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Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
If you watch the new Blu-Ray of "Easy Rider" as a conventional narrative feature film
and wonder why there isn't a plot you'll be missing the point.

This isn't a 'movie' as most people would define it but a time capsule of
attitudes and lifestyles of the late sixties.

As I noted in my title pun, this movie was one of the rare instances where the film-makers
were actually under the influence rather than pretending to be like most productions. It
all started when low budget producer, Roger Corman, decided to jump on the 'youth'
bandwagon and make a couple of inexpensive quickies, "The Wild Angels" and "The Trip",
both starring Henry Fonda's son, Peter. Peter had started out as an up and coming leading
man in Hollywood and was even a registered Republican. But in his late twenties, he decided
to tune in, turn on and drop out as the hippie mantra went. Well not entirely drop out, just
work on independent exploitation films rather than Hollywood product. Teaming with his
friend, Dennis Hopper, who was an aging character actor (i.e. "Giant", "Rebel without a
Cause") they pitched combining the two 'high' concepts and making a motorcycle picture
with a lot of pot smoking and hippie posturing. Corman wasn't interested because he thought
he had already played out these genres so they went to Columbia for backing and distribution.
Needless to say, that studio was wary giving these two money to make a movie since neither
had produced or directed before. As a demostration, Hopper went out with a 16mm camera
and shot footage of the Marti Gras and an LSD trip with Fonda. The results were grainy and incoherant but
Columbia thought that if the budget was low enough they might be able to get something
for a quick play off in art theaters. For the rest of the shoot they wisely insisted on a professional
cameraman, Laszlo Kovacs, who would turn out to be the only one who wasn't stoned during the production.
The 35mm cinematography is pretty good for this type of picture and one of it's attributes.

So, Hopper, Fonda and friends went traveling around the country on their custom motorcycles
chronicaling the youth movement of the time in communes as well as the backlash
against them by the post-thirty crowd which you weren't supposed to trust. Of course, they
exempted themselves from this scrutiny since Fonda and Hopper were much too old to be
legitimate hippies...all of which were of draft age. Hopper was 32 when the film was shot and
Fonda was 28.

Hopper also asked friend, Jack Nicholson, to particapate and he wrote himself a role as an
aging alcoholic ambulance chaser who tags along for a while. After the chaotic
shoot, Hopper edited the film together into a three hour mess and requested Columbia
release it as a 'Roadshow' epic complete with intermission. I wonder what they would sell
in the concessions counter? The studio took the film away
and re-cut it into a 95 minute train wreck of a picture that they hoped would generate
a few bucks out of curiosity before disappearing into obscurity. Then the unexpected happened.
The movie became a smash hit and one of the most successful 'youth' pictures of it's era...unfortunately.
The reason I say that is it inspired a huge change in the moviegoing demographic as the other distributors
targeted this group at the expense of the rest of the movie-going public. Attendance
ended up getting cut in half resulting in most of the movie palaces folding
or getting carved into small screen multiplexes. Attendance didn't go up again until after
1975 when the counter-culture movement fizzled out. In addition, most of these movies did
not perform well and the industry lost a lot of money trying to cash in on other youth
oriented product. This demographic was fickle and less reliable than the mainstream audiences
that flocked to see movies like "The Sting" and "The Towering Inferno".

Flash forward forty years later...

Dennis Hopper is now a character actor specializing in portraying crazies (i.e. "Speed") an
occasional director and...a Republican. Peter Fonda is an aging nostalgic hippie who does
movies every now and then. Jack Nicholson is a super star who continues to appear in
mainstream features.

How does "Easy Rider" play for contemporary viewers?

I would say it's major claim to fame and the most entertaining part of the movie is the
short section where Jack Nicholson appears. He's still very funny and full of his wiseguy
mannerisms that worked so effectively in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" which was
his defining role. In fact his performance here seems like an audition for McMurphy.
Nicholson was really stoned in his campfire scene where he starts laughing so hard he
forgets his lines. His looney theory about extraterrestrials taking over the planet is still
a riot. Unfortunately, he gets killed by ******** as do Hopper and Fonda at the
end. The rest of the movie is a time capsule 'curio' that many will find bewildering.
How many viewers will know what slang phrases like 'don't bogart that joint' means?
There are endless scenic shots of the two riding around the country with sixties'
rock music on the soundtrack. The scenes of them at the hippie commune seem to
drag on forever. The later sequences of them going on their LSD trip make no sense
because you don't see them take it in close up, only in wide shot. In addition it's a
'bad trip' and the hallucinations are too bizarre to relate to. So for many people it will
be a chore to slog through the entire 95 minutes of psychedelia. Like wow man...

When I first saw this movie in the seventies I thought it was a dated and vastly over-rated
bomb with the sole exception of the Nicholson scenes. However, over the years I warmed
up to it and now find it a fascinating period piece from a historical point of view. I like
Hopper's goofy performance of a zoned out hippie that can barely stand up. It's not
so much 'entertaining' as it is informative and representative of a strange era unique in
American history. So I cautiously recommend it on that level. Others can just skip ahead
to the Nicholson scenes which are still amusing.

The Blu-Ray was a bit of a disappointment and didn't look that much better than the last
standard definition 'special edition'. While the photography is atmospheric, this movie was shot
on the fly and in a 'cinema verite' manner. So a lot of the imagery is fairly grainy or
underexposed which is to be expected but the extra sharpness of the format makes those
defects more obvious. The 16mm blow up footage is especially awful in high def. The
quality on a shot to shot basis is variable at best. The 5.1 re-mix of the
original mono sound is good in that it makes the cycle roars and thumping rock music more
effective and in your face...as intended. These days I occasionally see aging gray haired bikers
riding around and can hear "Born to be Wild" in my head although they look more
like "The Mild Bunch" in their sixties re-living the sixties.

The commentary track by Hopper and others is interesting. Hopper explains what the title
means although it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Robert Walker Jr. is one
of the hippies in the commune. He was a dead ringer for his father and had a brief career
as a TV actor in shows like "The Time Tunnel".
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