Fourth of July Pick: Easy Rider (1969)

by on July 3, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon July 4 at Dusk at Bryant Park [Program & Tix]

*Lawn opens at 5:00


A.O. Scott for The New York Times:

Hard as it may be for some to accept, “Easy Rider” is now 40 years old… Captain America and Billy the Kid —Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who also directed this touchstone of the counterculture and harbinger of the New Hollywood — [are restored] to a state of youthful vigor.


And also Jack Nicholson, who comes along for the ride as a clean-cut kid seduced by the lure of the open road and the shaggy wisdom embodied by Billy and the Captain. The status of that wisdom, and the film’s take on it, are a source of perpetual debate. Does “Easy Rider” take its heroes to be prophets or fools? Does its apparently romantic view of antisocial roaming contain an element of satire? The movie itself plays its cards close to the fringed buckskin vest, grooving on the American landscape rather than spelling out its meanings. Mr. Hopper, a sly showman and a cunning formalist, blended the stripped-down muscularity of contemporary hot-rod B movies with flights of abstraction and intuition that show more than a passing acquaintance with art-house heroes Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard.


“I’m hip about time,” the Captain remarks at one point. Forty years later it’s still worth pondering just what he meant.



J. Hoberman for Criterion:

Successors to the Wild One and the Rebel Without a Cause, Bonnie and Clyde were Righteous Outlaws; Fonda’s narcissistic, cool-bordering-on-catatonic Captain America and Hopper’s hyperzonked, free-form, babbling Billy were something else. These guys were freaks and heads, semiotic warriors and electric cowboys, True Americans and Losers, Beautiful Losers.


Easy Rider decried Amerikkka but celebrated American freedom. Hopper served up Jack Kerouac’s Beat generation wanderlust and Robert Frank’s on-the-road landscape with a self-consciously artistic, European-inflected camera. He and cinematographer László Kovács developed a widely imitated style, based on giant close-ups, sudden zooms, leisurely rack focusing, and ecstatic sunbursts. Hopper’s sense of filmmaking also drew on American underground filmmakers (Kenneth Anger’s wall-to-wall real rock music in Scorpio Rising, Bruce Conner’s fragmentary editing).


The use of strobe flash-forwards to signify scene transitions failed to catch on, but Easy Rider’s rock-scored lyrical interludes—meant to evoke the experience of bombing down the highway with the car radio blasting, and typically used in stoned celebration of the nation’s empty plenitude—became the hallmark of Hollywood hipness.


As in the heyday of Haight-Ashbury, everyone showed up in cos­tume. Hopper dressed as Wild Bill Hickok, Fonda wore leather pants and the American flag; the women they encounter seemed modeled on Pocahontas or Belle Starr’s fancy gals. Phil Spector pretends to be a coke dealer, a stray hitchhiker is AWOL from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And yet Easy Rider was also marked by a concern with authenticity—as Head had been, at least in acknowledging its own phoniness. This desire to let it all hang out and tell it like it is was, Teresa Grimes would note some years later in a piece for Movie magazine, the defining BBS characteristic (as prophesied by Hopper): “A crucial feature of the BBS ethos was to take filmmaking out of the studio into the ‘real America,’ so that the film could become a response to an actual reality ‘out there.’”


Certainly, that’s how a sizable chunk of the audience saw (or wanted to see) Easy Rider.Defending the movie in the New York Times, Village Voice rock critic Richard Goldstein called it “a travel poster for the new America.” (And yet, paraphrasing a current Simon and Garfunkel ballad, the Easy Rider ad announced, “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”) Although devoid of political analysis beyond the assumption that, by waving their freak flags high in the American South, its martyred protagonists were not just Easy but Freedom Riders, the movie articulated a generalized sense of failure.



Benjamin Strong for the L Mag:

Nicholson’s character, a Dixie-based ACLU lawyer, ought to be hip already to what’s going on. But then, sort of like the era it depicts, 1969’s toast-of-Cannes has always been a mix of cynicism and naiveté. Still, in a new restoration, and its accompanying awesome period rock soundtrack, this Boomer relic has aged well. If you can perish thoughts of Albert Brooks in Lost in America and of Wilson and Stiller in Starsky & Hutch, there’s more than an obnoxious generational statement here — there’s also a black comedy about our ongoing Red v. Blue conflict.


Hanoi Jane’s kid brother warns, in the final act, that “we blew it,” foreshadowing his smug comment, three decades later in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, that there were no 1960s, only “’66 and early ’67.” For his part, Hopper appears gleeful that the dream is over. The LSD sequence at Mardi Gras — shot first on grainy stock, a year earlier, to attract financing — has the far-out, thanatological vibe of the director’s next project, The Last Movie. And on-screen, as the nervous sidekick to Fonda’s white knight, Hopper plants the seeds of the psychotic runts he would embody during the Reagan administration.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Director Dennis Hopper borrows from the avant-garde to suggest the LSD experience, and some of the trips have a definite flavor of Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. The film may be a relic now, but it is a fascinating souvenir—particularly in its narcissism and fatalism—of how the hippie movement thought of itself. This was the same year, remember, that Hopper played a heavy offed by John Wayne in True Grit.


Penelope Gilliatt upon release, for the New Yorker:

Ninety-four minutes of what it is like to swing, to watch, to be fond, to hold opinions and to get killed in America at this moment.


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