Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
As we talked about two weeks ago at the start of our sojourn into Criterion’s BBS box set (check out an early history and context for what this is all about here) the reality is that looking at these BBS films is an exercise in historical excavation. It’s strange to think of something as short a time ago as forty-odd years ago as being in the past, but the reality is that such a gulf of culture has occurred in that time (in many ways as a fallout to the events and attitudes these movies reflected), that to look upon them now as someone who didn’t grow up in that era is honestly difficult.
Never is that so obvious than in today’s incredibly iconic movie, a film that defined an era and then slowly came to represent its cliche, a movie that’s been so deeply entrenched that it’s hard to even approach it with anything resembling new eyes. That’s right, today is the day I talk (to the best of my ability) about:
Easy Rider (1969)
Peter Fonda, son of classic American film icon Henry Fonda, had an idea for a new type of movie: a modern western, about two men who were of the now, cultural outlaws who rode their motorcycles through the hostile backwater of 1960s America. Fonda called up Dennis Hopper, and the two of them decided to make the movie, with Hopper directing and Fonda producing a script they’d co-write and both star in. And from those humble beginnings perhaps the defining film of New Hollywood was born.
The production history of Easy Rider is in many ways more interesting than the actual product, at least looking back on it. Fonda and Hopper crafted a movie mostly improvised, shot almost entirely outdoors with natural light, a movie that defined a sort of guerrilla aesthetic that would creep into many of the films in the ensuing decade, eschewing typical Hollywood financing and production avenues in order to achieve the vision they want. Hopper is mostly to thank for that, as the movie nearly found its financing from super-producer Roger Corman before Hopper (already a loose cannon) so enraged the money men with his eccentricities and demands that they were left to scrape the movie together on their own.
It’s that no-limits environment that really lets it flourish, though, and what established Easy Rider so instantly and so permanently in the American cultural consciousness. It’s an incredibly angry film, often conflicted and often manic, but always resolutely angry about the world that it portrays. It’s story, a cross country road trip of two bikers: Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), becomes a polemic against both the old guard and the flower children, and against the self-styled outlaws that Hopper and Fonda portray themselves to be. Nobody escapes the wrath of this primal frustration at everyone and everything, though it’s shocking just how coherent that kind of emotion ends up being on screen.
Wyatt and Billy, like the Western figures they’re named after, are cowboys and outlaws. They’ve just scored a bunch of cash by smuggling cocaine from Mexico, which they carefully pack and store in the gas tanks of their choppers. Their plan is simple: ride with the money across the United States from LA to New Orleans, to party at the upcoming Mardi Gras, and then retire in Florida away from the rest of the world forever. In the meantime, they’ll go wherever the wind takes them, stopping whenever it suits their fancy, and do a prodigious amount of drugs along the way.
It’s kind of a lackadaisical quest, ill formed and with a timeline that’s nebulous at best. But that allows it to unfold at a pace that seems deliberate and decisively focused all at once. Each sequence, be it a bunch of city hippies who are struggling to grow food in a commune to run ins with hostile law enforcement are nearly self-contained episodes, events that rarely unfold well but mostly unfold with our heroes being little more than observers, men too cool and too preoccupied to do little more than brush off the demands of the rest of the world. It seems a deliberate set-up, creating these figures that radiate a sort of devil-may-care attitude about the world at large, only to see them inevitably brought low by their own hubris and the random chances of fate.
In fact, things only start to change when they end up arrested for being dirty hippies in the deep south, thrown in jail with a good ol’ boy ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, a man who seems to be bewildered by the world when he isn’t wrapped in the numbness of a bottle. He sweet talks them out of jail, relying heavily on the connections his father has with all the cops, and then decides to hop on the bikes with them and travel down to New Orleans to get away from whatever demons he has that lead to him spending most of his nights in the drunk tank. It’s here that I feel the movie really finds its best, most coherent voice, a shining moment of sobriety in the middle of the encroaching sense of ennui.
Nicholson’s character is something of an innocent, a wide-eyed fellow who has one foot in the old world through his connections and another foot in the new world of people who want to see change and have freedom but don’t quite know how to achieve it. It’s here that he points out the obvious: that people are hostile of Wyatt and Billy because they envy them for their perceived lack of concern, for their freedom from the world the rest of them buy into. It makes people angry, to see these guys living their own way, and right there the cataclysmic, violent ending events are foreshadowed with just these three men bonding around a fire.
What’s most interesting, looking back on it, is just how modest the movie is. It doesn’t seem to really be indicative of a movement, and certainly not the counterculture that flared up (sometimes violently) only to burn out in the 70s. In fact, more often than not Easy Rider seems to go out of its way to condemn many of those people (even the leads) as just people who want to indulge and take it easy. Wyatt and Billy might seem like rebels, but they seem oblivious to their outsider status unless they have their faces rubbed in it, and their dream is the dream of any American anywhere: make a lot of money and then spend the rest of their lives doing whatever the hell they want. It’s so pedestrian as to be laughable, an early retirement in the land of the old retirees of all places. Hardly the great ride into the sunset befitting a couple of modern cowboys.
It’s hard to put myself, born in 1985, into the world of 1960s America. I barely understand it. When they drive through town and a bunch of guys call them fags for having long hair, that is literally another world. As a guy who has had long hair for a long time, and lives in a semi-conservative part of the country, even those kinds of attitudes are basically unthinkable today. Approaching Easy Rider is a bit like doing historical research, yet it feels relatively modern (and a damn sight better shot that today’s modern script-less equivalent indie films). I’ve tried for several weeks after seeing it to try to bridge that gap and find some sort of connection with that time, but it’s too big a gulf for me to cross. Whatever America they’re talking about in many ways doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m rather glad of that.
What I can offer is some historical context of just how big a splash the movie did make. When it released, not only did Hopper receive the First Film Award at Cannes, and the movie get nominated for a few Academy Awards, but it was also the third highest grossing movie of 1969 with a staggering $41 million in 1969 dollars (nearly $250 million in 21st Century Dollars), and behind only Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, studio productions both. (For comparison, Easy Rider‘s budget was a scant $360,000, compared to 2.5 and 3 million, respectively.) Not only that, it firmly established that indie movies with a non-traditional bent could make money, leading to a rush of new talent being handed the keys to the kingdom. New Hollywood was upon us, and with it an array of new stars, such as Jack Nicholson (more on him next time) and Dennis Hopper (who managed, unsurprisingly, to instantly blow most of his good will until his revival a decade later under Coppola’s direction in Apocalypse Now).
I don’t know if that context is enough to give context, and I know it’s not enough to really appreciate what the film does, because I’m not equipped to offer really insightful think pieces about much of the larger themes of the world of that movie. But in the end, I think trying to understand is still absolutely valid, even if it doesn’t quite end in unmitigated success. And the groundwork was laid for the array of films that we’ll be covering in the future, and a decade of American classics behind them.
A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25 That’s today!
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9
Drive, He Said (1970) – 7/23
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3