Just how cool is Easy Rider?
Apparently we’ve now reached ‘post’ post-modern. There is a commercial running in America where a dull office drone is inserted via computer-generated animation into footage of Peter Fonda on his chopper from Easy Rider. Turns out the 9 to 5’er is just having a daydream aboard a commuter train because he is high … on Pepsi!
People may argue that if Dennis Hopper himself will now do any number of corporate ads, then you could just as easily appropriate his creations also. If this is true, then remember that the movie didn’t get lame, the culture did. Rather than diminishing the spirit and era of Easy Rider, I think the ad indicts our own, therein making the film more appealing and vital. Shame on the vandals, not the object of their vandalism.
Easy Rider is enjoyable as a moment frozen in time. No matter what hindsight casts upon it, or how it is appropriated and reinterpreted, it is hard to imagine a cooler image then Peter Fonda in his Captain America Jacket and Dennis Hopper in fringe on the open road. It is no surprise then that something as inert and ‘uncool’ as a soft drink tries to get cool by association. What happens instead is that putting the two side by side creates such a desperate contrast that Pepsi will never look less cool.
That’s how cool it is.
Peter Fonda plays serene Wyatt, while Hopper is a paranoid prophet of the hippies as ‘Billy the Kid’. Fonda’s lead has a cool, deliberate ‘quiet’. It’s less intense than subdued and appreciative, like he is taking in everything from the trip. He lets America affect him, not the other way around. Dennis Hopper meanwhile is the sidekick. He is nothing but comment, constantly saying exactly what he thinks. He has little patience for flower children, pretentious intellectuals, coy women, law officers, drunks or rednecks.
A major drug deal goes down, much grass is smoked and the journey eastward begins. The journey towards ‘freedom’ has always been tied to a drift westward. Convention has it that American freedom hits its apex when you hit the Pacific. These two modern cowboys travel eastward from Los Angeles. They are not seeking freedom, but symbolically testing the limits of freedom by travelling against its current. The two use money from a drug deal to finance their cross-country odyssey.
Along the way the beauty and contradictions of America are witnessed, and discussed in no less than seven campfire chats. Much of the film consists of simply shooting the riders as they travel spiralling highways and bigoted backroads. The beautiful footage by director of photography László Kovács is essential to the trip. They encounter a hippie commune trying to live off the land that is both doomed and liberated by their intentions. In a beautiful irony the bikers are arrested for riding in a fourth of July parade without a permit. The cops throw them into a cell next to an inebriated ACLU lawyer named George, played by Jack Nicholson.
Jack Nicholson is the core of the film. He may not appear until halfway through, but the trip makes much more sense when his face rises up bleary-eyed from the jailhouse cot. He is the innocent man of this group, professional but restless and open to conversion. He represents an America looking to perfect the distance between its ideal and its reality. They let George join them because he tells them he has a helmet. Grinning widely he shows up wearing a gold football helmet with a blue centre stripe.
Even the minor performances are good, including Toni Basil and Karen Black as New Orleans hookers who join the boys on a very disturbing acid trip. The filmmakers used locals whenever possible, and it gives the film much greater texture.
The legitimacy of the film, its relationship to its audience and its now iconic status are a testament to the reciprocal relationship between the era and the filmmakers. They did something right. The film premiered at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and won the festival’s award for the Best Film by a New Director. The film received two Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay (co-authored by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern) and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson, in this fairly early role.
Easy Rider is the counter-culture assessing its own relationship to the mainstream. As well as co-starring, Fonda produced and Hopper directed (his first effort). It is certainly a more sympathetic and authentic film than Hollywood might have otherwise produced. Far from a sensational ‘expose’ on biker and drug culture, it was the product of it. As a result the danger in this film does not come from a traditional menace, and that is half its surprise. The finale is sudden, jarring, violent and uncompromising. It’s cruel and unfair, and that’s the point.
Director: Dennis Hopper
Writer(s): Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern
Runtime(s): 94 minutes
Language: English, Spanish
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.