Sunday, September 30, 2018
All Walks Of Life
You shouldn’t leave California. That’s the first thing to remember. My parents did, back in the 60s after they moved out here from New York, then they went back a year later. My mother always says that when they saw the George Washington Bridge upon returning they knew they’d made a mistake. I know they went back a few other times over the next couple of years but it never really stuck then I turned up in the early 70s and that was that. Maybe it was my job to do what they didn’t. That’s the whole idea of going west in order to make a life, to see what else is out there and discover your own personal idea of freedom. But for all the western imagery found in EASY RIDER it’s a film where the two leads do the exact opposite, with California represented as little more than a place where planes land, the modern way for people to arrive. There’s nothing there for these guys anymore, I suppose, so they leave. But it never seems to have occurred to them that they don’t know what else they’re supposed to find.
After scoring a large amount of cocaine down in Mexico then selling it off for considerable cash back up across the border, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) take off on their motorcycles with the money safely hidden in Wyatt’s gas tank, heading across the country to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Finding themselves unwelcome at roadside motels, they camp out under the stars at night with their journey taking them to a welcoming rancher with his family out in the desert followed by a hitchhiker who leads them to a commune populated by a group desperately attempting to grow their own crops. After being arrested in a small southern town for ‘parading without a license’ their jailhouse detour leads them to meeting George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who soon joins them, willing and open to what they have to offer. But as Wyatt and Billy get closer to New Orleans things begin to darken on the trip across America which they originally thought was everything that they were looking for.
Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER lives in the past. It always will, there’s no getting around that. I’ll never know firsthand what it was like to be there when the film was first released back in July ’69, a month before Woodstock and Tate-LaBianca, so I’ll always be looking at it from a slight distance. Written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern the film lives in the specific moment it was made but it’s also genuine enough that it becomes more than just a relic with its own things to say about what you can really find out there. Even the idea of leaving the west behind seems part of the point of going against that genre along with any connection the two leads have to classic Hollywood and what they’re trying to break away from. As a film by itself it works as a road movie, one with gorgeous scenery and an awesome soundtrack as well as just enough moments of introspection to lend a certain amount of weight to it all. The pacing feels tightened down to its essentials and necessary story beats with the occasional awkwardness due to using non-actors or maybe because certain scenes didn’t get the necessary coverage; one of the most traumatic events goes by so fast you could hardly blame a first-time viewer from experiencing a little whiplash. But it’s the imagery that seeps in and as much as it’s a film about wandering it always stays focused while ready to jump into another travel montage boosted up by all that music. Some of the best sections play as pure cinema, whether the dialogue-free drug sale at the opening or just letting us absorb the scenery which starts off majestic but gets uglier and uglier as we move closer to the end, literal walls coming down on these guys from everything being built up around them. All throughout the photographer’s eye of Dennis Hopper shines through, catching just the right way to frame them against the majesty, against what they want to get away from.
Even the completely unhurried way the campfire scenes play out is a perfect way to get us into that druggy vibe as they wonder about the world far out there, the effect showing how much they’re willing to take their conversations in unexpected directions that could lead to all the answers imaginable, UFOs or otherwise. Wyatt aka Captain America famously throws away his watch as the two of them set off on their journey, a pretty blatant symbol of materialism and everything that idea represents but it still feels a little like he’s throwing away a small part of himself that he didn’t realize was there. “Your time’s running out,” is what Luke Askew’s hitchhiker who brings them to the commune tells him when he offers up the LSD, as if he knows that you have to have a firm goal in mind somewhere, somehow. “I’m hip about time,” Wyatt tells him but when he finally decides to take the trip with Billy and the two hookers in New Orleans it seems like the worst possible idea to do it right then. Even when you’re free you need some sort of compass to stay on track.
They presumably leave L.A. at the beginning but it’s mostly represented by Phil Spector’s “Connection” and his Rolls-Royce when he buys their coke so we never see it, the name just something that gets quizzically repeated by someone who’s never heard the term before. The west we pass through contains the remnants of people long forgotten found that Wyatt quietly looks over in the early morning, that rancher who never made it to California himself but is totally content having made a life with his family. It’s like he knew when to stop. But going back the other way on the open road is what matters, soaking in everything they pass while we listen to The Band and for a few minutes there’s not a care in the world. It’s a motorcycle movie but one that never feels like it pays as much attention to the physical process of being on the road the way certain other films do, like the car-oriented TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and VANISHING POINT which pay so much attention to the gunning of the engines, the long silences while going from one place to another. With EASY RIDER it’s more how the music relates to the scenery as they pass through it all, along with just how cool these guys look on their bikes. Something like “Born to Be Wild” feels almost beyond cliché by this point but it doesn’t affect how it all flows with the imagery whether the serenity of the desert landscapes or later on as the scenery gets uglier and the vibe angrier. Time really does stop during a few of these sections and the film always looks spectacular yet intimate; the way Hopper with DP Laszlo Kovacs frames himself, Fonda and Nicholson turns each of them into instant icons. As improv-heavy as some of it might be there’s a slickness not found in the various Corman/AIP films that the three leads were involved in before this so the camera always knows where it should be and how much it should interfere. The film’s view of drugs is taken as no big deal, which definitely ties into their outlaw nature, and it plays as unaffected when compared to certain other films from the period that feel like they’re maybe trying too hard (to be honest, I always want to like VANISHING POINT more than I do) in getting across the hip vibe but here those moments always feel like they just happen.
For a long stretch of the running time it feels like the film is in no rush whatsoever and why should there be with the long stopover in the commune making it feel like they could easily stay there. There’s no point in worrying about time or how long it will take to get to New Orleans and the visit gives Wyatt the most optimism of their journey in believing they’re going to make it even though from their looks at some of their faces a few of them don’t seem so sure. Of course, in 1969 who knew how all that was really going to go. The hippie trappings are a little expected—the women are willing to fool around with Wyatt and Billy in the hot springs (although they actually seem like they’re the ones really in charge of the commune) and the mime troupe gives me bad flashbacks of certain elementary school music teachers from long, long ago. But it’s the 360-degree prayer circle shot that sticks out now, on the surface essentially this film’s version of passing around the joint in Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (itself a shot that also featured Fonda and Hopper), only replacing any drug-induced gimmickry for the pure feeling of the moment with the resolute faces of the commune members and genuine need for food, landing on the prayer delivered by Robert Walker (Jr., just a few years after his STAR TREK guest shot and looking absolutely haunted) which contains a desperate sense of hope for the future. The commune does start to seem vaguely sinister by a certain point so I can’t blame Billy for wanting to leave but Wyatt’s brief hesitation makes sense in his quest for some form of serenity. What he finds there is one of the strongest reminders that EASY RIDER isn’t just about what makes it such a period piece now, but how much the need to sometimes break away from what we think of as the real world can be all that matters.
It’s a film with two fairly low key guys and even the jittery Hopper isn’t quite what we think of compared to his later APOCALYPSE NOW persona so when Jack Nicholson turns up in the jail cell as ACLU lawyer George Hanson it shakes the foundation of the film. He’s a live wire from his very first moment while also the “regular sort of person” they speak of and it’s as if we’re suddenly asked to join the ride after observing the first half of the film from a distance. Partly audience surrogate, partly just someone lost in his own way it’s the earliest version of iconic Jack Nicholson roles that are about some form of transformation which gradually happens here as this small town alcoholic who’s been watched over by his parents way too long loosens up during the campfire scenes, gets rid of the booze and seems like a man truly being born for the first time in his life. Even much of his dialogue has a newly found sting to it these days considering the way things are going, maybe even this very week, and his grim musing over how this used to be a hell of a country means more than ever. But when he rides on the chopper wearing that football helmet there’s a sense of total joy from him as long as he’s around that infects the film. He seems to have no idea what’s really out there in the world beyond his booze and who he can get out of jail but he’s able to tell them things about the country they never thought of as if a warning that they can only ever go so far.
The experimental cutting style of jumping forward and back during scene transitions is very much an affectation, one where if the film did it a few more or even less times it wouldn’t make much difference. But it also plays as an extension of Billy’s impatience every time they stick around somewhere a few minutes too long and whether drug induced or whatever there’s a freedom to it, of trying to explore what this film could possibly be and it’s felt throughout even down to the hard cut to a Jimi Hendrix song during one montage. It’s not worried about if the cut is jarring so much as playing like a deliberate break in the flow of the film while also a warning of what’s coming. The history and poverty and life and unending cemeteries in these small towns they pass through all blend together and the film captures that sense of road trips and the places you’ve seen, if only for an instant, that sometimes stick in your memory as you try to imagine what kind of life goes on there. And how much they matter when you remember them. Wyatt and Billy mostly keep to themselves with the nest egg of cash in the gas tank (makes me think Albert Brooks in LOST IN AMERICA gets the plot slightly wrong but never mind) and try to avoid trouble while the girls in the café just get the men nearby more annoyed of course leading to disaster. And once they finally arrive at Mardi Gras, where Billy has been so impatient about getting to the whole time, it basically becomes dinner and a visit with two hookers (played by Karen Black and Toni Basil, each of which gets moments that stand out out during the fast cuts in the 16mm New Orleans footage). The LSD trip in the cemetery feels like a way to confront things with these women after whatever letdown Mardi Gras provided but what it brings out in them seems to be everything they regret, the bad vibes bubbling below the surface for the entire film finally emerging with no hesitation, the darkness enveloping all of the hopes, the flash forward that Wyatt tried to shake off becoming something he doesn’t understand but in a way it’s what he was always expecting.
Once Wyatt and Billy head out on the road when the opening credits begin, it feels like EASY RIDER is divided into three sections—the desert and the commune, the real world as represented by George Hanson entering their sphere followed by the Mardi Gras acid trip which leads to oblivion. In other words, the way it should be, the way it is and the way it’s going. Which seems inevitable. It’s all about freedom at first, the sense of living without fear, looking for a way to make your own path. And in the film’s best moments it gets me to understand and believe. But fate manages to turn hopes into something else, like George’s football helmet that suddenly reappeared thanks to his mother allowing him to tag along on their journey. The sense of darkness begins to overwhelm the film near the end, the famous ‘we blew it’ statement which could be anything but feels like a memory of what they missed when it was right in front of them. How good they had it, what they thought they were supposed to do to be the sort of legends of the west that their names indicate they already are but the ideals from the flag on Wyatt’s jacket and gas tank with all that cash weren’t enough. The hope is maybe we can figure out what they got wrong and do something about our own fear to let us find that freedom for ourselves. Just as letting the music play through at times feels like an extension of THE GRADUATE (even down to playing one of the songs twice, specifically The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which is possibly the most sweetly hopeful of any of them) the ending works as the next step beyond BONNIE AND CLYDE, turning that rapid fire montage into a few brutal, complex flashes of imagery followed by the unending final shot. All we can do is linger there, nowhere left to go (I suppose the finale of ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, one of many films inspired by EASY RIDER over the next few years, was the next step after that) and as the credits roll I suppose it really does turn them into legends. As a film, EASY RIDER is at peace. It already knows the ending.
Sure, the way that the film uses the two leads almost has more to do with their presence than anything they actually do but Peter Fonda lends that cool blankness to his unending introspection so you can project anything you want onto his seeming awareness that something bad is coming. His silence hides the tension that he’s keeping bottled up, as if he’s actually trying to never reveal those emotions, maybe to avoid seeming like his father for all we know. Dennis Hopper keeps Billy living in the moment while never letting down his paranoia, always trying to register how straight someone is being with him and he’s really just a big kid, not knowing what’s coming next but certain that he just wants to keep going. But the whole film shifts when Jack Nicholson yawns at a threat Hopper makes when they first meet in the jail and it’s never really the same after that, not a line reading or gesture from him is what you expect. Maybe that’s why the film works so well even now—the biggest performance in the hippie movie is from the normal guy, bringing an added joy to the biking scenes and moments like his delight in saying ‘very groovy’ and Nicholson’s continued delight in realizing how well the three of them go together becomes one of the best displays of freedom that the film offers.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure my parents ever actually saw EASY RIDER. It may not have mattered anyway and, of course, whatever we know about our mom and dad doesn’t solve everything. And we all have our own idea of freedom, just as Dennis Hopper did. Sometimes it’s the need to be out there when the wind is in your hair and the music is just right. But also that the way to live is to know where you are and why you’re there. The year before EASY RIDER the film’s producers made HEAD so maybe they just wanted to get away from all that since it’s a known fact anybody who works for the Monkees are among the worst people in the world. And by this point in time America, which used to be a hell of a good country, is just about gone. So leaving California is never the answer. Enough mistakes can be made there as it is and all you can ever do is let go of the way you thought things might be. If anything, I’ve tried to learn that.