|'it is clearly not evangelically sold on any of the lifestyles it presents as valid. Hopper's film is not an argument for the 'long-hairs', the hippies or the hillbillies; it is an argument for letting them be and allowing them to exist'|
Easy Rider is often referred to as a film about America. It speaks to its still universal pull however that contemporary readings of Dennis Hopper's 1969 fuck you to 'civilised' society can and have drawn parallels wider afield. Easy Rider talks of intolerance. You can find intolerance anywhere. The scene featuring stars Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in a cafe, whilst the inhabitants of said cafe carry out a whispering campaign against them is uncomfortably terrifying, but only because you can imagine a similar scene happening over beers with an acquaintance who casually says something which outs him as a racist.
The power within the film stems from Hoppers casual portrayal of situations that at once seem extraordinary (the bikes he and Fonda ride could be something out of a Science Fiction flick), which are reacted to by the cast with careless abandon. An actor-led project (Fonda produces), it's surprising just how low key Easy Rider is at times, and how well this approach works. The straight man to Hopper's slightly wilder Billy, Fonda barely gets above a whisper, even in situations of high drama. During a stay in prison, Hopper even tells a fellow inmate (Jack Nicholson), to quiet down, so as not to wake his partner.
If there is an element that may undercut the film's freewheeling, hippie-innocent message, then it can be found during the prologue to the two rider's American road trip. Whist the film appears to preach tolerance for outsiders, 'long-haired' or otherwise, the latter parts fail to make mention or reference to the fact that Billy and Wyatt (Fonda) are drug dealers, seen peddling their supply off to Phil Spector (yes, that one) in the shadow of an airport runway. Whilst we are asked to sympathise with and support the duo, we're really not far off from a very different film where we follow the cop pursuing them and are asked to demonize them.
Easy Rider does get away with the juxtaposition, mainly because it is clearly not evangelically sold on any of the lifestyles it presents as valid. Hopper's film is not an argument for the 'long-hairs', the hippies or the hillbillies; it is an argument for letting them be and allowing them to exist. A detour Wyatt and Billy take to a hippie commune is particularly telling. By the end of it, Billy is uncomfortable enough to be ready to run from its inhabitants. Wyatt's pursuer sits with him and tries to pick his star sign, claiming 'I guessed right' despite incorrect guesses before the apparently correct one (Wyatt doesn't confirm her choice is accurate). There's something sad about the whole affair and Wyatt and Billy can smell it, but that doesn't extend to them criticising it. Like the duo themselves, there is something wrong in the commune to voyeuristic eyes, but the film is not here to pass judgement on that basis.
The finale, as Billy and Wyatt eventually reach their destination, the Holy Grail of mardi gras, inevitably echoes some of the pair's previous let downs, before Hopper delivers the tragic coup de gras. Though both - Billy in particular - want the occasion to be something special, it is shot through with melancholy and emptiness; a sense that there is something more somewhere, if only the world the characters inhabited was a little less imperfect. Hopper during this segment too lets his more overt directorial ticks get the better of him, creating a 'trip' which whiffs of student film. The rest of the production though is impressive. It's a cliche but this remains a true 'outsider' classic, where the outsiders in this case preach only judgement-free inclusion.
The Criterion Collection edition of Easy Rider is available on UK Blu-ray now.