Easy Rider (1969)

Title: Easy Rider (1969)
Director/s: Dennis Hopper
Writer/s: Peter Fonda, Terry Southern and Dennis Hopper
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Never in the history of film have there been two cooler cats than Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as Billy (as in The Kid) and Wyatt (as in Earp AKA Captain America) riding on motorcycles across America from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Dressed in leather and fringe and the grooviest shades they ride choppers that only exist in one’s dreams. Shiny and adorned in the American flag, Wyatt’s machine is the chopper of fantasies. As the sunlight glints off the chrome handles I realize this is not just a bike ridden by the ultimate free spirit across a land fraught with tension. This is a bike that is probably symbolic of something really profound. Maybe Wyatt’s bike is representative of the counter-culture that was infamously making a name for itself among society, and popular culture in general. Perhaps the chopper is a symbol of the industrial revolution, and our need as a society to rely on that which is man/factory made. The American flag on the other hand is another kettle of fish.

Hopper and Fonda are clearly high though out the entire film, and it is not a judgement but an observation. I mean this is 1969, and America is going through a sexual revolution, it is the year of the Woodstock music festival that changed the way people view music and the subsequent lifestyles said music sold to the average Joe with a bit of money in his pocket to buy a record. Interestingly enough Easy Rider is one of the first films in history to make use of a soundtrack made up of songs that were already popular on the radio, and not simply a musical score made by an orchestra.

The movie starts with a drug deal that goes down at a very loud airport. You don’t hear anything other than the sound of planes flying overhead. Wyatt and Billy buy drugs from some Mexicans. Cue scene of Peter Fonda snorting cocaine up his nose in 1969. In 2019 50 years later I don’t even want to think about the ‘triggering’ effect it will have on anyone under the age of 25. If that sounds insensitive then perhaps I need to stop watching all the good stuff, because Easy Rider is definitely good stuff, in my humble opinion. I digress. After the drug deal goes down Billy and Wyatt have got themselves a pretty nice chunk of change, and they stash it in the gas tank of Wyatt’s dreamy American patriot metal machine. Wyatt then casually takes his wristwatch off and tosses it away (somewhere along their journey he’ll spot another watch discarded along the highway of good intentions.) Then they’re off, cruising down the highway to the sounds of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” to attend one of the greatest of Bacchanalian festivities – Mardi gras.

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Along the dusty landscape and amidst the sweeping scenery of a supposedly free America, the duo pick up a hitchhiker who doesn’t say very much but pays for gas, and that’s groovy. Billy is a little paranoid that the hitchhiker will discover their money in the gas tank, and Wyatt is too high to be worried about very much at all. As no one will give them room to stay in the motels they pass along the road they end up staying in abandoned barns and the ruins of old farm houses in the desert. By the light of campfires they pass marijuana cigarettes and discuss conspiracies and the meaning of it all. This movie is often described as a time capsule of sorts capturing the spirit of anti-establishment, Woodstock, the death of the Kennedy’s, the Vietnam War and Nixon. Described also as the ‘modern’ Western these two outlaws drive through regular mid-west towns whose inhabitants showcase their racism and their bigotry.

Billy and Wyatt’s journey also finds them sitting at the table of a white man whose Mexican wife and their numerous children break bread with their unlikely guests. Living off the land and having very little interest in the modern world, Wyatt finds himself envying their way of life. Perhaps he feels as though this man and his large family have the right idea. Unaware of the politics of the time they are happy to procreate and farm and remain blissfully unaware. On the end of the spectrum is the hippie commune where they drop off their first hitchhiker. Having created a makeshift camp out in the desert the commune is occupied by mostly young people attempting to veer away from a life they consider to be stifling and controlling. Children, goats and an acting troupe of performers and mimes float around the compound of yurt-like structures and exhausted farm land as though they had discovered a new messiah in nature and psychedelics. Billy is not that keen on the commune, whilst Wyatt seems only too happy to co-exist among the draft-dodgers and the bohemian types. Just before they continue on their journey they spend some time skinny-dipping in a hidden pool away from the compound. The footage of the foursome swimming is not the trippiest (that comes later), but it is certainly ‘devil may care’ enough that it is rather obvious why there was so much controversy behind the filming of Easy Rider. I mean, these guys were just not playing by the rules. They clearly didn’t give a f**k!

The independent film industry was booming all thanks to Fonda and Hopper and the amount of drugs they were supposedly taking on and off set. Rumors of tension and power struggles almost eclipsed the film’s debut, and movie bosses were not too happy with the two stars’ very clear middle finger being flashed at the entire studio system and the ideals it embraced. When Wyatt and Billy finally leave the commune their hitchhiker friend gifts them with some acid to take at Mardi gras.

In another conservative and backward-thinking small town they innocently join in a parade, and are subsequently arrested for “parading without a permit” and are classified as “weirdos” as they are locked up in a cell for the night. Lucky for Billy and Wyatt Jack Nicholson is also in the cell with them. I mean, what are the odds? Jack Nicholson is playing the part of drunk by night, lawyer by day, George Hanson. It’s clear to our outlaws that George is in the ‘drunk tank’ pretty often, and claims he’ll be able to get them out of the cell pretty quickly as long as they “haven’t killed anyone white”. Soon enough they are released and George expresses a desire to join the Outlaws when he claims:

“I must have started off to Mardi gras six or seven times. Never got further than the state line”.

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And so our heroes hop back on their motorcycles joined by George Hanson, his gold helmet and a desire to visit an infamous brothel named Madame Tinker Toy’s House of Blue Lights. On the trip they encourage George to try marijuana for the first time. The same man who starts his mornings with a swig from his hip flask is also concerned that trying this drug will lead to stronger things. George in his own way is so much more than a square with a penchant for brown spirits and whores. George is representative of a whole generation of youth that wanted so badly to do exactly what Billy and Wyatt were doing. They were a part of a very confused and despondent generation of young people who didn’t feel as though they had a place in society. Those that were blatantly ‘anti-establishment’ were in a way freer than anyone else because they no longer questioned the motives of ‘the man’. They knew the truth.

Once again they arrive at another small town late one night and stop at a café for food. They are greeted with disdain from a group of local men sitting at a booth, and with flirtatious interest from a group of young girls. When no one serves them the three men get up and leave. Once again they find themselves camping out again by the side of the road:

“This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s going on with it." "We can't even get into a second rate motel...they think we gonna cut their throats or something." "They are scared of what you represent to them...What you represent to them is freedom"

That night the three men are attacked in their sleeping bags by the very same men who chased them out of the café. George is killed. Nothing can make this okay. It’s a horrible scene and he didn’t deserve to die that way at all. Hatred for the conservative pigs grows.

The next day they arrive in New Orleans and head straight to George’s whorehouse where they each pick up a woman and go out onto the streets to join in the festivities. They’ve made it. Cue hazy street-life images of parades and costumes, dead animals in the street and the sounds of the Bayou. It’s all very decadent and ritualistic and deviant in all the right ways. The foursome find their way to a cemetery noticeable for its starkly white headstones and lurking mourners. It is here where they will choose to take the hitchhiker’s acid.

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The next couple of flashing scenes are indecipherable and harrowing. The last time I witnessed scenes such as these was in Roman Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby which was released the year before Easy Rider. The montage of religious imagery, nudity, and general mayhem is ritualistically shocking. We witness the character’s complete breakdown as they submit to the drug entirely. At some point Wyatt/Captain America sees the seemingly random image of something burning by the side of an unknown highway. Little does he know that he has foreseen his own demise. Little does either of them know that they will be shot down in cold blood along the very same highway that meant freedom for them.

The night after their acid trip at Mardi gras they are once again camping out and waxing philosophically over their next move. After the ‘trip’ Wyatt is no longer the optimist he once was, and Billy is full of hope for their future as he talks about retiring on the drug money. Captain America keeps saying that they “blew it”. What exactly did they blow? The money? Or perhaps he wasn’t referring to the Outlaws. Perhaps he was referring to Americans or America? Perhaps he was referring to society as a whole, because very soon the world would stop traveling those sweeping highways and see nothing but trees and mountains and desert. On the tarmac they would be chased off the road by bigoted assholes that will shoot them down in cold blood and the movie will end with two motorcycles strewn across a road in the middle of nowhere, one of them burning and both men dead.

As the credits role and another rock and roll song begins to play the audience feels cheated. Despite everything they went though they died and that little bit of hope they sang about has been drenched in blood and flames. Everything that generation had hoped for and fought for seemed to have been all for nothing because in the end the ‘weirdos’ still got taken out by the ‘rednecks’.

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This film is one of the reasons I became obsessed with this medium in the first place. It was so unlike anything I had seen before and… it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen back in 69’. Hollywood was astounded at Hopper and Fonda’s blatant disregard for the studio system. They seemed determined to do everything their own way, and the process of making this film was often fraught with tension as the two leads vied for credit. Directing credit was given to Hopper but there was major dispute as to who was responsible for writing the script. It is fair to say though that this very successful experiment was the product of both Hopper and Fonda (and Terry Southern who helped write the script). Years later they would still be at loggerheads as to who was the real king of the Easy Rider mountain. Despite all this the film received a director’s award at the Cannes Film Festival and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

In 2010 Dennis Hopper died of prostate cancer two months after receiving a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His films included Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Gunfight at the O.K Corral (1957), The Trip (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), True Grit (1969) and my personal favorite, Apocalypse Now (1979). All in all he acted in over 150 films spanning 55 years in the business called show.

On August 16 of this very year 2019, Peter Fonda passed away due to complications from lung cancer. The king of the ‘counterculture’ movement, Fonda was known for his films The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967), Escape From LA (1996) and Ulee’s Gold (1997). A member of one of the most talented families in Hollywood was described by his sister Jane Fonda as someone who “went out laughing”.

Long live the outlaws and the weirdos and the truth-speakers, and the truth-seekers!

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