Monday, November 8, 2010

Easy Rider: They do NOT make movies like this anymore

Provocative, illuminating, and riveting from start to finish, the counter-culture 60s movie classic Easy Rider will still get movie lovers' motors running.

I was somewhat reluctant to watch Easy Rider. I knew the film was regarded as a classic, but I was not sure if a movie with two dudes riding around on motorcycles (choppers?) would appeal to me. Well, don't judge a man by his haircut because I was wrong to doubt the artistic quality of Easy Rider.

Released in 1969, Easy Rider was independently produced by Peter Fonda, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper star in the movie as Wyatt and Billy respectively.

Easy Rider opens with Wyatt and Billy making a bunch of cash from a cocaine sale in Southern California. After outfitting themselves with a pair of fancy motorcycles, Wyatt fills a soft plastic tube with his money and conceals it in the gas tank of his motorcycle. They then take off on a cross-country ride to New Orleans to enjoy Mardi Gras. And thus the road trip begins.

They soon discover an America that is not receptive to a pair of outlandish bikers who don't seem to have any honest business being anywhere. Wyatt and Billy are refused rooms at little motels across the desert, forcing them to camp every night. Only a rancher distinguishes himself by offering some repair assistance and a hot meal.

Then the bikers end up staying at some far flung hippie commune of spaced out back-to-the-land idealists who think they are going to be able to grow all their own food. Billy watches incredulously as they plant seeds in dry soil and inquires if they expect any rain.

Throughout the movie Billy, as played by Dennis Hopper, does most of the talking. Wyatt, played marvelously by Peter Fonda, tends to quietly roll joints and occasionally offer pithy statements of wisdom. For example, when Billy tires of the weirdo commune and wants to leave, he complains to Wyatt harshly about the people over dinner. Wyatt's response is to simply point out to Billy that they are eating the food those people shared with them. 

All the scenes at the commune offer a critical view of the misguided idealists who got wrapped up with strange cult-like leaders during that era. The commune leader collects his flock for group drug use in front of their own children. The scene with the little kids bemused by their whacked-out parents is difficult to interpret. I think it represents how easily revolutionary intentions can descend into stupidity.

Before Wyatt and Billy depart the commune, the commune leader gives Wyatt some LSD to take with him. Ever open-minded, Wyatt accepts the hallucinogen for later use.  

After further adventures, Wyatt and Billy hook up with the drunkard lawyer George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson. Fans of Nicholson will appreciate this early role. Hanson decides to join the two bikers on their trip to Mardi Gras. The Hanson character serves as a fascinating contrast to Wyatt and Billy. Outwardly, Hanson is a down-home conservative in a suit. He employs the socially-accepted drug of alcohol as his means of self destruction, but he becomes enamored of the strange freedom embodied by Billy and Wyatt, who go where they want to go, do what they want to do, and look how they want to look. The story of George Hanson presents a twisted morality tale as he suffers the backlash of a hostile conservative culture that forbids experimentation and free thinking.

To avoid giving away more of this story, I'll conclude only by revealing that Wyatt and Billy do make it to Mardi Gras. Easy Rider is a film that will leave you thinking. It has been months since I watched it, and I still ponder it regularly. I'm letting it gestate in my mind before watching it again. So far my interpretation of Easy Rider is that freedom is anathema to a dominant culture and that there are no easy rides no matter what course you take.