Films–and, indeed, all entertainment–are perhaps best appraised years later. With certain genres, it is easy to be subjective and succumb to the “mood” pervasive in the product, or else tie an unnatural connection to the media. In less words: hindsight is 20/20. And perhaps the best example of why the good old days weren’t the good old days (or why the phrase “the don’t make them like they used to” is utter nonsense) is the 1969 road movie Easy Rider.
The premise is simple. Wyatt aka Captain America (young Peter Fonda) along with his hippy pal Billy (young Dennis Hopper) make it big on a cocaine deal (with a pre-murdering crazy Phil Spector scoring coke in his Rolls) and decide to head to Louisiana and New Orleans to indulge in their ill-gotten gains during Mardi Gras. Along the way they get heckled and beaten by the local Southerners and pick up a drunk man-child lawyer George (young Jack Nicholson) who informs them of the location of the best whore-house in New Orleans. Along the way the bikers hit up hard-times hippy communes and court jailbait in Texas cafes. I wish I could say hilarity ensues.
But it doesn’t.
Easy Rider is truly emblematic of an era, or at least how segments of the population saw the era. There’s a certain majesty to some of the road shots, especially as they go through the desolate roadways of the open West. But that’s undercut with some flashing transitions and random jump cuts that lack any sort of thought process to them. According to Wikipedia, real drugs were used during filming. That might explain a lot. The early scenes are over-heavy on symbolism (huh, you think Fonda dropping his watch and the long lingering shot on the discarded jewelry means something) and the long shots of readying the bike, complete with seizure-inducing cuts, owes a lot to K. Anger’s 1964 avant-garde Scorpio Rising. Indeed, an LSD trip is seen through fisheye lenses, over-grain and random cuts while prostitutes get naked and cry to the Virgin Mary in graveyards. It’s a muddled mess.
Indeed, there’s not much point, or plot. Occasionally, glimmers of real insight seem to break through, but most of the dialogue around the nighttime fire is less intelligent than my Boy Scout Troop camping trips. Jack Nicholson… well, Crazy Jack does what he’s good for, and brings the film alive for a bit as he runs around with a dorky football helmet. He bites the dust, though, as does everyone else (sorry, spoiler). Really, the only message the film imparts is that to wear your hair long in 1969 earned you the admiration of jailbait and the scorn of the po-po (oh, and random shotgun blasts to the face.) Scenes that I guess meant a lot back in the 60s just don’t resonate now. The only intelligent discussion at the fire comes shortly before the heroes’ demise, when Wyatt says that “they blew it”. But there’s never any elaboration or contemplation. What served as a good movie in the 1960s now has the best function of dissuading kids of doing drugs, ever.