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Homies on the Range

Revisiting the World of EASY RIDER – 

I vividly remember paying not a shred of attention to Easy Rider in 1969. Whatever it was about, it wasn’t Ours, but was pretending to be. The idea of re-presenting the present out from under Us was still too new. It was a given that Hollywood wouldn’t, couldn’t ever “get it”, that the portrayals of sixties youth culture would always fall flat. People from the Hollywood establishment were untrustworthy observers: too old, too embedded in cliché and conventionalism for even the best of intentions to salvage them. This went for movie stars too, even “hip” ones like Dennis Hopper, who was, at  34, trying to play a 20-something in this film. Nobody with the wherewithal to mass market, on 35 mm film, a message or representation, took the notion of questioning consumerist and capitalist values seriously. Perhaps they knew that, as sure as four kids at Kent State, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy,  and Fred Hampton, were dead, the idea of  world peace and a society free from corporate sponsorship was doomed.

Today’s youth culture is a brand that is readily accessible: it exists in a cyber world of signs, tweets and emoticons written in code for all to see in the realms of Facebook and Twitter. Style and language is a uniform code vertically integrated through age, socioeconomic demographics–instantly, globally. In those long ago times before the internet there was a private and unspoken aspect to the communal youth experience that defied facile representation. But Easy Rider went ahead and did it, grossing 60 million dollars worldwide by 1972 off a $400,000 budget. Someone was paying attention, or at least watching in gape-mouthed silence.

There was a deep establishmentarian aversion to looking at the genuinely radical ideas behind some of the social trends of that decade. ‘Free Love’, for example, in its filmic representations and in its reiterations in the 70s, looks like swinging or other forms of narcissistic hedonism. Hedonism and narcissism were symptomatic of a boisterous boom economy, but the ideas that generated free love were based on socialist ideals. The marriage institution was a consumerist exercise in purchasing a biological mate. A utopian ideal of communal loving kindness, and ultimately peace, required that people eschew “ownership” of a sexual partner. These ideas sound laughable today, but I grew up schooled in the view that all the rituals of courtship–rings, gifts of jewelry, formal dating etc. —were bribes and ransom for the procurement of access to, followed by ownership of, my body, and that love (relationships, sexuality) needed to break free from the capitalist consumerist model that underlay it. Free love was meaningful, at least superficially, to women more than men because the concept would presumably free them from an essentially passive and reactive role. But somehow the mass media re-presentation of “free love” became horny male hippies skinny-dipping with hot “chicks.” Easy Rider was cast in that pre-feminist mold.

As I reach back to try to remember why I ignored Easy Rider, I recall an amazing array of culturally trenchant films that had credibility at the time: Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969); Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)  with Bob Dylan at the center spinning poetry and attitude; Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, (1968) with its long long takes of Mick Jagger singing in some kind of sexual ecstasy intercut with protest signs, graffiti, and Black Panthers. Panic in Needle Park (1971)—which, incidentally, starred Al Pacino—was also a favorite: it evoked the smell associated with crash pads, bad drugs and wasted kids. 1969 was the year that Midnight Cowboy came out, one of the darkest, saddest and most soulful films of the decade. A year earlier, the spectacularly creepy and poetic 2001:A Space Odyssey, had captured the paranoia of the coming digital surveillance space age. Warhol/Morissey were in their prime, with a prodigious output of B films that covered urban subculture–a long list that includes Lonesome Cowboys, Flesh, and Trash.

Although Easy Rider may fall short as cultural analysis or filmic poetry it undoubtedly marks the successful branding of a generation. As of 1969, advertisers had not yet figured out the youth market and had largely ignored the counterculture. Life magazine was just beginning to show photo essays about hippies, as some odd wackos living out in the country. Hopper and Fonda were the perfect frontmen for the opening salvo in a campaign to gather the flocks of disaffected youth, or, more importantly, disaffected youth wannabes, for after all, it’s the aspirational character of mass market that drives consumerism. Dennis Hopper grew up in television. Peter Fonda was part of Hollywood royalty. They never become fictional characters. Compare them to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo and the Jon Voight’s haunted and sweet Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) come off as two fairly well off Hollywood actors who dress up like hippies and ride shiny motorcycles. Peter Fonda’s Wyatt is amiable and narcissistic, tilting his well-sculpted head to capture the light just so on his high cheekbones and patrician profile. He wears the shirt of a dandy and has the whiff of natural privilege and superiority about him. His famous line, “I never wanted to be anybody else” says it all. Why the hell would he want to be anybody else? Hopper’s Billy is the more interesting of the two: a confused, irascible, paranoid, and sometimes unpleasant misfit. After they do a drug deal with Phil Spector–whose genuine unwholesomeness seems downright eerie given recent events–the two set off  to a grand soundtrack of “classic” sixties pothead music, through the glorious landscape of the West. Jack Nicholson plays himself lusciously, with a nod to his character “George”; good fun but ultimately disappointing. His memorable moment is his “They fear you for your freedom” speech, that has all the depth of Jefferson Smith’s climactic rant in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I for one don’t buy the argument that people down South are “fearful of freedom”. They just don’t like Yankees, queers or Hippies: the bias is wired into their brains from long-standing cultural practice. Importantly, cultural practice is subject to influence and change, however glacial.

Landscape is really at the heart of the film. Lovely to look at, vista after stunning vista appears like flapping pages on an Arizona Highways calendar. The magnificence of the American desert is a tacit expression of albeit bland religiosity embedded in Easy Rider. The message goes something like: out here you can see the majesty of the Creator at work. This is sacred land, once tended by indigenous peoples whose dead are buried under the places we buy and sell, get high upon, or otherwise profane by our presence. Notions of property are mundane held up to the pristine and ancient openness of the desert, and  ideas of time are petty, held up to the eternal Presence of the land.

The American roots of this mode of thinking are the Transcendentalists of the 19th century, whose ideas were in turn derived from the English Romantics, from German Idealism…and the Hindu Vedic tradition. Even though there was a small but important hippy subculture that returned to the land who did adopt these values, to look too deeply into those sources in the context of Easy Rider is misleading. The landscape is really more a decorative mood motif than a source of genuine reverence, more a backdrop for dudes on shiny motorcycles than an allusion to transcendence.

The encounters of Wyatt and Billy with the others they meet are  laced with paranoia, conflict and strangeness. With the exception of  George Hanson–the small town ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson–the people of the road never whole-heartedly welcome them, and the trip gets progressively darker, but unfortunately not in a very illuminating way. (It is instructive to note that if you decide to drop acid after a friend has been murdered, don’t do it in a cemetery.) Billy’s line after their journey is (almost) all over is “we blew it”…meaning they had made some unnamed, perhaps unnamable, irreversible mistake. The koan-like remark, left unexplained, promises more than it can ever deliver. Yes, it’s a good idea to leave it unexplained, but it does beg the question, what was their plan…the “it” that they blew? Even in 1969 it was pretty obvious from the start that these guys were too old to be excused for having a hare-brained idea like taking off and retiring to Florida on the proceeds of a drug deal. There was no idealism, no altruism, no cynicism, just an experiment with mindlessness. Yeah, whatever.

Now that I am an old geezerette, and not an 18-year old with a bad attitude, I smile a little at the kindness in Hopper’s portrait of a generation that, at his advanced age of 30-something, he could easily have derided. Alas, the kindness was too soft in the head to shed any light on what was really happening. As political agitprop it falls almost tragically flat. Tragic because it’s crucial to understand what happens when people begin to rise up. Yes, rednecks hated hippies, but rednecks were never the real problem, and the “hippies” knew that. Rednecks weren’t responsible for killing the kids at Kent State or the Black Panthers. That was the National Guard, called out by the State government of Ohio; that was the FBI. It was never the country people who presented much of a challenge to the counterculture, as a matter of fact, the stylings and costuming of Easy Rider were ironically taken from them and then re-adopted in relatively short order by rural America. By the early seventies a whole vein of rock’n’roll had gone southern (Allman Bros, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ry Cooder, etc). Style and costumes became the only lasting legacy of the time.

The sixties was the only decade where three grass roots political movements–anti-war, feminism and civil rights–actually gained traction; but the social movement of the counterculture, the utopian dreams, died, and all that was left us was granola, tie dye and Rolling Stone Magazine (which in the 70’s claimed to have “sold” the 60’s generation to advertisers). The reasons are largely structural, with institutions of media, finance and governance playing major roles. The ignorant redneck with a tumor on his neck (played by an actual resident of a tiny Louisiana town known for its gambling dens and brothels) who shoots Billy and Wyatt may have been a villain once upon a time, but today he’s the victim of a health care system that gives him the choice of losing everything he’s got to pay for his disease, or dying in the same ditch as the killed hippy.

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