Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Easy Rider

America Lost & Found: The BBS Story, Part V


"They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to them."

The speaker of that line is a lawyer named George (Jack Nicholson), and he goes on to explain that what he means by his statement is "freedom": a complete severence from the grid of society's work schedules, prepackaged foods, and yes, short hair. Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are a pair of "true nature's child(ren)" who've decided to hit the pavement on a pair of gleaming choppers to discover the genuine U.S.A. Their destination is New Orleans, and the road to it is filled with nature's wonders and man's hate. The pair eventually makes it there, but things don't end so well for them.

As I watched 1969's EASY RIDER again recently, I began to ponder the finale a bit more. It is a sudden, violent, fiery finish, but for this film it is entirely necessary. I mean that both in narrative logic and in more ambiguous thematic terms. The cyclists' odyssey through America has been made possible by the sale of some heavy narcotic. In the opening scenes, the men purchase the unidentified drug in Mexico and then sell it in L.A. to a guy who pulls up in a Rolls Royce. Wyatt, who prefers to be called Captain America (complete with American Flag helmet), stows the cash in the gas tank of his cycle - a bit of symbolism that could provoke endless discussion. It is enough money for him and his compadre to realize their dream life, though we learn later that their actual final stop is Florida, to retire. Just like those thousands of working stiffs who take a bit longer to reach that goal.

So our heroes did the deal like the good capitalists they so despise, threw their watches away cause they're free, man and proceed to experience the backroads and backwaters of our great nation. Check their first names too, bro, yet another thing that makes EASY RIDER seem like a Western on wheels. Just a whole lot hipper.

Most of the time, these guys are completely stoned (according to the materials on the Criterion discs, Hopper et. al really were). Once they reach New Orleans, they advance to harder stuff, acid, which causes much anxiety amongst the chaos of Mardi Gras. Captain America, usually quite the stoic one, even jumps up on a statue and talks to it as if it is his deceased mother (Fonda's real-life mother died when he was 10). They survive the bad trip, after which Wyatt announces that they "blew it." Billy is confused, thinking that they've achieved exactly what they set out to do, and now Florida is just a yellow brick road away.

The path which led them there was troubled. It started fine, with a stop off to meet a friendly farmer who invites them to stay for dinner, with food grown off the land (Captain America really digs that). They pick up a hitchhiker who leads them to a commune of hippies and dropouts who also drop seeds, hoping for a rich harvest. Harvest of food, I mean. These folks also wanted to free themselves of the shackles of the Man and his utility companies and shopping centers. But it gets a little weird at the compound, so Billy and Wyatt split. Then, after getting themselves jailed for driving in a parade without a permit, they meet George, a short haired lawyer who "tied one on" the night before. He's a local, with a hot shot father, and he seems to have a clear perspective on things. He tags along with the duo, laying out for them (and the audience), why this who lifestyle they chose is so dangerous. It won't take long for all three to realize this. They encounter some lynch mob locals in Louisiana. That's America, boys. EASY RIDER ends with a couple of shotgun blasts and downed bikes afire.

The ending is abrupt but inevitable. What cost freedom? Indeed. It makes perfect sense. I originally saw EASY RIDER when I was in high school, responding more to the film's gorgeous travelogue (the New Mexico landscape especially is breathtaking, cinematographer Laslo Kovacs does astounding work again) and ultracool rock soundtrack (Steppenwolf, The Band, Jimi Hendrix). I don't think that bummer of a close resonated as strongly then. Today, it's as if I watched some Americans die for their rights, their freedoms, but in a different way than those who wear military uniforms and comandeer tanks. These guys wear their hair long with pride, they love Mother Earth and believe in live and let live.

But screenwriters Hopper, Fonda, and Terry Southern don't make these guys heroes or martyrs. They are not bathed in some sort of grandeur; they're just people who make choices. With any choice comes responsibility. How exactly did they blow it? If EASY RIDER was some sort of sermon, it wouldn't work, and I don't believe it would've become the sensation it did, even if a lot of its fans took it as some sort of religion. The film was made for less than a mill, bankrolled by the BBS guys after the Monkees venture took off ("If it weren't for the Monkees, there wouldn't have been an EASY RIDER", says Steve Blauner in an interview on Disc Two). It would go on to gross around 60 million dollars worldwide. Seen today, that is unfathomable. It was released by Columbia Pictures. A European style art film with a bare narrative is a box office success in America? It once again makes me wish I had been born earlier.

Criterion's treatment of EASY RIDER includes 2 commentaries. Hopper does one solo, his husky voice full of interesting info but like so many commentaries, he's silent for long stretches. I found it odd that he did not comment on one of the film's most famous moments, when we first see Nicholson on the back of Fonda's ride, sporting a football helmet. Someone once described that as the moment when Jack became a star. Another commentary features, Hopper, Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis. Brief footage of Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival is also featured.

Two making-of docs are also on Disc 2, one from 1995 and the other from '99, with cast and crew often contradicting each other on the tumultuous history of the movie. Hopper comes off like an egomaniac, a wild child. Perhaps his explosive personality is part of what made EASY RIDER such a classic. These guys lived it. They did not retreat to cozy trailers at the end of the day. In fact, Hopper tells of how he resented Stepehen Stills' (of Crosby, Stills, & Nash) arriving to pick him up in a Rolls to discuss scoring. Hopper literally bolted; he wanted authenticty at every level. He would instead utilize the above artists' songs to narrate this trenchant film. It was one of the first movies to feature songs rather than a score. There's also a story of how Hopper pulled on a knife on actor Rip Torn, who was originally supposed to play Wyatt. For years, Hopper rebutted that it was the other way around. And so on.

My favorite moment of the supplements? Blauner gets his own interview, recounting the genesis and development of the BBS project. He's entertainingly gruff as he talks about EASY RIDER's meteoric success. He also describes a fateful association with a young director named Jim McBride (who would later make THE BIG EASY), and how he (Blauner) got so frustrated with the auteur that he slammed a hotel room door and quit the movie business right then and there. The screen immediately goes dark, and we see the credits. I laughed out loud at how abrupt this was. It gives great insight into those forces who make films like EASY RIDER happen. These folks may be tough to take in person, but thank God for the likes of Blauner and Dennis Hopper (who passed in 2010). They saved us from mediocrity in art. EASY RIDER and the next 2 films in the BBS series to be reviewed are clear testament to that.....
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