Americana Movie Month: "Easy Rider" Review

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Wyatt and Billy are two motorcycle riders (bikers) on their way to Mardis Gras, and encounter hitchhikers, a drunken lawyer, a jail cell, a whorehouse and the death of a friend.
3.5

Americana Movie Month: "Easy Rider" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: July 14, 1969
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Genre: Drama

"Easy Rider" was always more of a cultural phenomenon that just a movie. Like contemporary films "The Graduate" and "Cool Hand Luke," "Easy Rider" was a brilliant effort to freeze the cultural zeitgeist at a particular moment in time and create a lasting time capsule in motion picture form. Like the other films, "Easy Rider" reaches out into the barren heartland of deep America and coughs up utterly unremarkable people who are out doing totally ordinary things in an uneventful way. In the manner of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," it isn't the characters that drive the events around them, but rather the people and institutions they haplessly bump into along the way which take the lead and sweep them along. A mirror is thus held up to the surrounding culture, to give the audience a fresh look at themselves, and all that they once took for granted. The director used what was then an experimental plot device, the antihero; a simple character or pair of characters simply going about their business-without regard for the law-while the deceitful, wicked world conspires against them. It thus became possible to shock viewers with passive leads and so indict entire sets of unspoken philosophies in a single tableau.

In "Easy Rider," two rootless bikers named Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) set out on the great American road trip to visit Mardi Gras. Along the way, they find themselves coping with odd hitchhikers, a whorehouse that's full of surprises, and an unfortunate stint in jail.

The screenplay for "Easy Rider" was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, working together with input from Terry Southern, who wrote the original novel on which the film is based. Some people have questioned the relevance of Terry Southern to the 1960s. Those people are advised to take a quick look at the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover; Terry Southern is wearing dark sunglasses and a suit, standing behind Chairman Mao. Southern's writing career had failed miserably until being hired in 1962 to revise and extend the script for "Dr. Strangelove." While "Easy Rider" was far from being written as a comedy, Southern and his collaborators managed to affect the broadly exaggerated perception of their fellow Americans' faults. Over and over again, the wandering drifters-who are scum according to the traditional definitions of status-are seen minding their own business and trying to get by while the respectable people around them-lawyers, police, and churchgoers-react to their mere presence with scorn and brutality.

The brilliance of this approach was to lure in members of the audience with false assumptions about good guys and bad guys, and then lash them with the cat-o'-nine tails of seeing the good people they would otherwise trust behaving with hostility and hypocrisy. Giving the audience a moral whiplash is a useful storytelling device, and the script for "Easy Rider" uses it to the utmost.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper starred in this epic drama, and as a result of the unconventional narrative structure of the film, they found themselves bearing the brunt of the screen time. It's never easy to work with sufficient exposition without telegraphing a film's subtext, but by the time "Easy Rider" was shot Dennis Hopper had the acting experience to convey the sense of an entire page of script with a single gesture. His expressions and his timing are nothing less than masterful, and in the generally very expressive Fonda, he found a fine partner to complement his style. A young Jack Nicholson appears as George Hanson, whose words when he sees his first marijuana cigarette are "Lord have mercy! Is that what that is?" In a delayed-reaction bit of epic foreshadowing, noted lunatic and future convicted murderer Phil Spector plays a drug dealer known only as "the Connection."

"Easy Rider" was the movie for its time and place. Its lead characters are lost and adrift in a sea of bitter, vile wrongheadedness. In the world this film depicts, everything good is bad, and so is everything bad. Up is down, and down is most emphatically not going anywhere. This is an artistic truth that could only be told in certain ways and at certain moments in history. Only the peculiar cultural displacement of the flush middle class, which paid good money to see an evil reflection of itself on movie screens across the nation, could have produced the topsy-turvy moral inversions of "Easy Rider," and only that same solid middle class could have taken it in as entertainment rather than a declaration of war.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5