|Scene from Easy Rider|
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way.
Subject: Wednesday was 4/20, man.
Theory: Easy Rider is overrated.
To a good many of people, 4/20 is a drug culture holiday. It would seem easy for me to dedicate this week's Theory Thursday debating which stoner film is the best. Could it be Up in Smoke? Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? Maybe even Inherent Vice? While I do like all of these movies to some capacity, it does seem out of character for me to dedicate in depth criticism towards films of this nature - especially since I am generally sober. Instead, I figured that I would talk about a film that's both Oscar nominated and has its ties loosely into drug culture. I'm talking about director Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider.
It is likely that certain iconography will come directly to mind when thinking of the film. You'll hear "Born to Be Wild" as motorcycles drive across the screen. You'll picture the carefree, youthful 60's on full display. It's a film whose status in pop culture is more than prominent as a symbol of the 60's counterculture. By some luck, it's also one of the more liberal depictions of drug use for its time. Considering that Hopper and Jack Nicholson were also making bonkers movies with The Monkees (Head) around that time, it only makes sense that this would be a film about rebellion, even if its intentions is to show a group exploring America in all of its rich textures.
There will be those who have read the headline and immediately discredited my opinion. What does a kid born in 1989 know about 60's counterculture? Let me start by stating what I do know. I know that to a specific generation, this movie is quintessential. It embodied a freedom and dream that would only continue to build in 70's cinema (with most of this cast carried over). It reflected something that went against the grain in American cinema in a time where the Vietnam War was confusing its citizens left and right. I don't know much about the Nixon years, but I do know that they were full of uncertainty. To an audience of the time wishing to live a simpler life, this makes sense. Still, I think that it's overrated.
Maybe this is a side effect of me basically being EXTREMELY disconnected from the culture. It could be that I don't like hippies either. However, I am very much a man who can disconnect from biases in film usually. For what it's worth, I watch films like Gentleman's Agreement and, while I don't think they've aged well, can appreciate what they likely stood for in the 1950's. There are films that basically are about a time and place that audiences even 20 years later won't understand (see: most of the 80's). Still, they provide a deeper insight into the culture and the times. I definitely think that Easy Rider is essential in this way. However, it doesn't mean that the audience will think it's very good.
So, what is my general issue with Easy Rider? The truth is that I don't have a vehement disinterest in it. I merely think that its significance isn't what it used to be. Beyond being a relic into a culture that's pretty much on the way out, there's not much to really like about the film. I suppose one could argue that the drug use is "edgy" by 1969 standards. Even the attempt to make a metaphorical and tragic story about America via hippies on motorcycles seems a little too loose to be exciting. In all honesty, the film has unlikable characters discovering this great country and not doing much else. As much as I am for free form narrative, there's something that is lacking in the overall production of Easy Rider. It is a film that feels like it's supposed to be about freedom instead of being the free spirited soul it wishes to be.
It could just be that the culture has evolved in the opposite direction since then, making these characters seem more pathetic. While there's still enough hippie-esque types in modern culture, there's become more of a fascination with attacking big business. One could easily turn to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short to see this. The people who live like Easy Rider? They're now more on the conservative side. They have families and live in homes where they don't get high and listen to The Band. While both sides of the coin aren't necessarily riveting text, there's something about the absence of plot that doesn't necessarily make for compelling film making. After all, how much of Easy Rider is merely hippies sitting around and getting high while contemplating life? There's a self-involved nature that seems cute and innocent by today's standards.
In all honesty, the depiction of drug culture between the 1960's and 1970's does seem kind of ridiculous by today's standards anyways. In a time where there's marijuana dispensers (let alone many states legalizing it), the idea that these largely harmless drugs were a big deal is something lost to time. Much like a rotary phone or typewriter, audiences aren't going to get why many films of the time featured a scene where they passionately defend drugs. I'm not saying it wasn't prescient to the time, but considering how much more there is to life than drugs - it's particularly adorable. Even the modern stoner comedians are in some ways far more productive while endorsing this behavior. This isn't to say that Easy Rider is the only victim, but it's so openly dedicated to getting high and sitting around that it makes Up in Smoke look like an epic.
I understand that context is key, but even that is sort of lost to me. I understand that the late 60's is arguably one of the most jarring transitions from Classic Hollywood to the more modern New Hollywood. There's a lot of fascinating work done in that period, including several dark films from the old hats such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; films that tackled taboo issues with the cynical ferocity that ties them more to the newer class of film. Still, these were the works of people who had been through the system for 30 years. Bring on the new blood, will you? As much as the decade also featured films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night that continued to tackle modern politics with class, there's still the sense that maybe, just maybe, the cool adults cannot be associated with giving birth to the counterculture.
To a slight extent, I do consider those aforementioned films to be crucial to developing the counterculture despite not looking the part. However, there's another thing that generally upsets me about calling Easy Rider the quintessential moniker for this honor. It was a time when a lot of amazing films were made - including a ton with Dustin Hoffman. The film Midnight Cowboy came out in 1969 alongside Easy Rider and did work that's far edgier and biting of the time. Its themes were richer and explored economics and homosexuality in ways that are still provocative (though New York hardly looks the same). Yet this isn't even close to the first film that showed the signs of a youthful audience wishing to disperse from their parent's culture. In 1967, Hoffman made another film that should get way more credit than Easy Rider ever did. It was director Mike Nichols' The Graduate.
At their cores, both The Graduate and Easy Rider are fighting the same fight. Both want to figure out their purpose in an otherwise aimless life. One goes about with infidelity while the other does it with drugs. Neither is necessarily conservative for the time, but there's something that feels more real and purposeful about The Graduate. Beyond the iconic lines and soundtrack (which Easy Rider does have), it's a struggle to disconnect while finding that it's impossible to do it and remain happy. It also helps that unlike Hopper, Nichols was a clever director (he also did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and brought the simple brooding story to life. You got a sense of his struggle. Meanwhile, Hopper and Nicholson are getting high in the desert.
I am not saying that The Graduate is the quintessential counterculture movie, but it does say more about American society in the 1960's than Easy Rider did. There's a reason that the former is still discussed and dissected with each passing generation while the other has to lean back on the "time and context" debate. There's nothing wrong with that and I'm confident that Hopper's work was amazing for its time, even possibly inspiring the wave of independent filmmakers to come. However, judging it as a piece of work is problematic, especially since there's not much there. Even if Nicholson is arguably my favorite actor of all time, I think that he would go on to tackle these themes far better in the 70's with a string of amazing performances in The Last Detail, Chinatown, and of course One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - the last being arguably the best metaphor for social control ever put to film.
For those who can bear to look past the umbrella terminology that calls Easy Rider a classic of the 60's counterculture, I would like to hear what I'm missing in this. I understand that I was born into a world literally 20 years different. Still, I am capable of appreciating iconic films for their time and context, much like Gone With the Wind: a masterpiece of Classic Hollywood despite problematic racial depictions. With that said, I don't hate Easy Rider but merely think that it doesn't quite live up to the status that it once did. It's a good movie, but it's not one that necessarily is as much fun as the reputation that it now bestows on cinema.