Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper)


Everybody knows that a movie changes each time we see it because we change; so does the world, and the world has a way of quickly outgrowing its transformations and indulgences. Enter Easy Rider, a once-revolutionary low-budget ’60s counterculture flick that is a vital historical document, a movie that Changed Things, a movie that harnessed the power of hipster youth into a bolt of lightning. It’s a turning point, a heroic venture, a hot knife through butter. And it also looks rather startingly stupid and empty over forty years after the fact, the kicking and screaming of some corpse of independence. The “auteur” this time is Dennis Hopper, one of the most inexpressive Hollywood actors, now on the other side of the camera. At the very least, he’s a better director than he is a performer, enlivening the proceedings with certain excitement and audaciousness. Easy Rider is a gritty, vitrolic, and calculated movie, as infectiously well-edited and visually vibrant as it is thematically superficial.

No one is disputing the fact that Easy Rider was like an alien lifeform in 1969 (in movie houses, at least), to say nothing of the minds it must have opened to unconventional cinema, taking a few cues from New Wave in its left-field independence. Some of its personality does come through even now; undeniably the movie stands out on the AFI list, but not, perhaps, for the reasons that were intended. As soon as the idea of independent filmmaking as we now define it is born, the problems come to the forefront; anyone can make a movie, but how many of those anyones are going forward with ideas that are half-baked at best, contemptible at worst? Populism is great but it has its limits.

While watching the movie, I couldn’t escape this prejudice that somehow, it could only be as interesting as Hopper’s facial range, which isn’t. That may be unfair, but I can’t say I was wrong. So many of the film’s innovations are locked firmly in their time; it’s difficult to imagine a more stilted and dated effect than the choppy blinking scene transitions. As with so many cutting-edge movies, the most conventional aspects tend to be the most transcendent; Laszlo Kovacs’ photography is vivid, romantic, lovely; the frenetic editing is Richard Lester-caliber.

Terry Southern, a personal favorite writer of mine, worked on the screenplay for Easy Rider, if the opening credits are to be trusted. My question is, what screenplay? Certainly there’s none of Southern’s mischievous wit to be found here, but there’s not much of anything else either. The story is thin: drug deal with Phil Spector, hitchhikers picked up, run-ins with rednecks, now we’re rich, now we’re dead. The only question worth asking in the sea of all-consuming obviousness (the movie opens with the stunningly literal “Born to Be Wild”; bad bad bad idea) is whether this is all hilariously stupid or just plain stupid.

Of course, the script for a movie like this is never the point. That’s a blessing and a curse; iconography, the romance of the open road, and sheer hip cred can only take you so far. I’m sure the poster for Easy Rider is damn cool. As a movie, as a piece of storytelling, it fails, partially due to lazy choices that have since become clichés: Hopper devotes a good deal of time to lengthy montages of himself and Peter Fonda ridin’ along in their bikes to the tune of Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, the Band, and most frequently, the Byrds. The Byrds’ music featured in the film is everything the movie isn’t: vital, ageless, emotional, extraordinary. There’s the quiet, pregnant, disturbing “Ballad of Easy Rider,” Jim McGuinn’s aching cover of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and most notably, the gorgeous classic “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” a marriage of self-consumed reflection and humanism, sonic insanity and reverence, a masterful rock & roll record. Hopper is ahead of the pack in Easy Rider not only in his foreshadowing of cocaine as the drug of its time but in his use of rock music to do the director’s work for him. “Wasn’t Born to Follow” provides the only visceral connection of the film, the most thorough and the only enchanting trace of passion.

Which brings us to a somewhat thrilling paradox. “Wasn’t Born to Follow” is not a Byrds original; it was written by, of all people, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, poster couple of early ’60s Brill Building pop, mature and married, the antithesis of what rock had come to “represent” by 1969. This forces me to wonder if one of the major reasons a film like Easy Rider remains alien to me is that its philosophy is built on a mutation of something I love. First of all, this requires the acceptance that Easy Rider is essentially a rock & roll movie. I don’t believe that’s a problem; as much as its narrative drive is built from music, what else in the end could it be? The film simply could not exist without rock & roll. As for me, I have no religion, but rock & roll could be reasonably close. However, the rock & roll I worship is as far from motorcycles, hippies, and Steppenwolf as can be conceived. I believe in music as a celebration of a tenuous, lonely connection between artist and listener, as something appreciated in solitude, as a desperate clinging to hope and excitement amid the myriad crushing disappointments of growing up. The “community” means less to me than that.

At first, rock & roll was the perfect humanist creation: all of the great songs were fast or sad and celebrated not just shared but secret pleasure. Later came the stigma, and I have no way of connecting with that. Rock & roll by the late ’60s was in large part defined as a drugged-out, booze laden-decadent heap for egomaniacs, not a liberating populist explosion of the pleasures and pratfalls of sex and solitude. In short, there was a space for me, and then there was not. And that’s fine. It’s bizarre for me to see “Wasn’t Born to Follow” amid all this because it seems to exist in both worlds simultaneously, its presence as disarming as any injection of wrenching, graphic brutality. Could it be that there was still some appreciation in 1969 for a kind of cultural music that did not attach itself to any semblance of “heaviness”? Maybe, but that world is nearly absent here (as much so as that of Dick Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night), the few fleeting glimpses a tease. Maybe this is just like watching the high-water mark Hunter Thompson mentioned, but that too requires an acceptance of an unorthodox idea, that Easy Rider is more establishment than revolutionary. The iconography is artificial enough that I’m tempted to believe that, and it would make the basis for a hell of an interesting review, but I’m not sure I can.

What’s perverse about this is that Easy Rider is known as an explicit valentine to independence. For me, it speaks the opposite language. My suspicion with so much of the post-”rock & roll” Rock has to do with its thoroughly wrongheaded widespread definitions of individuality, that nonconformity is somehow achieved through a new kind of conformity, that the outsider achieves freedom not through him or herself but through hanging around the right people, doing the right drugs, wearing the right clothes, being hip, man. I thought the Crystals, Dick Dale, and the Box Tops were more hip than Led Zeppelin, so where does that leave me? But no one has to remind me of the contradiction at the core of this. However their music comes off, the Crystals didn’t have even a hint of the independence and artistic freedom that Led Zeppelin did. Maybe I love what I love more because it leaves so much more room for me to apply what I want to it; I can love what I can personally see in a song like the Everlys’ “Walk Right Back.” There are subtleties, secrets, anomalies buried. I wouldn’t dream of denying that some artists could create something profound with their freedom — the Beatles certainly did, among hundreds of others — but liberation at times opens the floodgates to its own set of crises. Freedom can sometimes be a barrier to expression; I doubt anyone would debate that limitations are the foundation of a large percentage of great art.

My skepticism about rock & roll after it Changed the World and had a set of standards to uphold, after it shifted to sludge instead of an ideal, applies with little need for adjustment to the revolution in movies that Easy Rider brought on. How can a firecracker like this, breaking down the barriers of studio influence, be so dated and so numbingly anonymous, rolling out tired ideas buried deeply in their era with greater speed than any classic I can think of made within the studio system? Perhaps it can come down to simple lack of imagination, but director Hopper was merely responding to the need of the times; this was “the” movie, after all. Can it be that this is just as homogenized and generic a vision of youth as any powerful executive’s? I still feel as if it is a consumer product shaping my perception of the world and my taste based on what it thinks will appeal to me, all things about which the director is basically clueless. There’s populism, I guess, and there’s pandering. This would be even more true if it were 1969, when I might actually have fallen for it.

The little pieces of story — violent murders here and there committed against the good-hearted Byrds soundtrack hippies — are too hazy and inconsequential to make an impression. The film’s good points are all entirely aesthetic; the location photography is beautiful, Jack Nicholson is an amusing live-wire contrast to Peter Fonda and Hopper’s dead-eyed dullness, and the film looks more professional than one is taught to expect from the overtold story of its renegade origins, its slick aspects coming to a head during the insanely overwrought, banal LSD trip climax. The notion that we escape one illusion to fall into another is a fact of life, but the movie doesn’t seem to put forward the idea so much as strictly, inadvertently follow it. The surrealism of the sequence is also quite forced, though the notion of fusing a Bunuel montage with kinky sex is probably one of the more noble quests of Hopper’s film, even if it fails as anything except dime store psychedelia; I’ve seen album covers that were more provocative.

The Tragic ending… the only word that can describe it is “cute.” The message of Easy Rider is so simplistic it passes over being annoying and back into pure silliness, that the coke dealers represent this absolute good to be defeated by bigots. The film is consistent in its message that we shouldn’t judge people by their hair and their bikes, maaan, because hippies are people too — as Nicholson says at greater length in a speech that constitutes one of the better moments, even as it does again put forward the ridiculous idea that our slacker heroes are nonconformists and the only ones truly “free” — and is equally consistent in its characterization of all those on the Other Side as gun-toting fag-bashing sons of bitches who are prepared to lapse into random violence at the first opportunity. And that doesn’t necessarily bother me (the South really is pretty scary, and Deliverance is one of my favorite movies) but its oafish good-vs-evil simplicity doesn’t wash in a movie that seems to believe it has something to say about the sociopolitical human condition and prejudice in America.

But maybe I’m just cynical. I would more inclined to believe that Hopper was the cynic if I had the impression that he actually had enough of a brain to be one. No, I can’t imagine Hopper capable of complexity, so I suppose this can all be taken at face value. Whether that’s comforting or terrifying is a matter I don’t want to waste space investigating.

[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2007.]

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