“Easy Rider” by Dennis Hopper is a film about the counterculture of the 60s that became prevalent across America and permanently shaped its people to give away old values and descend into a freer way of living. There was a real influence of drugs and alcohol among the youth, growing a culture of dissent and fighting for equal rights and gay rights. The film tells the story of such a generation of young people who lived in America in the 60s and made the counterculture something that would shock the generations to come. “Easy Rider” also manages to record the reactions of an older generation by looking at the fearless and hopeless youths, who had a shot of cocaine running in their minds, all the while painting a picture of America and the countryside.
Wyatt and Billy are the two bikers who want to go to New Orleans with the money they got from smuggling cocaine from Mexico. They get their choppers and leave on the road, while journeying through the other America, which was beginning to develop around that period. They meet a family in between while fixing a flat tire on the bike. The middle-aged man who is a farmer briefly mentions how he once wanted to go to the city but couldn’t, and we kind of guess from his face what may have transpired. Coming from a different era, he is now meeting these young people who will be biking to the Mardi Gras festival. A connection is sensed. Wyatt expresses that he really likes the place the man has built. There is not much emphasis given on the two, and the scene shifts quickly from the dining table to being back on the highway, and that too, through a jump cut. Hopper uses this rough way of editing and a very peculiar cut that feels like the blink of an eye. It creates a jarring effect. And the overall filmmaking is filled with visuals where the camera is shaky, and the characters are silhouetted in between sunsets. The passage of time is not swift, and, moreover, there appears to be a gliding time, where we don’t know how much of it has passed and what time of the day it is. Shots are joined in a disordered manner so as to give a rather strange overall feeling. It can be seen to be synchronous with the themes of the film as well, where we see a lot of people smoking marijuana and indulging in all kinds of psychedelics that mess up with our sense of time. Hopper does this smartly, filling it in between the narrative so that it is not very much apparent to the point of seeming an embellishment, but it merges well within the lines. There is a close relationship with the aesthetics of the French New Wave, but here in the American setting of the counterculture, it makes for an altogether different appeal.
“Easy Rider” then goes on to build up on how the young generation of hippies are seen by the oldies, who make strong judgments about the way they dress up and about how their long hairs hang with no sign of a haircut for ages. Their eyes are filled with disgust. In a pivotal scene towards the end, when George Hanson, a man they met in jail, tries to gather a sense of the cultural shock that the hippies have caused for ‘Old America.’ They are smoking a joint, which George was introduced to by the two and who had some apprehensions about it at first but later got on with it to remark that he liked the taste of it. On their journey, Wyatt and Billy were not allowed to stay at even the shadiest of motels because of their appearance and the rather rowdy bikes they carried along. The bikes also evoke a lot of things with their over-the-top designs and the growling sounds they make. In an earlier scene at the farm, while the two are mixed up in fixing up the tire of one of the bikes, we look at them from behind. Two horses occupy a third of the frame, and in the distance, inside a barn, we see the bikes. Hopper makes a connection between the changing times and the dramatic shift brought on by the hippies. The horses also get irritated with the growling of the silencer, as their owner remarked before. Talking just about this fear and irritation at the bonfire in the night, George mentions how the old fear changes which the young bring with them. That they are scared of the freedom the young represent. To be free from anything and be the owner of your own game. While trapped in a whole circle of things, the material and the familial, they are filled with a certain trauma. They can talk about how free they are, but they cannot ever feel free on an inner level. Told how to dress, how to look, how to eat, and whatnot, when the bound see anyone who is not sticking to those rules, a certain kind of jealousy overcomes them, which is also the effect of a toxic morality. The counterculture folks represented that freedom. George’s explanation is a valid understanding of the psyche that generates hate against the young when they get along and do something that is against the norm. And the film revels in the type of freedom that it propagates through the language that it picks up along the way.
On their way, the two also meet a stranger who asks them for a lift and later takes them to the commune where he lives. There are all sorts of people at the commune, living freely, growing their own food, surviving while singing and dancing, and consuming drugs all along. This is also reflective of the lifestyle that started to persist around that time when city folks left homes to come into the wilderness to explore and live away from the bustling metropolis. The stranger is asked by Billy where he is from, and he replies, after some reluctance, that he is from a city and that they are all the same. While leaving the commune, he gives the two some LSD to try with the right people. They do it together with two prostitutes at a cemetery after parading the streets of the Mardi Gras celebration. Again, the entire sequence after their consumption is a dreamy, surreal experience trying to recreate the effect of LSD, and this is done with rapid cuts and circled vision along with random voices of the characters jostling up in between. What Hopper had been trying since the start in bits and pieces comes together and reaches the zenith. It is a riot!
When the characters are not talking about or consuming drugs, the music of the film marks their presence. What the counterculture also did was create a wide array of artists who broke all previously known methods of expression to create art that was new and had a touch of rebellion to it. “Easy Rider” uses music from the pioneers of psychedelia; Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, The Band, and also songs by Bob Dylan. The songs coming out of the period had some of the most unusual tracks, with the musicians themselves having ‘experienced’ psychedelics, the effect of which they channelized into these songs. And so, they serve as a great background while constantly seeking to bring the times alive and also align with the thematic elements of the film, not just through their feelings but also through the statements that these songs were in themselves against the sophisticated classical opera of the yester era. They reek of revolution, not just in their tunes but also in the way they were produced.
The ending of “Easy Rider” produces anxiety and underlines the hopelessness of the entire situation; both of our protagonists die, and the bike with an American flag painted on it explodes into the air, trying to make a point even in its departure. “Easy Rider” has now become culturally important in showing the turbulent and exciting times while also inspiring a new wave of American cinema following it. But watching it now, almost half a century later, it still manages to enthrall with its images of psychedelia and the striking significance of its themes.
“Easy Rider” is a 1969 Drama Film directed by Dennis Hopper.