I’ve watched a lot of great films for the first time this year and an echelon below Citizen Kane and Man with a Movie Camera is a film like Easy Rider. Written by actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and directed by Hopper it’s a motorcycle road movie about two long haired guys travelling across America, encountering intolerance and hatred. Released in 1969 against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the film chooses to focus on intolerance against the freedom loving hippie movement of the same era but its central characters can be used to denote any group or people that experienced hate and intolerance.
Produced independently and with a budget of around $360,000, the film went on to become a huge mainstream success, creating enormous profits and winning Hopper an award at the Cannes Film Festival. It has since become a classic and a film that opened my eyes to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, a movement that has traditionally been overlooked by mainstream media. Dennis Hopper said about Easy Rider that the films that were being made at the time weren’t about the America that he saw and he knew and this film is just that. It’s about the America of the youth, the hair, the drugs, the ideals, the freedom and the hatred.
As well as being a road movie, it’s also a Western and a great one at that. Instead of horseback, the two cowboys ride into town in the backs of Harley-Davidsons, not shooting their guns but revving their engines. They’re the outlaws and unwanted, sleeping by camp-fires, unable to find a room to take them in town. At the beginning of the film we see the two men, Fonda’s Wyatt and Hopper’s Billy, buy and then sell a large quantity of cocaine and stash the money in their bike’s fuel tanks. We know they’re the bad guys but they’re not really bad. They’re the rogues that we want to be. Living on the edge of the law but living how they want to live. Along the way the pair bumps into young lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) who explains the duo perfectly. He tells them that they represent freedom, the sort of freedom that everyone wants but few have. Although Americans think themselves to be free, few of them truly are and those who are scare those who aren’t. This he tells them is why they experience such hostility. The scene itself is a highlight, one of many.
The Western style of film making extends further, beyond the obvious name connotations, to include the magnificent scenery which is captured by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Kovacs creates some stunning shots of the bikers against the mountains and canyons of the West and also manages to wonderfully frame the two bikes as they dart and weave along the empty roads. Another visual treat which caught my attention was the unorthodox editing. On several occasions, Hopper made the decision to transition scenes using a jump cut combined with a flash forward. This takes the form of four frames from the two adjoining scenes going back and forth (i.e. scene A,B,A,B,A,B,A,B) until scene B is allowed to run. It’s a device that is used sparingly but had a big impact on the film. Combined with one or two extreme flash forwards and improvised feel, it adds to the psychedelic nature of the film.
Speaking of all things psychedelic, the movie came on the back of the Summer of love and the explosion of counter-culture ideals such as free love and drug taking. There are several scenes of drug taking in the movie and unusually all of them feature the real substances. If someone ‘smokes a joint’ they really smoke a joint. If they ‘drop acid’ they really drop acid. This might have just been because the cast and crew were already doing so off camera but the impact is that the performances seem real (because they are) and it also helps to break down censorship barriers. Just think that nine years earlier Hitchcock was battling the censors in order to be allowed to show a toilet being flushed in Psycho and here are Fonda and Hopper, tripping their nuts on acid. It goes to show the huge shift in taste and censorship over the decade. The psychedelic nature of the shooting and visuals comes to a head during an incredible scene late on in a graveyard. Its avant-garde style and visionary filming took me a while to get on board with but when I went with it, it blew me away. The performances during this scene in particular are outstanding with Peter Fonda allowing himself to go deeper into personal tragedy for the role that many actors have before or since.
Fonda is excellent throughout, playing the calmer, easier going of the two leads. His level head and see what happens attitude is nicely off-set by Hopper’s edgier, more chaotic personality. Alongside the terrific central performances (no one says “man” quite like Dennis Hopper), Jack Nicholson delivers a now trademark off-kilter performance. He comes and goes like a flash but leaves a huge imprint on the movie. The hicks from the small town in Louisiana are also excellent though not actors at all. Hopper sent a location scout ahead of production to find the town and local actors but when the production arrived, Hopper decided to use the real locals who were more than happy to spew bile and hatred in the direction of the long haired, easy riders. The scene set inside the café of the one horse town is deeply uncomfortable and made more so given that it’s pretty much real.
The film’s soundtrack is something that is worthy of note. Featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and famously Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, it was one of the first movies to opt for existing songs rather than a film score. The music was chosen mainly from the record collections of those involved with the production and fits the narrative and visuals perfectly. Indeed when Crosby, Stills & Nash viewed a rough cut they opted not to compose a score, as had been agreed, as they felt unable to improve on the existing music.
I first got into film through the early movies of Martin Scorsese and this film reminded me very much of Mean Streets in particular. Both share a fast paced, expertly avant-garde approach to film making. Both are innovative and come from a place close to the film maker’s hearts. Both also showed mainstream Hollywood what could be done by a visionary film maker on a small budget and helped to spur the New Hollywood era of film making that was responsible for producing masterpieces such as The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, Serpico, Chinatown, Rocky and countless others. Easy Rider came right at the beginning of this era and showed what was possible given the right people and ideas. It features tremendous film craft, interesting creative decisions and a shocking ending that I hadn’t predicted. I’m annoyed that it took me twenty-seven years to watch it but I’m so glad that I finally have.