Easy Rider and the Benefits and Downfalls of Hindsight
A glance at this blog will probably tell you that I'm no stranger to the culture of the 1960s and 70s in America– or at the very least that I have a bit of a fascination with it's pop cultural artifacts. But there is one movie, that I've never taken the time to watch, that is absolutely key to understanding the social upheaval of the times.
It's Easy Rider, variously credited as the movie that launched the careers of it's three stars (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson) into the stratosphere, the movie that dug Hollywood out of the financial hole it was sliding into, the movie that kicked off a whole new wave of American filmmaking that would challenge expectations and rewrite the rules of cinema, and as the ultimate motion picture version of the 1960s.
Needless to say, I was pretty excited to finally watch it.
As Steppenwolf pumped through my speakers, I was getting in to it, but pretty soon the movie was taking me back to another time and another place that was quite divorced from the 1960s and the Southern states.
A few short years ago, I was sitting in a room with one of my best high school buddies. We were both aspiring movie nerds and were at the beginning of seeking our fortunes in the industry by volunteering on a short film being made in Michigan. Unfortunately, the past few days had been pretty slow and we had some time on our hands. So we decided to watch a movie.
But not just any old movie, we thought. We'll pick something classic. Essential. Something from the AFI Top 100. Something with staying power and substance that we could study and learn the art of cinema from.
And who's a better teacher than Hitch?
Yes, Psycho was to be our viewing experience that night. Complete with the famous Bates Motel, the murder in the shower, and the shnazzy opening titles that chill the blood. We turned off all the lights, ate popcorn, and wrapped ourselves in our blankets. It was time.
But then something weird happened. As we watched the film, it wasn't awe we felt. It was more like recognition. We had seen this before. But we both were sure we had never watched it.
By the third act, we knew what was going on. The tropes, ideas, and innovations that made Psycho revolutionary in it's day were out moded in ours. Every movie, television drama, or suspense play that has come out in the 56 years since Psycho first graced the silver screen has borrowed from it liberally. The camera angles, clever cutting, cutaways, music, and performances have been shamelessly copied by countless filmmakers. Even worse, I soon realized that the ending had been spoiled for me by the media I had consumed. The endings of old films are no longer grounds for spoiler alert.
When you strip the key elements away, Psycho seems like little more than a marginally interesting story that seems, to eyes trained by Michael Bay mayhem, to move at a lackadaisical pace. I was pretty confused and upset, because here I was watching what was supposed to be a great masterpiece of the suspense genre and I was not only not scared, but actually getting restless and bored.
Flash forward to Easy Rider. I'm watching Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda cruise down a country highway and I know what's going to happen, because pop culture has already told me. They will ride these bikes till they meet their fate and somewhere along the line, they will meet Jack Nicholson.
But something had changed in the interceding years since Psycho. And it definitely wasn't the movie.
It was my expectations. Instead of focusing on my own narrow perspective, I tried to see the movie as people would've seen it when it first came out. I saw the lens flares that were rarely seen in movies in those days. I saw a raw, fresh look at a frightening youth culture rooted in drugs and radical philosophy.
There's no attempt to glamorize things in Easy Rider. You hardly ever feel like we are supposed to completely empathize with Wyatt and Billy, even though we do to a degree. We never quite forget, that, as Peter Fonda so famously said: they blew it. The new counter culture is different from the old one, and maybe even better, but in the end neither one has a true solution for a hurting world.
This kind of perspective is a result of studying the era and pop culture history in general, and I think if I didn't have it, I wouldn't have enjoyed the movie. It's important when judging anything, to provide the most appropriate context possible and try to see things from the point of view of the original audience or from the vantage point of the director.
Of course, we can never be totally divorced from our own time and place and nor should we be. It is, in fact, exactly the fact that I'm living in 2016 and all the actors who starred in Easy Rider are entering their twilight years that helps me to understand Easy Rider. 'If I was watching this in 1969,' I thought to myself, 'I wouldn't like this.'
Why not? I like it now. Because it's hard to ride the cutting edge while it's still cutting. If I were sitting in a theater in 1969, I would have no idea that Easy Rider and the previous year's 2001: A Space Odyssey would be considered classics in the future. And with current events and emerging trends in the cinematic arts so near to my face, I doubt I would've had the clairvoyance to recognize what was happening under my nose. At least, until I saw what was happening with people around me.
The classics are intensely fluid in their youth. The younger they are, the less solidified there state. Easy Rider could've easily been another low budget biker movie that was quickly forgotten. But it wasn't, for a lot of reasons that I don't think would've been obvious in 1969. Or 1975 when Lily Tomlin name dropped it in Robert Altman's Nashville. But 20 years later in 1989 with the emergence of home video and the beginnings of home movie collections, the influence of Easy Rider would begin to resurface and everyone would be reassured that the film was indeed, one of the classics.
It's a tangled mix of world views, watching old movies. It's almost like watching a foreign film, but instead of another country and language, you are enveloped in another culture and time.
Quite a ride.