Fifty years later, Easy Rider leaves a complicated legacy
In the countercultural moment of the late 1960’s, writers and cultural thinkers were doing as much to dissect and understand their time and their moment as we are today.
Written for print instead of pixel, the words were flying over typesetters presses and out into the public.
They hoped to capture and understand what they were living through in the mid 20th Century, two massive wars behind them, while still in the grip of two confusing wars (skirmishes? military actions?) in Asia.
The music of the time was by all accounts seminal, and the films, from big budget Hollywood musicals to white hat Westerns were all about the time that came before.
With Dennis Hopper’s 1969 Cannes Award winning film Easy Rider, which comes upon its 50th anniversary in 2019, the American zeitgeist of freedom, independence, and self determination was on fully display.
Written by Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern, the film was a hit with youth but confusing for their parents was noted by legendary film critic Roger Ebert when he wrote in his 1969 review of the film “… many members of the Hollywood older generation believe, sincerely and deeply, that Easy Rider doesn’t have a story, and doesn’t mean anything, and that the kids are all crazy these days.”
But for today’s audiences, reared on confusing superhero plots that reference back to other superhero plots, the story line is perfectly clear.
Two guys, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) sell several bricks of cocaine to Phil Spector, stuff the wads of cash into plastic tubing hidden within the gas tanks of their exceedingly loud motorcycles, and drive east.
The cinematography is lush in that way that 1970’s cinema was, all yellows and natural hues, brilliant skies and an open emptiness where mind and body can roam free.
On their way to Mardi Gras, where Billy plans to indulge in all the myriad delights, they stop here and there to be enveloped by brief moments of legendary Americana.
They sleep rough under the stars, stop for repairs and to take a meal with a rancher and his family, pick up a hitchhiker who gives a land acknowledgment at the place where they camp, and end up at a destitute, desperate, definitely not going to make it commune.
From there they enter the Jim Crow era south where they meet up with local attorney George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who joins them for a spell on their ride.
The narrative structure was completely simplified into little events that are about character, not plot, and about how the youth of America were feeling about themselves and their own prospects.
As opposed to finding their place within the given structure, the given narrative of the country, they were revving their engines and setting off for parts and experiences unknown, with the security of drug money and fuel in their tanks.
When Wyatt asks “Did you ever want to be anyone else?” And answers it with “I never wanted to be anyone else” it’s as though he’s speaking for a generation of disaffected youth who were eager to leave everything they had learned behind, to destroy their country’s foul past, and to create from its ashes the glorious new life where no one was shackled by wage labor, capitalism, or production.
Then, as now, this concept had its critics. Writing in the October 1969 issue of Reason, Cheri Kent Litzenberger writes “Philosophical Origins and Intellectual Heroes of the New Left.”
It is about the youth of the time and their proclivity toward Marxist ideology, specifically with regard to their reading of Herbert Marcuse, Franz Fanon, their attempts to throw off of the chains of Sigmund Freud that tied them to guilt in their pleasure principles, and their yearning to achieve the goals of existentialism.
To this end the youth of the “new left” were throwing off reason, rationalism, adherence to schedules and time, or any need to comply with narrative structure.
For some of its advocates and adherents, existentialism is a revolt against the scholasticism of modern positivistic philosophy. It is not a fundamental revolt. The existentialists learned from the positivists that reason is neither a tool of cognition nor a guide to action, that the human mind can discover no ‘absolute truth’ about the world or man’s place in it. But while the positivists proceed ‘reasonably’ to investigate what remains to be studied (namely, the ways in which men talk about the world they cannot know) the existentialists attempt to save philosophy by abandoning reason altogether. In its place, they substitute a ‘new’ means of knowledge: their feelings.
If the world is incomprehensible, they say, if thinking is futile and values are the product of arbitrary emotional attachments, then feelings are the only things that matter, commitment to those feelings the only assurance of value and meaning in life, and acting on those feelings the only way to achieve moral stature. Existentialism, says Sartre, ‘defines man by his action’ and ‘proposes an ethic of action and self commitment.’ Commitment to what? ‘We cannot decide a priori what it is that should be done.’ [Jean Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed Walter Kaufman, The World Publishing Company, 1956, pp 787-311] Excepting its positivistic premises, it is a perfectly reasonable argument. The positivist cuts off man’s head, the existentialist elevates the twitching, writhing body on a moral pedestal.
Rationalists and those who kept their heads instead of moving mass quantities of illicit, potentially harmful substances simply for the purpose of achieving their own freedom at the cost of others’ lives, eschewed this new ethos, and rightly so.
While there is much to be loved in this film, from the cinematography to the feelings of agency, independence, yearnings unleashed, and whimsies followed, it also shows us that the self-centered, me first approach to live leaves trails of beautiful colour, but lacks meaning beyond the fulfillment of one’s own desires.
When the end of the film comes, and Wyatt and Billy are left for dead by baseball bat wielding rednecks who simply don’t like their kind, we find that the journey has led us back to the source, with no storyline, no narrative, and no way out.