There are probably ramshackle movies that can be considered masterpieces, but Easy Rider isn’t one of them. Culturally iconic – that part is uncontested – but also spliced together from raging ineptitude and ego on the part of its director. Reputedly, once he’d shot the thing, Dennis Hopper spent months failing to edit the film together coherently. It reached the point where he was ejected from the cutting room, and four hours was hewn down to the slender ninety-odd minutes we know. There are still longueurs in there, but the Easy Rider we finished up with actually remains largely compelling. Perhaps despite itself.
Hopper, a legendary and consummate vulgarian, claimed “You ruined my film! You made a TV show out of it!” Among his other assessments was the roundly denied one he wrote the screenplay himself; Terry Southern said he did. The Oscar-nominated screenplay (on face value, a bit like nominating The Blair Witch Project) credits the triptych of Southern, Hopper and Peter Fonda. Jack Nicholson suggested the stylistic choices – okay, Hopper’s raging ineptitude – only made it look improvised.
Hopper’s sins against the movie included intimidating Crosby Stills, Nash & Young out of providing the music (he objected to seeing them in limos). On the other hand, if he hadn’t had an altercation with Rip Torn, we might never have got Jack, who breezes in at the 45-minute mark and owns the next near-half hour. Easy Rider is pretty much powered by its soundtrack – so again, maybe Hopper did it a service by doing it a disservice – each scene informed by a different tone, but for all that it became a counterculture symbol, there’s no mistaking the terrain presented here as an idyll, at any point.
Captain America (Fonda) may be a taciturn stud all the girls want, an essentially benign free-love philosopher, but his Dr Gonzo, Billy the Kid (Hopper) really is a freak, the air around him pregnant with anything but peace and love, be it bitching about the commune or feeding acid to a hooker with the instruction “Just shut up and take it!” (even America plies the abstinent girl with drink). The commune is a joke: “You get much rain here, man?” they ask as zombified youth cast seed onto arid ground and a mime troupe provides entertainment. It could be something out of Mad Max. The girl interested in Captain America is close to a vacuous hippy caricature (“Are you an Aquarius? Pisces?”)
Billy the Kid: Where are you from?
Stranger: It’s hard to say.
Luke Askew’s stranger shows up for almost as long as Nicholson does later. If he isn’t nearly as verbose, he has some equally amusing dialogue (following from the exchange above: “It’s hard to say, because it’s a very long word”). The picture’s plunge into what could later be identified as Deliverance territory would inform much of the following decade, so this is where we have to wonder, for all its apparently low-budget, made-on-the-fly qualities, just how much coherent prescription was involved with Easy Rider (obviously, such things can as capably come via osmosis, probably more frequently so, the prescriptive elements having been absorbed from the surrounding environment). A landscape simply dangerous to hippy scum here would soon also be deadly to clean-cut urbanites (John Boorman’s movie) and your average student (Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
In but a season, the dream will have fully disintegrated – “We blew it” – as a sign that the decade’s mission has been accomplished. Be that “landing” on the Moon or the forlorn belief we could really be free if we just love each other. And in the act of completion reset, by way of newly installed cynicism and paranoia. Easy Rider opened July 14 1969, reaching No.1 at the box office in its fourteenth week; its climb of the charts “coincided” with the Manson murders, in which the darker motives of apparently innocent hippy types were writ large (in that regard, the shot of Captain America discovering an oversized knife in the commune, which he examines, feels like an ominous portend). Manson later wanted Hopper to star in a film of his life, and Hopper met him during his incarceration. The former may or may not have been an MKUltra’d performer, but the actor’s fit for the role might have been less seamless than it first appeared. Hopper was possibly too unhinged for the role.
As demented as many of Hopper’s assertions were regarding his involvement in the movie, he had the rub of any idea that his lead characters were (tragic) heroes, however tailored its trajectory is to make seem so: “At the start of the movie, Peter and I do a very American thing – we commit a crime, we go for the easy money. That’s one of the big problems with the country right now: everybody’s going for the easy money”. There’s no hippy dream underlying the duo’s scheme. They want to score a big cache of money and retire in Florida. There’s nothing aspirational about these guys. They aren’t free or en route for the same. Captain America’s always trying to sooth Billy’s fraying nerves – particularly about their load – but his diffidence eventually resolves itself in realisation (Southern attested Fonda and Hopper had the duo riding off into the sunset, so he had to course correct them. Rather than seeing them punished for their own greed – for that is what it is, regardless of high-flown rhetoric or mindedness – he saw them as unjustly pilloried: “In my mind, the film was to be an indictment of blue-collar America, the people I thought were responsible for the Vietnam War”).
What were the chances Easy Rider should accidentally mirror the final decimation of the dream – or at least, its irreversible bottoming out – with the Manson murders, and that it should also lay the foundations for the altogether more hedonistic drug of choice for the next decade. Fonda suggested they hit on cocaine – rather than heroin – because it was innocent, “the drug of kings”. Hopper was also quite unvarnished in recognising that, predictive or otherwise, taking credit where it wasn’t due or not, Easy Rider had a significant influence: “The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider it was everywhere”.
George: That was a – UFO beamin’ back at ya. Me and Eric Heisman was down in Mexico two weeks ago, we seen forty of ’em flyin’ in formation. They – they – they’ve got bases all over the world now, you know. They’ve been comin’ here ever since 1946, when the scientists first started bouncin’ radar beams off of the moon. And they have been livin’ and workin’ among us, in vast quantities, ever since. The government knows all about ’em.
On a lighter influential note, is Easy Rider the “in” to “real world” ET movies, of the variety that got their big break proper with Spielberg a shade under a decade later? George represents your affable conspiracy theorist, very nearly naming Roswell and laying the blame for these visitations on “Venusians”. Of course, his spin is positive – “… a chance to transcend and to evolve with some equality for all” – and so an inverse of the Elite’s actions (and those of their extended influencers). They are expressly concealing their malign intent, but George’s estimation is that the same obfuscation is for our protection; if they revealed themselves, “it would cause a general panic”, such that our leaders “have decided to repress this information because of the tremendous shock that it would cause to our antiquated systems”.
Pauline Kael’s most salient takeaway was the picture’s contribution to a general mood of nihilism and paranoia: “The numbing hopelessness of Easy Rider has emotional appeal; the irrationality and the cool, romantic defeatism are infused with an elegiac sense of American failure”. For her, the movie’s message is the sense audiences take away from it: “It’s cool to feel that you can’t win, that it’s all rigged and hopeless. It’s even cool to believe in purity and sacrifice”. This is of course, a chicken-and-egg situation; is such “coolness” recognising the harsh reality of the situation, or is simply the latest youth accoutrement, in the manner tie-dye t-shirts and Edwardian outfits were a few years earlier? For those who see a Tavistock-nurtured “rise and fall” in the social architecture of the ’60s, events simply played out as planned, a compressed journey of idealism and disillusion.
Kael’s assessment that Captain America is a “hero” maybe incorrect – even Hopper saw him otherwise – but it holds up in terms of how he was perceived by the masses: “Those of us who reject the heroic central character and the statements of Easy Rider may still be caught by something edgy and ominous to it – the acceptance of the constant danger of sudden violence. We’re not sure how much of this paranoia isn’t paranoia”. Indeed, fast forward a couple of years, and there is, as noted above, a more pervasive threat than one posed simply to the counter-culture freaks. No one is safe and everyone needs protecting, and if Burt Reynolds can’t do it, just maybe the State can.
Kael even comes close to the nutshell of an organic movement versus a predicated one, how an Easy Rider, with its “glamorous suicidal masochism”, may “express a mood that is just coming to popular consciousness, or present heroes who connect in new ways. They not only reflect what is going on in the country but, sometimes by expressing it, and sometimes distorting it, affect it, too… Movies like these enter the national bloodstream…” The ’70s, of course, gave off the idea that the young upstarts were dictating terms in a New Hollywood, with a more realist, downbeat and despairing view of escapism, where “happily ever after” tended to become an exception, and one that was to be considered innately suspect.
Which is what they wanted, arguably, as you need that to then move onto the shameless materialism of the ’80s. Kael also wondered that “Much of the hopelessness in movies like… Easy Rider… that kill off their protagonists is probably dictated not by a consideration of actual alternatives and the conclusion that there’s no hope but simply by what seems daring and new and photogenic”. At a certain point, such an aesthetic motive is undoubtedly operating, if only by learned response; it’s what everyone is doing at the time.
Ultimately, then, Kael was right. Easy Rider serves as a propaganda flick, aimed at the youth, informing them – or agreeing with them – with regard to mood and attitude. Lay that Steppenwolf on the turntable, and you don’t have to interrogate Captain America’s motivations, the ones that instigated his demise. That he didn’t blow it, because there was nothing left to blow.
First published by Now in Full Color on 03/06/22.