Friday, November 27, 2015

Easy Rider (1969)

Director: Dennis Hopper                                Writer: Terry Southern
Music Dept.: Mike Deasy                               Cinematography: László Kovács
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Luke Askew

The history books say it was television in the fifties that ended Hollywood’s reign over entertainment in America, but it was the independent film in the sixties that really changed Hollywood forever. Easy Rider was one of the first independent films to successfully compete against the studio system for dominance in theaters and truly make an impact in the marketplace. The film was made for less than a half million dollars, and made over twenty million at the box office. In watching the film one immediately notices the inventive way that Dennis Hopper sets up his shots, giving the viewer lots of information without dialogue. Cinematographer László Kovács, who would go on to film a lot of big budget film, aids in the effect with a very fluid moving camera and nice close up work. Hopper indulges in an interesting style of transition, where the next cut is flashed several times before moving on to it, and while perhaps he is going for something like innovation it seems a little dated now. Overall, however, the shots of the Southwestern scenery and the traditional camera work seems just as good as any studio picture of the day. Another aspect of the film that is tremendous is the music. Songs by Steppenwolf, The Band, The Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix make for a soundtrack that could not be more suited to the subject matter.

The film opens with two motorcycle riders, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, driving into a Mexican gas station and conversing with the men there. They’re buying cocaine that they sell to a rich American on the south side of the border, Phil Spector, before going back to the states. There, they buy new motorcycles, Fonda hiding the money in the gas tank of his chopper. Then he throws away his wristwatch and two head out on the road through the desert Southwest as the opening credits roll to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.” The hotel they stop at refuses to give them a room, so they spend the night in the desert. Eventually they pick up hitchhiker Luke Askew and spend another night in the desert on their way to New Orleans for Marti Gras. First they drop off Askew at his home, which is a sort of commune where most of the people live in something like a Native American longhouse. All of the residents seem to be women and children, including Sabrina Scharf, but the men are out sowing seeds to raise food crops. They have a bizarre performance troupe staying with them and, though they feed Fonda and Hopper, they leave without staying the night and hit the highway again. The next scene has them driving through a small town, accidentally winding up in a parade and being arrested for it. Two meet Jack Nicholson in jail. He’s a lawyer and gets them out, so they invite him on the trip and he grabs his football helmet and hops on the back of Fonda’s bike to go to Louisiana together, riding free through the American South.

This is such an interesting film thematically. In one respect there’s an obvious counter-culture theme running though it, with Fonda and Hopper abandoning the traditional American way of life. But at the same time, both of the protagonists exhibit an incredible reverence for the people they encounter along their journey. At a ranch where they stop to fix Fonda’s rear tire, he tells the owner how much he appreciates his way of life, living off the land. Even Luke Askew, the hitchhiker, pays for the two men’s gas. And this genuine goodness that they display is symbolized by the gas tank and helmet that Fonda has decorated with the American flag. After the two leave the commune this is juxtaposed immediately with an icon of small town America, a parade down Main Street with the two riders inadvertently becoming part of the parade, part of America. And even in Jack Nicholson’s U.F.O. rant there is a plea for equality. If there’s anything that undercuts this message of tolerance and acceptance, it’s the drug use in the film. But even that is a reflection of the times, in that all of the messages of good are drowned out by the vehemence with which society hates drugs, all the while embracing the one legal drug, alcohol, embodied by the lawyer Nicholson plays. The “good” citizens of Paris, Texas, where they stop to get food, are portrayed as the intolerant and dangerous, which is a foreshadow of the ending.

The best line in the film is delivered by Nicholson when he talks about freedom. This is a country that was founded on the idea of freedom, but he says that in reality people who are bought and sold by the capitalist system are really slaves to that system. And what disturbs people about hippies like them is that they are actually free, and it scares them. And when those people become scared they become dangerous. William Wolf’s essay in The A List spends a bit too much time simply recounting the plot, when that is hardly the point. He talks about the influence of the French New Wave in which actors, in this case, take it upon themselves to write and produce and direct their own, personal, films. One of the interesting things he discusses is that the ending of the film--or perhaps the film in its entirety--is a product of a decade of political assassinations. Though the film initiated a rush to find the next great independent film, the formula itself did not guarantee success. The film was a product of its time, and Wolf calls it a time capsule of the period, not only in the attitudes of the dominant culture as well as those who tried to change it, but in the way that it presages the future. Easy Rider is not only one of the great independent films of all time, but it continues to define the schism that exists in our country to this day: the battle between the conformist right and those who want a tolerant and free society on the left.

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