Saturday, 14 July 2007
Easy Rider (1969) dir. Dennis Hopper
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson
The first time I saw “Easy Rider” in the mid 90’s I didn’t like it. It felt dated, over-hyped and too generational to be a cinematic classic. Back then I was young and not as versed in the history of cinema to understand it fully. Upon second viewing I’ve learned to appreciate the time and place and cultural significance of the film. Now "Easy Rider" is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
It’s 1969, the height of flower power America. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda play Billy and Wyatt, two Californians traveling across the country on choppers to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. The film opens with a drug deal, Billy and Wyatt buying cocaine from some Mexicans and then reselling it to some rich business men (one of them played by Phil Spector no less) for much higher value. It’s the big score which will allow them the freedom to travel the country and experience life unimpeded.
Along the way they experience America at its best and worst. They pick up a hitchhiker who takes them to a commune where they spend some quality time getting in touch with the hippie lifestyle. Somewhere in Texas they enter a small town and get arrested and thrown in jail for ‘parading without a license’. There they meet George Hanson, an alcohol lawyer, played by Jack Nicholson (his first acclaimed role). George is fascinated with Wyatt and Billy’s carefree adventure and decides to join them as a threesome. Close to New Orleans, the freedom of the American open road turns on them when they encounter small town redneck bigotry. Things turn dangerous and violent which reminds us that with all the peace, love and flower power the 60’s represented there was an equally powerful narrow-minded conservative class pushing as heavily against liberal change. In the end our protagonists lose out.
Wyatt and Billy are a curious pair. They’re not typical hippies. They’re opportunists with their own personal set of ethics. By showing them buying coke, smuggling it across the border and trafficking it in the States makes criminals from the outset. But writers Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern make sure to show that our heroes aren’t just selling coke to ordinary hardworking American folk, but privileged upperclassmen (the 'establishment') who deserve to destroy their bodies with overpriced drugs. When they encounter the commune, they are introduced to the lifestyle as if they are outsiders to the culture. And in George’s fireside speech about the freedom they represent, it further shows their naivety to their own way of life. This way the audience will identify with Wyatt and Billy, which makes it a mainstream-accessible film instead of an esoteric puff piece to hippie-dom.
“Easy Rider” is very psychedelic and uses much visual experimentation. The extreme handheld camera movements, crash zooms, and odd transition techniques don’t translate well to today, but the use of the timeless songs like “The Weight” by The Band and “Crosstown Traffic” by Jimi Hendrix more than compensates. The experimentation was the main reason I didn’t take to the film when I was in my teens. But I can now look past these elements and admire the heart and soul of the film – a snapshot commentary on the 60’s movement which divided so many people. It’s an important film. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Easy Rider