Saturday, August 3, 2019

Easy Rider Is A Fascinating Melancholy Look at The Cost of Being A Rebel

I’d heard from a lot of people in recent years that Easy Rider was incomprehensible to modern viewers due to not having aged properly. It's a sentiment so widespread that Craig Ferguson even made it a joke between himself and his mute horse Secretariat. Having finally watched this landmark motion picture, I can its' certainly a product of the era in which it was made, Easy Rider is as deeply interwoven into the fabric of 1960s culture as any movie. But as someone young enough to have not known what was going on with Tonya Harding before seeing I, Tonya, I was outright shocked by how much I outright adored Easy Rider, it's a great film in its own right as well as a remarkable exploration of those who belonged to the 1960s counterculture movement.

Two people who certainly fit into that movement are Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hooper), who also serve as the protagonists of Easy Rider. They're two fellas who live out their days by making money doing drug runs and just riding around on their motorcycles. They adhere to no set home, there's no job they have to report to for a 9-to-5 shift, in theory, they should be living the dream and the opening credits set to Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild serves as a physical manifestation of the most idealistic form of their lifestyle. Two guys just running their motors across America, not a care in the world!

But such idealistic circumstances rarely thrive permanently in this world. Wyatt and Billy face numerous struggles during the course of Easy Rider that reflect the way many parts of American society looked down on members of the counterculture. These struggles are most visibly seen when the two of them, accompanied by tag-along George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), try to eat food in a diner as the other patrons look on them with repulsion. One guy mocks Billy's long hair while another speaks in hushed horrified whispers about how he once saw two male hippies kissing. Wyatt and Billy are rebels to society merely because they don't fall in line to what society considers to be "normal".

This lends an entrancing sense of melancholy to the script (penned by its two leading men as well as Terry Southern) that's constantly reinforced by how frequently Wyatt and Billy's life is interrupted with tragedy rather than joyous freedom. At one point, poor George gets brutally murdered and the two of them react with despair but not horror, a subtle indicator that the sight of one of their own getting slaughtered in this fashion is not a wholly new sight to them. Easy Rider's commitment to examining the grim reality of deviating from what society declares to be "normal" certainly resonates as specifically relevant to the 1960s, especially since it juxtaposes that misery against two lead characters who, on the surface, seem to be aspirational hero figures for 1960s hippies.

But this sensation is relevant in any era, rendering Easy Rider one of those wonderful movies that can serve as a time capsule of a specific time period as well as just a movie that can resonate on personal terms at any point in time. Easy Rider's deviations into more avant-garde editing are similarly impressive both on their own terms and in the context of the era in which it was made. Like many American filmmakers in this decade, director Dennis Hopper and editor Donn Cambern were leaning heavily on the influence of iconic 1960s European filmmakers like Jean Luc-Godard and Federico Fellini in some of the unorthodox editing choices made in Easy Rider, especially the ones used during a third act drug trip in a graveyard. 

This sequences appropriately disorienting editing is a great way to explores the tortured and messy psyches of its lead characters, the editing is used to put the viewer right into their head space as they grapple with the intense emotions they experience during their drug trip. Just as evocative as that drug trip sequence is a brutal ending that sees Wyatt and Billy die at the hands of gun-toting intolerant men. There is no sense of grandiose flair to their demises, none of the splashy editing used previously in Easy Rider is employed, instead, their deaths are depicted in a grim fashion that leaves a pit in your stomach. This bleak ending, much like the ending of fellow 1960s counterculture touchstone Bonnie and Clyde, tragically suggests that the counterculture of the 1960s, as represented by both films protagonists, will always end up being destroyed by the hands of conventional society. A chilling notion like that executed in such a powerful manner in a movie like Easy Rider will always resonate with viewers, no matter if it's 1969 or 2019.

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