Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy.
March 12, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
The concept of notorious crazy person Dennis Hopper "directing" a movie is about as ludicrous as said movie becoming an American classic, but hey, 1969 was one hell of a year, and cocaine is one hell of a drug. Following the collapse of the studio system in Hollywood, the way was paved for many a renegade to ride into town with their unique vision. The success of Arthur Penn's ultra-violent Bonnie and Clyde proved that audiences were both ready and eager for edgier cinematic fare; perhaps something featuring counter-culture anti-heroes that had more in common with the baby boomer generation than, say, Doctor Dolittle.
One of the first answers to this call was Hopper's Easy Rider, produced and co-conceived by Peter Fonda. The duo co-wrote the picture with Terry Southern, and, figuring they were not yet burdened with enough responsibility, they took on the lead roles too. The two of them fought incessantly and indulged in enough narcotics to kill a small herd of elephants. Nonetheless, the picture was a massive hit, kicked the New Hollywood movement into overdrive, and is still regarded more than 40 years later as an enduring masterpiece. Considering eventual New Hollywood shepherds Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson were the ones who ponied up the $365,000 budget, that is a great return on a very stupid bet. Fonda's climactic phrase, "We blew it," turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.
Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper.
Fonda and Hopper play bikers Wyatt (aka Captain America) and Billy, respectively. Flush with cash after smuggling some coke across the border, they jump on their hogs in Los Angeles and head to New Orleans. Determined to celebrate Mardi Gras, they are temporarily distracted by a commune of free-spirits, and later arrested for "parading without a permit." Behind bars they meet drunken lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who agrees to join them on their epic quest. Camped out one evening, Billy offers him a joint, giving us the unique pleasure of watching Nicholson turn down grass. He claims he's never had it before. I'd sooner believe those words coming from Hopper's lips.
There's not much more plot to relate. At one roadside cafe, the curious-looking trio is denied service and mocked/threatened by a bunch of good ol' boys sitting at another table. Wyatt, Billy, and George walk away, though it's not the last time their paths will cross. This encounter is the catalyst for two sequences of shocking brutality. Having never seen it before, I was certain Easy Rider would position its protagonists as boundary-pushing aggressors, on a mission to teach "the man" a lesson; instead, they're depicted as pacifists and victims. At the aforementioned commune, starving hippies pray for a bountiful crop. When they finally get to Mardi Gras, Wyatt and Billy endure the LSD-trip from hell (at a cemetery, no less). The film is a plea for acceptance and peace from its counter-culture subjects to the rest of the United States, to God, and ultimately to themselves. It's not a pro-drugs movie. It's not a pro-America movie. When all is said and done, I'm not even sure this is a pro-bike movie.
The soundtrack is electrifying, and, even in a drugged-out haze, Hopper's directorial eye is a decent one. He employs one unique trick throughout, in which scenes transition to the next via a strobe effect. It's as if the characters can literally see through time, a'la Milhouse on an all-syrup squishy binge. That very idiosyncratic trait isn't mimicked today, and further reminds us that this is a product of its time. Easy Rider is a cynical indictment of the USA and the festering resentment between its cultures at a very specific period. Though deserving of its esteemed status on account of the cinematic revolution it spawned, the feature itself is something of a relic. But since when isn't it fascinating to reflect on the fossils of the past?
Easy Rider is available on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix Play.