Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 270 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.
The value of Easy Rider stems from its ability to reflect an era. Largely as the result of an unpopular war, the 1960′s saw the growth of a youth culture that had grown disillusioned with “the establishment”. At the same time, the overproduction of automobiles and the interstate public highway system presented anyone with the option of exploring one’s freedom.
- Director: Dennis Hopper
- Writer: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Terry Southern
- Cast: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson
Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) have just landed a cocaine deal that leaves them with a good stash of money. They decide that Florida will be their destination, a place where they can retire and live on their own terms. Leaving Los Angeles, their motorcycle journey across the Southwest begins. Along the way, they encounter a ranch lands, hippie commune and jail. They meet George (Jack Nicholson). While briefly in jail, they meet George (Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who decides to join them on their trip. Events take a turn for the worse after they stop at a diner where several men and some local policemen make derogatory comments about their appearance. There is a tragic episode, and soon after, Wyatt and Billy find themselves at Mardi Gras, hiring a pair of prostitutes who then join them for recreational drug use. Between Wyatt and Billy, the ends comes soon thereafter, but not before they reflect on their journey and one of them comes to a sad realization.
In narrative form, the idea is to lead us into identifying with certain characters, providing us with an opportunity to witness events through the eyes of its characters, as a secondary experience. When cinema treats its subject matter in material form, the idea is to provide the audience with a more primary experience, not so much concerned with developing its characters as it is with allowing an audience to navigate through a film more directly. Easy Rider fails to hold up because it lacks substance; it seems more like a road movie produced after a graduate course in experimental filmmaking. If you are a fan of Rock n’ Roll history, you’ll at least have some good music to listen to while watching this amateur-looking film. I suspect that Easy Rider, without its soundtrack, would be nearly unbearable.
One of the most powerful pieces of dialogue in this film mentions how scared people get when someone truly exercises freedom, despite all the talk about freedom in America. Looking back at when this film was made, it came a good time. In history, it is said that to make a man legendary, “the man and the times must convene”. Easy Rider came at the right time, especially when one considers that the late 60’s had witnessed its share of popcorn entertainment, often featuring the likes of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. At a time when many films didn’t seem to reflect much of the country’s reality, Easy Rider came along as a counter-culture film at precisely the time that America’s youth culture was ready to receive it. As Roger Ebert reminds us, “this film was playing in theaters at about the time Woodstock Nation was gathering in upstate New York.”
Easy Rider works best as a time capsule, reflecting the type of conversations that were likely occurring all around the country, as people wondered what had become of America and questioned where it was headed. One of the ideas that I love about this film is that it seems to suggest that freedom – aside from always having a price – is not to be pushed to its limits merely because it is within our reach to do so. It suggests that freedom for its own sake is just as bad as slaving away if there is no meaning or purpose attached. In some respects, here is a film that seems to be commenting on itself, as if it were mainly exercising the freedom to make a movie for the sake of making one, unrestricted by conventions and ultimately not making much of an attempt to achieve anything substantial.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Mr. Ebert, I don’t view this as a “great” film, but as a film that does a great job of conveying a radical social perspective. I see that you initially reviewed this film in 1969, at a time when your career was just getting started. I get the feeling that much of your love for this movie is soaked in nostalgia. In your original review, you state, “When the Hollywood establishment was dismissing motorcycle movies as an unpleasant low-budget fad, the kids already knew that something was happening here.” You even begin your original review by pointing out that Henry Fonda was said to have come out of Easy Rider a confused and puzzled man. Fonda “had worked in movies for 35 years and made some great ones, and now his son Peter was going to be a millionaire because of a movie Henry couldn’t even understand.” At the time that you wrote this, you seemed inclined to dismiss old Hollywood. While this film succeeds perhaps in capturing the mood of the day, it’s dated poorly, and while I can understand what made this film popular, I have trouble really appreciating it as a film that is able to stand on its own over 40 years later. The story is so weak that in your 2004 review you acknowledge that “If you follow the story closely in Easy Rider you find out it isn’t there. The rough-cut of the movie reportedly ran over three hours, and Hopper edited it to a reasonable length by throwing out the story details and keeping the rest.” Somehow you then try to explain how a barely-existing plot is a good thing, as it still manages to hold up the characters in some way. I felt compelled to regard it mostly as an old T.V. afternoon special, one loosely documenting the hippie culture of the 60′s, setting it to rock music and mixing in scenes that function mostly as experimental fare. Why can’t we just admit the budget was so limited there was no money for an original score, and that most of what we see here seems to have been thrown up on the screen, perhaps for the sake of art, perhaps to speak to a generation, or perhaps because it just seemed like a cool thing to do. But let’s not call this movie “great”.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: BAD
Do you like Easy Rider ? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Treasure of the Sierra Madre