Blog Directory CineVerse: Wyatt and Billy may have blown it, but "Easy Rider" doesn't

Wyatt and Billy may have blown it, but "Easy Rider" doesn't

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

On its impending golden anniversary, "Easy Rider" has the ability to shake off the cobwebs and shine with a luster befitting its age and stature. Yes, it's creaky in parts, and the late 1960s may feel as irrelevant today as the Prohibition era did then. But dare to look deeper and you'll find rivulets of undeniable truth spurting from virtually every seam on this faded denim feature.

Last week, CineVerse took a time machine back to the summer of 1969 to rediscover this relic; what surprised our group was how powerful a testament to a time and generation the film remains. Here's a recap of our discussion:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?
  • It’s a time capsule of a film that depicts what was in the public consciousness in the late 1960s, a time when the counterculture and the young generation was searching for answers, power and respect. This film spoke to them in ways that no previous movie had because it presented characters and themes that represented their generation and its hopes and dreams. It’s also one of the first examples of a movie catering to audiences who had grown increasingly dissatisfied with and suspicious of the government and the establishment; consider all the cynicism, mistrust and pessimism we see directed toward the police, the military, politicians, and the American dream in subsequent movies, particularly in the early to mid-1970s.
  • Even if it looks and feels dated 50 years later, it serves as a fascinating snapshot of the late 1960s and the lessons we can learn from that era and the people this film mattered to at that time. 
  • This, along with a few predecessors like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, helped rewrite the rules of American film by introducing more adult situations, profanity, nudity, and drug use and effectively ending the censorship era. 
  • It’s a wildly experimental film in narrative and editing style; while some of its techniques, like the stagger-ific flash forwarding to future scenes, may no longer be effective or in fashion, this was a completely unique film for its time or any time—not a cookie cutter production that colored within the lines. 
  • Easy Rider also stands as a revisionist western that usurps and updates the classic Hollywood western film; consider how Wyatt and Billy are named after western icons, yet look, act and think so differently from those real-life characters. Instead of riding horses, they drive motorcycles. Also, instead of heading west, they’re travelling east—antithetical to the direction you’d expect in a western heroes. 
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • It became one of the most successful independent films of all time up to that point, earning $60 million worldwide on about a $400,000 budget, proving that movies made outside the control of the major studios and by guerrilla filmmakers could make big money as well as earn critical acclaim. This achievement motivated many other up-and-coming directors and independent filmmakers to pursue their own outside-Hollywood projects.
  • Like The Graduate before it, it features a soundtrack of pop music that was contemporary and popular in its time, eschewing an instrumental original score; today, countless movies follow the same musical formula. 
  • It introduced Jack Nicholson to the masses and made him a star overnight. Nicholson steals every scene he is in and has the best lines of the film. 
  • It was the “first film to show drugs as an accepted part of people’s lives,” according to critic Emanuel Levy. The actors used real drugs in the movie, and the acid trip is considered the first and most authentic use of LSD in a major motion picture. 
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Easy Rider?
  • Is it possible to be a truly free American? Wyatt and Billy pride themselves on being untethered nomads who are free to roam and explore where they want, completely off the grid and beholden to no one. But is this ideal hippie lifestyle practical or truly possible? We see how the establishment—in the form of rednecks—doesn’t approve of them and, eventually kills them. Although it may no longer be as dangerous to be like Billy or Wyatt on the road, prejudice, intolerance and generational and political divides still exist and threaten this ideal.
    • Think about the most important lines in the movie, uttered by Nicholson: “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you present to ’em…What you represent to them is freedom.”
    • Consider, too, how Nicholson’s character serves as an intermediary and fulcrum between two diverse sides: the counterculture and the establishment. His character is a mix of both, and it’s fitting that he appears roughly in the middle of the movie.
  • The death of the 1960s ideal. The counterculture and the hippie generation yearned for independence from the establishment and corporate America and the liberty to be able to live their alternative lifestyles and practice free love in peace while expressing themselves without fear of reprisal. But we see how that turns out for Wyatt and Billy.
    • The line “we blew it” also reinforces this. You could interpret this as a confession that Wyatt and Billy have sold out their values and idealism by making the drug score and valuing money and possessions, conforming to a capitalist ethos in that regard while also failing to truly feel free. In a 1995 making-of featurette, Hopper said the film’s main message was that freedom comes with great responsibility; Billy and Wyatt didn’t live up to that responsibility.
    • Or, consider what Criterion Collection essayist Matt Zoller Seitz wrote: “But the line strikes me also as a more personal sort of confession, an admission that they have ultimately succumbed and bought into their own outlaw version of the capitalist rat race—the idea that a man is not a true success unless he has accumulated enough money to stop working and take it easy.”
  • Martyrdom. Wyatt and Billy are, ultimately, counterculture casualties in the culture wars of the late 1960s, and Wyatt in particular is drawn as a kind of Christ-like figure. We see how they enjoy a sort of “last supper” in New Orleans and then have a kind of “Garden of Gethsemane” experience of LSD-induced confusion, suffering and prayer before they are killed. You could interpret the end of the film as decidedly downbeat, making the movie a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-expression and pursuit of individuality in a country that isn’t truly “free.”
    • Levy wrote: “The movie goes to great lengths to celebrate the romantic individualism of the youth movement, but within this celebration there is actually a thoughtful and clever warning. Easy Rider, be it dated, does present the question of whether excessive, irresponsible individualism might have detrimental effects.”
    • Seitz believed that “the film’s piquant final shot—the camera rising away from Wyatt’s shattered, burning bike—suggests a soul’s ascent to heaven. It could represent the death of a man, or of a dream of revolution. But it may also signify the death of a false dream of comfort. Billy and Wyatt were born to be wild, and they died wild; in its twisted way, it’s a happy ending.”
    • Roger Ebert posited: “It is possible to see that Captain America and Billy died not only for our sins, but also for their own.”
  • Being in the right place at the right time.
    • Recall how the commune leader gives Wyatt and Billy a cube of acid that he recommends they quarter it once they get to the right place with the right people; yet, when they choose to consume it with the prostitutes in New Orleans, we see what is depicted as a bad trip, insinuating that this was the wrong time with the wrong people.
    • Earlier, Wyatt throws away his wristwatch, as if suggesting that he will not be bound by the rules and restrictions of time. While we may cheer this rebellious act of nonconformity, we see examples as the movie progresses of how Wyatt and his friends end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, ultimately leading to their deaths. It’s also possible that these men are too far ahead of their time to be accepted, or that it’s impossible not to live a life free of the boundaries of time, schedules and temporal constraints.
    • Characters throughout the film talk about time, delivering lines like “Do your own thing in your own time,” “The time’s running out…” “I’m hip about time.”
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in 1969, and who do you think it appeals to today? And if that appeal has changed, what does that say about the film’s impact, influence and legacy?
  • Undoubtedly, in 1969 this feature attracted young adults and teenagers, hippies, college students and liberals, as well as bikers and motorcycle enthusiasts; I recall Dennis Hopper noting in a making-of doc that some people in theaters cheered for the rednecks and the demise of Wyatt and Billy, so it’s likely that many people who weren’t part of or sympathetic to the youth movement or counterculture also went to see this picture.
  • Today, my hunch is this is more of a dated but fascinating relic to newer generations and a much harder sell as a recommendation. While many of its themes remain timeless and resonant, this is definitely a movie anchored in the time it was made and arguably irrelevant and odd to younger viewers who didn’t live through the 1960s and 1970s.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • Hitchhikers, acid trips, communes, asking people for their zodiac signs—these are fossils of a bygone era.
  • On the other hand, marijuana is a much more tolerated and trusted drug today that is becoming legalized in many states for recreational purposes, so Billy and Wyatt’s pot smoking doesn’t seem as dated or taboo.
  • There remains a great cultural, sociological and political divide in this country, as evidenced by continued racism, intolerance and animosity by many toward people who are different from them. As depicted in Easy Rider, it still feels as if there are two Americas—liberal vs. conservative, blue versus red, socialist vs. capitalist, North or West vs. South, and alternative vs. mainstream.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Arguably, it’s greatest gift is that the movie serves as a document of a specific time in American history—1969, when our country was terribly divided along generational, racial and political lines. In this way, although the context has changed, it can present relevant messages today, also a time of great schism in our country’s history. The questions it asks, such as “is America truly free,” and “is individuality, personal liberty and autonomy an illusion in a world controlled by corporate greed,” are meaningful today, too.
  • Many contend that Easy Rider’s strongest point is the casting and performance of Jack Nicholson. You could make a case that its greatest gift was the introduction of an acting legend who, at the time, confessed that he was ready to quit acting after toiling in obscurity for so many years; Nicholson demonstrates his great talent for bringing remarkably colorful and likeable characters to life.
  • Remember, too, that Easy Rider made it cool to use pop music as your soundtrack; that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP