Easy Rider: An Epic journey into the unknown
For the American dream
Easy Rider is the late 1960s “road film” tale of a search for freedom (or the illusion of freedom) and an identity in America, in the midst of paranoia, bigotry and violence. The story, of filmmakers’ Fonda/Hopper creation, centers around the self-styled, counter-cultured, neo-frontiersmen of the painfully fashionable late 60s. As for the meaning of Easy rider, Peter Fonda (Wyatt) said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, it is a southern term for a whores old man, not a pimp, but a dude who lives with a chick. Because hes got the easy ride. Well, thats whats happened to America, man. Libertys become a whore, and were all taking an easy ride . However, their journey is far from an easy ride; it is a unsettling, frightening and revealing experience rounded up in self-destruction.
Introduction to Easy Rider (1969)
Easy Rider is a counter-cultural, experimental, independent film for the alternative youth/cult market, with sex, drugs, casual violence, reflecting the collapse of the idealistic 60s.
The film does not have a clear plot, and its artistic merit is also doubtful, as a film critic Peter Biskind said, It had little background or historical development of characters, a lack of typical heroes, uneven pacing, jump cuts and flash-forward transitions between scenes, an improvisational style and mood of acting and dialogue, background rock ‘n’ roll music to complement the narrative, and the equation of motorbikes with freedom on the road rather than with delinquent behaviors.
However, it presents an image of the popular and historical culture of the time and a story of a contemporary but destructive journey by two self-righteous, drug-fueled, anti-hero bikers eastward through the American Southwest.
Their trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes them through limitless, untouched landscapes including Monument Valley, various towns, a hippie commune, and a graveyard. However, they inevitably encountered local residents who are narrow-minded and hateful of their long-haired freedom and use of drugs.
Extremely successful and low-budget, this film has won the 1969 Cannes Film Festivals award for the Best Film by a new director. The film also received two Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson in one of his earlier, widely-praised roles.
A Counter Culture Background
Counter culture is cultural ; political challenge to mainstream values and practices in the 1960s in America. It is roughly divided into three stages: an early stage prior to 1968, when the civil rights movement and youthful optimism predominated; a middle stage characterized by intense polarization; and a late stage when new activist groups such as womens liberationists emerged, placing the end of the counter culture in the early 1970s. At the same time there is a crack in the mass consciousness of AmericaXsudden emergence of insight into a vast national subconscious netherworld filled with nerve gases, universal death bombs, malevolent bureaucracies, secret police systems, drugs that open the door to God, ship leaving Earth, unknown chemical terrors, evil dreams at hand.
The 60s for the youth is an era of sexual libertarianism, angry politicism, vehement rejection of authority, and widespread experiment with drugs. Easy Rider is indeed one of the rallying points of the late 60s, a buddy picture, crossed with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the heeding freedom of the open road. Influenced by the rocknroll, aftermath of cold war and the beat writers, the youth were growing more discontent, despite the seeming prosperity and conformity. The youth audiences were especially fond of this film because it represents a reflection of their hopes of liberation and fears of the Establishment.
Themes of Easy Rider and its Counter Culture Elements
When films emblematic of 1960s American Counter Culture are mentioned, Easy Rider comes to the fore. Wyatt and Billy, suggest the two memorable Western outlaws Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid (two buddies). Their costumes combine traditional patriotic symbols with emblems of loneliness, criminality and alienation, the American flag, cowboy decorations, long-hair, and drugs. They have sacrificed a lot because of their peculiar outlook and behaviors, which are controversial for their non-conformist style.
With their unconventionality, the film has also manifested a break from modern society and defying the rules of mainstream society. At the beginning of their trip, Wyatt casts off his wristwatch to the ground to symbolize his new-found freedom and rejection of time constraints in modern society. On the other hand, Billy shouted in protest for being jailed after parading without permission, you gotta be kidding. I mean, you know who this is, man? This is Captain America. I’m Billy. Hey, we’re headliners baby. We played every fair in this part of the country. I mean, for top dollar, too.
They reject the established social value and crave for liberation. For these, they are constantly immediately rebuffed, feared, and considered dangerous, because of their long hair, general unkempt and far-out appearance. They went to look for motel but was brutally rejected; they went in a restaurant but were not served, and despised as jokers, troublemakers, gorillas, and women. Despite the rejection of mainstream value, they actually fear the Establishment, because They (the moral majority) were scared, and that makes them dangerous.
The film also expressed a desire for open road when they reached the untouched landscape such as Monument Valley and Pueblo ruins. They traveled through memorable landscapes of America’s natural beauty, regional diversity of the country and creeping industrial pollution. Along their road trip, Wyatt expressed a longing for simple and comfortable life at the ranchers, wanting to take a load off. This crave for simpleness can be illustrated by the prayer at the commune, which reads We have planted our seeds. We ask that our efforts be worthy to produce simple food for our simple taste. We ask that our efforts be rewarded. And we thank you for the food we eat from other hands – that we may share it with our fellow man and be even more generous when it is from our own. Thank you for a place to make a stand. (Amen.)
In the 1960s counter culture, I Ching (book or oracle of change), emerged as a favorite among hippies who say it as an alternative to linear, rational thought. In Easy Rider, they communards also read Starting brings misfortune. Perseverance brings danger. Not every demand for change in the existing order should be heeded. On the other hand, repeated and well-founded complaints should not fail to a hearing. These readings expressed their desire for an alternative explanation of the current society, and an explanation of their identity.
The film also features a turn to drugs and psychedelic feelings, and an altered consciousness in order to gain insight and illumination. Although they believe that Cocaine (powder, drug, dope), marijuana (joint), LSD give you a whole new way of looking at the day, but instead of peace and enlightenment, they experienced confusion and disillusion. At the end of the movie, the two protagonists experience hallucinatory emotions, where we can see intense colors, kaleidoscopic swirls, and distorted shapes and forms. They search for enlightenment, while inveighing agsint civilizations hypocrisy and brutality. Their rootless, drifting pursuit of the American dream and the promise of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has been questionably successful, dissatisfying, transitory and elusive. Wyatt believes there may have been another less destructive, less diversionary, more spiritually fulfilling way to search for their freedom rather than selling hard drugs, taking to the road and being sidetracked, and wasting their lives. B
For all its counter cultural reflections, the movie does not portray the youthful movement uncritically, rather it provides an ambiguous ending, implying that excesses, even counter cultural ones, can be harmful and destructive. David Hopper also defines this film as anti-counter cultural. The romance and dream of the American highway is turned menacing and deadlyXThey looked for America but couldnt find it anywhere.