Tribute to Peter Fonda: Easy Rider–Seminal Counter-Cultural Film–Impact, Ambiguities, Contradictions

Tribute to Peter Fonda, co-writer, co-producer, star of Easy Rider, arguably the most influential counter-cultural movie, who passed away yesterday at age 79.

No matter what your aesthetics and politics may be, the movie is a must-see for anyone interested in the history American pop culture and Hollywood cinema.

 

In 1969, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road movie proved, among many other distinctions, that critical, anti-establishment films of mainstream society and dominant culture could achieve artistic cache and even commercial success.

As a road movie, Easy Rider begins as a hymn to the openness and vastness of the American land, and it ends as a tragic vision of the American Dream.

Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), the anti-heroes of “Easy Rider” represented new screen protagonists, hippies on motorcycle in search of “America.”  Up until then these kinds of protagonists were seen in low-bdget indie films, made by Roger Corman.

The men’s names are mythic, resonating with numerous Westerns made about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.  However, instead of the Easterner going West (“Young Man Go West!”), in this picture, Wyatt and Billy ride from West to East.

In one sense, what’s left of the ethos of the Old West are two “outlaws” and drug dealers, who make enough money from drugs sold to a capitalist in Los Angeles in order to cover their fun trip to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras.

Drug dealing is not regarded as more deviant or corrupt an activity than that of other mainstream institutions, such as business.  Billy in fact says that “dope peddling” is no worse “than the Wall Street tycoon spending eighty percent of his time cheating the government.” (This was prophetically said in 1969, before the various scandals that have later erupted).

Unlike today’s screen heroes, the characters are not young, age-wise, and they are not played by young actors, either: Hooper was 33 at the time, and Peter 29. Fonda

However, as protagonists, they adhere to the cult of youthfulness, even childishness, embracing hedonism without any duty or responsibility, be it familial or marital.

Billy and Wyatt are contrasted with the “straight” world, the rednecks that can’t tolerate their looks (long hair), ideals (spontaneity, freedom) and culture (rock music). The backward bigots exemplify the kind of mob behavior and lynching mentality seen in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s (The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).

There is a significant scene in which the couple stops to repair a flat tire at a poor rancher’s house. Through crosscutting, the film conveys the two contrasting lifestyles: the rancher and his horse, Billy and Wyatt and their motorcycle.  Surrounded by a huge family at dinner time, Wyatt tells the rancher: “It’s not everyman who can live off the land, you know, doing his own thing his own time. You should be proud.”  But we are not entirely convinced that he believes in what he says, and clearly, it’s not the right lifestyle for him.

The couple is also juxtaposed with the commune members. They express interest, even mild respect, but they really cannot adopt this collective lifestyle. It’s hard life, for one thing, and the film offers an unglamorous view of this hardship. “You know, this could be the right place,” says a commune member, inviting them to stay while urging that “time’s running out.” But Billy wants to go, and the inarticulate Wyatt says, almost apologetically, “I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”

But where are they going and what are their goals? The movie celebrates romantic individualism, but it also presents a warning that excessive unbridled individualism might have detrimental effects.

The scene at the commune is at best ambiguous. At first it depicts a viable alternative, reminiscent of the back to the soil movement during the Depression (in movies like King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” of 1934).  The sequence is romanticized through the use of soft focus camera. But both films suggest the problems of extended families, and of collectivist communes, as alternative lifestyles.

The Film that Made Jack Nicholson a Star

While in New Mexico, the pair are arrested for “parading without a permit” and thrown in jail, where they befriend ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). George, who’s in prison for overindulging in alcohol, helps them get out of jail and then joins Wyatt and Billy to New Orleans.

Camping that night, Wyatt and Billy introduce George to marijuana, and the “square” alcoholic is at first reluctant, fear of becoming hooked, though he quickly relents.

Commercial Appeal

The film world premiered at the 1969 Cannes Film Fest, where it won the Best First Film Award (Prix de la première œuvre).

Released by Columbia on July 14, 1969, Easy Rider was a huge commercial success, earning over $60 million globally. Considering its low budget, about $400,000, it is still one of the most profitable pictures in American history.

Easy Rider Revisited in Late 1980s

During the 1988 presidential campaign, candidate George Bush used the film “Easy Rider” as an analogy for a passing era of laxness. Bush, who became

president, enthusiastically declared that Americans had exited the easygoing “Easy Rider” era and entered a tougher “Dirty Harry” era.

Bush stated, “We (the Reagan administration) have turned around the permissive philosophy of the 1970s, which made it easy to slip into a life of drug abuse and crime.” In Bush’s view, Clint Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day” had replaced sentiments such as Jack Nicholson’s “This used to be a helluva country–I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it,” from “Easy Rider,” as the very heartbeat of America.
George Bush explained that, “Some of the young people in college today probably don’t believe this, but people used to talk like those movies of the 1960s. They thought drug use was ‘cool’ and advised you to ‘Do your own thing.’ Well, if someone said that to you today, you’d probably think they got lost in a time-warp during one of the original runs of ‘Star Trek.'”
Jeremy Larmer complained of Bush’s speech that, “Neither film has much to do with what America ever was really like, but they, like the fabricated man who so confidently cites them, are part of the image- mongering culture that makes a reality of its own that is all but inescapable.”
Did “Easy Rider” create a celluloid America of its own, from which there was no escape?
“Easy Rider” was “the statement” of a generation, when it was released in the summer of 1969. It has remained one of the most significant films of the decade, offering a new kind of American movie and a new kind of experience. “Easy Rider” may be the film equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s rambunctious “On the Road novel,” in that it legitimatized a new subject matter, including casual drugs and sex, and the questioning of the American system and its dominant ideology.
At the time of release, Hopper’s film received a far-reaching reaction from fans and critics alike. Vincent Canby, the New York Times critic, wrote that “Easy Rider” was “not a great film but an accurate if overstated dramatization of the fears of many people, especially young people, who were shocked to realize that perhaps there were flaws in the system.”
Bush’s use of the film as a symbol of a presumably “discarded” American attitude raised then—and continues to raise now–the important question of the film’s effects–in the short-run and in the long-run.   I think many critics and viewers would agree that some of the ideas of “Easy Rider” have not aged well, that they are antiquated. Naturally, we see the characters of “Easy Rider” in a different way than viewers did back then, because we now see the youth movement of that time in a different light—both positive and negative.
In recent years, harsh critics have claimed that the movie is “uninformed” and “miserably dated.” Nonetheless, revisiting the film today, it’s interesting to note the thematic ambiguities, the ideological cracks, the narrative contradictions, the criticism of the American Dream and its myths of freedom, individualism, and free enterprise.
We Blew It
Near the end of the film, Wyatt tells Billy “We blew it, Billy. We blew it.”  At the time, this famous line inspired a huge debate: What exactly did he mean?  The movie goes to great lengths to celebrate the romantic individualism of the youth movement, but within that celebration, there’s actually a thoughtful and clever warning—perhaps even a waking call.

Cultural Status, Then and Now

Oscar Nominations: 2

Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson)

Original Screenplay (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern).

Oscar Awards:

None

Oscar Context

In 1969, the Supporting Actor Oscar went to Gig Young for “The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”‘ and the Original Screenplay Award to William Goldman for the Western comedy “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

In 1998, the film was added to the U.S. Library of Congress National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

 

 

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