Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Easy Rider

EASY RIDER         B              
USA  (95 mi)  1969  d:  Dennis Hopper

Written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern, with a stand-out performance by Jack Nicholson, whose legendary career took off afterwards with twelve Oscar nominations, winning two Best Actor and one Best Supporting Actor awards throughout his career, it’s interesting that the three main stars got their start in the film business with low-budget B-movie producer Roger Corman, working together in the pot-smoking motorcycle saga THE WILD ANGELS (1966) and the LSD fantasy THE TRIP (1967), where Peter Fonda was under contract to make one more biker movie.  Hopper persuaded Fonda to let him direct this final film, written by Southern, where the initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score and split, using the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail out into the sunset, a notion where capitalism is alive and well.  It was only after several drug-induced revisions that their shallow, materialistically-based dreams of grandeur led them to question the notion of the American Dream.  From the outset, Fonda and Hopper’s characters are fairly well established, with Fonda as the calmer of the two, quieter and more stoic, given to meditative and conscientious moments, while Hopper’s frenzied, overly anxious paranoia is largely based upon incessant drug use, where he remains stoned throughout the movie.  The film’s ideology is rooted at the beginning of the picture, where they have accumulated enough money from a drug deal to “head out on the highway” for a pot-infused road trip to Mardi Gras, where their notions of freedom from conventional mainstream society are reflective of Timothy Leary’s 60’s counterculture mantra of turning on and dropping out.  There is barely a scene in the film that is not inundated with rock music playing over images of two men riding their bikes through a vast and seemingly endless landscape.  Coming from a tradition of the American western, the motorcycles take the place of the horse, a point expressed early on when they’re seen fixing a flat while simultaneously in the same frame ranchers are repairing the shoe of a horse.  The look of the film is largely the creation of Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács, whose earlier credits had included the B-movie biker classic HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967), starring Nicholson as a hot-headed gas station attendant that rides with the Hell’s Angels with predictable results.  While not glorifying hippie ideology, something it ultimately criticizes, it also cynically embraces the language, attire, and habits of the counterculture, and in doing so becomes a defining film for that generation.   

Basically a B-movie made on the cheap, made for about $375,000, but grossing $50 million dollars, opening the floodgates for the youth market in Hollywood, believing there was an untapped market to exploit, spawning several spin-offs, but none captured the attention of the 60’s counterculture quite like this one.  The fascination with the film was that it starred a couple of long-haired hippies that hit the road, which mirrored what plenty of young, mostly white, middle-class youth were doing at the time, getting out of the cities and making their own discoveries about this vast nation of ours.  Some of the music is disappointing, but there’s no question that one of the draws to the film was the use of music by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, the Band, and Steppenwolf, all of which were bands that the youth in America were listening to at the time of its release, where there were plenty of marketing posters advertising this film much like they would a rock concert.  For the most part, people liked experiencing the film even if they didn’t particularly “like” the film, much like Melvin van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADDASSSSS SONG (1971) struck a similar nerve with black America.  For the most part, it was the identification with freedom and open expression that attracted legions of younger kids, who were probably equally turned off by the apocalyptic message of doom, as the movie foretells the end of the Age of Aquarius, bringing an abrupt halt to the hopes and ideals of the 60’s.  Surprisingly, as portrayed by these two leads, the film has a relatively paranoid and conservative outlook, more reflective of the director suffering the after-effects of large-scale drug consumption, as revealed in L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s The American Dreamer (1971), a documentary portrait of Hopper that reveals just how unoriginal and uninspired he was as an artist shortly after making this film, unable to break through his own delusions and self-imposed psychological barriers.  That’s not to say there aren’t inspired moments in this film, as there’s plenty of artistry to acclaim, but overall, the film rarely rises above convention and is content to portray characters as stereotypes, never really delving into an inner life of anyone, as opposed to the more complex character study shown in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), or the bare-bones expression of an achingly lonely life on the road revealed in Monte Hellman’s critically dismissed Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), which is much more of an authentic time capsule of the era. 

The film has all the elements of an exploitation movie, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll music coinciding with a prevailing mood of social alienation and discontent, as this was an era of protest marches against the war in Vietnam, which grinded on for another four years, actually escalating into Cambodia, where the political acceptance of the status quo sent kids out of the cities in droves looking for an alternative lifestyle, as the authoritarian rigidity of the powers that be were being challenged on every front.  This film makes no reference to Vietnam, yet the movie is immersed in its shadow, as there’s nowhere they can go to get away from the national divide that separates the two sides on this issue, turning what is essentially a biker flick into an ambitious generational statement.  The initial hopes at the beginning of the trip turn sour, where the film is both a celebration and a death knell for the inflated idealism of the late 60’s, leaving the audience with a grim view of things to come.  While there are some that believe this is a defining film of its generation, as Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are the faces of the counterculture, seen rubbing elbows with flower children, communal lifestyles, and forced to deal with the violent backlash against the counterculture, where the choices they make, eluded to at the end, represent that of an entire nation that failed to live up to the promise of helping create a better world.  One might also argue that the film is too passive in dealing with the real issues of its day, and instead bypasses social content by dealing so exclusively in stereotypes, making it more of a cult film.  While it may hold an iconic status, this is only because the media elevated the film into anointed territory.  There are few films that actually get the 60’s right, but certainly one of the best is Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), made nearly a decade afterwards (which also ironically features Dennis Hopper), but it is the definitive portrait of the horror and madness of the Vietnam War, which remains the singlemost significant event in the lives of the last draftable generation, a film teetering on the edge of chaos, yet producing some of the more deliriously hallucinogenic and breathtaking sequences of any film made in our time, this from a director who already gave us THE GODFATHER (1972–74) saga.  According to Coppola, “APOCALYPSE NOW is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” 

Certainly one of the reservations about this film’s place in history are the two lead characters themselves, not only two conflicted, morally dubious souls, drifters making their way on a road trip across America from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but they are both criminal outlaws, set up by a major cocaine deal going down in Mexico as the film begins, generating a huge cash profit when they sell the cocaine to a ridiculously wealthy customer (ironically played by record producer Phil Spector, currently serving 19 years to life for murder).  If these two drug dealers got caught today, they’d be thrown right alongside Spector in serving 20 years of hard time.  Had they made a pot deal, perhaps it might be different, as the 60’s generation never viewed pot smoking as illegal, considering how prevalent it was, but instead considered it a sign of the times, a part of the counterculture, like underground comics, dropping acid, or loving the one you’re with.  Instead we get a taste of Steppenwolf’s grinding guitars expressing the amoral indifference of the drug dealer in “The Pusher,”  Steppenwolf - The Pusher - YouTube (5:48).

You know I smoked a lot of grass.
Oh Lord! I popped a lot of pills.
But I've never touched nothin'
That my spirit couldn't kill.
You know I've seen a lot of people walking 'round
With tombstones in their eyes.
But the pusher don't care
If you live -- or if you die.
God Damn! The pusher.

Played while the audience sees Peter Fonda stuffing wads of cash in a plastic tube inserted into the gas tank of his Stars and Stripes Harley chopper, the two immediately transform themselves into Captain America (Fonda as Wyatt) and his sidekick Billy (Hopper), a spinoff of mythical Western heroes Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, where the popularity of the song, played alongside the rebellious rock anthem Born to be wild - Steppenwolf - YouTube (3:15), two songs that would forever be associated with motorcycles afterwards, suggests a liberating spirit associated with a life on the road, where you are your own boss, answering to no one else, free to set your own agenda.  EASY RIDER is part of a long line of American films that revere outlaws, like Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), where all the attention focuses upon the internal psychological profile of outlaws as compelling figures, even as they may resort to reckless acts of violence, often captured in a slow motion montage of cinematic beauty, rarely dwelling for long on the plight of the victims.  Instead the camera languishes long and hard on the chiseled profiles of the featured characters set against the vast expanse of the American landscape, where they are viewed as the last of a dying breed, the last vestiges of the untamed Western frontier.  Too often these films are greeted with initial disgust at glorifying criminality, before giving way to critical acclaim, where these outlaws become symbols against authority and the establishment, embraced by a youth culture, where Bonnie and Clyde screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton observe:

If Bonnie and Clyde were here today, they would be hip. Their values have become assimilated in much of our culture—not robbing banks and killing people, of course, but their style, their sexuality, their bravado, their delicacy, their cultivated arrogance, their narcissistic insecurity, their curious ambition have relevance to the way we live now.      

Filmed just months after the Tet Offensive of 1968, a North Vietnamese attack that took the Americans by surprise, making counterfeit all the military and political hyperbole about “winning the war,” EASY RIDER is an anthem of opposition, giving voice to the 60’s counterculture in their use of drugs, style of dress, embracement of free love, distrust of law enforcement, irreverent display of American symbols, for being perceived as having radical views, not the least of which is dropping out of mainstream society and setting an uncharted path of their own, where the open road represents some mysteriously existential, sought-after freedom.  Many might argue that this duo was ill-prepared for the journey, where the initial panorama of stark natural beauty makes way for a southwest populated by abandoned vehicles and dilapidated buildings, by motels that shut their doors, or Mom and Pop café’s that refuse to serve them.  In contrast, the film is an affirmation of hippie ideology, though one has to scratch their head at the questionable merits of a hippie commune visited along the way, which is a far cry from self-sufficient, and without any source of food or income could hardly be viewed as self-sustaining.  Something suggests this picture of America as an open road of untapped freedom is misguided, where the initial naïve optimism is met instead with a newly discovered pessimism at what was missing from this picture, as the purveyors of peace and love are met with unflinching hostility, where they run up against small town police authority that would just as soon see them rot in jail.  It is there that they meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer sleeping it off in a drunk tank, who helps them get out of jail and decides to join them on their odyssey to New Orleans, which begins with his ominous pronouncement, “This used to be a hell of a good country.  I can’t understand what's gone wrong with it.”
As an alcoholic and something of a southern square, upstanding citizen George may seem a bit out of touch, but he understands the southern landscape and is familiar with how locals feel about hippies, already experiencing incidents of adverse run-ins with the law, and excessive abuses of authority.  When George smokes a joint under a gorgeous nighttime sky with Wyatt and Billy, he rambles on for awhile about aliens and UFO’s, but also gets philosophical, becoming the mouthpiece for the filmmakers, suggesting ordinary people are bound by concepts of work and responsibility that limit their understanding and appreciation of freedom, suggesting they actually resent the idea of others having a freedom they no longer have:

They don’t hate you.  They hate the idea of you…Oh, they’re not scared of you.  They’re scared of what you represent to them. ... What you represent to them is freedom. ... But talking about it [freedom] and being it — that’s two different things.  I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.  ‘Course don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are.  Oh, yeah — they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom — but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare 'em. ... It makes ‘em dangerous.

George doesn’t survive the night, as the three are brutally beaten in their sleep by men with clubs, where Wyatt and Billy suffer only superficial injuries.  The further the two travel away from the west coast, the more the film is about being a stranger in your own country, where the fundamental principles that you’re taught in school do not apply, where the interactions with various people they encounter along the way serves as an example of an American society unwilling to live up to its professed ideals.  By the time they reach New Orleans, they visit an upscale brothel that was George’s intended destination, where they meet two prostitutes, Karen and Mary, Karen Black and Toni Basil.  It is only when the four of them leave the premises and hit the streets of Mardi Gras that the movie elevates in form and turns into an experimental film shot on various film stocks, becoming the most memorable and artistically impressive sequence in the film.  As they wander to a nearby cemetery, they take LSD, expressed through a kaleidoscopic sequence of distorted sights and sounds, resembling a hallucinogenic experience with jarring sound effects, bizarre camera angles, and quick edits, where instead of a rapturous embellishment of sensuous delight, it’s instead a disquieting portrait of personal disillusionment, becoming a near wordless montage that produces some of the most visually shocking images of the film.  The psychedelic sequence includes a flash forward moment, a split second foreboding image of what’s about to happen to them, only seen out of context, where it’s only an image seen amidst a flood of constantly changing images, ending with an unusual note of pessimism where Wyatt tells Billy “We blew it,” suggesting that brief moment in one’s life when they have a chance to actually accomplish something meaningful had been lost, which may as well speak to the end of an era.  It’s a stunning admission, holding themselves up to a mirror, reflective of a larger cultural landscape that was embarking upon a similar path of misadventure.  In Vietnam, there were too many senseless deaths and lives destroyed, creating a divided and morally disenchanted nation, where the inevitable collision course that lay ahead would play out like a bad dream, where the film is both a celebration and an epitaph for 60’s counterculture ideals that never materialized. 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

A Dream Deferred (by Langston Hughes), from Harlem, also known as Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951

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