I’ve never bought that “aging well” crap. A movie that is unquestionably a product of its time period — think The Birth of a Nation, The Graduate, Pulp Fiction, etc. — has no responsibility to fit with whatever future it might end up in.
With that, I approach Easy Rider on the anniversary of its release, a movie that, after arriving in the last year of the 1960s, summed up the era’s social and cultural philosophy better than any rock festival or Beatles song. The reasons for this seem even clearer now than they must have back then: it’s a movie about a pack of dudes riding around, getting high, and forever struggling for an elusive concept — “freedom,” in this case — that they haven’t even begun to properly define for themselves.
It’s as if creators Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern could predict (and repress, to some extent) the monumental waste of potential subsequent generations would have to lay at the hippie movement’s feet. The story also resolves itself with violence, preceding the blunt trauma of Altamont by five months.
Viewers remember Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) riding down the highway with “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack. They remember Jack Nicholson, in one of his first major roles, as the square George coming out of his bubble. But do they remember how badly things end up for George? Do they remember how little the riders gain in the long run, and their less-than-glorious climax?
That discrepancy between how a movie is remembered and how it actually looks hardly makes Easy Rider a washout today. In fact, it’s even more fascinating because of this. Sure, it feels a lot slower and more deluded than it must have in 1969 (it also now has one of the most languid commentary tracks in DVD history, which says a lot in itself), but taken as a whole, it’s an interesting look at how the bottom fell out for peace and love.
For young viewers like myself, I would recommend viewing the film as a springboard toward the numerous anecdotes, production legends, and homages that came from it, rather than as a wholly sensible story. And hey, we interviewed Fonda at length, so check it out for more of that essential thing called “context.”
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