For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Alright, let’s be honest. You would be hard pressed to find a more iconic opening credits sequence than this one.
“Easy Rider” is a counter-culture anthem. It’s the story of Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Captain America (Peter Fonda) as they take the cash from a cocaine deal and travel via motorcycle from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Along the way they meet other characters in various stages of cultural opposition, including the incredibly entertaining George Hanson (Jack Nicholson).
I have seen “Easy Rider” many times and at varying levels of cultural or societal cynicism. What I found striking this time through is how even tempered the film is. There is little to no anger with the invisible dominant culture that surrounds the characters. In fact, Billy’s anxiousness in the commune hints at his similarities to a normal working stiff. He’s got appointments he’s got to keep, and lacks Captain America’s ability to just absorb and admire those around him. Still both characters have a largely live-and-let-live attitude.
If this film were made today, there could be a tendency for Billy and Captain America to become “cooler than you.” Peter Fonda’s performance doesn’t allow the character to become threatening or too hip. Though Captain America and his outfit are too cool for words, all you have to do is watch this scene and you will see how disarming and approachable a character he is.
Fonda gives Captain America a reverence for those around him. Even this farmer, who is very different in form than Billy or Captain America, becomes a kindred spirit, a person who is doing his own thing.
Because Billy and Captain America are immersed in their own physical and spiritual journey, it takes an outsider, who can be critical and straddle culture and counterculture, to underline why these two travelers are such a threat to the world around them. George, the small-town alcoholic lawyer, enters and is able to speak both languages. He joins the Captain and Billy on their journey, but is still able to see why the small town Louisiana locals fear them.
Instead of hating America, Billy, George, and the Captain love America, and only wonder why others around them don’t more wholly embrace the tenets of freedom in the same way they do. If you want to see a side of the coin that allows for personal individual freedom, but still holds the American spirit of travel, exploration, geographical and multicultural reverence dear, you could do far worse than “Easy Rider.” It is nice to see a movie that can be critical and uplifting at the same time. In much the same way that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a definitively American work, so too is “Easy Rider.”
Because our main characters cut across the grain of all that is around them, the film’s conclusion seems inevitable. We as viewers know that the world in which these characters exist is inhospitable to them. Still, there is hope that stems from Captain America’s own awareness. Though in the Captain’s own words, he and Billy “blew it,” we all are made aware of how things might have been different.
Up next #83 “Titanic” (1997)