“When we were making the movie, we could feel the whole country burning up – Negroes, hippies, students. I meant to work this feeling into the symbols in the movie, like Captain America’s Great Chrome Bike – that beautiful machine covered with stars and stripes with all the money in the gas tank is America – and that any moment we can be shot off it – BOOM- explosion – that’s the end. At the start of the movie, Peter and I do a very American thing – we commit a crime, we go for the easy money. That’s one of the big problems with the country right now: everybody’s going for the easy money. Not just obvious, simple crimes, but big corporations committing corporate crimes.” – Dennis Hopper
I’m going to be hyperbolic. There’s a scene about 16 minutes into Dennis Hopper’s revolutionary counterculture classic and endlessly discussed Easy Rider that, to me, on a certain day, seemed so beautiful that I feel like it was among one of the loveliest moments in any movie I’d ever seen. That almost sounds absurd but I felt that way that day. And I’ve seen a lot of movies. Of course, this is a personal thing and not a definitive statement regarding all of cinema, nor how I feel on differing days – it’s individual and I change my mind. It’s even a bit mysterious to me. But the moment is something that goes beyond the picture itself, tapping into a memory or an impression of a memory and emotion that I am not even sure about. Why is this getting to me so much? Why is this so bittersweet? I love that this enigmatic stirring inside always, always happens when I watch the scene because I often think Easy Rider will feel overplayed – not overrated as some will say and I don’t agree with – but, overplayed, like “Led Zeppelin IV” (which is great, but I don’t often play “Stairway to Heaven” anymore) or the film’s title song itself, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” now so iconic and tied to the movie’s outlaws that it’s become easy shorthand for a kind of “Freedom Rock.” Or for all of those guys (and girls) who are really, really trying to get their motors running. Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure. You know the song. Anyone who forgets how tragic Easy Rider is may feel nostalgic for the Steppenwolf anthem, and it’s almost like a manifesto, a proclamation. But how wild can one be? Will the world allow it? The picture’s opening, before the famous “take the world in a love embrace” kicks in, might cause pause. Phil Spector. Cocaine. LAX. This transaction, so brilliantly staged, with the overhead planes drowning out the sound, is ominous and mystifying and somehow very American in its specific weirdness. Here comes a tiny, dandy, man-child Spector in a Rolls Royce looking demented even if we didn’t have any information on him (most of us do, which carries the picture’s darkness even further). Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” plays – “Well, now if I were the president of this land. You know, I’d declare total war on the Pusher Man.” I say goddamn.
Goddamn indeed – right away from that Spector detail, the picture hooks me and I realize, it’s going to hold up. And I’ve not gotten to the scene 16 minutes in. From when I first rented the movie as a teenager, and to the few subsequent viewings after, with long gaps in between (do I really need to see Easy Rider again?), to recently re-watching it, the movie grew more complex and sad to me. And beautiful. And, this might sound strange, but it also felt permeated with a kind of panic that seeped into my nervous system – about life, something almost intangible. Feelings that go beyond all of the books I’ve read detailing the production history, or the politics of the era, or the glowing pieces or take-down essays or arguments about which movie was more revolutionary at the time, or anything about co-writer, the great Terry Southern (with Hopper and Fonda) or the craziness of the shoot (which is all important to read, and to know, and fascinating – here’s a making of, “Shaking the Cage,” and here’s Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”).
But the picture’s poignancy and even dread – it stayed with me this last viewing. With the lyrical cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs and Fonda’s melancholic performance next to Hopper’s brashness and dangerous goofiness, if you’re in a certain mood (or, rather, if I am) you feel what Fonda might be feeling the entire movie, and you extend it onward, to today. I feel like something is slipping away, year by year, and you sense they perceive it – the beauty of the country, the small towns that aren’t always so nice but at least they are there (no Walmart), trekking through the mountains and the desert and we better be able to continue doing so, and there’s the idea of personal freedom. It almost seems cliché to talk about freedom when it comes to Easy Rider, but there’s a reason the desire for freedom is so universal – because in different ways, we all want it – all of it, or at least in small moments. Jack Nicholson’s famous speech to Fonda’s Wyatt (a.k.a. Captain America) and Hopper’s Billy feels as relevant now as it did then. As George Hanson, Nicholson’s charmingly played alcoholic ACLU lawyer says to Billy:
George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.
George Hanson: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
Billy: Well, it don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.
George Hanson: No, it makes ’em dangerous
That’s a chilling statement even before we see that very danger take down poor George and, finally, at the end, Wyatt and Billy. But before that danger, earlier in the movie, Fonda and Hopper have lunched with the older (older than they are) man with his wife and all of the couple’s kids. They don’t seem envious of their freedom, instead wistful. The kind stranger half laments that he never made it to California (“Well, you know how it is”), and he’s not distrustful of Wyatt or Billy, even if they look different than he does. He’s not what one would call a hippie (Captain America doesn’t really look like one either). The older man’s just living right in the middle of nowhere – a nobody to many – but a person with his own damn life. The man’s set-up seems like a good thing to Wyatt, who isn’t one to walk around the movie glowing about the things he observes. He’s contemplative and troubled, something we’ll see more evidence of when he breaks his reserved exterior in New Orleans during a bad acid trip (featuring Karen Black and Toni Basil). He hugs a statue, sobbing about his long-gone mother, which was not scripted. It was really, truly Fonda having an outburst of emotion, mourning his real-life mother who killed herself when he was a little boy (father Henry Fonda the perfect Mr. Lincoln and Wyatt Earp himself was a tough dad to grow up with). So, eating with this man and his family and his little plot of land, Fonda says: “You sure got a nice spread here . . . No, l mean it. You’ve got a nice place. lt’s not every man that can live off the land, you know? Can do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”
That’s a lovely thing to say, and truly sincere coming from Wyatt. And then it leads to that scene at the 16 minute mark that I find so transcendentally beautiful. We see pine trees in the sky and the lens flare creating mini rainbows – which immediately gives me chills (bless you, Laszlo Kovacs), and hear one of the many impeccably used songs in the movie. The songs were so perfect, in fact, Hopper kept the temp tunes from Dylan to Hendrix to the Band and more, and ditched a potential soundtrack by Crosby, Stills and Nash. From Biskind’s Book, Hopper said: “They [Crosby, Still and Nash] picked me up in a limo at Columbia, and drove me over, played the music, I told Steve Stills, ‘Look, you guys are really good musicians, but very honestly, anybody who rides in a limo can’t comprehend my movie, so I’m gonna have to say no to this, and if you guys try to get in the studio again, I may have to cause you some bodily harm.”
The song here comes from The Byrds singing their utterly elegiac “Wasn’t Born to Follow” (written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, from the Byrds’ 1968 album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”), and it’s one of those magical cinematic/musical moments where the beauty of the song merges with visuals into poetry. As the song begins:
No, I’d rather go and journey
Where the diamond crescent’s glowing
And run across the valley
Beneath the sacred mountain
And wander through the forest
Where the trees have leaves of prisms
And break the light in colors
That no one know the names of
We watch Wyatt and Billy riding their bikes, traveling through immense beauty, north of Flagstaff, Arizona through, what I believe is the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument – where they (and we) take in all of the scrub pines that likely re-vegetated from a past explosion (I looked this up). The men point at the landscape as they look around half-focused on the road, they smile to each other, they appear happy, and they look . . . free. It’s enormously moving – I don’t think Fonda and Hopper are at all acting here – why would they need to? Here is all this beauty that partly, emerged from destruction, trees peppering and softening the dusty land amidst the mountains and rock. The music flows with shots of nature and their bikes, and, again those Kovacs’ lens flares that somehow manage to feel emotional to me. All of that – with their faces and their expressions – it doesn’t look like a travelogue but rather, a uniting of beauty. And, my god, is America heart-breakingly beautiful here. And, the nature of America, that part of America that people really should respect. The music comes to a semi-psychedelic turn when a striking, perhaps even ominous, Luke Askew, thumb out, hitches a ride. (He’ll take them to the commune that’s not exactly ideal). And then, it’s back to flowing along the road with nature, Askew riding with Fonda.
Well, it must be seen. I know I want to watch it again:
I’m pointing out one moment, but I must also mention the following panorama of grandiosity – when new outlaws, cowboys, are riding through John Ford Country, Monument Valley, tuned to The Band’s “The Weight.” It’s stunningly gorgeous. But something about The Byrds’ and the happiness of the previous musical moment – this is the moment of freedom they yearn for and we yearn for and I yearn for. And for the America we love. But it’s a very fleeting thing. When Peter Fonda says, at the end, “We blew it,” you feel a termination of idealism, if there really was any, and an ominous dread – the late 1960s creeping into the 1970s. You also feel Wyatt’s own personal failure – Wyatt and Billy are now setting on moving to Florida, rich (which seems like something their parent’s might do) – and Wyatt is downcast. It’s a sort of feeling like, that’s all? That’s it? He’s depressed. Not because their trip is all over, but because something deeper within himself is. There’s loss of freedom tied to cashing in and settling down. They sold a load of cocaine (“the drug of kings,” Hopper recalled, about choosing coke for the movie over something harder like heroin), rode through the country and … now what? If you place yourself in Fonda’s mind, today, in 2017, it’s somehow even more heartbreaking. Again, now what? I don’t know. I’ll return to the song:
I will want to dive beneath the white cascading waters
She may beg, she may plead, she may argue with her logic
And mention all the things I’ll lose
That really have no value in the end she will surely know
I wasn’t born to follow