How do you imagine freedom?
So much tattle about Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" and I still haven't managed to watch it...until Saturday came.
For everybody, that – like me – has survived without watching the movie, here is a brief recap of what is going on: Hopper's first movie as a director tells the story of two guys that just got some money out of a drug deal. On a road trip on their Harley Davidson motorbikes, they are trying to make their way all through the American south/southwest just in time for the famously celebrated Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans/Lousiana.
Two guys (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper himself), two Harley Davidsons, some mind opening drugs, in one big country. No duties, no responsibilities: what seems to be at first glance the story of a soon to be forgotten Sunday night TV series should become one of the most recognized and commercially successful blockbusters of the time (a gross revenue of about $42 Mio. with a budget of less than half a million dollars), indicating that a new area in Cinema – the so called “New Hollywood” – is about to take over. An, at least for me, unexpectedly intimate quest for freedom in the land of boundless possibility, that after the turbulent events of the 60s, has left a disillusioned generation of mostly young Americans, that feel more and more detached from the government and its policies. What to do, where to go, who to be in this new world – those are the questions that Wyatt (totally handsome played by producer Peter Fonda) and Billy (director Dennis Hopper) are longing to answer.
On their way to New Orleans they make the acquaintance of the Americas most scurrile characters that bring then into all kinds of dangerous and bizarre situations. Among those encounters they pick up a hippie that they eventually give a ride to his commune, where they can observe over their short visit that, although sounding very alternative and free, life in a commune is, especially for those big city cosmopolitans, surprisingly hard and unromantic. (Just a side note for everybody into film gossip: like famous contemporary film maker Sofia Coppola who has made her even more famous father Francis and brother Roman become the producers of her new film “Somewhere” and her husband to sing its soundtrack, also Fonda seems to enjoy working with his family on set: in the commune scene you can find Fonda’s back then four year old daughter having her film premier.) Later on, leaving the commune life behind we find the two motor cyclists arrested for (drunkenly) disturbing a street-parade, where they get to know lawyer George (brilliantly Jack Nicholson), who, although suffering from a severe alcohol addiction, manages to get them out of jail and soon joins them on their trip. Unfortunately with not such a good ending for George, who, after an argument with some small minded hillbillies (“locals”) tragically finds him at the end of his personal tour.
Now again as a duo, Wyatt and Billy are again on the road for New Orleans, only briefly stopping at George’s favorite brothel to pick up some “Staff” Karen and Mary, that they take with them along to the Mardi Gras Parade – supposedly the end of their journey, which they of course wanted to celebrate accordingly with a special farewell present from the hippie. “Take it with the right people” he said when he handed over the LSD, that now is the reason for a cinematographically beautiful, yet disturbing pre-finale scene.
A long tour comes to an end through an America we have seen portrayed in multiple faces – racist hillbillies, wild whores and “free” hippies, drunks and drug-addicts – not quite the America I imagined finding in this film, but quite a statement by Hopper and Fonda about what they perceive as being their country and its people at that time.
Besides telling the stories of the people they meet and portaying the environment they live in, the movie also shows another face of the United States in its turbulent times at the end of the 10960s. A country built on the pillers of freedom, stuck in small-mindness towards differentness. A country divided by its own people and their approach to otherness.
"A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere..." says the movie poster.
All this in front of the beautiful backdrop of the American south (definitely to be watched on big screen) and to the music of this time's hipster-bands: Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendirx Experience, The Byrds...Who doesn’t like to sing along the lines of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”, that so much reflect the movie, the lyrics of a whole generation (although not mine, but I still love it)?
Get your motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way
Like a true nature child
We were born
Born to be wild
We have climbed so high
Never want to die
Born to be wild
Born to be wild
I had tons of prejudices before seeing the movie. In particular, I was concerned that this is kind of a macho-road-movie, where the protagonists focus on sex, drugs, beer and motorbikes and run short in telling a deep story...and in Easy Rider: yes, it is kind of a macho movie with the former mentioned attributed but it definitely doesn’t lack drive and thoughtfulness! It's everything else but boring!
I was more than surprised, when the movie turned out to be a very sensitive and contemporary portray of this huge American country and some of its issues in society – also capturing some very current issues of today.
Using drug experience, sex orgies and contrasting it with the loneliness on the road and the intimacy at a fire place the movie found a great way of showing an intimate quest for freedom.
Easy Rider (1969) - ****