Easy Rider, a film that helped to start the New Hollywood phase during the late 60’s and early 70’s (along with films such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde) is a road movie about two bikers from Los Angeles, who travel through American South. Easy Rider explores the issues and tensions in the United States during the 60’s, such as experimentation with psychoactive drugs (it’s also known for real drug use during filming, especially LSD and marijuana), communal as well as nomadic lifestyle and so on. It is a film about the search for freedom, leaving behind predominant values and contructing new ones, it is about the conflict between what could be called old America and it’s conservatism and new America; progressive, liberal, young.The film is presented in a linear narrative, and we don’t have any insight into Billy’s and Wyatt’s life before they went on the road. We know almost nothing about their personal life, except that they’re originally from L.A. But their past is not important. We can even say that it’s not really a story about them, but more about the whole generation that rejected the conservative values and lifestyles of their parents in the late sixties. As Seitz (2010) already pointed out in his essay for Criterion:
“Easy Rider had a big impact on pop culture and it became a surprise hit because it showed young viewers a life they knew quite well but that hadn’t yet been accurately captured on film: the language, the sex, the drugs, the clothes, the music. But Easy Rider also transcends its cultural moment, because it’s about more than bikers and hippies or the tension between libertines and reactionaries. It’s about the difficulty of escaping social conditioning and economic imperatives and sustaining a truly free life. Our heroes spend so many nights outdoors not because they love looking at the stars but because even low-rent motels won’t take guys who look like them.”
Billy and Wyatt don’t openly reject society in terms of political thought; they just want to live how they want to, without time-limitations and restrictions (the moment when Wyatt throws away his watch symbolizes their freedom; they are not limited by society in any way, even time stops existing). They don’t really care about global problems and they don’t hold on to some great ideology. Their raison d’etre is freedom conceived as a life without restraints and full of pleasure in the form of excessive drug use, sexual promiscuity and so on.
After being arrested for “parading without a permit” while jokingly riding along with a parade in a small town, they’re thrown in jail, where they befriend a lawyer and local drunk, George Hanson (which was the role, that made Jack Nicholson the star and rised him to one of the best actors of his generation). He helps them get out of the jail and decides to travel with them to New Orleans.
One of the strongest scenes in the film is when Billy and Hanson talk by the fire, trying to figure out, what happened to their country, what happened to America (which is one of the main topics in the film, as we can see on the original film poster: A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere…). Billy tells Hanson that they can’t even get into a second-rate motel, because they’re scared of their wild looks. But while Billy thinks that all he and Wyatt represent to these people is someone, who needs a haircut, Hanson has a different view on why people are scared of the two long-haired bikers – and this is because they represent freedom. When Billy still doesn’t undertand, what’s wrong with freedom, because freedom is »what it’s all about«, Hanson explains: “That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”
Billy’s and Wyatt’s appearances challange prevailing notions of manhood – the bikers are routinely harrassed for their long hair and eccentric clothes, and mocked as girls or queers. This is especially seen when they walk into the diner with some local people and the town Sheriff already in it. They walk out before getting anything to eat, because of the way people make fun of them. They openly call them girls (»I think she’s cute, we’ll put him in a woman’s cell«) and queers, and even compare them to the animals from the zoo (»They look like a bunch of refugees from a gorilla love-in.«) Even the Sheriff thinks of their looks as provocative; when they come in, his reaction is: »What the hell is this? Troublemakers?« and his friend responds with: »You name it, I’ll throw rocks at it.« The comments become more insulting with every minute, and they decide to split.
Billy’s and Wyatt’s pursue for freedom ends in death when their wild lifestyle and unconventional looks disturbe some narrow-minded local people, who can’t except long-haired bikers travelling on the road and they shoot them to death, while they’re riding towards Florida, minding their own business.
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Written by: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Running Time: 95 minutes
List of references:
Seitz, Matt Zoller. 2010. Easy Rider: Wild at Heart. Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1667-easy-rider-wild-at-heart