Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Easy Rider (#32)

The Favorites - Easy Rider (#32)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Easy Rider (1969/USA/dir. Dennis Hopper) appeared at #32 on my original list.

What it is • Two all-American coke dealers (dubbed Captain America and Buffalo Bill, natch) score big and head for Florida, loading up their choppers with their illicit profits (Fonda called the shot of his character shoving a pipe full of cash into his star-spangled gas tank "fucking the flag with money," and the whole film - God love it - is pitched at about that level of visual subtlety). Along the way, they stop by communes, farms, roadside diners, motels (who flash a "No" over their "Vacancy" when they glimpse the bikers' hair and costumes) and even the occasional jail cell. Marijuana is smoked around campfires, acid is dropped at Mardi Gras, and George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) pops up to ride the back of one bike, clad in a goofy gold high school football helmet. The Byrds, The Band, Hendrix, and of course Steppenwolf adorn the soundtrack and the result is a picaresque tour through late sixties America, cemented not just by the audiovisual content but the form: sinuous telephoto pans across objects and faces, quiet verite observations, cuts back and forth across space and time, fish-lensed LSD trips - all the tricks and trades of European cinema brought to bear on very American subject matter. Finally, of course, there's the violence, inescapable in the era of riots, assassinations, and the Vietnam War. An instant hit in '69, regarded more ambivalently later on (and by some, even then) as too self-serious a hippie manifesto, the film carries both a simple-but-effective iconographic power and a more sophisticated combination of elements. Most importantly, it's a joyride, relying on the power of its style to sweep up the viewer.

Why I like it •
My experience with this film resembles the journey I took with Mean Streets. In both cases, I admired the vitality of the raw, edgy New Hollywood movies but their dramatic styles and rock-heavy soundtracks felt a bit dated. Perhaps I enjoyed them from a slightly superior position, like an artifact that could no longer speak as powerfully because its idiom wasn't relevant. Well, within a decade Easy Rider spoke to me like no other movie. In large part, it was the music that swung me round. I went through a major obsession with sixties rock in my early twenties; revisiting the film through that lens, it washed over me like a tidal wave. I viewed it over and over in a loop and soaked up the energy of each cut, each move, each needle-drop - even the stylistic tics that I never quite warmed to (like the spliced-back-and-forth scene transitions) found their way into my own work. I was carried forward by Easy Rider in other ways too: when I had to memorize a monologue for an acting class, I choose Nicholson's zonked-out U.F.O. spiel. In addition to its bombastic flow of imagery, the film also has a keen, underappreciated sense of humor - courtesy perhaps of Terry Southern's screenplay although much of the dialogue was supposedly improvised (under the influence of "prop" drugs that were very much real). I also love Easy Rider due to a deep fascination with the intricacies of the epoch's political and cultural shifts. The film is not just of its moment. It's obviously drawing on America's mythic history (the decision to reverse the westward trajectory is brilliant) but also its more immediate, tangible past. George is a figure whose shirt and tie, preference for booze over grass, and Southern good ol' boy twang render him a square, but his shitkicking habits and affiliation with the ACLU also mark him as something of a rebel. He would, at least, have been immediately recognizable as such in the calmer fifties or early sixties, years full of pent-up paranoia and ever-escalating pop culture energy. Easy Rider is shot forth from that earlier era like a cannonball from a cannon - one whose arc is already beginning to wane. We can contextualize the film not only by what came before, but what's coming next. The commune won't last the winter, the bikers won't make it to Florida, and as Captain America says to Billy, "We blew it." The cultural revolution was in full swing by '69, but its best moments were also behind it. This is a snapshot of a zeitgeist just past its peak.

More from me • I paired the film with The Last of the Mohicans in one of my earliest blog posts, an imaginary double feature dubbed "Movement, Music, and Montage", and discussed its opening moments extensively as an aside in my review of Nicholson's and Fonda's The Trip. Later I included a clip at 2:11 in "To Become Immortal, and Then, to Die", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series and I used it as an example of the "Cuts on Movement" visual style in my 7 Rooms guide video.

How you can see it • Easy Rider is available for digital rental/purchase from Amazon as well as a few other sites and on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix. Criterion released the film as part of its deluxe America Lost and Found: The BBS Story boxset, covering late sixties and early seventies cinema.

What do you think? • Does the film seem "dated" to you? How do you compare it with the quieter road film Two-Lane Blacktop two years later (or do you think that's an apples-to-oranges comparison)? Dennis Hopper made one more film as a countercultural auteur (The Last Movie, which all but ended his career for a while), and then directed only one TV movie as a hired hand in the ensuing seventeen years (Out of the Blue, declared an underrated masterpiece by Jonathan Rosenbaum) before making a mainstream comeback with Colors; there's a question in here, I promise, and it is: what throughlines do you observe in his diverse, gap-heavy filmography?

• • •

Yesterday: White Heat (#33)


Dan Heaton said...

I feel "dated" isn't the right word for Easy Rider. It seems more like an artifact of its time. That doesn't mean the film can't have power today. What I mean is that it's such an interesting snapshot of the state of the country through the eyes of characters already drifting away from their idealistic states. I also saw The Lost Movie at a local college a while back, and it's such a trippy mess. It makes Easy Rider look like a tight procedural by comparison.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I agree. I find a lot of things that people find "dated" more of a "fascinating artifact of its time."

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