Thursday, June 3, 2010

Easy Rider

One of the lines thrown around in the Hopper obits was the statement that Easy Rider could never be made today. Like so much conventional wisdom its right for the wrong reasons. Its true that today Easy Rider could never be made but not because of its libertine attitude towards sex and drugs, loose non plot driven structure and fearless attitude. Easy Rider could never be made today because any movie as earnest as it would be laughed out of the theater.

Easy Rider is about as deeply unironic as movies get. Shocking coming from the pen of perennial smart ass Terry Southren. It’s a film filled with pompous dialogue, a smug central performance by Fonda, cheap obvious symbolism, and dated editing trips. And if the film lacked a single one of these elements it would not be near so great. It’s a student film in the best sense, that its earnest enough to think it matters. There are worse faults to have.

But there’s no getting around the fact that so much of Easy Rider is so unabashedly goofy from literally beginning to end. From the shot of Peter Fonda throwing away the watch, to the soulful hippies endless prayer in the commune, and the film’s New Orlean’s climax which once seemed revolutionary and now seems like a kind of event horizen for datedness. Most spectacularly is the scene when well hell I’ll just let Ebert tell it…

One of their bikes needs work, and they borrow tools at a ranch, leading to a labored visual juxtaposition of wheel-changing and horse-shoeing. Then they have dinner with the weathered rancher and his Mexican-American brood, and Fonda delivers the first of many quasi-profound lines he will dole out during the movie: "It's not every man who can live off the land, you know. You can be proud." (The rancher, who might understandably have replied, "Who the hell asked you?" nods gratefully.

A hitchhiker leads them to a hippie commune that may have seemed inspiring in 1969, but today looks banal. A "performance troupe" sings "Does Your Hair Hang Low?" on a makeshift stage, while stoned would-be hippie farmers wander across the parched earth, scattering seed. "Uh, get any rain here?" Billy asks. "Thank you for a place to make a stand," Captain America says. The group leader gives the Captain and Billy a tab of acid and the solemn advice, "When you get to the right place, with the right people -- quarter this."

And yet incredibly. Hell damn near inexplicably Easy Rider ISN’T just a dated period piece and does keep some of its elemental power. The scene where an impossibly young Jack Nicolson solemly tells Nicholson and Hopper about the aliens, is still a blast. The shots that Hopper gets of the American landscape are as a beautiful and haunting distillation of the country as anything I’ve ever seen on film. The montage of the pairs final drive cut to “Its Alright (I’m Only Bleeding)” still conjures up a terrible dread. Hopper, Nicholson, and yes even occasionally Fonda are all charismatic as can be. And the editing and techniques are dated as hell but there audacity still impresses.

Its true that I can’t make it through a good dozen of Easy Rider’s sequences without laughing. But looking at the way the film so unabashedly mattered, both to those who made it and those who saw it; I can’t help but think the joke is on us.

(Expect a Hopper heavy week here on TTDS. I’m not doing anything formal and I certainly have other stuff I’m going to write about. But I write what I watch. And I’m watching a whooooollllleeee lot of Hopper.)


Unknown said...

Bring on the Hopper films!

Love EASY RIDER. It really is a watershed moment in American cinema as its success freaked out the aging, out-of-touch Hollywood studios who had no idea why the film was so successful. And, of course, it kicked open the door for all the movie brats: Coppola, Lucas, Friedkin, De Palma, Scorsese, et al.

Franco Macabro said...

Easy Rider, what I like about it is its general spirit, its theme of personal freedom. That idea that when you get on a bike and ride, you are free, and no one can stop you. I agree, it feels hippy and dated, but those were the ideals of those days, and people were in a rebellious fighting mood.

Im actually making a film right now thats partially inspired by the themes and spirit of Easy Rider. There are other films similar to this one, like for example: Vanishing Point, only on that one, the freedom is aquired through riding in car across america instead of on a chopper.

Simon said...

I don't much care for Hopper here...I just can't buy him as a hippie. Not after True Romance, nope.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD: Very true. The influence this film had, not so much on films, but just in the fact that they allowed them to be made can't be measured.

@ FC: Very true FC, that spirit definitely lives on. Can't wait to see your film.

@ Simon: Its funny and there are those who will never be able to accept he was a republican because of how he embodied the hippie movement.

He was a true Rorsarch blot as an actor.