Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 3 18 March 1970
Easy Rider is a stumbling block. Affiliation or antipathy, not to its merits and defects as a film, but to the life-style it portrays and advocates, may blind both the ardent admirers and the ignorant scornful to the beauties they might otherwise have perceived. Those, and there are many of them, who wouldn't know a good film if it kicked them in the teeth, will perforce ride in either camp, ignoring the movie and bleating about social values. I feel no obligation to say I like Easy Rider because Fonda and friends represent a rustic simplicity (my interpretation) and individual freedom I dream about in odd, anarchic moments. There is, fortunately, much more going for it than that.
A liberal fellow I know, who aspires in a minor way to that same ideal, made a jaundiced observation about the film when prompted for his opinion, I asked him if he liked Easy Rider as much as I did (a typically leading question), to which he replied that he didn't think much of it, then adding the curious rider, "well, it wasn't great". This querulous and unnecessary remark is symptomatic of the kind of confusion that results when appreciation of aesthetic qualities is allied to and tied down by adherence to some social philosophy or other. Commitment and art make uneasy bedfellows and spawn many-a stunted offspring: when this confusion arises (his particular hang-up was the rural commune, which he thought overdone), when presuppositions obscure the vision, simply make some peurile observation about the film not being great.
The point has, I think, been bludgeoned home. Viewers and reviewers who base their like or dislike of Easy Rider on their responsiveness to its 'Message' will do the film little justice. I don't really know whether or not this is a great work, but it is certainly more memorable than most other films that aspire to greatness or have that stifling mantle cast upon them by those who should know better. Take Butch Cassidy, for example, a film that seems to be the rave of the moment. As a whimsical diversion it is charming enough, and decked out with a fine lustre to be sure (all praise to the great Conrad Hall), but there is no heart to the film, no bite that shines through the sly humour and beautiful landscapes.
We should at least feel some pain at the deaths of Newman and Redford, some identification with their plight, but nothing that has gone before belies our suspicion that this is just another well-timed jest. One would not have to abandon the humor in Butch Cassidy or the distinctive attractions of its characters in order to achieve the cutting edge. Perhaps this choice of scapegoat cum strawman is uncharitable, and I grant the film its good intentions and considerable achievements, but I mention it here to highlight what I consider to be a vital point. I enjoyed Butch Cassidy and then promptly forgot about it; the images of Easy Rider linger in the memory, and the taste is indeed sweet. The mantle is being cast on the former from all directions, the latter will be, with a few exceptions, the object only of unthinking adulation or irrelevant, pretentious debate.
The beauties of Easy Rider are specific, and could be catalogued at some length. This sojourn by Hopper and Fonda through their life and times is presented with much feeling and considerable technical expertise. Dennis Hopper's work as director is almost always assured, and inspired in those delicate scenes where a foot wrong would result in the kind of sentimentality bound to alienate those not already turned on or tuned in. He has a fine visual appreciation of the splendour and squalor of Americana, given substance here by Laszlo Kovac's beautiful colour photography. Hopper as actor strikes a chord: he looks like a couple of friends of mine rolled into one. At times he strays a mite near buffoonery, but eventually impresses by playing what is surely himself, rather than assuming any fictional and inevitably less attractive character, Fonda frequently looks merely blank, but occasionally the filial spaniel eyes and distinctive voice lend some conviction to his performance. Thanks for his money anyway.
The influence of Terry Southern, credited with a share in the screenplay, might be detected in Jack Nicholson's marvellous little exposition on the presence among us of aliens from another planet, although perhaps this gem was improvised as a dash of garnish to his already astonishing performance. This incredible creature has been seen before as something worse than a blatant ham (Roger Corman's The Terror). In Easy Rider his playing as the quixotic, dyspeptic lawyer is just about the best piece of character acting I've seen. This Southern Gentleman is one of nature's angels, debauchery notwithstanding. The scenes in the hippie commune, which my friend thought were overdone (maybe so, but how would he know?), are more convincing for the presence of Robert Walker and Luana Anders.
Apart from Jack Nicholson, however, the best 'acting' comes from the various skinheads in the Deep South.page 9
The degree of verisimilitude in their performances, if they can be called that, remind me of their counterparts in Roger Corman's film The Intruder (U.S. title: I Hate Your Cuts). Both directors seem to have employed something akin to a candid camera technique, where real-life emotions and expressions have been caught on film and used to dramatic effect.
Much of what has been written here, and anywhere for that matter, reads hollow in the face of the very life of the film itself. Easy Rider is such a personal creation for all involved, for those who made the film and for those who watch it. We who admire it are reduced in the end to reciting our favourite bits and pieces. I need do no more than list a few of mine here: the various night rides against the evening sky, the two exchanges with the pushers at the beginning of the film, Hopper's frenetic anxiety throughout, the Mardi Gras and trip scenes (shown on grainy, garishly beautiful 16mm), the tragically moving and unexpected conclusion. And so forth. I love the Hippies in Easy Rider and am excited by the way it was made. A noble conception superbly executed-it must be a great film. _
Inevitably people are going to rave over Easy Rider. It is, after all, the first film for some time that many people will be returning to sec again and again. Yet, apart from the outstanding photography, the music, and the realistic acting of Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson, there is a much more important aspect of the film which many viewers may not have seen—or would prefer not to admit.
Essentially, Easy Rider is a religious play. The ride itself is the dramatic representation of the life quest of two motor cycling members of the young. Although the Easy Riders occasionally use their names, Captain America and Billy are effectively standing in for the nameless generation which is being told that its responsibility is to inherit the earth. Relentlessly the Easy Riders seek out their goal (in this case a sprog or two in New Orleans) and their experiences towards this goal belie the essential uncertainties in mankind's purpose.
The story of Captain America and Billy is of a struggle not to find, but to retain freedom. All along the way they are confronted with others who have given up the struggle and found harmony rather than freedom. A Mexican-American family, a hippie colony in the Indian desert, the young member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and finally the whores themselves in New Orleans all represent different forms of freedom from that which the Easy .Riders are seeking. To some extent even these people are offended. Far more offended and afraid, however, are the American majority. As George tells Captain America and Billy: 'They're not scared of you, but what you represent—freedom. Talking about it and being it are two different things. Don't ever tell anybody they're not free, because they are going to maim and kill to prove that they are. It makes them dangerous."
In fact this is exactly what happens, and through no fault of the Riders. Simply by being what they are (as Captain America says, sadly: "I never wanted to be anybody else") they are an affront to the society that surrounds them. Thus, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Easy Riders have to burst a hole in the wall that contains their freedom. Captain America has guessed the fate of the Easy Riders in this society and prepares to face what lies ahead. Billy, on the other hand, equally successfully prepares to ignore what is happening around him. "We've done it." Billy cries, "We're rich. We can retire in California. You go for the big money and we're free!" "No," says Captain America. "We blew it. Goodnight."
It is their last message. Next day, the Easy Riders are blasted from the scene. The unfree society has exerted its authority against those who would dare to question it. The antitheses between the old and the new, harmony and zest, peace and struggle are portrayed in the religious tone of the film. At every encounter with the superficially liberal community around them the Easy Riders are confronted by the church militant: a grace before meals on the Mexican farm; the Thanksgiving ceremony of the Hippie-colony ("Thank you for a place to make a stand. Amen."); the experiences in the jail and around the campfire discussing the mystery of life; the ostentatious setting of the whore house surrounded by religious paintings; and the sound of the Kyrei cleison.
Finally, in a New Orleans Christian cemetery while the Easy Riders and their girl friends make love and take an LSD trip, they drown out the rude noises of The Lord's Prayer and the Apostle's Creed. The conflict between the orthodox and the unorthodox rages. A grave symbolises a dead church while the youth of the country seeks a new life. Even the name of the Captain's girl, Mary, seems to be a mockery of the traditions of the church. Its members have failed to provide a meaning for life.
And so Captain America knows that he will have to go on fighting for his freedom. The quest has only begun. "Death only closes a man's reputation and determines it as good or bad." Perhaps this was the final message. In the end it will be for each person to decide what freedom means, and possibly more important to decide for themselves just how much freedom is given.