This is post #17 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry.
Without further ado, #84 “Easy Rider”
I’ve heard people say “Easy Rider” is just some dudes riding around on motorcycles doing drugs.
That’s not totally true.
Though, yes, Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) do spend much of the movie’s 95-minute running time either riding motorcycles or going on (sometimes not so pleasant) drug trips, to say that’s all this film is about is to miss the point entirely.
Once the dudes embark on their journey from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras, the entire experience conveys the era of freedom they went in search of. Riding through the majestic beauty of the American southwest reminds the viewer that these sacred places with gorgeous natural rock formations exist, as well as the fact that they are riding free. That is, they are free of the tethers of society. There’s no responsibilities, no rush-hour traffic, no police. After all, there’s nothing that gives you the feeling that you’re on top of the world like a road trip. You are the master of you’re own ship, and the world is your ocean for your epic voyage.
Of course, by the end, we realize we are the masters of very little. Every vacation must come to an end. Work awaits to be caught up on at the office on Monday. Besides, even if you ditched work for good, what would you do? How would you get money, and what would you do for food? The gas tank gets thirsty after a while. Eventually, the highway gets old anyway.
So, when Captain America tosses his watch and rides off into the desert at the beginning of the film, although he truly believes he’s above even time, he’s reaching for an ideal that isn’t attainable. When he and Billy stop at a farmer’s ranch, Cap expresses his admiration for the farmer’s ability to live by his own means. But they quickly realize that even though they’ve left the city, they now have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. Though it might be wonderful if everyone could have it so well, it’s not exactly a realistic ideal.
And that was the problem with the hippie movement as a whole, and that’s why for the most part, the idea has died out. I’m sure pockets of drifters and communes still exist, but this isn’t a dream that most of society holds. In fact, the idea of taking a motorcycle where ever the wind takes you and roughing it isn’t exactly something most people in today’s nonstop digital world would be interested in. Taking it slow would be too much of a barrier to productivity.
Still, most people can identify with the stranger the duo meets on the side of the road who says it doesn’t matter which city he’s from, “all cities are alike. I’m a long way from the city, and that’s where I wanna be right now.” In a capitalist society, we can relate with Jack Nicholson’s lawyer George Hanson when he says that “it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.”
When Captain America and Billy get shot down by two rednecks who don’t like the way these guys look, their ideals die with them. It’s 1969, and the decade is over. Though the ideals were flawed, they were beautiful. It’s reasonable to mourn them, but they are dead and gone, as they should be.
As the bikers learn at the hippie commune the stranger on the highway takes them to, it’s wonderful that these people have set up a community where they can live, free from the rest of society. But Captain America and Billy realize that they probably won’t last, because it’s going to be hard to grow food in the desert. Still, the commune shares what little they have with the travelers. Eventually, these people will all have to move back to the city and get jobs.
The movie’s portrayal of the South seems to be somewhat accurate, but somewhat off-base. George purports that the Southerners are afraid of their freedom. Although that may be true, it certainly wasn’t the South that killed off freedom (well, in a different way it did and continues to do so), but the whole goal of being self-sustaining is just a pipe dream, and life just doesn’t work that way. And the Yankees up North are just as bad in many respects.
Anyway, it’s a wealthy man’s luxury to just be able to drop everything and strike out on your own. Who can afford to do that? Even if a common person in the U.S. wanted to go start a farm on their own, there would be so many barriers to doing that. For one thing, no one can afford a plot of land, unless they”re already rich. Though a life of taking one’s own responsibility like Captain America seeks is a nice idea, who even has that option? In this country, citizens are dependent on one another, for better or worse. The poor are dependent on the rich, and the rich are dependent on the poor, and everyone between. No one has the ability to supply themselves with everything they need.
When Cap finally admits, “we blew it” to Billy, after a bad LSD trip, who knows what he’s talking about? It’s quite vague. But perhaps it sums up the Hippie Movement of the 60s at large. For all the freedom they searched for, they only aspired to spend it on themselves, as even Billy himself was just looking for his next fix the entire journey. Though it’s tempting to want release from society and an oppressive culture, maybe we should be spending our energy on fixing it for the people who don’t have the same opportunities we do and for the generations to come, so they don’t have to deal with the same problems we have. That would be groovy.
Though it’s not out of the question that Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson may have just used making this film as an excuse to ride motorcycles out in the desert and get high (Fonda admits they actually were smoking weed in several scenes), perhaps they felt they had something to say with it as well. It’s an elegy for the 60s, but also a plea to future generations to do better.
Next up, #83 “Titanic”