Easy Rider (1969)

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*. Does it matter if a work of art is any good? This is one of those questions that has come to absorb me after more than twenty years as a critic.
*. When I say “good” I am appealing to semi-objective standards: whether a novel or piece of music or film shows technical skill, invention, imagination, talent. I understand that we can argue endlessly over matters of taste, but I think most people can agree when these qualities are in evidence and where they are lacking.
*. Allowing me this much, I think it’s clear that being good doesn’t matter at all to a work’s commercial success. Terrible, totally worthless novels, songs, and movies can go on to become huge bestsellers and megahits; they may also slip unnoticed into oblivion. My point is that there’s no connection between being good and being a hit, so that being good doesn’t matter.
*. But does an influential or culturally significant work of art have to be any good? I think you can see where I’m going with this.

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*. I don’t think Easy Rider is a great movie, but to some degree this is to be expected. It was made cheaply and on the fly by young people with little experience who were stoned a lot of the time. But there’s no denying the enormous impact it had. David Thomson’s essay juxtaposes the two responses nicely when he lists the film’s many achievements and historical importance before pronouncing it “unwatchable.”
*. I guess we can argue over what it is that makes a movie “great.” In 2007 the American Film Institute ranked Easy Rider 87 on its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time so that’s some kind of official imprimatur. But here’s William Bayer: “To say that a picture is great is not the same thing as to say that it is a great work of art. It can be a great work of entertainment, a great articulation of an idea, a great example of a new technique, or a great work of personal expression. Let’s simply think of the word ‘great’ as a superlative to be applied to pictures that distinguish themselves in an important way. Easy Rider is one of the most distinguished pictures of fantasy fulfillment of the 1960s, for it certified an apprehension about America that was harbored in a vague form in many people’s minds, and when they saw it rendered so intensely in this particular story they instantly recognized that it was true.”
*. This chimes with Roger Ebert’s take (included in his essays on “Great Movies”): “It plays today more as a period piece than as living cinema, but it captures so surely the tone and look of that moment in time.”

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*. This may be true, but what do we think of that moment in time now? Hippies quickly went on to become a nearly universally despised subculture/movement (for a good analysis of how this happened, see David Sirota’s Back to Our Future, which is about the cultural shifts that took place in the 1980s). We look back at these hairy fools now with condescension at best. More commonly, “hippie” has become a generic term of contempt, including all the naïve, self-righteous sell-outs of the era. That said, the non-hippie character types in Easy Rider have fared even worse, as witness the cultural mythology of redneck degenerates and whatever it is Phil Spector turned into.

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*. You can see a crude and misguided idealism among the hippies here, but that’s it. The homesteaders are particularly pathetic, but at least they have an excuse in being city kids. I don’t know why Wyatt is so convinced they’re going to make it.
*. What makes the movie interesting, at least for me, is that it’s already aware of all this. The hippie dream, or Wyatt’s and Billy’s dream of freedom, carries within itself the seeds of its own failure, like that roll of drug money in their gas tank. They’re a pair of drug smugglers, not farmers. And at the end, do we even need to hear Wyatt tell us that they blew it? Hopper is already dreaming of retirement in Florida: “You go for the big money then you’re free.” This is the kind of freedom people mean when they talk about winning a lottery. It’s a betrayal of the promise of the West, whose innocence is spoiled as soon as they drive across it. They’re no more cowboys than the hippies at the commune are farmers.

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*. I don’t think much of Peter Fonda as an actor. I don’t think he’s very good, or even very interesting when not being good. Danny Peary calls his performance here “absolutely wretched”: “If this isn’t the cinema’s definitive wooden acting performance, then he must have been Mark Frechette’s inspiration for Zabriskie Point (1970). Fonda’s not much of an actor to begin with so it didn’t help that when Wyatt and Billy get stoned in the film, he and Hopper actually got stoned on camera rather than act as if they were stoned. It’s as if someone shot novocaine into his face.”
*. But . . . I do kind of like Fonda in this movie. Hey, he’s not as blank as James Taylor (admittedly, not an actor at all) in Two-Lane Blacktop! And his preternaturally tall form (either ambling along or stretched out on his elongated chopper) has something princely about it, adding to what Pauline Kael saw as his “his air of saintly noblesse oblige.” He might be Quixote to Hopper’s grubby Sancho Panza. Most of all, however, he seems a decent, likeable guy. That counts for something. Again one can compare the two to Taylor and Wilson in Two-Lane Blacktop and get some idea of why this film was such a hit and Blacktop bombed.
*. Most critics and reviewers are of the opinion that the film only really comes to life, or finds its top gear, with the introduction of Jack Nicholson in what would become his breakout performance. I don’t agree. Perhaps it’s only in comparison to Fonda and Hopper, but I find Nicholson’s acting overdone and out of place. He stutters unnecessarily (I think he’s just drawing attention to himself), does something Pythonesque with his elbow while calling out “nick, nick, nick” when he takes a drink (a bit of improv apparently borrowed from the bike wrangler), and I don’t know why he’s always playing with his tongue. I guess he just has the pasties.

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*. What I found most remarkable about Nicholson’s part as the Faulknerian lawyer George Hanson on this re-viewing is that I had forgotten he got killed! I hadn’t seen the movie in over fifteen years and this part had completely fallen out of my memory. But then his death is quickly and quietly forgotten in the film, despite Hopper’s intention that it be seen as significant and important.
*. The title refers to a man sponging off the earnings of a prostitute. It’s relevance here is hard to figure. Apparently it was Terry Southern’s contribution. The original title was The Loners.
*. For a low-budget “stoner” indie, it has quite a reputation for being pretentious. Hopper was keen on what was happening in Europe and consciously wanted to make “the first American art film.” I don’t think he did, and for the most part his artistic flourishes, particularly the jump edits, don’t work for me. I also think its “meaning” is delivered in a heavy-handed way. Hopper claims to have been under the influence of Buñuel at the time, and Buñuel is not a subtle director.

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*. You could, however, make a list of things done right. The photography by László Kovács is very nice, not just in the shots of the great outdoors but in his handling of portraiture. The soundtrack has lots of golden oldies on it that add to the general mood. And I really like the LSD trip in the New Orleans cemetery. Those sort of sequences are impossible to do convincingly, but here I thought the montage of the foursome’s collective trip worked very well.

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*. But I think Easy Rider‘s ultimate significance has to do not with what it was but what it wasn’t, what it broke against. Our heroes were smuggling cocaine into the U.S.! Peter Fonda — Henry Fonda’s son! — was smoking a joint! A lot of joints! On camera! And taking acid! 1969 was a true watershed year, for both the commercial and the critical success of countercultural films like this. Here are the nominees for the 1970 Academy Awards for Best Director: John Schlesinger – Midnight Cowboy, Arthur Penn – Alice’s Restaurant, George Roy Hill – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sydney Pollack – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Costa-Gavras – Z. When Peter Biskind came to write his history of this period in American film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his choice of title indicates the primacy he gave to Easy Rider as the forerunner of the American New Wave (or New Hollywood) that so quickly crashed and burned.

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*. That is, crashed and burned like Wyatt and Billy. As Biskind points out, the failure of the American New Wave Dream is at least one of the prophetic meanings that Wyatt’s enigmatic line about blowing it takes on in hindsight. This is the self-awareness I mentioned earlier, the film’s consciousness that success could only be self-defeating. In 1969 that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The frontier had been closed for nearly a hundred years. That’s why all of these early road movies have such a tragic feel: they’re harkening back to a mythic past even while they hit the wall in front of them.

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