Monday, 24 December 2012

Easy Rider (1969)

Dir. Dennis Hopper
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew

Easy Rider perhaps spawned the genre of road trip movies and – coming as it did at the dying end of the ‘60s – it was a very bad trip. 

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas mention is made of the “high-water mark”: the place where the momentum of the hippy revolution faltered and was beaten back. It is clever that Hunter S. Thompson recognised it. But you can see that moment quite clearly in Easy Rider, made in 1968 and released the following year. Here we see the peace and love of the hippies – or, indeed, of anyone willing to check out from mainstream society in pursuit of freedom – confronted with fear and loathing. Our two protagonists, Wyatt, aka ‘Captain America’, (Peter Fonda, who produced and co-wrote the film) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, who directed and co-wrote the film), embrace the freedom of the open road on their Harley Davidson choppers and find themselves smashing at full-throttle straight into “straight” America. 

Easy Rider is largely improvised and free-form, so it is hard to find a plot amongst the vignettes. At its basic level it simply charts Wyatt and Billy’s journey towards New Orleans in search of Mardi Gras. The film opens with them picking up some cocaine in Mexico, which they then sell on to their contact (record producer Phil Spector) in Los Angeles. For the entire first nine minutes no English dialogue occurs. Wyatt and Bill then turn east. They drop a hitch-hiker (Luke Askew) off at a hippie commune. They are then arrested in New Mexico, meeting up in the slammer with drunk lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). George decides to join them on their trip to New Orleans. Unfortunately they are ambushed by intolerant locals in Louisiana. Wyatt and Billy go on to New Orleans, pick up two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni “Hey Mickey!” Basil), take them out to a cemetery and get blitzed on whiskey and acid. One trip later Wyatt and Billy are on the road again; again they run up against intolerant locals 
The Man from DelMonte quite liked his new hat
The film shows a world in which the battle lines are drawn. It is a war – except the hippies fail to realise this. George the straight does. He points out that freedom scares mainstream society. “They’re scared of what you represent to ‘em… What you represent to them is freedom.” “What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about!” “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what it’s about alright. 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… It makes ‘em dangerous.” He is proved tragically right. When the hippies say “this is where we make our stand” they are talking about establishing a commune in the South West deserts, trying to grow simple food in common. When rednecks make a stand they do it with laws or clubs or shotguns. Even Wyatt comes to the final conclusion that it is all hopeless. “We blew it” he tells Billy. 

I knew that Easy Rider  was the film my mum and dad went to on one of their first dates – my mum actually watched it three times with different boys. It has this great storied mystique about it, so I was keen to see it myself. And while I am glad that I saw it I have to admit that, to be honest, it is not very good. Director Hopper was angry when it was edited down to 90 minutes behind his back. Yet even with that cutting, it idles. I expected more plot. Because it was semi-improvised there is not much character development. Billy at the end of the movie is exactly the same at the start of the movie. There are weird cuts between scenes, the lighting levels are often too dim and there was often not enough content to keep me entertained. It starts well with their cross-border drug deal, then gets very dull very fast with the hippie commune. There was a hint of intrigue with the arrival of the Stranger on the Road, but that promise is not fulfilled. Jack Nicholson really lifts the piece; it then sags back into self-indulgence with Wyatt and Billy’s cemetery acid trip. But, as my dad commented, the soundtrack is fantastic – not just Steppenwolf’s iconic Born to be Wild but also The Weight by The Band, If 6 Was 9 by Jimi Hendrix and The Pusher by Hoyt Axton. 

All-in-all I probably feel more let down by Easy Rider than any other film I have watched this year. It is not the worst film I have seen – compared to Trigger Man, Rosalie Goes Shopping or Legends of the Fall it is great. But it a film I was really looking forward to and ended up disappointed.

What have I learnt about The Road?
For starters, America’s road network enables quicker travel than I had thought from looking at the map. I had imagined that travelling coast-to-coast would take over a week, but New Mexico - New Orleans can be covered in three days. The freedom of the road does look liberating – and it seems that camping out at the side of the road with a campfire is possible across wide swathes of the country. This is, perhaps, necessary as motel owners might not like long-haired sorts cruising up on choppers late at night. 

Travelling The Road is all about freedom – it is a signal that you are free to do what you want and are not “bought and sold in the marketplace”. As George warns, however, that makes you a target for all the deadbeats you pass along the way envious of your freedom to follow your own desires. 

Can we go there?
Easy Rider starts off in Mexico (actually what is now the Red Arrow Emporium in El Prado, just north of Taos in New Mexico). Wyatt and Billy then head on to make a drug-deal at the end of the runway at LAX airport. Wyatt ditches his Rolex at the ghost town of Ballarat in Death Valley. They cross the Colorado River on the I-40 at Topock, Arizona, get turned away from the Pine Breeze Motel at Bellemont, just west of Flagstaff. The motel is now disused, but stands on the grounds of the Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill, which displays the motel’s No Vacancies sign above the bar and is described as “the ultimate biker bar”. The duo share lunch with a rancher in Valentine and then head east through Flagstaff (the lumberjack statue seen standing outside the Lumberjack café is now located inside the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University). After picking up a hitch-hiker (at the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument) they stop for gas at the now-disused Sacred Mountain filling station (it’s on the west side of US Route 89 about 20 miles noth of Flagstaff). They camp out at the Wupatki National Monument near Cococino before continuing past Monument Valley in south-east Utah and on to a hippie commune in the desert. The commune was based on the New Buffalo commune, near Taos, but was recreated for the sake of filming overlooking the Malibu Canyon near Santa Monica, California. They go skinny-dipping at the Manby Hot Springs in New Mexico. They are arrested in Las Vegas, New Mexico (last seen in No Country for Old Men); the exterior of the gaol is 157 Bridge Street (now Tito’s Gallery) though the interior is the Bryans Gallery in Taos. They continue onwards to Louisiana – the scene in the diner was shot in Morganza, though the diner on Gayden Road has now been torn down. They arrive in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Madame Tinkertoys’ House of Blue Lights is supposedly located at the coner of Bourbon and Toulouse. The cemetery scene is the St Louis No 1 Cemetery. Thereafter they plan to head for Florida but run foul of some murderous rednecks on Louisiana Highway 105 North (North Levee Road) just outside of Krotz Springs. 

Of course, the best way is to do it all in one go, on a bike, sticking to Route 66 as far as possible. Mr Zip shows you how… 

The burned bike from the final scene can now be found in the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. 

Overall Rating: 1/5

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