MOVIES OR BOOKS about youth culture (and a host of other things, for that matter, like politics and social reality) can often be fairly judged by the critics they keep. When Stanley Kauffmann seizes on The Graduate as one of the most significant films ever made, you know something is amiss. Similarly when the press does chorus kicks for James Simon Kunen. Or when Pauline Kael hails Wild in the Streets. Scorecards of who likes what are less important when dealing with art works with little contemporary social content. Time thinks Persona is a masterpiece, but doesn't know why and it doesn't matter. But when film is discussed as the pleading voice of youth (or as sociology) the lines are clearly drawn. There are some statements and some people that the bourgeois press cannot embrace.
No one seems to be having much trouble embracing Easy Rider. Rex Reed, no less, thinks Easy Rider "is a bold, courageous statement of life seldom matched in motion pictures." The current WBCN ad (BCN moves closer and closer to Krackerjacks every day) for Easy Rider starts with quotes from Life and moves on to include forty other critics who feel that Rider is the film you can't afford to miss. This review is dedicated to all those who expected a shuck.
Easy Rider is basically the filmic diary of a motorcycle trip through the Southwest to New Orleans. The travelers are two young hip types, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) who have managed to smuggle in a large quantity of cocaine, and, having bought two Harleys, are heading for Mardi Gras to celebrate. The two meet up with George Hanson (Jack Richardson), a drunken Southern lawyer, while in a Deep South Jail. Hanson, yearning for some legendary whorehouse and dominated unto middle-age by his Daddy, decides to accompany them to New Orleans. But camped out one night they are set upon by Mississippi rednecks and Hanson is bludgeoned to death. Billy and Wyatt proceed on to Mardi Gras, make a sentimental trip to the whorehouse, and drop acid with their hookers. But this is, as they say, unsatisfying; they leave New Orleans for some unknown destination. In the film's best sequence a pick-up truck overtakes them on a Louisiana highway, and some lout, hoping merely to scare Billy, shoots him, and then kills Wyatt.
EASY RIDER is born of the natural union of American International motorcycle epics and all those westerns whose aging heroes have outlived their era. The two protagonists are as painfully inarticulate as any western idol; their sluggishness of mind is of course intended to be read as sensitivity and moral integrity. Billy's even decked out in a fringed suede jacket, boots, and cowboy hat. The beautiful Southwest landscapes of photographer Laszlo Kovacs turn hostile each night around the campfire, where a lot of authentic marijuana dialogue goes on. Like Western heroes, they are isolated in travel from their natural environment; the trail lies on the landscape, but is never one with it; they are always just passing through. It's a good metaphor for the expatriate sensibility that has grown up among young people, a new landlessness, an acute sense of dispossession. Wyatt wears a leather jacket with an American flag stitched on the back; Billy calls him Captain America. The land of the free is not only locked in convulsion now that the rent's come roun'--it's lost. In the classic Western, the main character searches for a long-gone past; in Easy Rider America searches for itself, also long-gone. (Hanson: "This is used to be a hell of good country.") 'And he couldn't find it anywhere.'
Written by Hopper, Fonda, and Terry Southern, arch prostitute at large, Easy Rider inherits from the Western a large quantity of corn, what intellectuals like to call folk poetry, and a simplistic moral schema. There are good guys, like Captain America, drooled over in infatuated close-ups, and bad guys, the yahoos of the South and over-thirty America in general. The good guys are warding off the yahoos (a young commune member prays to God "Thank you for a place to make a stand.") Billy and Wyatt die because they are free, like all good guys. (Hanson says: "They're scared of what you represent to them--freedom.") But free of what? Certainly not of American yahoo aspirations--Billy intends to buy a home in Florida with his share of the loot. This is what Hopper insists on in his interviews: that when Wyatt says to Billy "We blew it" what they're really saying is that they're no different from the two guys in the truck. That's true, but that's not what the film says at all. The good guys are portrayed as sensitive loner types: they know grass isn't addictive; they're nice to girls; they wouldn't hurt anybody. The bad guys are resentful barbarians, who pick on the good guys for no reason and make stupid jokes ("They look like a bunch of refugees from a gorilla love-in.") Easy Rider's tacked-on message, built to remit all intellectual sins, reminds one in its ludicrousness of Hollywood's concept of the "antiwar" film. Inevitably these films will conclude with a ringing condemnation of war; but that conclusion is undermined by the horrifying argument that has gone before--scene after scene of exhilarating battle sequences. Easy Rider's ending is equally convincing.
TECHNICALLY Easy Rider is a clumsy first picture. Hopper breaks directorial line in almost every sequence to no valuable effect. Kovacs' landscapes and wide-angle shots of the two motorcycles crossing the Southwest are quite marvelous; but the LSD sequence is predictable--lots of fish-eye shots, weeping, and intimation of death--and boring, and doesn't do justice to the drug (compare Conrad Rooks' sublime hallucinations in Chappaqua or in any film by Jordan Belson). Hopper also has an irritating editing affectation: when indicating the passage of time he'll cut two frames of the next sequence in twice at the end of the preceding scene. Real avant-garde.
From the motorcycle subculture movies Hopper has brought rock music, but instead of The Ventures he has given us known songs by top rock artists. Attempting no structural integration between sound and image, his musical allusions are literary: Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher" after they make their connection, Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" as they hit the road on their bikes. Billy and Wyatt travel through these pulsating songs the way they do the countryside--the Band, the Byrds, Dylan, Jimi Hendrix et al are employed as a musical landscape, part of the backdrop of the youth subculture, but hardly integral or necessary. Hopper doesn't explore or celebrate rock the way that Peter Whitehead did with the Pink Floyd in Tonight Let's All Make Love in London or as Robert Nelson did in The Grateful Dead; rather he sticks it in and lets it lay there, guaranteeing large audiences. In my view the film is poorer for it. Nothing in Easy Rider's endless shots of motorcycles (stolen, as was some of Roger Corman's work in Wild Angels--in which Fonda also starred--from Kenneth Anger's incantatory Scorpio Rising) matches the groaning ferocity of Steppenwolf's lyrics ("Get the motor running/Shoot out on the highway/Looking for adventure/And whatever comes our way/Hey darling gonna make it happen/Take the world in a love embrace/Fire all of our guns at once and explode into space") and these disjunct moods clash to disengage the viewer. And isn't there something obscene in playing Jimi Hendrix's "If 6 was 9" while Wyatt and Billy shoot past the shacks of the Deep South's black population ("If the sun refuse to shine/I don't mind, I don't mind/If the mountains fell in the sea/Let it be, it ain't me/All right, 'cos I got my own world to look through/And I ain't gonna copy you.")?
Hopper's frankly commercial use of rock gives us one more insight into his real sensibility. Easy Rider may be a hippy vision, but it's a bourgeois hippy vision, concocted with both eyes on the market place. Just listen to how Hopper treated sex, and why: "I knew that Peter and I the girls we meet would never be seen totally nude in the nude swimming scene, because I wanted to show the over-forty crowd that it is possible to play like innocent children in the nude without getting into sex." In the echo chamber of our Hollywood past you can hear some sincere executive justify Hollywood's code of the thirties (twin beds for all married couples) by explaining that they want to show the under-twenty set that it is possible to be married without getting into dirty old sex. This is courageous movie-making all right. In his recent divorce proceedings Hopper gave up all his possessions so that he could keep his share of the Easy Rider profits. "I took a chance, man, but I believe in the picture." So do I. As Hopper did, I believe Easy Rider will make a lot of money.