What I’m Watching: Easy Rider

Got a library card? Then check out take a ride to America.

If you were to ask me my favorite time period for filmmaking, I’d have to go with the late 1960s and all of the ‘70s.

These times were when the American film industry saw some dramatic changes. Movies were going independent, experimenting with new techniques and breaking the norms set by the likes of Hitchcock, Altman and Ford.

George Romero formed the modern zombie in “Night of the Living Dead,” Stanley Kubrick thrilled with the realistic outer space setting of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and duo Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda stuck it to the man with the euphoric, if sometimes bizarre, road film, “Easy Rider.”

In “Easy Rider,” bikers Billy and Wyatt make a hefty sum from selling some cocaine. With their earnings, they take off on their motorcycles into the American South on the fast track to New Orleans. Along the way, they meet some colorful people as well as the undesirables of the area. With their bikes, their shades and the sun on their heads, they travel in search of total freedom.

That intentionally sounds vague as the movie doesn’t focus on a set endgame. The plot is solely dedicated to the journey and the weird events they encounter. There’s also drugs in play so that adds a lot to the weirdness.

With that said, it does get slow sometimes. But the slow pace definitely works in the favor of this tale of counterculture and rebellion. If you dig immersion and just breathing in the sights, you will enjoy this.

A big driving (hehe) aspect is Hopper and Fonda as the two bikers. From the start, you buy that Wyatt and Billy have a longstanding friendship from their chemistry and approach to every new discovery. Their personalities work well together, with Billy being more embracing of their freedom, compared to Wyatt’s reserved and observing nature.

The supporting cast also gets the job done, adding to the surreal universe that is the late ‘60s. The most standout character is Jack Nicholson as the drunk lawyer George Hanson. He plays off Billy and Wyatt much like a more highly-educated version of them, recognizing where they come from and translating the landscape. He also has some hilarious moments that make him a reliable source of comedy.

One reason this movie has remained popular all this time was primarily because of the filming. This movie uses a wide array of (at the time) new camera and editing tricks that just hook you into the experience. Even as a casual viewer, one can definitely appreciate the wide open shots that show off the southern U.S. in all its beauty or the editing that makes unusual yet engaging cuts, such as a frequently used sequence of three cuts to show the next scene.

The music is also a great character. In place of a traditional score, there is a fine selection of rock and roll from the likes of Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and more. Most of them get their own silent driving scenes, highlighting the laid-back nature of the narrative. It treats your ears like the camera does your eyes.

“Easy Rider” might be not be the most accessible film to watch for a modern audience but it sure is immersive. Some of the story was vague and the pace almost had me nodding off for a second. However I still dig this film for its rebellious attitude and sense of freedom. Check it out from the SCC library for some groovy cruising.

-Nick McCann