I recently watched "Easy Rider", the classic 1969 road movie, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.
In the past, I had tended to see this film as one of those whose reputation and status was out of proportion to its genuine artistic merit. However, it now strikes me that this in itself has become a stereotyped and spurious attitude. Consequently, some dispassionate and detached scrutiny was in order...
Essentially, the picture follows the Fonda and Hopper characters as they travel through the American Southwest and South by motorbike. Along the way they encounter various people and different elements of society. In part it is an examination of the Sixties counter-culture, contemporary social tensions, and of popular attitudes towards those things.
One of the things which one first notices is the sumptuous nature of the visuals, a feature of "Easy Rider" which is regularly overlooked. This is complemented by the sparsity and economy of the dialogue. Imagery and symbolism, and the necessity for the viewer to spot and decipher them, form a minor but significant part of the film, if not an overpowering one . An example occurs early on in the piece when Peter Fonda discards his watch on the edge of the desert. Is this some kind of "existential" gesture, or does it signify a more general renunciation of mainstream values? You decide! Or alternatively, just sit back, relax and enjoy the movie....
Some modern observers might laugh or snipe at the "arty" editing which occasionally makes an appearance but, making allowances for the fact that this was the late 1960s, it is not too intrusive or egregious. The same could be said for the "freak-out" sequences near to the conclusion of the movie. The occasional diversion into a "homemade", documentary style of film-making offers a counterpoint to the grandeur of the visuals.
Some of the interaction of the two main characters with people they meet on their odyssey is fascinating, although it is easy to read too much into these sections, from a "philosophical" viewpoint. In one of the earlier scenes they stop and speak to some farmers/ranchers, who would perhaps be regarded as "conservative" in their outlook, but if anything the two bikers appear more comfortable in their company than they do when meeting other members of the so-called "counter culture". Non-conformists, outcasts and individualists occur in many forms, and they often find common ground which does not accord with societal categorization, expectations or pigeon-holing. This is all in keeping with a sense that "Easy Rider" does not necessarily portray its times precisely in the way in which we are conditioned to assume that it does.
The above theme is developed further when Fonda and Hopper visit a "hippie commune". Rightly or wrongly, I got the impression that Wyatt/Captain America (the Fonda character) was too ready and willing to embrace some "romantic" or idealistic notion of communal living, Outwardly Billy (Hopper) seemed the more "alternative" figure, but was much more cynical and wary of the hippies,and the practicality of their way of life, than his travelling companion. Taken like this, it can be seen that the film offers quite a nuanced view of the subject. The counter-culture was a multi-faceted phenomenon, and its various constituent elements were not always compatible with each other.
Needless to say, the appearance of Jack Nicholson is a highlight of "Easy Rider", although his character does not occupy as much of the running time as people sometimes imagine. Hanson is an intriguing character. It is tempting to see him in part as a semi-caricature of the "trendy" lawyers who, we are told, were commonplace during those times, but even this would be an over-simplification.
Whilst the scene in the cafeteria is disturbing, it also offers some insight;the local girls attracted by the strangers, the males contemptuous and vitriolic. The "discussions" by the campfire are also open to several different interpretation, furthering the ambiguous nature of the general "narrative". Was Hanson furnishing his new friends with a broadened perspective, and were they taking him seriously?
Some might venture the opinion that the movie ends on an excessively downbeat and sobering note, but when one considers that this picture was made in 1969, it was hardly likely to finish with everyone walking happily off into the sunset. Having said that, seeing the violent ending simply as a metaphor for "the end of the 60s dream" is far too trite an option to adopt.
Of course, the wonderful music soundtrack is one of the most compelling and memorable aspects of "Easy Rider", with songs by the likes of The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Steppenwolf featuring, usually in the "road" sequences which link together the stops along the route. A note too about the motorcycles, which are fabulous, especially the one ridden by Peter Fonda....
I think that "Easy Rider" succeeds and endures largely because it is a coherent and plausible document. It does not ostentatiously seek to be clever or portentous, and it doesn't try too hard, unlike other cinematic works of its type and era. It has aged surprisingly well, to these eyes and ears at least.