Writer Recommends #5: Easy Rider

1969

Directed by: Dennis Hopper

Written by: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Terry Southern

Starring: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black

Easy Rider is showing at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham on Thursday 16th September, as part of a Dennis Hopper tribute season.

Easy Rider is a seminal movie that was the catalyst for an era of movie making that may never be surpassed.  It changed the Hollywood system forever, made a star of Jack Nicholson and entered the public psyche…and on top of that, it’s a very good film.

To explore the impact that Easy Rider had on modern movie making would contain enough information to fill a book.  Thankfully, Peter Biskind has already done that for us with the excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; which I would highly recommend for anyone wishing to know more.

Hollywood used to work to a system where cast and crews would be contracted to particular studios.  They could make movies for other studios, but this would require them to be loaned out, usually for a fee.  It was a hard and fast rule of movie making; quite simply “Indie” movies did not exist.  Easy Rider blew the system apart and made it regroup and adapt to survive because of the huge success that followed.

 Easy Rider is iconic for many reasons: the low slung bikes, Fonda’s American flag jacket and helmet, the breathtaking scenery and the knock out soundtrack.  The movie has entered the public psyche: who, including people who have not seen the movie, does not think of Easy Rider bikes and open road when Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild comes on the radio.  It’s a similar scenario to the phenomenon that is when people dance to almost any Bee Gees song from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack using the Travolta pointing to the sky and the floor moves – regardless of whether they have ever seen the gritty urban drama.

So iconic has the movie become that although it originally represented an American dream to those who were part of counter-culture; it has now become the American dream for many in mainstream culture throughout the world.  In a sense what the movie represents has been magnified and distorted to no longer fully reflect the original movie.

The two main protagonists are barely referred to by name, but are commonly known as Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda); they open the movie by conducting a drug sale to an unnamed connection (a cameo by Phil Spector) in LA; the proceeds of which, they hide in the fuel tanks of their motorbikes as they set off on their journey to find somewhere to retire to a simple life. 

Essentially a road movie, they make their way through the country encountering people and situations that help them to learn about themselves along the way.

Following trouble with a bike a local farmer helps them fix the bike and also invites them to dinner with his large family.  This view of the family is idyllic and could yet represent what Billy and Wyatt really want, but the families devotion to each other and god comes far too early in the duos quest for them to do much more than move on.

A hitchhiker takes them to a commune where a new society is being formed; one where freedom of expression is encouraged and people live supposedly how they want to live.  It is here that I become unnerved; the society, to me, comes across as a clique where they seem very accepting of the extremely laid-back Wyatt, but not so much the more uptight Billy.  Their liberal society seems sinister in some way, as though the brash and particularly terrible cabaret represents their society’s attempt to hide what really goes on in the commune and in any society; jealousy and ego.  It’s apparent that Billy and Wyatt won’t fit in here; they see the cracks forming in their idealism and I think they seem them as fakes.

Not so the adjoining folk who blindly follow their ideals.  They starve whilst trying to plant and grow food on their dusty plot.  These people seem terribly naïve at best and show that belief will not get you what you need.  Perhaps this is an analogical view of religion as a basis for society.  Billy and Wyatt see the flaws in their methods, sympathise and continue to move on.

After running foul of some small town law enforcement, they run into George Hanson; a lawyer and a drunk from a well to do family in the same small town.  Hanson views the pair as genuine seekers of freedom.  They are the antithesis of his life where football and law school were chosen for him rather than by him and he disappears into the bottle to forget.  In a moment of spontaneity that is as much to do with him giving his mother cause for concern as it is to truly pursue the freedom of the road, Hanson joins them on their road trip.

It is the exchanges between Hanson, Wyatt and Billy that give the movie its true message about personal freedom and the Vietnam War.  One particular exchange that I believe is the heart of the movie involves Hanson and Billy:

Hanson: You know this used to be a hell of a good country.  I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.

Billy: Man.  Everybody got chicken, that’s what happened.  Hey, we can’t even get into a second rate hotel, I mean a second rate motel, you dig?  The think we’re gonna cut their throats or something.  They’re scared man.

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

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

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

Billy:  What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about!

Hanson: That’s right.  That’s what it’s all about alright.  But talking about it and being it; that’s two different things.  I mean, its real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in the market place.  Of course, don’t ever tell anybody they’re not free.  ‘Cause then they’re gonna get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are.  Oh yeah.  They’re gonna talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom.  But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare them.

Billy: Well it don’t make them running scared.

Hanson: No.  It makes them dangerous.

 It is a prophecy that comes true following a particularly unsavoury encounter in a diner where local girls are intrigued and excited by the strangers, whilst the local me are much more threatening and hostile.  The camp is attacked during the night and Hanson is murdered.  And so affected are Billy and Wyatt that they turn their own search for fulfilment into a tribute to their friend and the head to the whore house Hanson so often mentioned in New Orleans.

In New Orleans, the film takes a much trippier viewpoint and seems becomes much more avant garde.  Billy and Wyatt hook up with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil…yes, Toni Basil of “Hey Mickey!” fame) and take a potent trip, presumably LSD.  Where they had been almost academic in their study of the people they had encountered so far, within New Orleans chaos reigns.  And the trip turns their studies of the human condition introspective and they learn much more organically about whom they are and who they wish to be.

Far from having made it, they realise that they blew it.

Performance wise Nicholson steals the show and it’s easy to see how this role, followed by some excellent career choices, propelled him from a B-movie actor/scriptwriter to the icon that we know now.  Strange to think that a twist of fate; Rip Torn was set to play Hanson until, legend has it, Hopper pulled a knife on him during pre-production.

Fonda, part of the Fonda acting dynasty (father: Henry, sister: Jane) plays the languid and handsome Wyatt with ease.  Fonda often seem very wooden to me (see Futureworld as an example), but occasionally a part that suits his laid back style enables him to exude charisma and Wyatt is such a part.  Fonda would go on to direct and star in the much underrated The Hired Hand.

Hopper started his career as a contemporary of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean.  But following the making of From Hell To Texas when director Henry Hathaway despaired at Hopper’s inability complete a scene (it took 85 takes), it took him 10 years to get a major part in a movie.  As you might expect there is an undercurrent of violence and menace in his performance which offers a good cynical side to the hippy counterculture peace and love themes of the movie.  Hopper famously went on to implode on his next directorial effort The Last Movie.      

Stylistically the movie owes a lot to the French New Wave of handheld cameras and gorilla filmmaking.  The cinematography wonderfully encapsulates the vast landscapes encountered on American road trips: as someone who has driven across America I can tell you how difficult it is to capture this on camera.  Occasionally it seems like it has gone one avant garde step too far: most notably the double cutting from scene to scene; but these things add to the groundbreaking nature of the movie.  Of all the things it tries to do, 99% of them work well beyond even Hopper and Fonda’s expectations. 

This is a special movie.  This is a seminal piece of movie making history in the same way that The Jazz Singer (the first Hollywood talky) is part of movie making history.  It really is that important; I could list numerous movies that without Easy Rider would not have been made.      

 “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere”

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