based. I've found some of the themes interesting, but agree that they can be heavy-handed at times.

      Delete