Tuesday 12 August 2008

Born To Be Wild- Easy Rider, a Message They Will Never Kill

It's still a subversive film.
It's still a divisive film.

It's a message that still holds power today.

You either love the film, or you hate it.
Either everything it says resonates within you, or you shiver at the bluntness of the calling.
It doesn't hold back.

But Easy Rider is one of those films, you just cannot ignore.

And now, more than thirty years on, it's message is as powerful as ever.

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this post will reveal plot details, including the ending.

From the opening credits, this isn't a film selling an establishment message. It begins by establishing it's credentials. It's a film with anti-heroes, and no heroes. The central figures are what they are.

It starts with a drug deal. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper earning the cash they need for what is going to be, for them, the journey of a lifetime.

They are going to bike across America from San Francisco to New Orleans.

The two form one of those strangely matched mismatches, Fonda the calm but cynical thinker, Hopper the out and out drugfiend just out to fry his head and enjoy life before the atom bomb drops. The two are heading to the Mardi Gras to party and perhaps enjoy a scenic ride along the way.

That journey, is the subject of the film.

It's about their choices in life and the attitude of society to those who refuse to bang the drums society thinks they should.

The film pits the values of the era of peace and love, for all its seedy drug induced overtones against the society that judged it, and the society that judged it, does not come off the moral victor.

This is why the film still divides.

In part, the film is about Fonda's personal journey. To him, the 'scene' is about more than just getting high. He seeks more. Hopper doesn't.
Early on in the film, the pair end up the guests of a commune in the desert.

The commune isn't working. But not due to lack of effort. And not really due to lack of resources. But lack of enough people with enough determination to make it work. The attitude of the two to the commune speaks volumes- and it's a subtle point critics of the film often miss. These are the REAL hippies- not just druggies out for a good time. The inhabitants of the commune can't afford to get high all day, they are trying to feed themselves in a better way than the society around them chooses to do.

And Hopper is bored.
But Fonda wants to stay. In his heart of hearts, we know Fonda has found his home. Fonda wants to stay and be part of the commune, make it work, be part of it's success.

And as the two depart, we know it is because Fonda has promised to go to New Orleans with his friend. But we suspect that the ending will see Hopper return to San Francisco alone.

We are wrong. We cannot forsee the brutal tragedy that underlies this film.

Much of the film is devoted to making us see that, the ignorant bigotry, the threat of violence that forms an undercurrent in the land of the free. The looks, the taunts, the hostility that the pair receive in small towns.

In Texas, the pair meet Jack Nicholson, a failed drunkard lawyer, whom they encounter in gaol after 'parading without a license'.

The film rapidly changes pace here, as Nicholson's world collides with that of Hopper and Fonda and now Fonda has a passenger on his bike.

Heart warming? Yes, it's a heartwarming film. Because it's a film about people and humanity. And the irony is that the only person in that small Texas town to see beyond the leather jackets, the bikes and the air of ill omen that small town Texas has been trained to see, is the town failure.

And in the scenes where the three interact, we see that very little really divides people when they're allowed to pull down the barriers that divide them.

This scene, by the way, wasn't scripted. It was a real joint, and Nicholson really did come out with his speech ad lib. Watch the reactions of the other two- especially Fonda. He's directing here, and he's keeping the cameras rolling on an unexpected- and legendary bonus to the film.

I suppose at this point, you still expect a happy ending. This is a feel good film, you think.

Not so. In Louisiania itself the three encounter genuine hostility in a restaurant over the length of Hopper's hair, which results in Nicholson's murder.

The Mardi Gras itself contains some of the darkest psychedelic imagery in cinematic history as we see what Hopper and Fonda actually do at the Mardi Gras. And it pulls no punches. If you think the film is blindly pro-drugs, watch the Mardi-Gras scenes. There is nothing edifying about what is shown here- realistic, yes, glamourising, no.

And in the aftermath, we cannot help but agree with Fonda's words to Hopper 'We blew it'.

They blew it.
Fonda wanted to stay and build a useful life back at the commune. His life had already had one drug binge too many, Hopper's could never have enough.

But we hope. We hope that the film can end with Fonda's bike wheeling up the slops to the commune.

It can't.

Small town America wins in the end.

The world consists of two types of people in my book. Those who are moved by Easy Rider, and those who aren't.
And I'm sorry to say, it's actually one of those things I think says a lot about people.

So yes, 'Have you seen Easy Rider?' is an important question for me.
And if the answer is 'yes', then what you thought of it is a crucial factor in how I judge you.

Because you either believe in freedom, or you don't.

And this film is a cry for freedom.


Anonymous said...

Hey you should write movie stuff more often. I enjoyed reading this.

And I haven't watched Easy Rider, can you believe it? It was at my local video shop and I picked it up the other day but put it back. Now I'll go and find it and watch it ok?

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you mention this film, for I've been up to my neck with it recently. Curiously, I've never taken the opportunity to see the film, yet I've read so much about it.

Curious too, this post presages my next series. I'm going to link to it somewhere, I'm sure.

Coming as it did in 1969, Easy Rider was one of a number of dystopian visions of the counterculture in the popular eye. Many in the '70s would ask the very question, "Did we blow it?"

Anonymous said...

I think I was too young when I saw it, just didn't get it. My head was probably up my ass too - my focus was more on money in those days, my creativity was repressed. You sell it well, I should watch it again.

I liked Five Easy Pieces, had some of the same themes - struggle for freedom and meaning in a soul-sucking world, need for hard work to get by conflicting with those desires for freedom and joy.

Anonymous said...

looks like i should see it ;-)
will watch your youtube clips in the day (am online in parents bedroom now, where the computer with internet connection is, so can't watch now ;-)).

you write up the film very well; i can almost feel what you mean...

Anonymous said...

Kate- It's only the second review I've ever done, actually.

I did one for Leaving Las Vegas a while back.
I think I probably will end up doing more. I think Jacob's Ladder is on the cards. And Dead Men's Shoes.

You should get it out, definitely. You'll love it. Great music score, great scenery, and it moves from high comedy, to political comentery, to dark tragedy.

X-dell- I guess I empathise with the Peter Fonda character- as I guess, you're supposed to. As I've grown older I've understood the film more than I did at twenty. Back then, I just saw it as a cool film about cool people and the ending came as a shock.

It is a masterpiece, it really is.

Yes, it is a social message. Its askingcounterculture what it really stands for, pretty much as I think our generation are now, only in a diffeent, more wordly wise way, because we're more of a hidden counter-culture.

Benjibopper- You should, I think it means more when you've ben a bit battered by life. I think it's a film for those who still believe, but have lost their innocence a bit.

Not seen Five Easy Pieces, I'll admit. I'll check it out.

Eve- I think the clips are some of the best bits, though there were a couple of scenes I wanted, but couldn't find.

I think I pretty much caught the basic themes of the film. I guess it kind of lies in my subconscious somewhere, kind of like the Perseus Myth might have done to Plato- its a sort of moral fable, an allegory if you like, of the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

I stopped at the spoiler warning. I will borrow the movie and then come back to read. I'm taking a wild guess that I will like it and sympathise and that most of my friends will not. Unknowing slaves don't like to hear tales of those who wish to be free and often react with much indignity. Of course I'm making wild assumptions about the nature of this movie I have not yet seen...