By Peggy Nelson
Easy Rider – 1969 – dir. Dennis Hopper
Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969), like it’s lesser-known sibling, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), poses the question, where are you going when all the roads are mapped? In their constant motion, Wyatt/Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are seeking unmapped territory, but the only unmapped territory is within. By refusing to settle in one place, by being nomads, they are refusing the predetermined categories of social role and occupation.
Freedom has been synonymous with freedom of the open road since before this country was founded: freedom to wander around in space, to break free of the boundaries of town, city, job, habits, and self, and simply go, to wander in space and see what and who you might find. The hippies in Easy Rider are icons now, and were icons then. But they’re on a journey much older than hippies – the Beats, too, had their road, the hobos theirs, the frontiersmen and pioneers their roads, stolen from and grafted on top of the Native Americans’ trajectories in space.
The film itself is an icon: look at them, cruising past the mountains! Back when you could just go on the road and hitchhike to a commune and really drop out. Freedom just to be; it’s a beautiful thing. What the icon leaves out, but the film does not, is the violence inherent in the system. You do not escape by dropping out. In fact, says George (Jack Nicholson, in his first significant film role), the ACLU lawyer they pick up in the south, dropping out can risk greater violence:
“Billy: What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.
George: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it – that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. ‘Course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
Billy: Mmmm, well, that don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.
George: No, it makes ’em dangerous.”
Along the way they come across various propositions about living a life. They start in southern California where they sell some presumably high-grade cocaine picked up in Mexico to a Hollywood jet-setter (played by Phil Spector) at an airport, where the rush of the planes overhead echoes the junked cars in the Mexican lot, referring to roads: ahead, not taken, open, empty. Having finessed the money they take off across the great western landscape, where they literally ride into the Hollywood sunset; Monument Valley is the iconic setting for innumerable westerns.
Picking up a hitchhiker they head for the New Buffalo commune near Taos, New Mexico. (For the film it was re-created in California, since New Buffalo did not allow filming at the time. See Lisa Law’s website: http://americanhistory.si.edu/lisalaw/6.htm for some great photographs of the real thing.) Here they find a hippie encampment with giant domes, VW microbuses, a mime colony, about a million kids, and free love, man. Also, agriculture. Or at least what the hippies are hoping is agriculture in that high desert landscape. You can see in their faces that the realities of utopia have set in, and it isn’t all sitting around playing guitars anymore. It’s work and negotiation and compromise, and not that any of that is bad necessarily, but the fences are showing. The hitchhiker gives them some LSD:
“Stranger: When you get to the right place, with the right people, quarter this. You know, this could be the right place. The time’s running out.
Wyatt: Yeah, I’m, I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”
So they hit the road again, with the arbitrary aim of reaching New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. They spontaneously join a high school parade in some small southern town and get arrested for their trouble. In jail they meet George sleeping it off in the drunk tank, who sobers up and negotiates their freedom. He warns them about “attacks on longhairs,” and then decides to go on the road with them, producing an old football helmet for the ride.
They stop in a small southern cafe where they are refused service and threatened with violence, while a booth of high school girls perks up and swarms them asking for “rides.” They do the wise thing and leave, but the threat later becomes real despite their continued motion.
In Mardi Gras they go to a brothel and pay for some hookers. The 60s was still not a great time for women, or their representations in media! And then they decide to wander out into Mardi Gras and take the LSD, ending up at one of the above-ground cemeteries where they are subjected to the fish-eye lenses and heavy editing of the filmed acid trip. It’s not a bad one, as filmed acid trips go.
There is more road ahead, but it’s more for us, than for them. Society opened up, after the 60s, because of the 60s. Forty years later, our identities are expanded, and more porous. We’re actually expected to find ourselves! But in short order, and then make something of it. Or not, but at least be hip to the niche marketing opportunities, on either the buyer or seller end of things. Freedom is: buying these sneakers! Using this hair color! Seeing this movie! And, collecting these action figures! Additional helmet accessory sold separately.
There’s something inside all of us that still wants to be on the road, that always wants it. To be always in motion is to hold one’s self in a suspension just above making a choice, in the hopes that in the moment before a decision, all choices are possible. Or perhaps, that one might never need to make a choice at all: the promise and danger of the endless picaresque.