Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Renegade April: Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider (1969) is a stream of consciousness of a movie, a directionless journey along the highway to what seems like a pretty arbitrary destination. My entry on the film is going to sound a bit like that, too... after 24 hours of reflection, I can't find any strong thematic thread to follow through the film, so I'll have to settle for a rambling sequence of loosely-connected observations. Oh, well... it's a blog. It doesn't always have to gel.

Easy Rider can be sort of tracked according to drug experiences. It starts with a sale of cocaine, which the protagonists only snort to verify its quality. They use this money to begin a journey from LA to New Orleans, hoping to get there before Mardi Gras. The film moves through the landscape, and eventually we get to the scene about marijuana, which is their drug of choice, and which marks the mid-point of their journey. Finally, after both beautiful and terrifying experiences on the highway, they reach New Orleans and conclude their road trip with a tab of LSD, which informs their experience of Mardi Gras. Coke is a fitting drug to get them started, since it's a kick-start drug, a classic all-nighter stimulant. You could almost argue that the three drugs provide moods markers for their journey, as well as convenient chronological landmarks.

Wyatt and Billy represent something that might seem unfamiliar to younger viewers, and that I didn't fully understand until I read Ebert's Great Movies entry on the film. They represent an old form of patriotism that's entirely at odds with the prevailing stereotype of 60's youth: the patriotism of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and a return to the land, totally at odds with urbane Europeanism and neoconservative flag-waving. They are subversives, and yet Wyatt bears the American flag, on both his jacket and his bike. This is what progressivism used to look like: a proud movement, rich with imagination, secure in its identity (even allowing for the nationalistic aspect), and opposed to conservative establishments of racism, puritanism, and social obligation.

Like the nation they represent, with all its turmoil and discontent, Wyatt and Billy are internally contradictory. At the ranch in Arizona, the wheels of their bikes are compared to horseshoes... and yet, we know that their bikes are mechanical, industrial, decoratively modified, and fueled by the great industries: steel, oil, and gas. Their moods are enhanced by artificial versions of the chemicals that run through all of our brains. They are not luddites or primitives: they're borne away from the social machine by machines, which are the very products that the machine creates. And yet, they are consigned to being creatures of the wilderness, turned away from hotels, coasting on empty roads through deserts and valleys. They are mechanical elementals, rippling bodies augmented by metal contraptions. They are both the culmination and the rejection of modern humanity.

George points out that to the people of the South and Southwest, Wyatt and Billy represent freedom, fetishized and unattainable, that the common citizen experiences only as an illusion. They find this freedom in their transitional space, the blank slate of this open landscape, shot in deep focus like the Old West in a John Ford picture (i.e. The Searchers, another film where an outsider wanders the world looking for something he may no longer even want). But as demonstrated by their bodies and their bikes, their commitment to "living off the land" when they come from the sprawling Hollywood wasteland of LA, and their divisive affect on the locals, Wyatt and Billy are not a cohesive force of resistance to the world they travel through. Rather, they find this freedom in contradiction, in the volatility that comes from a constant process of inner turmoil and transition. The beautiful thing they represent comes at the cost of their own consistency and stability.

George, too, discovers his inner uncertainty, smoking his first joint and going on about the infiltration of the world by extraterrestrials. He seems to have the most intense experience of "true freedom," because for him, this freedom was just a fantasy before he came into contact with the Riders. Riding behind Wyatt, he spreads his arms and flies along the highway, feeling himself being borne up and away from his frustrating lifestyle in Vegas. It's clear that he always had the seeds of rebellion inside him, and as he awakens, he also gains a special insight into Wyatt and Billy's situation. He's the one who finally articulates their relationship with the world, and warns them of the dangers they invite by being free.

There's a phase shift that happens around George, but it's hard to pinpoint. One way of looking at it is that the plot goes through three phases: one before George arrives, one oriented around his company, and one after his death. In the first phase, which seems to last until Billy and Wyatt reach the commune, the tension in the plot largely revolves around money: acquiring it, hiding it, and developing paranoia about preserving it. However, this disappears completely once Wyatt and Billy experience the commune and then proceed to Vegas, where they find George. This phase of the movie becomes a story of Billy and Wyatt's relationship with American consciousness, from the stand taken at the commune to the struggle with the local boys in Morganza. The climax of this phase is George's speech about freedom and the dangers of individualism, which is a lesson he soon teaches by example. After George's death, the focus changes yet again, and becomes about pure experience: the wild night in New Orleans is the keystone, the sensual climax to the characters' journey.

You could try a lot of ways to explain this. Maybe it's a movement from self-preservation, into an encounter with the world, and finally into participation in that world, via sex and revelry and LSD. Here at the end, even Wyatt, the sagely biker, lets go of his reservations. Was this New Orleans the final destination that Wyatt and Billy were hoping for? Was this long journey intended to end in an escapist orgy? It doesn't seem like it, given Wyatt's pithy observation over the final bonfire of the film.

Wyatt and Billy were rebels because they refused to be cohesive. They were renegades in a world where even the subversives were addicted to stability, and their permanent state of transition offered both a fantasy and a threat to the people whose paths they crossed. They failed and were offered up as a sacrifice, an apology for the naive dreams of their generation; but death wasn't their failure. Their failure, if my reading is right, is that they reached their destination. George made them the guardians of real freedom, the living spirit of the 60's, and when they reached New Orleans and submitted their spirits to contentment, they let that flame go out. In the throes of their unapologetic pursuit, they were invincible, able to withstand the physical and spiritual blows of a hostile world, but after they reached the end of the line in New Orleans, they met their deaths on a highway that would no longer sustain them.

Renegade Profile

Two bikers sell a bunch of cocaine, and then set out across the Southwest toward New Orleans, hoping to get there before Mardi Gras; along the way, they learn what it means to be an outsider in a nation that both idealizes and despises you.
  • Purchase and sale of controlled substances
  • Parading without a permit
  • Loitering, trespassing on public property
  • Speeding, reckless driving
Some other Easy Rider links:

The Easy Rider road map on Slate
A long summary and analysis of Easy Rider on FilmSite

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