Thursday, March 08, 2012

Easy Rider (1969) ***

One might be tempted to ask what is the point of “Easy Rider”? It’s a poorly constructed film with limited narrative and an unsatisfying ending. And yet it is an icon. I think that for one thing, the movie captured, and maybe helped create, the romantic image of the motorcycle rider as a free spirit. Secondly, I think the movie tapped into a groundswell of disillusionment with how the 1960’s were turning out. After a dramatic decade of consciousness-raising, protest, and national discourse, there still wasn’t room in most of America for anyone to be different.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper play Wyatt and Billy, a couple of low-lifes on Harleys. They successfully smuggle cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico, then embark on a cross-country motorcycle trip to New Orleans to spend some of their profits at Mardi Gras. Along the way they have pleasant encounters with a variety of hippy types and unpleasant run-ins with rednecks and cops. They also pick up a kindred spirit, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic southern attorney and amateur philosopher. He puts into words the quiet dismay simmering in Wyatt as they travel through middle America. During a campfire exchange which pretty much sums of the movie, George gives his most memorable line: “...they’re gonna talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”

For me, the message of “Easy Rider” is somewhat diluted by its contradictions. In every small town through which the guys pass, they are viewed with suspicion and contempt by the conservative, white locals. Of course, Wyatt and Billy are cocaine smugglers, so it seems that the townsfolk’s profiling is pretty accurate. The violence directed against them is completely unjustified, but still, would you want drug-runners to roll into your town and chat up YOUR teenage daughter?

“Easy Rider” is also a great example of sloppy filmmaking. The scene cuts are abrupt, and there is at least one clear editing error that should never have been allowed to make it onto the final cut. Still, I suppose it’s lucky the film got made at all. Dennis Hopper was reputedly on drugs the entire time, and he was the director! The actors also smoked real marijuana on camera for some scenes. During an LSD-tripping scene in a New Orleans cemetery, there are some interesting lighting effects that it turns out were due to someone opening the film before it had been developed.

All in all, I would say the filmmakers could have done worse. On a reported budget of $400,000 (Pretty cheap, even in 1969.) they made a film that has captured the imagination of millions. For all its flaws, the film does manage to capture the disillusionment of its time, and it puts into stark relief the pathos of a society divided against itself.

3 stars

No comments: