Easy Rider is not a particularly well made film, even for a low-budget independent production. There’s a lot of handsome photography by Lazlo Kovacs but also a lot of once-fashionable, now tiresome stylistic quirks — mannered zooms, meaningless flash cuts to scenes out of continuity. The dialogue, much of it improvised by the actors obviously under the influence of the drugs their characters are supposed to be using, is often amusing but just as often mind-numbingly banal.
Of course the conversations of stoned people are typically mind-numbingly banal, so the film has a kind of authenticity on that level, but a little of it goes a long way. I stopped smoking dope about 40 years ago and a recent reviewing of Easy Rider should keep me away from it for another 40 years.
But having said all this I have to admit that the film remains a hoot. It captures its historical and cultural moment with startling effectiveness. If you were 19 when it came out, as I was, and a hippie, as I was (see below), the film can take you back to that time as surely as the music of 1969 can.
The reason for this is that its view of things is complex. Its rebel hero Wyatt, played by Peter Fonda, genuinely loves America and its past. His sidekick Billy, played by Dennis Hopper, who also directed the film, has a paranoid, slightly creepy mind set. He’s like a lot of hard cases of the time who grew their hair long and blended in with the middle-class love children and occasionally scared the hell out of them.
And there’s an undertow of despair in the journey of Wyatt and Billy, a sense that their freedom and rebellion might not lead them anywhere in the end. This was a genuine part of the mood of the times among the feckless flower-power generation, though not many people talked about it, except for Bob Dylan occasionally.
[Photo © 1971 Langdon Clay]
What doesn’t ring true is the caricature of Southern rednecks in the film. Two years after Easy Rider came out a friend and I (see above), with hair down to our shoulders and Indian moccasins on our feet, retraced its journey by car, sleeping rough, as the protagonists of the film do, terrified of what sort of reception we might meet with in Texas and Louisiana.
It turned out to be on the whole good-natured and amused rather than hostile. As a hippie, I had been treated with more rudeness and contempt by middle-class people in The Bay Area than I ever was by working-class folks in the rural South.
(c)2010 by raVen Mackay
I remember walking into a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere in bayou country late at night — too hungry to keep going but terrified of the rough-looking men in cowboy hats who peopled the place. They stared at us skeptically, then one of them offered to pay us to get haircuts. When we declined they laughed and bought us some beers.
So much for Southern rednecks of the time.