Though I know it may seem hard to believe, I just saw Easy Rider for the first time. When it came out in 1969, I was living in rural Texas without a way of seeing it, and I somehow had never gotten around to it before tonight. I wonder what I would have thought about it if I had seen it as a teen, when there was some belief that a youth-based cultural revolution would transform our country. I probably would have found it somewhat disturbing.
The film is still somewhat disturbing. It seems to suggest that our country will not tolerate a counter culture and will destroy anyone who tries to be different, but the film relies on countless stereotypes to make this point. The hippies are so weird, the police are very intolerant and unrestrained, and the rednecks are poised to kill anything that they dislike. In the world of Easy Rider, there seems to be no hope. Drugs and communes are the only vehicles for escape from the otherwise hopelessly cruelty.
The best part of the film is the cinematography. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper get to ride their motorcycles through much of the best scenery of the western states. Their stated goal is New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They seem to be out in Arizona (maybe Colorado or New Mexico) and then suddenly they are in Louisiana. As a person who grew up in Texas, I noticed a big geographical gap.
The rural locations and small towns are interesting to see. With Wal-Mart and chain restaurants having driven out local business, Easy Rider provides a view of lost America. Gone also are the days when drifters can park their bikes in the woods, build a campfire, and sleep under the stars. Could that really be done in 1969?
What does Fonda mean when he tells Hopper near the end "We've blown it"? Is he referring to the stash of drug money being spent or is he referring to their decision to be bikers? Of course he does not explain. He is a character of few words.
Jack Nicholson is the chattiest of characters in the film. Are we supposed to take his words of wisdom seriously? He is a helpless alcoholic, yet he seems to be a thinking man. He seems to believe there is no hope and no reason to make an effort to lead a better life.
So much has changed that it is hard to understand the film. At the time of its making it was thought disrespectful to wear the flag, and I am sure younger viewers will not respond to Fonda's jacket in the way the filmmakers (Fonda, Hopper, and Terry Southern) intended. Older viewers have probably forgotten.
Current filmgoers will also be struck by how the music is in the foreground instead of in the background. When it plays, there is no dialogue. The music is a big part of the design of the soemwhat dated film that still merits some attention from students of the 1960s.