Easy Rider (1969)

Directed by Dennis Hopper

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There is a long, complicated, messy story behind Easy Rider that is almost more worth discussing than the film itself.  Dennis Hopper and costar Peter Fonda both have writing credits on the film, and Hopper is listed as the director while Fonda is a producer.  But it’s possible that neither of them had much to do with the writing or they had everything to do with the writing.  The film is full of drugs, the actors were occasionally on drugs, Hopper might have been a mad man on set and in the editing suite and the film was a hit.  What’s crazy about this is the characters onscreen, the two hippie-looking bikers, are on the outside of the system, free when everyone else is “bought and sold.”  But in reality, Hopper comes off as a crazy but enterprising man, making sure he got his screenplay credit because he thought about those kinds of things.  He seems to have been looking ahead, painting a picture of someone trying to get their footing in Hollywood by making a film about characters who have just left Hollywood and aren’t really headed anywhere.

I’ll get to the film in a second because it’s pretty great, not only for the portrait it creates but the time capsule it represents.  The film was a turning point in American cinema, helping to kick off the American New Wave alongside films such as Bonny & Clyde and The Graduate.  This film was messy, violent and aimless when other films at the time were neat and precisely plotted.  It was a big hit, raking in over $60 million on a budget less than $1 million and was also highly influential.  In some ways, Easy Rider is just like the hottest boy band.  It was new and exciting, but also a calculated move by the studio who, based on my probably limited research, knew that “biker” movies were hot.

One of the movie trailers I keep seeing commercials for right now is a comedy with Ice Cube and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day.  I don’t know what the movie is about, but it doesn’t matter.  The studio is selling you on the idea of its two lead actors.  Ice Cube is marketable because of his recent comedy success in 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street, and Charlie Day is marketable because of It’s Always Sunny as well as a couple modest movie hits (Horrible Bosses).  The people who finance movies try to have a sense of what’s popular and what will be popular.  They’re often wrong, and many of the biggest hits are surprises, like La La Land (though once finally released it wasn’t exactly a surprise, following months of buildup).

So I guess when I see Easy Rider, I enjoy what the story represents and what the filmmakers sought to create, but it was funded because there was a market for this type of film.  That only makes it more interesting because it shines a new light on Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson referring to people who are “bought and sold.”  The same could be said for Hopper and Fonda even though the characters they play are not that way. Jumping ahead, the film ends with both characters shot dead on a highway by two hicks.  The message of the story is clear: you’re bought and sold, there is no freedom and if you think you’re free, well the people who aren’t free will kill you.  This is stated in a conversation between Hanson and Hopper’s character by the fire while smoking weed.  They reflect on the judgmental treatment they received in a small diner near New Orleans, and Hanson, a current and former lawyer, tells them that they’re free while others aren’t, but you can’t tell others that they’re not free because they’ll get mad and hurt you.  That night the men who aren’t free show up and beat up the three riders, killing Hanson.

The other two bikers’ deaths serves to emphasize this point that you can’t be free.  You either take part in the system or you’re killed.  It’s a film about America, but it’s not an optimistic film.  The fact that Hopper and Fonda, as actors and members of the Hollywood system, are really part of this game adds more weight to what they’re trying to say.  Like Hanson who knows the ‘system’ (again, as a suit-wearing lawyer) but tries to break from it, Hopper and Fonda know the system and this isn’t their break from it but method of breaking into it.  Their deaths are symbolic, certainly, and they’re more similar to Hanson than their biker counterparts.

The story of Easy Rider is very simple.  The two bikers, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) buy a ton of drugs in Mexico and do some of it, then they sell the rest by LAX for even more money and finance their ride to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  The drug deals that open the film are arguably the most tense moments in the film.  They are quiet and feel like something could go wrong, but nothing does.  Then the men hit the road, long hair flowing in the wind, to the tunes of late 60s rock songs.  Hopper has said that he found the music for the film just by listening to the radio, hoping to mark that moment in time.  There are several sequences of the men simply riding while songs like “Born to be Wild” play.  It’s as if these are simply postcards of ideal living, unrestrained, mobile and with ease and control.

Along the way Wyatt and Billy meet a farmer and his family who live off the land, entirely self-reliant.  Wyatt tells him he should be proud of the life he’s made.  Later they pick up a hitchhiker and take him to the commune at which he lives.  The commune is full of young people, including some young city folk, who similarly live off the land and have built their own little world, complete with a small theatre group.

Wyatt and Billy briefly get arrested where they meet Hanson, the lawyer.  Their imprisonment feels unjust (they rode in a parade without a permit), and it’s symbolic of the way society already looks at them.  Hanson helps get them out, he’s a strong voice in the community, and then he decides to join them on the ride.  He’s button-down where they’re free-flowing, but Hanson has an inclination towards breaking free.  He very quickly abandons his civil disposition and instead wears a silly old football helmet and becomes the most rambunctious of the men.  Wyatt and Billy give him weed for the first time as well.  This part of the film feels like a message that anyone can live this way if they simply choose to.  Underneath the polite, polished exteriors of a “bought and sold” life there is a crazy person who just wants to let loose and have fun, but we suppress that person.  At least, that’s my read on Hanson’s character.

After the diner scene near New Orleans, they are brutally assaulted, and Hanson’s death is quick and shocking.  Wyatt and Billy reach New Orleans and go to the brothel that Hanson had said he wanted to visit.  They walk through the Mardi Gras festivities with two prostitutes and seem to have a good time.  Then they end up in a cemetery where they take acid given to them by the hitchhiker who had told Wyatt to take the drug when he’s in a good place and with good people.  The drug trip starts off well but quickly goes south as every character seems to lose their minds.  They cry, yell and panic until the trip is suddenly over and we’re back on the road.

In a final campfire scene, Billy is excited that they made it.  They have plenty of money and he reasons they can retire in Florida.  Wyatt, on the other hand, thinks they failed, but he remains vague.  It feels like a sudden disillusionment with America and their own lifestyle, recognize that they will never be free because people are out to get them and their drug-induced lifestyle might not be sustainable.  It’s not sustainable, possibly because drugs generally don’t end well but also partially because they don’t live in an environment conducive to communal living and drug use.  The hitchhiker had told them to take the drug with good people, implying that the drug will only have the desired effect if the bikers’ surroundings are stable and nurturing.  Of course they take the drugs, and it goes poorly, suggesting that America isn’t the right place to do this.

Wyatt and Billy have put all their focus on this drug-induced ride across the country, and it culminated in simply a bad trip.  Billy seems to have forgotten this, but it sticks with Wyatt.  Back on the road, a hick shoots Billy off his bike for no reason other than to “scare him.”  Wyatt stops his bike, and after driving a little further, one of the drivers tells the other they should go back, making you think they have a conscious.  Instead, when they turn around and approach Wyatt who speeds after them, they quickly shoot him too, killing him and exploding his bike.

The deaths are sudden, shocking and violent, almost as if they were destined to die this way.  It’s a clear critique of America, violent and repressed in many ways, at least at this time and possibly always.

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