In 1969, a new age was upon America. The care-free ways of the ‘60s were giving way to a more cynical, suspicious era, and the movie industry was following suit. The American New Wave (or “New Hollywood” ) was sparked by the one-two punch of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, giving American audiences an indie feel that they’d only ever gotten before from foreign films (usually French and Italian). However, many would consider Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider as the true herald of the second coming of Hollywood: The drug-fueled (on and off camera), society-deconstructing road movie starring Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson captured the hearts of many a lost American soul. To say the least, Easy Rider was a trip.
A lot of people would describe Easy Rider as the first movie with some balls. Sure Bonnie and Clyde brought the violence and The Graduate brought the sexuality; Easy Rider brought both of these, plus a rocking soundtrack and a “Fuck it” mentality that audiences of the time could relate to. Anyone who has gone cruising down the highway, blasting ‘Born to be Wild’, wind in their hair and big goofy grin on their face, owe it to this movie. But the movie is more than sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll: it is an examination of America and all its facets. Fonda and Hopper play Wyatt “Captain America” and Billy “the Kid” (none too subtle references to a couple of prominent Western anti-heroes), two bikers who cash in on a payload of cocaine and go on a run from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. What would be a simple road trip to most becomes a soul-searching, life-defining quest for meaning for the two men – the fact that they get baked at every pit stop and partake in a little sexual debauchery is just the icing on the proverbial cake. There is a very defined “us vs. them” mentality in Easy Rider, as the boys are turned away from motels and run out of diners, all because of their rough-and-tumble appearances. They are enigmas to society, steadfast supporters of living free in a world of rules and traditions. For American youth audiences in 1969, and continuing on to today, Wyatt and Billy are infinitely relatable.
Hopper’s frenetic cinematography plays well to the context of the film, seeming to pay too little attention at parts that need a ton of it, and too much in places that need next to none. His choppy transitions make the viewer feel as if they’re waking up from a dream (or bender), only to realize that they’re still in the action. But who’s to say what’s important and what’s not, especially in such a spiritual (yes, spiritual) film. The audience experiences the events alongside Wyatt and Billy, seeing things as they see them. When they look at their bikes, we see them as they do: long pans up the curves, as if they belonged to a model; roaring phallic symbols as they plow down highways. In many ways, Easy Rider succeeds in putting the viewer in the action even more so than P.O.V. films like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. What works so well about the film in this respect is that Fonda and Hopper actually did take this epic journey, albeit to make the movie, not sell cocaine (actually…) and got just as hard a time as their characters did. It is truly a dip into the lives of wild men, an immersion into counterculture.
When confronted with some of the philosophical discussions and identity crises, many viewers might simply dismiss them as drug-induced ramblings. This is totally fair, but bear in mind that the great philosopher Rene Descartes was hard into opium, and think on that one. Along the way, Wyatt and Billy experience all different walks of life in all different types of places, with a hippy commune and a redneck diner bookending the variety. Through the eyes of the bikers, we see both the dark side and the light side of American culture, both the acceptance and the intolerance. And, in our search for meaning, for definition, for understanding, sometimes we, like the biker duo, have to admit that “we blew it”.