****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew
screenplay by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
directed by Dennis Hopper
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by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It's not easy to mark the beginning of the Sixties as an idea. Me, personally, as it's the way I'm wired, I like to use as the starting gun the trilogy of dysfunctional pictures--Psycho, Eyes Without a Face, Peeping Tom--that literally inaugurate the decade, but I'd also accept that 1962's Cuban Missile Crisis was enough for many of the nearly-disaffected to become completely what-the-fuck disaffected. And if you go with that, then what happens at the end of 1963 with the assassination of JFK is that Zapruder places film as the end-all of Truth. A lot changed with those 26.6 seconds of film--or, should we say, a lot changed back, to a period where the newsreel, no matter how doctored or fabricated, was the primary mass means of information-gathering before television began to encroach on it. A lot of ink's been spilled about the extent to which movies in the mid-to-late-Fifties tried to outdo the boob-tube with grand Technicolor visions; comparatively little has been written about Zapruder's 486 colour frames, which stole the thunder of television's hold on vérité--remember, in 1960, Hitch wanted to shoot Psycho in a televisual style for its implicit realism--as elegantly as a shell fired from a mail-order Carcano. TV achieves a stalemate by broadcasting Vietnam during the dinner hour, yet it doesn't win outright until the '90s when it embraces shakycam and film unveils itself once and for all as a magician's medium: smoke, mirrors, Forrest telling LBJ he needs to piss, and the Titanic going down again to the tune of a tween tearjerker.
Between whenever it begins and how it ends, the 1960s in the United States reveal a nation in full adolescence: rebels openly contemptuous of notions of authority; experimenters in fashion and mind-altering substances; discoverers of music to piss off mom and dad (from Elvis to Jimi and Janis in a few short years, with The Beatles in between); and everyone agog with this jejune, outraged, liberal Pollyannaism that fast degenerated from Flower Power and Free Love to SDS and the Weather Underground once the silent majority opened fire on RFK, MLK, and Kent State. How better to illustrate the lovely arc from innocence to experience than in the rolling, predestined amble from the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to dead Malcolm X and Watts in 1965 to The Black Panthers in 1966? But it's all political until Altamont, right? Dead Che in 1967, My Lai and Daley's "Festival of Life" in 1968, political, political--dirty tricks before it became (with "CREEP") the cleanest meme for the Nixon presidency. But as soon as Altamont happens, it's no longer possible to separate hippie culture from the implosion of what J. Hoberman calls "The Dream Life"--but, it shouldn't go unremarked, almost exactly five months earlier Dennis Hopper had unleashed Easy Rider on the American public and, like all great films, with a finger firm on the pulse of the entire spirit of the age, it predicted in terms brutal and eloquent the end of the whole fucking thing.
Even Easy Rider co-writer/collaborator/instigator Terry Southern's Sixties odyssey illustrates the fruit of that decade's fine intentions withering on the vine, from Dr. Strangelove in the year of The Beatles, 1964, to Wyatt, a.k.a. "Capt. America" (Peter Fonda), and Billy (Dennis Hopper) riding off into highways like stretchmarks en route to Mardi Gras with a gas tank full of cash. From the organized, maybe-fascist, want-to-hurt-people Stanley Kubrick to an apocalypse of a different colour in Hopper's almost-wordless vision quest, there's no doubting the throughline of Southern's work, but isn't it better to identify the larger throughline of the U.S. in the throes of its idealism's lingering death? Truman Capote, just post-RFK assassination, went on "The Tonight Show" to tell Johnny about how the big three hits, JFK/RFK/MLK, were the work of a Manchurian Candidate--a reference to a paranoid phantom conjured by the 1963 film directed by John Frankenheimer, the same Frankenheimer beside whose Malibu pool Bobby spent his last day, lounging. Capote was onto something. Nothing so literal as a Manchurian Candidate, but equally inexorable. At the least, the '60s set the stage for the paranoia of the New American Cinema: if there's nothing else that could be said about the dying of the light, the madness, the starving hysterical naked that describes to a pinpoint the end of the decade as well as the making of Easy Rider, it could certainly be said that in its havoc were the seeds for the best period of film...ever.
Early in Easy Rider, Wyatt and Billy stop by a commune in the desert and witness the hippies there, deluded, trying to plant seeds in blasted earth. The hopeless optimism of stuffing a scarecrow--a literal straw man--beside a barren lot isn't subtle as visual metaphors go, but it does establish the picture as the arthouse bikesploitation flick AIP didn't have the sense to make. Soon after, they meet lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in jail, affect their release, and move along into the rare American film with the same sort of making-of mythology as a Werner Herzog production. The movie, as Roger Ebert correctly observes, comes to life with Nicholson's "Oh...oh I've got a helmet" performance. He's the fantasy, the avatar of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, a high-school football star-turned-lawyer-turned-lush who smokes his first joint in the company of friends in the great American wilderness literal and metaphorical. He's the missing link between Ward Cleaver and Eldridge Cleaver. The pot Nicholson smokes on screen was likely the real deal, just as Hopper was kept in check, and barely, by Fonda's encyclopedic knowledge of illicit pharmaceuticals. Easy Rider isn't a film about the Sixties so much as it is the Sixties, the grace note to a decade that would be echoed ten years later by Francis Ford Coppola's "it's not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam" Apocalypse Now. The theme of it could be the closed-in cell defined by freedom unfettered--something explored in a subsequent cross-country jaunt, 1973's Badlands--as George says, "Talkin' about [being free] and bein' it are two different things. They see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em." It's a dialogue delivered before firelight as our three countercultural heroes camp out on George's final night, and the chirping of the crickets and the crowding of the black around them are overpowering.
Easy Rider is all foreboding and doom. There's not much joy in it, and Pauline Kael was obviously right in identifying it as the downer flick youths got off puffing away at. A visit late in the game to a New Orleans brothel (with Toni Basil and Karen Black as the prostitutes) has the feeling of the discarded PLAYBOY bunnies sequence from Coppola's freak-out, demonstrating that the edge of dismissal Kael afforded its nihilism was, in fact, not merely the tip of the iceberg but absolutely prescient. The Mardi Gras scenes, shot in 16mm thanks to a fit of drug-aided bad planning that necessitated a hasty trip to the Big Easy, where Hopper did his best megalomaniac in front of and behind the camera (Fonda recorded him flipping out in a bid to get Hopper excused from the picture), actually work in a Zapruder vérité way. When our quartet--the cowboys and their schoolmarms-cum-saloon girls--finds a dead dog in the gutter and then retires to some browbeaten shenanigans in the local boneyard, well, there's really no other way to immortalize all that bad shit at the lysergic end of that fucked-up tunnel than in ripped-up 16mm, is there? Hopper, reportedly, not only goaded Basil into stripping down but also got Fonda to talk, for the first time, about his mother's suicide. Not cool, man, and right at home in terms of horror with cultural/temporal contemporary Night of the Living Dead. After this, there's nothing left but for these cowboys to die and, honey, it's a mercy when they do. We'll see Hopper again as a photographer greeting Capt. Willard on his way to an audience with Kurtz: the ultimate hollow man at the end of a decade spent in Hell. Who knew it was a reprisal of his role as the director of Easy Rider?
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Easy Rider docks on Blu-ray from Sony in a beautiful, glass-clear 1.85:1, 1080p/MPEG-4 transfer that sharpens every frame of the picture without sacrificing its hard textures and no-budget integrity. The 16mm blowup sequences look more virtuoso than ever before, their influence on stuff like Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and even The Blair Witch Project brought into finer relief as a result. While the original mono audio is available, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD remix is fucking brilliant. The revolutionary soundtrack is reproduced with utter clarity and fidelity; ambient effects in the nighttime camping sequences are convincing--and when they overwhelm George's auto-eulogy, it's understood for maybe the first time since the movie's theatrical release that this was done on purpose. People like to talk about Easy Rider as an accident, but a lot of really smart guys were involved in its inception, fucked-up or not.
"Shaking the Cage" (64 mins.) is ported over in SD from the 30th Anniversary DVD and gathers the principals (Fonda and Hopper, essentially) to recall Easy Rider lore that has become apocryphal. It's interesting stuff reiterated in a dense commentary track from Hopper that shocks the most for the lucidity with which he seems to recollect the production. More likely is that Hopper read accounts of it afterwards, if the rumours are to be believed, but either way, his loss was felt more deeply by me after spending these 95 minutes with him in front of his movie. I'll say this, though, that it's kind of amazing, given the state of mind of its creators and the condition of the country, that Hopper and Fonda weren't done in the same way as Billy and Wyatt. Historians will love the discussion of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's involvement and of how Hopper didn't like them nearly as much as he liked The Byrds and The Band and Hendrix and Steppenwolf. And you know what? He's absolutely right. People had a lot of choices as to what to watch to commemorate Hopper's recent passing. For me, listening to him say on the yakker that "this is when we were moving into John Ford country" as the first strains of "The Weight" trickle onto the soundtrack proper and Billy and Captain America zoom into a place that according to Wim Wenders can't exist anymore, filled me to the tip-top with melancholy. Bye, Billy.
The BD is housed in a hardcover digibook containing a handsome 30-page insert that includes a soundtrack listing, cast and crew bios, and a nice little article by Travis Baker on the film's influence. HD previews, selectable from the menu, for The Da Vinci Code Extended Cut, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ghostbusters, A River Runs Through It, "Damages" Season 1, Blood: The Last Vampire, Moon, and Tyson round out the spare, but satisfying, presentation. Originally published: June 15, 2010.