Today, I saw, for the first time in my life, the movie Easy Rider. I presume that I’m about the only person in the world who hasn’t seen it, so I won’t bother concealing spoilers from a forty-one year-old movie. It’s fair to say that the ending was abrupt and the movie as a whole left me confused. The climactic scene – the acid trip in the New Orleans cemetery – left me wanting to do LSD even less than I already don’t want to do LSD. It didn’t look like this acid trip was even the remotest bit of fun.
The first thing that struck me was the abrupt beginning. Then, the bizarre back-and-forth fast edits between scenes. This, I suppose, was intended to give a feeling of discontinuity, mimicking the fact that the main characters of the movie were always stoned. All the time. And they just seemed to get more and more stoned the further along in the movie they got. Did people really spark up that much in the late 1960’s? I guess they did, or at least the counter-cultural types did. The amount of pot these guys smoked was, I think, one of the more important points of the movie – and it possibly helped render the smoking of marijuana as a bade of individual freedom and protest against the prevailing culture.
From a narrative point of view, I liked the film’s episodic quality. The overall structure of the movie – two guys on motorcycles driving across America – lends itself well to little vignettes. The traditional interpretation of the film is that it gives successive visions, through these vignettes, of different depictions of freedom (or the lack thereof). In so doing, it is remarkable that the characters are moving from west to east, the opposite of the traditional pathway of American road movies. They move from the dusk to the day, from death to life, but also from simplicity to complexity. And the further along that road that they travel, the less their decision to opt out of the larger society is tolerated.
I was struck by the contrast between Peter Fonda’s character, “Captain America” (whose real name we learn only near the end of the movie), and Dennis Hopper’s character “Billy.” I saw the movie at a Freudian movie club so I was expecting to hear that the two characters were the superego and id, respectively, of a single personality, and the reason they had so much trouble was that there was no ego to mediate between them. This was not the interpretation; the professional psychologists and their devoted students all came up with the same thing – the protagonists had committed the first half of the Oedipal crime, and spent the bulk of the movie headed to New Orleans where they committed the second half of the Oedipal crime, and having done this, they were then destroyed quickly thereafter.
Only I and another friend there were of our generation. Everyone else there was a baby boomer. This movie is something of an anthem to baby boomers, or at least a substantial fraction of baby boomers, and after the movie was done one of my boomer friends asked me, “Well, TL, did you like the movie?” I made a face and said, “No. It was difficult to watch, and it got more difficult the more I watched it. The acid trip scene was excruciating.” Another boomer piped in that this scene was too much for her and she had to leave the room for it. So that made me feel better – it wasn’t just me and it wasn’t a generational thing. My friend went on to explain to me a bit about the social and political turmoil going on in 1968 when the movie was made and 1969 when it was released, to put in greater context for me why it struck such a nerve with the young people of that time. That helped me understand the movie’s place in the culture, but didn’t make me like it any more than I did.
Looking at the film through the lens of my background in political philosophy, the big issue in the film seemed to be that the protagonists had opted out of society as a way of achieving freedom. Having opted out, they had to make their own way in the world, and they quickly found that the society they had opted out of was none too happy about their decision. Opting out, in other words, is a lot more difficult to do than it would seem. It also seemed to me that the movie got liberty and unconventionality confused. The long hair, leather jackets, motorcycles, hippie-speak, and drug use that the characters indulged in were, for the time, nonconformist behavior. But was it really free behavior? Especially all the drug use, as well as the nomadic existence the two opted for, struck me as being an effort to escape from something – and not just the legal consequences of the drug deal that gave them their seed money. Thus the Freudians’ interpretation of dealing with the consequences of the Oedipal crime resonated well and I rejected my initial thought of unresolved id-superego tension.
A few other thoughts. The rancher family that was in the first vignette struck me as the most free of all the people in the movie. They were not dependent on others, and Peter Fonda’s character admired and envied them. Yet he chose to not join them – because that kind of freedom was not what he wanted. That kind of freedom involved a lot of hard work in which to survive.
The hippie commune from the second episode struck me as doomed. These kids were obviously crappy farmers with far too many mouths to feed and inadequate sanitation. That place must have smelled bad even if there were hot hippie chicks there for Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to go skinny-dipping with. Half the people in the farm weren’t farming at all but instead were some kind of acting troupe; entertainers are a luxury that a society unable to feed itself can afford.
All the women in the movie were sex objects; they had little in the way of personality and the only time their interests, desires, and personalities came out was during the acid trip. This movie was about men.
Jack Nicholson’s character was partially in the prison of society and partially out of it. He started out in jail, but with special privileges and good treatment from his jailers. He wanted a taste of the counterculture but wasn’t ready to dive all the way in. When he got too close to really opting out of the system, the system killed him. Or was it Peter Fonda? He displayed a fascination with the knives back in the commune, and the hicks from Louisiana attacked the sleeping bikers with clubs – but Nicholson’s body was shown not only beaten up, but obviously cut with a knife of some kind. Why would Peter Fonda kill Jack Nicholson? Perhaps because he didn’t like Nicholson telling the truth to them – “You guys are in a lot of danger because you’re free men. If you are truly free, other people won’t like that and they’ll try to hurt you so that they don’t have to see for themselves how imprisoned they really are.”
If the movie is really about freedom, then it shows that freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But it didn’t strike me as being about freedom at all, so much as about choosing to not be a part of society. When you opt out of society, life is very hard and it’s very easy to get destroyed. That’s a tough way to try and be free. A better way, it seems to me, would be to try to make the society you’re in as free as it can be. At the end of the day, Easy Rider didn’t seem to me to be a counter-cultural statement at all. Its real theme was one of antidisestablishmentarianism.