Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
A man is looking for America but couldn’t find it anywhere... What a plot line! Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, Easy Rider was a big commercial success at the box office but also at Cannes. Made with only 40 000$ it grossed 60 million dollars. The film reflected the changes and the problems America was facing in the late 1960’s, it also hooked the many young folks who were experiencing those liberating years while in the same time (around 1968) the US government was seriously entering into the Vietnam War.
The setting of Easy Rider is pretty simple, two hippie bikers Peter Fonda as Captain America or Hyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billie make a prosperous drug deal in some place that looks like New Mexico. From this point, with the money earned from the deal they will go on a road trip on their motorcycle to the Mardi Gras to do their dreams. On the road they will meet a hippie hitch-hiker that will bring them in his community where the people is trying to live from their crops and be independent from the rest of the world. Some kind of garden of Eden, especially represented with the sequence with the naked bath in the river. This whole sequence in the community is utopian and those little idealist “tribes” were temporaries escapes from the modern changing world. The main characters leave because this whole scene has some weariness and the simplicity of this life probably just doesn’t fit with their journey.
After a while our two bikers continue their trip in America and they’ll encounter a young lawyer (Jack Nicholson) after a stay in a little town’s jail. The lawyer, an open minded drunk will follow them and bring some explanations to the common hostilities towards the two hippies.
The freedom represented in Easy Rider, has many layers: the freedom of the two hippies from their moral obligations and their freedom of image (hairs, clothes, bikes, etc.). The film itself brought in American film the anti-heroes that will lead the way to the 1970’s films of the Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, Michael Cimino, and the many directors of this decade. The low costs of the making of the film versus the profits opened the doors of the studios and also to the theatres for the filmmakers with a message and a soul. Something, earlier in the 1960’s, only the old guard of filmmakers could attain with their director’s cut in big studios.
Easy Rider was a phenomenon and also a revolution in filmmaking, Hopper was the leader of this revolution. Sadly, his subsequent films didn’t had the same critical praise and commercial successes. He practically died in the 1970’s with strong drugs addictions and multiple cases of wife beatings. He almost had a tragic end like his idol, James Dean, with who he starred with in Nicholas Ray’ s masterpiece Rebel Without A Cause. Well, Dennis Hopper had a miserable childhood and he always had anger problems. His film demonstrate that he had an exceptional talent and his script, co-written with producer Peter Fonda (son of Henri and father of Bridget) and Terry Southern, shows how he understood his generation and its issues. His camera accentuates the almost documentary vision of his script. The few dialogues and the metaphors of the motorcycles give to the film a Western-like blended with Road movie genre. The Western genre has always been a true American aspect of the Cinema. The “propos” of the film is mainly about America, especially about the Young or the New America. This revisionist version of a modern day Western/Road movie makes it even more appealing to the audience.
The leftist revolution in American movies was coming in part from the French New Wave that brought new liberties in filmmaking and many communist/maoist ideas especially from Jean-Luc Godard. In Easy Rider we are not in the presence of a political movie like if you are watching a Godard film but its revolution and new freedom is palpable.
Easy Rider is a turning point in American Cinema and probably in its History, without it you can forget about the second Golden Age of this art. With Hopper’s film, the Cinema got closer to the common issues of American young adults, with the introduction of drugs, violence, sex and the free spirited thoughts of this era.