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Easy Rider: The Movie

Easy Rider

Easy Rider: The Movie

by

Dawn Pisturino

Any analysis of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 movie, Easy Rider, must be made within the context of the 1960s, or the analysis may become distorted. The 1960s were a turbulent and unique period in American history (this writer was fourteen years old in 1969). Under the influence of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement, the country was at war with itself. Fear of nuclear holocaust drove much of the “live for today” counterculture rebellion. After all, if humans are going to die anyway, why go to work? Why conform to the established social order? It’s much better to have fun and do what you want while you still have time.

Easy Rider has been described as a modern hippie road trip movie, but more than anything else, it is a biker movie — and hardcore bikers still try to follow the route taken in the movie. There are numerous websites and blogs on the Internet describing this route. Some of the locations used in the movie (such as the cafe) no longer exist. But the Spirit of Route 66 is alive and well, and enough stretches of that famous and infamous road still exist to bring Easy Rider back to life.

Peter Fonda (Wyatt, after Wyatt Earp) conceived Easy Rider as a western (Seitz 2-3; Schneider 1). The characters ride their choppers (metal horses) through the southwest, camp out in Indian ruins, and make occasional references to cowboys and Indians. (Peter Fonda may have been giving a nod to his father, Henry Fonda, who starred in a number of westerns). Wyatt and his cohort, Billy (after Billy the Kid, played by Dennis Hopper), are motorcycle-stuntmen-bikers-turned-drug-dealers who score a big cocaine deal and use their ill-gotten riches to travel across the country to New Orleans. (In a real Hollywood western, they might have been performers in an Old West Show who turned outlaw, struck it rich, and turned into aimless drifters).

The classic Hollywood western celebrates American freedom, expansion, and rugged independence (Lewis 247-248; Barsam and Monahan, 103). But as civilization spreads across the western wilderness, the heroes in these movies become the alienated outsiders. Easy Rider celebrates this freedom and rugged independence and decries the loss of personal freedom and individuality found in an urbanized and commercialized society.

The movie was billed as a story about a man who “went looking for America and couldn’t find it” (Dirks 1). The problem with this obvious hype is that there is no indication in the movie that this is their goal. The characters always confirm that their goal is to get to the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans in order to have a good time. In fact, Billy gets pretty hostile when it looks like his plans will be delayed. The people they meet, and the events they experience along the way, are completely random and unplanned.

The characters complain throughout the movie about the hostile reactions they receive to their long hair and grubby clothes. (In most westerns, the established town folk snub the outlaws, gamblers, drifters, and prostitutes in their towns, to the point of violence). As the movie progresses, the long hair becomes a symbol for people who are different, alienated, and marginalized from mainstream America.

Dennis Hopper is remembered now as one of the auteur directors of the New Hollywood era (Lewis 289). “Made for a mere $375,000 and earning an astonishing $19 million in its initial release in 1969, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider made clear just how important the youth audience would be to a Hollywood recovery” (Lewis 289). Another $1 million was spent on licensing the music for Donn Cambern’s contemporary rock and pop score (Fisher 3), the first movie to incorporate culturally popular music (Ebert 2003 2; Schneider 2). This established a standard that moviemakers have used ever since.

The movie was born out of the low-budget motorcycle movies that appealed to young people in the 1960s (Ebert 2004 2; Ebert 1969 2). Roger Corman’s 1966 movie, The Wild Angels, also starring Peter Fonda, used some of the same creative devices, such as nondiegetic sound, that were later used in Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). The LSD-trip cemetery scene in New Orleans, which uses “super-fast edits, jarring sound effects, Catholic prayers, and shots of the Virgin Mary” (Schneider 3), shows a young girl reciting the rosary and parallels the rape scene in The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966), where the audience hears a young girl singing a Christian hymn. By combining elements “of the teen biker picture . . . , the French New Wave . . . , and cinema verite” (Lewis 290), Dennis Hopper brought the nonconformist counterculture onto the big screen while remaining independent of Hollywood interference and conformity.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs revealed that Dennis Hopper wanted to use natural lighting as much as possible (Seitz 3), but portable halogen lights were used at night, especially for the campfire scenes (Fisher 2). The campfires and the flicker were simulated, using “a stick with a little flicker effect” (Fisher 2-3). To shoot theĀ  motorcycle travel scenes, an Arri camera, using 50-speed Kodak film, was mounted on a 1968 Chevy Impala (Fisher 2). The Mardi Gras scene was filmed using Bolex 16 mm hand-held cameras, creating a disorienting and psychedelic effect (Fisher 3). The entire movie was filmed in a loose style to convey a “feeling of freedom” (Fisher 4). The shooting was largely improvised, shot according to what felt right to Kovacs at the time (Fisher 2). “Rapid flashback/flash forward transitions” (Seitz 3) are used frequently between sequences. “Long, slow establishing shots transition the environment from nature to city over the course of the movie” (Seale 1). The pacing is uneven, reflecting an improvisational style, and jump cuts create a jarring effect (Dirks 1). Very little make-up is used, there are few meaningful props, and the costumes are natural and realistic, incorporating “traditional patriotic symbols with emblems of loneliness, criminality, and alienation — the American flag, cowboy decorations, long hair, and drugs” (Dirk 1). Much of the dialogue is improvised, especially in the cafe scene (Lewis 290).

“The rough cut of the movie reportedly ran over three hours, and Hopper edited it to a reasonable length by throwing out the story details and keeping the rest” (Ebert 1969 3; Seitz 3). The result is a movie that often seems disjointed and disconnected. After George dies, the excessive editing makes it appear that Wyatt and Billy are completely indifferent to his death. Questions arise, such as: What did they do with the body? Did they just leave the poor guy there? This is why, when watching the movie, the viewer scratches his head and wonders: Who are these guys? What is their backstory? Why are they doing all of this? The beginning of the film, which explains all of this, was cut from the movie. It’s the outtakes which reveal that Wyatt and Billy are motorcycle stuntmen who turn drug dealers and end up in a thrilling confrontation with “helicopters and police chasing Hopper and Fonda over mountains and across the Mexican border” Birnbaum 1). If this sequence had been included in the movie, Wyatt and Billy would be seen as nothing more than common criminals.

As it is, Wyatt and Billy are superficial characters whose lives appear aimless, lacking in any worthwhile goals. Wyatt is the more philosophical and thoughtful of the two. He is open to new people and new experiences. He smokes pot, sits back, and ruminates about life. Billy, on the other hand, is emotionally reactive, sometimes hostile, and “lives for today.” He is unconcerned about learning anything. When Wyatt and Billy are camped out in the Indian ruins with the hitchhiker, Billy shows total disrespect for the Indians who built them and appears indifferent when the hitchhiker reprimands him for it. Billy is anti-social, selfish, and self-absorbed. He smokes pot constantly as if he lives for nothing else. But while Wyatt is the idealistic dreamer, Billy is the down-to-earth realist. When he points out to the hippies at the commune that the soil is not fertile enough to grow anything, he is simply telling the truth as he sees it. When he refutes George’s conspiracy theory about aliens, he is revealing his own lack of imagination. While Wyatt sits quietly by and tells the prostitute at the Tinker Toys brothel that he bought her because of Billy, Billy drinks and carries on like a man coming out of the desert after 40 days. Wyatt examines the artwork and philosophical quotes on the walls, focusing on one quote in particular: “Death only closes a man’s reputation and determines it as good or bad” (Joseph Addison). Billy could care less. He doesn’t seem to believe in anything at all.

Here is where Wyatt has the flash forward vision of a fire by the side of the road. He seems more subdued after this, as if carrying the burden of his whole life on his shoulders. The LSD trip in the cemetery produces a profound religious experience that nobody wants. When Wyatt announces to Billy that “we blew it,” Billy’s response is that money buys freedom, and that’s what it’s all about. He cannot understand what Wyatt is talking about.

Hopper uses a lot of contrasts and juxtapositions to instill meaning into the movie. While the rancher has a solid, stable (although poor) life, the hippies at the commune seem like unstable, flighty dreamers who are barely surviving. While Wyatt and Billy are riding around minding their own business, other people react to their appearance, call them animals, and threaten violence. George, the goofy alcoholic lawyer, has a powerful father and is, therefore, protected by the town. When he leaves his home turf, however, he is ill-equipped to survive in the larger world. Wyatt and Billy camp outdoors in the elements, live rough, and feel confident that they can take care of themselves.

The movie also incorporates a lot of religious symbolism. The dead lamb at the side of the road clearly symbolizes the sacrificial lamb. The rancher and his family pray at meal times, thanking God for what they have. So do the hippies at the commune, but their prayers seem less confident and more like a plea for help. The LSD trip is full of religious iconography about death and redemption. The brothel displays much religious art, reminding the viewer to repent of his sins. The message is clear: no matter how free a person is, he or she still answers to a higher authority.

Further symbolism includes the use of the term “gorilla” to denote people who live outside of society. The hippies’ mime troupe stage is called Gorilla Theater. The rednecks in the cafe refer to Wyatt, Billy, and George as “gorillas.” This dehumanization of the characters makes it easy for the rednecks in the truck to shoot Wyatt and Billy in cold blood without batting an eye or feeling any remorse.

And here is where we find the existential heart of the movie: “we blew it.” When the rednecks kill Wyatt and Billy in a senseless drive-by shooting, they wipe them out forever. The two freedom-loving boys disappear suddenly from history with nothing to show for their lives — no property, no wives, no children, no reputations, no legacies, and no signs that they ever lived. And this is what Wyatt realizes after George dies and he reads the quote on the wall. Freedom is great, but it cannot buy immortality in any meaningful form.

STUDENTS: DO NOT PLAGIARIZE MY WORK. It will show up on Turnitin.com.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

American Cinema, Film 110

January 29, 2018

Copyright 2018 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy

For Independence Day, I watched the 1942 musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” starring James Cagney, Joan Leslie, and Walter Huston. Cagney plays George M. Cohan, the famous vaudeville composer, writer, and entertainer. He was known as “The Man who Owned Broadway” and wrote many popular songs that are still known today. During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan with a Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to America.

Songs by George M. Cohan:

Yankee Doodle Boy

(watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/EKeYS1P9j1c )

You’re a Grand Old Flag

(watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/lxyt1Vt5ejY )

Happy Fourth of July! Happy Birthday, America!

 

Dawn Pisturino

7/4/2017

Copyright 2017 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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