Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Movie Review: Easy Rider (1969)


And this is how the 1960s ended.

Easy Rider summarizes a decade's worth of checking out. Living the life of freedom translates to riding the open highway on mammoth motorcycles, smoking weed, dealing drugs, smoking weeds, visiting communes, smoking weed, landing in jail, smoking weed, being met with suspicion by every establishment man, smoking weed, exploring a whorehouse, smoking weed, and attracting lustful women by the mere fact of existing.

Dennis Hopper directed, Peter Fonda produced, and together with Terry Southern, they co-wrote the Easy Rider script. And as the laid back Captain America (Fonda) and the more highly strung Billy (Hopper), they gave life to two iconic characters that have become part of Hollywood folklore, despite Fonda and Hopper being genuinely stoned for pretty much the duration of filming. Their most memorable travelling companion is George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a hard-drinking, philosophical son of influential parents, quick to abandon his life and join a trek to New Orleans.

Easy Rider is a buddy road movie, exploring the alternative life of freedom and specifically the end-result of all the rule-breaking of the 1960s. The very thin thread of plot has Captain America and Bill making their way to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, stopping at various off-the-beaten-track locations and picking up an assortment of characters along the way. But the film is really about physically and emotionally breaking away from society's norms, with no shortage of open-highway, landscape-rolling-by shots, interrupted by discussions about what it means to be free, and the consequences of the life chosen by those who have decided to spin away from the traditional world and create their own orbit.

Nicholson had been making movies since 1958, but in his first star-making role he brings a just slightly unhinged intensity to the quest for freedom, viewing life through the thick lens at the bottom of the bottle and quickly cutting through all the nonsense. Fonda and Hopper allow Nicholson to deliver the core line of dialogue in Easy Rider, drawing the distinction between real and imagined freedom:

Hanson: Oh, yeah, that's right. That's what's it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, 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.

The other two stand-out stars of the film are the two monstrous motorcycles, custom-built for the movie and either destroyed or stolen during filming.

Hopper and Fonda pessimistically present the quest for freedom as enjoying its moments but doomed to tragic failure, society's traditions too entrenched to allow penetration by the spirit of the freedom seekers. Easy Rider may be the most nontraditional of movies, but it does directly explain why most of the anti-establishment crowd of the 1960s sold out and were running the establishment by the time the1980s rolled around. The alternative outcome presented by Fonda and Hopper was certainly a lot less appealing.






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