Friday, May 30, 2008

Easy Rider (1969)

At a certain point in many American lives, the little sermon of George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson, crystallizes within the mind. An ACLU lawyer, Hanson seems to merely feign ignorance when he says, "This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it." Hanson deliberately explains to the obtuse and confused Billy (Dennis Hopper), as if in a tutorial, that everyday Americans are genuinely afraid of the freaks amidst the population because those freaks, no matter how ill-tempered and rough, are actually enjoying liberty, that quintessential American birthright supposedly as inherent in this country's ideals as the value of oxygen to a human being. The drones who comprise ordinary Americans may plead that they want freedom, but, Hanson warns with philosophical gravity, "...it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace." Hanson's partly hazy, partly incisive reading of the ills of society plays out a little like a civics course, possibly a professorial lecture. His ultimate point: it's nearly impossible to be free in the truest sense of the word when you are cogs in a vast economic machine.

The screenplay of Easy Rider may feature the names Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (who plays Hopper's friend, Wyatt) above the more likely real heavy-lifter among the writing unit, Terry Southern. Fonda and Hopper doubtless had the original conception for Easy Rider but Southern described their screenwriting contributions as "dumb-bell dialogue" almost entirely improvised by the actors themselves, leaving Southern to write the overwhelming bulk of the final shooting script. Southern was a man of complexities, a kind of paradoxical creature whose nearly bipolar sense of being stirs almost immediate interest. He was an avid student of philosophy and an enormous admirer of Faulkner while also being a deeply cynical hipster and troublemaker, goofing off and having fun with the founders of the Paris Review in the Parisian streets.

Easy Rider could possibly be the uttermost '60s American film. Partly an attack on American imperialism during the Vietnam War, it was largely unloved among conservatives. Despite its sleeve-wearing liberalism, however, a more shadowy, recondite sense of traditionalism lurks in the background of this film's troubled landscape. The motorcycle-trekking duo may be in search of America, as the tagline of the film says, but their understanding is feeble despite what would appear to be their best, most open-minded intentions. Naturally, they run up against trouble in the form of Southerners who are hostile toward their ways. Yet Billy and Wyatt, for all of their physical predicaments, are not merely victims of redneck intolerance--a perfectly suitable but oddly altogether unsatisfying reading of the film--but also of their own apparent "capitalist" avarice, too. Their journey's main reason for existing is its financial insurance through a cocaine deal. Both subtle and unmistakable, while the actual cocaine deal ensues, Steppenwolf's "God Damn the Pusher Man" musically thumps the duo and implicates them--and us--in their tragic misadventure.

An iconic representation of the counterculture, Easy Rider is also a milestone in the history of the American independent cinema. Made on what would seem to be a true shoestring budget, this simple distillation of the doomed rebels of one era almost stings the viewer today with its intelligently sober-eyed, dismayed and dismally realized denouement. Fonda reportedly approached Bob Dylan for permission to use his song "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" but when Dylan asked for details about the film, and especially its conclusion, he refused. When Fonda protested, Dylan is said to have remarked, "You have to give them [the counterculture] hope. Hope for a future." Fonda said coldly, "They don't have one." So the story goes. As a result, Dylan's song is in the film but it's performed by Roger McGuinn.

The direction by Hopper is wily and resourceful, and the performances are either completely sound or in the outstanding case of Nicholson, truly riveting. The psychedelic narrative is both deceptively dense and fantastically nimble. The film's rock 'n' roll pacing gives this road trip of a movie its roaring engine. Easy Rider is both annular and linear: visuals repeat themselves, casually reappear, seem to mean little at one moment and then gradually gain in import; meanwhile, the story progression never ceases as one memorable scene quickly follows another. Hopper immediately gains our attention with sharp actions based in deeply meaningful imagery. The shot of the watch being thrown into the ground is as captivating as it has ever been, nearly four whole decades later.

The bikers find themselves in an episodic confrontation with the inner workings of society and its basic microcosms. Early in the film, they are guests for a rancher married to a Mexican woman with a substantial number of offspring. The rancher represents the gentlemanly Christian, saying grace before the meal with the guests, and behaving as kindly as possible despite being occasionally annoyed by the loudness of the bikes and the less-than-fully-tactful ways of the motley pair. Wyatt is only able to mutter, "You do your own thing in your own time." Wyatt and Billy, despite superficially fitting in with a commune of free-love hippies, fall terribly short of the ideal. In the end, they too are themselves motivated by entrepreneurial and individualistically-minded agendas and less the victims of capitalism than its beneficiaries and unwitting banner-carriers.

Easy Rider's somewhat fatalistic odyssey finds both humor and pathos in the Hanson character. Nicholson makes him fully three-dimensional whereas there are times where Hopper's bombastic, skittish and fidgety Billy and Fonda's calm, introspective and more trusting Wyatt seem excessively defined against one another. The cinematography by the great Laszlo Kovacs, who left us last year, is a kind of naturalistically rich, spontaneously-minded lighting strategy that allows the characters to somehow absorb the lonely road and integrate it into their distinct personalities. (Wyatt, "Captain America," seems more positively sure of himself even when on his bike while the anxious Billy seems to desire approval derived from camaraderie.)

The film's final judgment is a sagely dispiriting one, as the frolicking drug dealers meet their wretched fate with a kind of resigned acceptance. The submissive conclusion plays out like an extended, serene epiphany. Amidst all the turmoil and vituperation, against the backdrop of the epoch of the movement, the film's "Rosebud" moment occurs with the doped-up Wyatt sensing the disgusting truth. In lusting after the big score, and their shallow, materialistically-based dreams of grandeur, they "blew it."

13 comments:

christian said...

Good stuff. This is still the best counterculture film of the 60's and it's not dated the way some critics claim. I wrote an essay for Creative Screenwriting on the unheralded contributions to the film by Terry Southern.

My dream is to see the five hour cut. John Law told me Hopper screened it for him. Black bikers and drive-ins!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks. I'd love to see your essay about Southern's unheralded contributions. He's a truly fascinating man to learn about.

I've been intrigued by this five hour cut business as well. Amazing to think of that juxtaposed with the 95-minute theatrical version. Black bikers and drive-ins? Sounds great!

cjKennedy said...

I'm on the fence about Easy Rider at the moment. I feel it's either overrated or misunderstood.

Sometimes I don't see it as an ode to the counterculture, but (along with Gimme Shelter) a herald of the failure of it.

But then I haven't sat down and watched it in 10 years.

Your dissection of it is excellent though and makes me think I need to rewatch it.

Alexander Coleman said...

I do think Easy Rider and Gimme Shelter are, whether or not they were intended to be, essentially chronicles of the counterculture's failure(s). My review is primarily about how I think, between Southern, Fonda and Hopper, Easy Rider was an intentional "herald," as you say, of its deterioration, though it's certainly entertaining enough to cloak and disguise much of its critique.

I find your fence-sitting regarding it fascinating, Craig. Either overrated or misunderstood kind of fits with my general interpretation as well. Easy Rider is one of those films that don't immediately leap out in my mind as a rip-roaring cinematic blast, but every time I sit down and watch it, I find myself quite taken with it, almost at its mercy. It's like the whole is somehow so dazzling one doesn't even care so much about the parts. Of course, your motorcycle mileage may vary.

cjKennedy said...

I think I first went into it assuming it was a big celebration of the 60s and whatnot...this would've been while I was attending a Liberal Arts (with special emphasis on Liberal) college in Washington.

It wasn't that movie at all. It made the whole counterculture seem rather unpleasant.

The question remains, is it about the failure of just Hopper and Fonda or of the counterculture as a whole?

Alexander Coleman said...

If certain stories related to what Peter Fonda (and Dennis Hopper? not sure) thought, then it's at least partly an allegory about the entire counterculture. In a sense, one could see it as prescient, since the film probably seems truer today than it did then, if that makes any sense.

I can see how thinking it would be one thing and then finding it to be at minimum less straightforward than that assumption would almost completely take you by surprise and possibly stun you.

I think at the end of the day, it's a celebration of many of the ideals of this culture, but a rather tough critique of that culture at the same time.

Of course, allegory can only go so far. But by encapsulating it in the stinging autobiographical recognition of disgust--i.e., "We blew it"--it's given a much more multifaceted dimension, I believe.

Craig Kennedy said...

We're still talking about it nearly 40 years later. That's saying something, isn't it?

Alexander Coleman said...

Very true.

lightbird777 said...

Great review, Alexander. I missed this when you first posted and am glad I caught up to it now.

Like you and Craig, I think of this film as both an ode to the counterculture of the time as well as a mirror of its failure. The ideals were worth striving for, but there are too many aspects of human nature and of the workings of society that make them near impossible to achieve. I think that Easy Rider certainly showed that. Gimme Shelter was something else.

And Terry Southern was brilliant.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Alison. I like your comparison to Gimme Shelter as it fits very well.

Terry Southern was quite a guy with a great deal of talent. Very interesting mind.

lightbird777 said...

Actually it was Craig who brought up Gimme Shelter. :)

That's a true example of what went wrong with the counterculture. Or maybe it's just a lesson in being cheap and paying off a gang of tough guys with cases of beer. ;)

Alexander Coleman said...

You're right, it was Craig, Alison. :)

Haha, another good point there, too. :)

Melvyn said...

It can't really have success, I feel so.
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