Sunday, December 1, 2013
On Further Review EASY RIDER
My god the film has dated. Its a time capsule of a specific time and mindset. I will not deny that the film is influential and changed popular culture and culture in general, but at the same time, lets be honest, it really isn't very good.
The plot of the film has Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pick up drugs in Mexico and bring them back to the US. They sell the drugs and then take the money and head off across the open road toward New Orleans and else where. Along the way they meet various people, including Jack Nicholson, before dying when some rednecks shoot them dead.
The story is that Hopper unable to find work put the film together hoping to make a four hour magum opus. At some point Henry Jaglom was brought in to cut the film into something manageable, which is the film we have today.
At this point I have to state that I'm going to talk about the film from the perspective of someone seeing it in 2013 for the first time. I'm going to ignore how it played when it was released. I am going to largely ignore the changes it made to the film industry. Actually the only thing I'm going to acknowledge is that, like Citizen Kane, the fact that the film has been ripped off so many times it's impact has been lessened and it is effectively a cliche. Allowing for what can't be escaped I'm going to take the film on head on.
I want to start by saying that the film is largely divided into three parts and it has three basic types of scenes.
The first part of the film is Hopper and Fonda doing the deal that will fund their trip. This is the briefest part of the film and is simply prolog to everything else. The second part of the film is the "aimless" wandering of the pair across country as they meet various people. This is roughly just over half of the film. The final part, say the remaining 40 minutes concerns what happens when Nicholson comes into their lives. Suddenly the film begins to get a meaning as real topics are discussed. This is the point where we are told what society fears from them and we get the ominous statement that they blew it- though what that is is never explained.
For me the film is best in the contrived third part of the film where the film finally becomes about something, even if its nowhere as deep as it thinks it is.
The film's construction involves three basic types of scenes the first are the traveling sequences. All of these are accompanied by music. The second are the endless stoned discussion sequences where people talk about deep ideas in ways that are often laughable. Lastly the film has periodic periods where society makes fun of or abuses Hopper and Fonda. The abuse gets worse and worse until Nicholson is beaten to death while he sleeps and the the pair are shot off their motorcycles.
Ignoring the travel sequences, which frequently are quite good (I especially love The Weight sequence which manages to say so much in so little time), I have to say that the rest of the film is ham-fisted and over done. The discussion sequences come off as stoned people babbling on about nonsense. Its not so much that what they are saying is bad, rather it's that there is so much being said that very little of it manages to hit the target. In all honesty it's not until Nicholson comes into the film and steals it that the film manages to be more than a glorified home movie. Nicholson's lines are frequently golden and one wonders if he had been writing and directing the film what this might have been.
The other sort of sequences- those of society abusing the pair of free spirits are so heavy handed as to be laughable. Hopper doesn't just have normal society abuse him, rather he has white males who look like backwoods hicks who's parents were brother and sister abuse him. The pair which finally kill our heroes look like they are mentally deficient. The band that beats them up in the woods (how did they know they were there?) come across as Klansmen minus bed sheets. Hopper has drawn the lines so small and so starkly as to be completely unbelievable. Yes, I know he was making a point but it comes across as silly today. (The down beat ending is also the worst ripping off of literary pretension that I know with the over used notion that art has no meaning unless you turn things tragic, even forcibly, in the end). It's almost as if he had to beat home his points because his audience was too stoned to get it.
It's all stilted and dated now, with a 1960's art feel that no one really uses any more...or were even using when the film was made. These were the last days of the great Euro-filmmakers, many of whom like Fellini would soon fall out of favor.
While Hopper eventually proved himself to be a very good director, its' clear here, and in his follow up The Last Movie, that when left to his own devices he was a hack. I know hearsy, but it's true. Frankly if Jaglom hadn't come in and cut the film this film would have been unwatchable. Sit and look at the shots. Look at the static ways the dialog scenes are filmed. If you look at the film, I mean really look at the film you get the sense that this is some Frankenstein monster stitched together from what ever they had that worked. The shot choices don't seem thought out. While it does breath a certain amount of life into things , it also makes you wonder who made this thing.
Actually legends and stories of the making of the film aside I think it's pretty clear that the making of the film was an excuse to party.I know that's a no duh, but it doesn't mean it made a good movie.
Actually I think 85% of this film is nostalgia and myth. I don't think anyone who sees the film isn't aware of its legend. I also think that the stories told today are not what happened with the reality being embellished or tossed in favor of a damn good story. Chief among the myths being that Hopper was a genius who knew what he was doing instead of some one saved in the editing suite. I would also argue that short of this film lucking into the perfect release window this film would have tanked.
While I will argue that the film was never really that good and is now more a cultural artifact and object of nostalgia, I will also argue that there are moments when the film turns glorious- The use of the Weight after they get free gas, not to mention several other musical sequences, Several of Nicholson's speeches (The what you represent bit for example push the film into another realm even if they are now over used.)
To be quite honest I don't need to see the film again. I don't need to hear the commentaries, largely because I don't trust their accuracy. For me the film is a museum piece.
A random thought- could the film be taken as an anti drug film. Sure the film has lots of drug use but if you think of the course of the film- the pair buy drugs, but never really spend their money and are killed for their efforts... Is this an unintentional morality tale?