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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Easy Rider

I just finished watching the classic, generational film, Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson.

Two bikers (hippies?) turn a big cocaine deal and then head out from the west coast for a cross-country trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. On the way they encounter a hippie farm (of sorts), pick up a young and drunk lawyer (played by Jack Nicholson), and encounter resistance from white rednecks and hillbillies.

Jack Nicholson explains the presence of alien life forms living amongst us as well as the reason why those who are truly free represent a threat to Americans for whom freedom is only a concept - a concept that represents a threat when it actually emerges. That is, the word freedom becomes merely a code for maintaining establishment norms.

There is a scene I found rather bizarre, but also quite intriguing. Near the end of the movie Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) pick up two hookers and hit the streets of Mardi Gras. At morning they find a secluded area where they can get stoned and have sex. So, in the midst of the stoned/sex the movie has voice-overs of Catholic catechisms and Scripture recitations. It was very, very strange, and I'm wondering what the movie makers were going for in this scene. For me, there was a contrast between that which was sacred and the "degrading of their bodies" (Romans 1). And yet the movie is obviously not anti-sex or anti-stoned. I don't think the point was to condemn the "freedom" of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And yet during the mini-orgy there were Scriptures dealing with the judgment of God and the values of morality as espoused by the Scriptures and the Catholic confessionals.

So, what is the point? Is it to contrast the freedom of the bikers with the bondage of the church?

My other question had to do with the scene right before the end. Billy and Wyatt are turning in for the evening and Billy begins expressing his excitement at how much money they took in and how they are now in the clear and have all kinds of opportunities ahead of them. But Wyatt doesn't share his optimism or joy. Instead he says that we've done it all wrong, Billy. We got it all wrong. Wyatt then turns in and then they cut to the last scene where our two heroes ride along the highway and are gunned down by two rednecks in a pickup truck.

But why does Wyatt say that they have it all wrong? Throughout the movie Wyatt is obviously the more reflective of the two and seems at times to balk at the freedom that his friend Billy seems to be able to enjoy more easily.

So, is this film something of a middle-road approach? Anti-establishment, yet at the same time cautious about the alternative of a free love and free drugs culture?


Melody said...

That's a classic?

ktismatics said...

Every generation deserves its own road movie. I just wrote a post about Fellini's 1954 film La Strada -- "The Road" in English. Like Easy Rider, the main characters travel the country via motorcycle, but it's a very different looking bike -- I just put up a video image grab on the top of my post so you can compare and contrast.

It's been awhile since I saw Easy Rider. My first image is auditory -- that kind of spacey Byrds song about "I wasn't born to follow." And also Jack Nicholson -- this is the movie that put him on the map, and you can see why. He's the only really live wire in the whole shebang.

Wyatt (classic American hero name) is also Captain America, out to see his country. My sense was that they blew it because they remained outcast from the "real" America of cowboys, small-town hicks and New Orleans city folk. Instead they moved from one hippie encampment to another, which existed on the margins like Indian reservations.

I don't remember the Catholic imagery, although I do recall the sense of impending doom associated with arriving at Mardi Gras, the goal of their pilgrimage. The forces of redneck and religious bigotry were reaching a mystical convergence heightened by the pilgrims' drug-induced haze.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, that stoner scene at the end is really something. Many comments I have come across kind of find it embarrassing - as if it is a very "dated" piece of movie making. Perhaps so, but being "dated" isn't always a negative scene, particularly if one is trying to capture the spirit of the age.

I'm going to rewatch with some of these comments in mind.

Is Wyatt a patriot, then? Perhaps he represents the real and true spirit of freedom that has been hijacked by the spirit of fear and the suspicions/hatred of the back-woods types. Wyatt as Captain America represents the possibility of reconciling the two groups - hippie and establishment. Yet in the end he is blown away by a hillbilly, who perhaps represents ignorance, anxiety, hatred and fear. Is this telling? That by '69 the hippies had been defeated (shot down, as it were), and they now had to "grow up" and find another way (politics) to change the spirit of the age?

Andy said...

I think you're missing some of the very, very existentialist bent of this movie. Life capriciously handed us a sweet cocaine deal? Well, that's cool. People are starving out here? Huh. Our riding buddy just got killed in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? Oh, well.

The place where Billy "gets it wrong" is that he's not taking life as it is; he's dreaming of a life of wealth and pleasure; he's counting on life not being random, people not being corrupted and evil. Moments later, he's got a shotgun in his face. Existential Karma, if you will.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good thoughts, Andy. I like it.

So, the hippies did get it right. Wyatt should have stayed with the hippie farm. Interesting that it is Billy (the more materialistic one) who urges Wyatt to get moving and get away from the hippie farm.

Mik said...

Having never seen the movie I must thank you for ruining the ending for me:|


Jonathan Erdman said...

Is it too late for a spoiler warning??!!

ktismatics said...

Regarding possible existential karma, like I said, I haven't seen the movie in a long time. But it seemed to me that Billy and Wyatt were targets long before Billy sold out; it just seemed like a matter of time. The Jack Nicholson character stepped away from his sellout job into the free life and got killed on the road for his troubles. Billy sold out to the get-rich-quick dream, but did Wyatt? Either way, they met the same fate. Maybe the idea is that American Karma is going to get you whichever version of the American dream you buy into.

Trane said...

Could it be because the next day after Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent? Hence the Catholic overtones?

Jonathan Erdman said...


What just strikes me as so bizarre is that during the "tripped out" scene all these disparate and dissonant themes are brought together and blended into a bizarre mixture.....It seems to be one of those things that may just symbolize the spirit of the age, or maybe just the random freakishness of tripping out....or maybe they were bringing together the perspectives of all those tripping out so that the voyeuristic viewer can get a "bird's eye view" of the activities. Or maybe it is a "God's eye view" and hence the religious symbols blended in with bad trips and orgasms.