“Easy Rider” Revisited Through the Lens of an Aging Curmudgeon
WARNING: A CRAP-TON OF SPOILERS AHEAD
When I was in junior high (the late ’70s, early ‘80s), I was introduced by my older brother to the film “Easy Rider.” The film was the brainchild of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (there is still controversy today about their relationship, I recommend reading this article for background) and centers around two counter-culture motorcycle riders who, after scoring a lot of money from an illicit drug deal, decide to ride across the U.S. to New Orleans and enjoy their early retirement. Along the way, they discover a hippy commune in the middle of the desert, an alcoholic attorney (brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson), a corrupt sheriff, rednecks and bigots, and a pair of LSD-loving prostitutes.
The film is brilliant on several levels. Besides ushering in an era of new non-studio art films, it would break ground by using contemporary music to help tell the story, as opposed to a whole new score, and it would stun audiences with the camera work used to capture the motorcycle rides as well as the LSD trip in a cemetery in New Orleans.
By 1980, with the nation turning hard right with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House, as well as the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, my peers (i.e. Gen. X) had started to revive ’60s counterculture fashion. Suede leather jackets with tassels, Jimi Hendrix, the mythology of Woodstock, and Che Guevara t-shirts were all coming back into fashion in a hard way, all mixed in with the counter-culture of punk rock led by The Clash and others.
So “Easy Rider” captured my heart and soul as a teenager. The film was one giant middle finger to the man. Two motorcycle riders living free and making their own rules while riding around with a tank full of cold hard cash. Sure, they both get killed at the end, but that was just another representation about how fascist the older generation that elected Ronald Reagan was. Ultimately the film was interpreted by my 13-year-old mind as one of hope and possible redemption. I shared the film with my friends and they too embraced the visualizations in the film as well as the over-arching mythology about the counter-culture that was presented.
Plus the film had breasts. Hey, I was 13.
Today I am in my early 50s. Divorced, bitter, worried about my impending retirement, struggling with a slight dependence on alcohol to get me through the weekends, and spending more and more days each year mourning the death of old friends or family members, I am clearly in the latter part of my life.
So when Peter Fonda passed away earlier this year, I dusted off my copy of “Easy Rider,” uncorked a bottle of cabernet and watched the film with my dog.
The good news is the film is still brilliant and still remains a classic in my collection. I still highly recommend it and still believe it deserves to be considered a classic.
The bad news: my old-man brain reinterpreted the film in ways I did not expect while I was rewatching it. I did not see it this time as a hopeful counterculture film that filled me with the optimism that I could change the system, the way that I saw it as a barely-post-pubescent teen. Rather, scene-after-scene was reframed in my paradigm as two people ignorantly believing that they have any power or influence over anything that happens, and seeing them head toward their eventual doom, overpowered by a system built on racism, bigotry, ignorance and greed.
The film opens with a drug deal and the pair being paid a bag full of money. You see their wide-eyed enthusiasm because it looks like more money than anyone could imagine. As a teen, I thought “wow, a bag of money. They are set.” So do the characters. Now as an old man, I see that they were being ignorant about how much money it really is. Sure, maybe they could live a year on it during ’60s dollars, but retire (a word Dennis Hopper uses after the payment)? Give me a break. I give them nine months tops before they are begging in the streets.
From there, the journey shows how much their money can’t buy them. They get turned away from motels in the middle of nowhere that clearly have rooms available. They are harassed in small-town cafés that clearly could use the extra business from two local tourists. They are tossed into jail for “parading without a permit” during an actual parade. And they are beaten with bats while they peacefully sleep along the side of the road. As a teen, I saw this as the inherent brutality of a system that surely would crumble under the changing times, led by our two heroes. As an old man, I now see all this as foreshadowing.
Repeatedly throughout the film, Hopper’s character rings the warning bells, pointing out how Fonda’s character is being reckless, such as when he lets a stranger put gas in his bike’s gas tank which also happens to contain all their drug money. And each time, Fonda says something like “Don’t worry, Billy. Everything’s all right.” As a 13-year-old, I thought Fonda’s positivity was cool and could change the world. Now as an old man, I see it as naïve. “Listen to your friend, man. Be reasonable!” I heard my inner brain say while rewatching the film.
During one section of the film, they pick up a hitchhiker who takes them to a commune filled with other counter-culturists. As a teen, I thought that was cool. Now I see with my old-man eyes the underlying tensions in the scene. There are complaints from one woman in the commune that some people are doing all the work at the commune while others are freeloading. There are people who are clearly sick and not getting the proper care. And there is a second complaint that stuff is being stolen by people fading in and out of the camp.
At the end of the scene, Fonda and Hopper watch as a group of hippies walk back and forth over a dry sandy patch of ground, spreading seeds. The two are told by one member of the commune that the crops did not come up last year, and they ended up surviving by eating roadkill in the winter. The crops are being planted too late now, they admit, and all they have is pure hope that luck comes their way.
Hopper wisely says “There’s nothing but sand. They ain’t going to make it.” Fonda counters with “They’re going to make it.” When I was 14, Fonda was right. Now that I’m old, Hopper is right. Those kids are going to be eating roadkill for another winter.
Near the end of the film, the pair make it to their goal (or as Hitchcock would say — the MacGuffin) — New Orleans. They immediately head to a house of prostitution that is mentioned earlier in the film. Originally painted as a glorious and historic place that would be a mind-changing event, it’s displayed as a run-down two-bit operation with questionable clients and shady-looking hookers. Fonda and Hopper take off with two of the prostitutes (one of whom is played by choreographer Toni Basil, who would later find fame with her song “Hey Mickey” in the early ’80s, but really hit her stride as the long-time choreographer for several David Bowie concert tours).
At this point, the four decide to drop tabs of LSD, which they had been saving for a special occasion. It’s supposed to be a mind-altering experience that will help enlighten them. Instead, the movie shows discombobulated but brilliantly-staged scenes that are nightmarish. The characters are crying, laughing uncontrollably at other’s pain, lamenting their wasted lives, mourning for dead parents, looking half-dead themselves, all to the background of heavy machinery clanking in the background. As a 14-year-old, I thought the scene was cool because it was deliberately “freaky.” Today, I am wiser to know that this scene is the first bit of honesty from the viewpoint of the two protagonists. It exposes all of their character flaws, fears, and unfulfilled dreams. It shows that the optimism, the defiance, are all a mask for deeper, more personal issues that are shrouded in fear, doubt and dread.
This all is summed up nicely in the ending scene when Hopper shows his counter-culture mask and flips off the guy in the truck holding a shotgun, possibly one of the most ill-advised moments in the entire film. The men in the truck are easily recognizable even in today’s standards, as they would clearly be wearing MAGA hats and calling all news “fake” while eating up the propaganda on FOX news and in the right-wing blog-o-sphere.
And with one squeeze of the trigger, Hopper’s character is gone. With a second squeeze, Fonda is gone. The camera pans out to the column of smoke rising in the air, representing all of their hopes and dreams — and all their illicit drug money — all going up in smoke while the two future MAGA guys ride safely off in the distance, getting away with literal murder. With this, the movie accurately predicts exactly what course the U.S. was on — one where any new ideas and optimism would literally be shot down by folks who don’t want anything to change, and those folks would get away with it.
I’ll be curious to see if any of my friends rewatch the film and also interpret it differently than from when they were younger.