Easy Rider

SuperCool Cinema is delighted to post its first article from guest blogger Laura Hubner (head of film at Winchester University) who sets the scene for our next feature presentation.

Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)

Easy Rider takes us on a journey through some of America’s most breathtaking scenery – often at exhilarating speeds. Its enormous cult status rests on a modest plot. Two bikers – modern cowboys – Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), buy coke in Mexico, sell it for a big profit in Los Angeles and head out on the highway arriving at New Orleans in time for the Mardi Gras carnival. On route they encounter a hitchhiker who leads them to a hippie commune, an alcoholic lawyer George Hanson (played by a youngish Jack Nicholson) and two prostitutes Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil) with whom they share a very bad acid trip. Their newfound wealth brings them the liberty to explore America as land of opportunity and freedom, but they also experience first hand the country’s lingering prejudices and shocking violence, during a time when even growing your hair long ignited hatred.

Seeing the movie on the big screen today we can still feel the excitement of the Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács – one of the few not under the influence of drugs during the making of the film – capturing for the first time on celluloid the beauty of places he said he never dreamed existed. At one point during the filming he found himself breaking the rules of ‘old’ Hollywood by manipulating the camera angle to refract droplets of sunlight onto the lens, intensifying the effect of actually being there right alongside the bikers.

It’s a magical moment that seconds later breaks into a rainbow shaft that fills the frame and temporarily obscures the riders.

The immediacy of the filming also meant that the harsh inequalities underpinning American democratic society were also witnessed – for example in the poignant travelling shots of black Americans still living in the rundown roadside shacks moments on from the huge white plantation mansions of Louisiana. The concept of freedom and the difficulties of achieving a truly free life are at the core of the movie.

Stylistically Easy Rider took its lead from B-movie biker films, and movies like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde that (inspired by the new waves of filmmaking imported from Europe) were starting to pave the way for a much newer, freer kind of cinema. While Easy Rider’s bizarre flashback/flash-forward edits that mark the transition to a new scene are perhaps a little hit and miss, they are testament to the fever for experimentation at the time. And it’s no exaggeration to say that the film helped change the conception of what Hollywood cinema could be – we see its influences infiltrating so many American films of the seventies.

One of the abiding moments of Easy Rider comes when the credits begin around seven minutes in as Billy and Wyatt set out on their new Harley Davidsons to the sound of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’. As they take the bridge over the Colorado River the actors smile at each other, hair blown by the breeze, and Hopper lifts his hands off the handles. It’s a moment of unadulterated freedom. Or at least that’s how it feels. In reality they crossed that bridge a dozen times to get the shots they needed, and those huge, ridiculously macho ‘California Choppers’, with their fronts stretched out at 42 degrees, look amazing but were reportedly agonizing – and dangerous – to ride.

This strange mix of excited panic, crazed talent and very careful planning runs through the heart of Easy Rider, made possible by the coming together of a diverse group of creative radicals. The story goes that whilst promoting The Trip (directed by Roger Corman in 1967) Fonda came up with the idea for Easy Rider looking at a photo from Corman’s The Wild Angels of himself and Bruce Dern standing in front of motorbikes. Hopper came on board to direct and drafted a lot of the screenplay. While Hopper always (hilariously) maintained that he was the sole writer of the movie, screenwriter Terry Southern (Barbarella, Dr Strangelove) helped bring it together, changing the name from The Loners to Easy Rider and polishing the screenplay’s format, characterization and dialogue. Fonda played his part in the writing too, and managed to get Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson on board as producers famed at the time for coming up with the recent hit TV series The Monkees. These combining factors were the making of the film’s success. But the filming was often hazardous. Kovács nearly died hanging out of a helicopter to film the final shot of the movie. And the electric New Orleans street scenes had to be filmed in just a few days, because Fonda miscalculated the dates of the Mardi Gras festival. Hopper had to hurriedly put together a crew of five friends who had 16mm cameras, and spent the whole time they were there like a demented genius filming everything in sight.

On its release in 1969 Easy Rider took the world – and Cannes – by storm. Produced on a tiny budget of $360,000 (at a time when a large scale musical like Hello, Dolly! cost $26,400,000), it ranks amongst the most profitable films ever made, raking in more than $19 million in the first year and a staggering gross of $60 million worldwide. Coming on the heels of the ‘summer of love’, Easy Rider arrived just as the hopes of the counter culture met with an escalation in global conflicts. 1968 had seen ghetto rioting in the US, the Tet Offensive, the May protests in France and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

‘Lord have mercy what is that?’

In the infamous campfire scene that made Nicholson a star, he delivers the line, ‘Course – don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free cos then they gonna get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are.’ The film’s easy pace and stunning beauty is interspersed with sudden brutality and violence. Easy Rider captured the dreams, fears and tensions of the time, and resonates today, shedding new light on the myths of freedom within America’s fractured culture.

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