March 3, 2010

#84: Easy Rider

There are four films made in 1969 on the AFI's Top 100. Good year! (1976 and 1982 also share this honor.) It's certainly no accident that Hollywood, taking cues from the French New Wave, was in a new age at the end of a decade like the 60s. Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider is a meditation of America's simultaneous fascination with and distaste for hippie counterculture, playing like a slideshow of late-60s Americana through the lens of two drug dealers, Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, or "Captain America" (Peter Fonda).

Company: I started it by myself but Kecia and Katie came home about halfway through, right when Jack Nicholson first appears.

Cuisine: a handful of almonds (beach body!) and fried eggs on toast for dinner

After a successful drug deal, Wyatt and Billy use the profits to road-trip to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. What follows is a road movie, with the pair making stops and encountering characters throughout. As they set out and "Born to Be Wild" is played over the credits, we know exactly what kind of movie we're in for. Or do we?

Finding the psychedelic in nature's color palette.
(All these landscapes make me crave summer!)

These pit stops and encounters serve not only as plot points but also symbols of tension in American culture at the end of the decade. The actors were allegedly smoking real marijuana during shooting, and while drugs and drug use are commonplace in contemporary cinema, the topic had barely been explored onscreen by 1969. The friends pick up a hitchhiker who gets a ride to his commune, where the residents offer a communal prayer for a good harvest, despite the harsh conditions and poor soil. They also give thanks for what one member calls "a place to take a stand," presumably standing against a society that has shunned their way of life or deemed it inappropriate or perhaps in some way un-American. In this way the film serves as a historical snapshot of a divided era in which the country was growing less and less sure of itself, less and less tolerant of those who are different.

After spending a night in jail for riding their motorcycles through a parade without a permit, the duo meets George (Jack Nicholson in his first of many many Oscar nominations), the town drunk who is eager to ditch his small town and accompany them for the next leg of their journey. Maybe George is meant to represent us: a regular guy (not a "hippie" like Wyatt and Billy), who through exposure to drugs and alternative lifestyles meets sorry circumstances. He's a guy who doesn't know these new-age terms like "dude" and "groovy," but soon and without much cajoling he's one of the guys. When the guys walk into a small-town cafe they are ogled by local teenaged girls and eyed with overt suspicion by local police, who don't feel the need to whisper or censor in any way their racist, homophobic and in all other ways hateful comments. George may not have received this welcome alone, but with Captain America and Billy ("the Kid?"), he's become a hippie by association.

By the time the guys reach New Orleans, they've gotten high and talked about everything, including what seems to be the film's central theme: freedom. At one point George says "They're not scared of you, they're scared of what you represent: freedom... talkin' about it and being it are two different things." Ultimately the duo is looking for spiritual guidance and freedom, and I think the point the film is making is that though they don't find it through drugs, it's not drugs that kept them from finding it.

A dead goat in the street!?

Their Mardi Gras experience is, to put it bluntly, trippy. They meet two prostitutes and together whack themselves out on LSD, prompting a fascinating and strikingly modern sequence in a cemetery. It was that point that I thought, "Wow. This is so ahead of its time."

Did they find what they were searching for? Did we, as we journeyed with them? Wyatt doesn't think so. "We blew it," he says near the end of the film. He believes their spiritual quest to be a failure, not knowing what fate lies ahead for the pair. Without spoiling it, let's say the film leaves this central thematic question without an answer. I'm finding that a film that ends without all the questions answered invites more conversation, like I certainly had with my two friends who, although they hadn't seen the whole film, had strong opinions about the ending. What are we to take from this ending? What do you take from it?

I have a feeling this one will stick with me for a while. The soundtrack certainly will, including the efficiently titled "Don't Bogart That Joint."

Next up: #83. Some movie no one's ever heard of.

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