Easy Rider: Peace or Freedom?

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“And so there they were, their gas tanks stuffed full of bribes from the establishment, and you remember hearing somewhere that, in the South, “easy rider” is slang for a prostitute’s lover.”

“Easy Rider” Review, Roger Ebert, Sept. 28 1969

The very film Easy Rider is not the same film that holds a place in cinematic history, the Easy Rider that inspired the New Hollywood Movement, the Easy Rider which is part of the title of Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, stories and tales of the mythic birthing independent film world.The film that is called the generational touchstone of the sixties and the classic road movie. All of those words and labels are macro touch points, genres and generalisations, designed in part to associate the spirit of the film with the ethos of the time, even at the expense of the individual film itself, which is funny, considering one of the film’s primary themes is disillusionment.

Easy Rider contains a lot of stuff, stretched out in a very idiosyncratic time-scale, which is what marks it still as such an unconventional piece of cinema. As the film itself has crystallized into a historical context, and its soul has been picked apart by endless academics and cineastes (myself currently included), the very structure of its being has only crystallized more clearly than before, as an ever-expanding cinematic language has come into use since this film’s release. Film’s such as Memento and Synechdoche, New York really are revolutionary in the same way the editing of this film’s time scale are(flash cuts between the end of one scene and the other, flash forwards for example).

Their journey through America flows like a sunset, in both perpetual motion and seemingly immovable, only moving when you stop and notice it. Perhaps this is a rather pretentious metaphor, but for a film essentially about two guys travelling America trying to find anything spiritually satisfying, it makes sense.

Back in the 60s, when people assumed spiritual enlightenment was possible without assuming any irony or reactionary hostility, two bikers travel America, after selling a hell of a lot of cocaine to pretend Phil Spector. They’re heading to Mardi Gras because…well because. They just are, but also to Florida where they hope to retire wealthy. To be honest the details escape, simply because where they’re going is essentially the equivalent to the Irish folklore land of Tir’na’nog or the Greek mythological island of Ogygia. It just is not real, not on our mortal plane. So they journey, as a verb, to journey, because that seems to be the end goal, to just journey and not stop.

Scanning some brief secondary material, Easy Rider seems to be a celebration of the hippie movement, encapsulating all its youthful idealism, free spiritedness and rebellious nature. Maybe with the hangover we’ve got, from watching hippies segue into punk, love to hate, to technological music circumventing the organic nature of music, but what a forlorn celebration this is, if it is one at all.

Forlorn is a good word to describe the film. Or maybe its just my reading of the film, but it channels such a melancholy atmosphere. Wyatt and Billy, one introspective and one happy, drug smugglers neither at the bottom nor the top, float from place to place, shunned by most, welcomed by others, never really accepted and brutally murdered for no reason. Nietzsche would probably have enough material here for another tome.

It’s interesting noting this film came out one year after the Motion Picture Production Code was finally dismantled or laid to rest. In 1968 so to speak, the chains were officially off. Low budget exploitation cinema has been rolling forward long before this (the precursor to this film, The Trip, was written by Jack Nicholson, who plays lawyer George Hanson) and there definitely is a B-movie exploitation feel to the whole film, like a philosopher wrapped in a shoddy coat. Everything it’s doing at the time is anti-traditional, the strange flow of time, the large amount of internal moralising and debating without clear resolutions, hell even the minimalist performances and dialogue stand for something. It bristles with spirit and force, even if that force doesn’t know where its going. (While also ageing like any film, it has lost none of its power to shock. It’s been nearly 50 years since it came out, and I still could feel my mind submerged in madness during the acid trip sequence, a sequence which really must be seen to understand the experience of seeing it, even if you don’t understand the sequence itself.)

Much of Easy Rider is enveloped in ambiguity and melancholia, while realistic cynicism and fading idealism butt heads. Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper don’t say much, because really what is there to be said? When the spirit of community dies and is beaten down, all that matters is trying to find a place hidden from the storm.George (who frankly ties the whole film together, Mr. Nicholson is just so earnest in this film) guides us into the faded movement, shows us how we can get enamored by people who do seemingly bad things for reasons which could be debated until the cows come home. There is no grand political change on the way here, no better future even being considered or dreamt of. All that’s left is the half-finished ruins of a nation fragmented.

No one here understands one another. The lack of shared meaning here struck me hard, perhaps because it mirrors/I project my cultural fractures onto it. The girls see the hippies as sexual escape. The rednecks see them as dangerous social scum. The hippies see themselves as just regular people, avoiding the ignorant rednecks. The rednecks see themselves as the moral arbiters of the land. The girls see themselves as adults, while the hippies see them as girls (sexual connotations implied). All in all a request for food, something most of us consider as a basic human need, is so crushed under the weight of intense social prejudices, that simply by existing and being out of shift or step with the locals, you warrant enough aggression and violence to murder, as our poor Jack Nicholson finds out.

What does this film show us about the world these characters inhabit? After all its a reflective piece, it’s not content to just show us the world, it has its characters talk, discuss and dissect it, to prod into the cracks of the status quo and reveal the gaping sad truths lying underneath, truths like this one:

“But talking about it and being it…that’s two different things.lt’s real hard to be
free…when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.Don’t tell anybody that
they’re not free, because they’ll get busy killing and maiming to prove to you that
they are.They’re going to talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But
they see a free individual, it’s going to scare them.” – George Handson

Well, that’s what happened to America – Liberty became a whore and the whole country took an easy ride.” – Peter Fonda

For as long as film is around, people won’t stop talking about Easy Rider.It’s a genuine crucible of a film, smashing low-budget B-Movie expectations with actual substantive ideological conflict. At the end of the day, no one in the movie is even particularly crazy. Sure they get crazy, tripping with hookers through New Orleans in some maddening recursive bad trip, but the characters are just directionless, existentially lonely guys looking for something to fill the void. The behind the scene stories are enough to be talked  about forever anyway (see interesting write-up here).

Finally I guess I better address the title of the essay. Peace or Freedom. What is the better option? That for me seems to be the massive conflict riding through this film. Every time they encounter peace or stability, they enjoy its fruits and move on, free to flit from flower to flower, rootless trees in a rootless world. But it brings them no joy. They move along because they’re slaves to their dreams. They’re still trapped, just in a more spectral form. And which prison is the worthier one? The restless never stop, destined to ride their motorcycles eternally, regardless of what is offered to tempt them from their path. Condemned to be free, while everyone else treats freedom like a common whore.

Freedom is the ethos of America, but it’s also inexorably illusive. Peace is tangible but ultimately unsatisfying. Wyatt and Billy ride the line between the two. There’s the truth lying in there somewhere. Just like the hippie movement souring (the Weather Underground formed the very same year), so too will Easy Rider, because for all its melancholia and forlorn happiness, one real question remains;

Just who were they rebelling against in the first place?

-Alex

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Easy Rider: Peace or Freedom?