I started watching this movie expecting something akin to a National Lampoon episode – a goofy motorcycle road trip populated by harmless and amusing stoners. Those of you who are Easy Rider fans, or who have seen and appreciated the film should be chuckling now at my ignorance. This film, as well as Rambo: First Blood and Vanishing Point have now made it adequately clear to me that I’ve completely missed an entire genre of filmmaking. For those who share my ignorance, what I’m referring to is th… bleak and depressing post-1969 disillusionment film (this movie was actually filmed during ’69): love, merriment, and hope have been replaced with unmitigated bleakness and futility. The freedom and exuberance of the sixties has been replaced with imagery that exposes it for what it was – a brief flare in a perpetual night otherwise characterized by self-serving manipulations, hollow appearances, unrealized and forgotten dreams, violence, and willful ignorance.
Yes – the world after the summer of love is a pretty depressing place. Easy Rider makes this adequately clear in the opening minutes of the film as our two hero’s (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) complete a drug deal close to the Los Angeles airport. By starting the movie in this way, even the liberal, free spirited protagonists of the film are deprived of any moral base – their innocent, archetypal sixties dream of traveling by motorcycle across the US and having fun along the way is revealed as the end product of a career of crime and drugs, and the protagonists are presented as amoral and self-serving at best. The idealism of the sixties is flayed and exposed as the hollow moral posturing that – by and large – it was. Interesting side note here: the person that the drugs are sold too is in fact the Phil Spector, who’s monumental music production career has since been eclipsed by his Hughes-esque eccentricities, and allegations of murder. Check out the Making-Of documentary for more on Spector’s weirdness while filming.
Viewing Recommendation: If you haven’t scene the movie before, watch it twice, and throw the Making-Of documentary in there between the two viewings – it really is an exceptional documentary, and will make your second viewing entirely different from the first. Let me compound this by saying that if you haven’t seen the movie before, you should (and do so in the above fashion!) – it is, as the cover of this DVD exhorts – an “astonishing work of art.”
Easy Rider is noted for many of its ground breaking characteristics. These go from concepts in the story (homosexuality, polygamy, drugs, etc.) to the film techniques (by cinematographer László Kovács), to the “reality” techniques with which it was filmed. Watch the Making-Of documentary for more on that last one – much Easy Rider was filmed ad hoc, and unscripted. Scenes in which the actors are getting high are (according to Peter Fonda) entirely real – the actors are literally smoking up and spouting off about whatever comes to mind. Jack Nicholson, apparently, had never smoked a joint prior to the first camp-out scene with Hopper and Fonda. Drugs aside, every scene in the movie has a point to make, be it overt, or be it subtle and unstated
The final interesting thing that emerged in the Making-Of documentary is the acrimony and antagonism between star Peter Fonda and auteur Dennis Hopper. Apparently the entire movie was shot with the two at each other’s throats over every aspect – plot developments, camera work, timing, other actors, etc. You can see it from time-to-time in the movie itself – Hopper and Fonda’s onscreen relationship is as strained as their real life one was. To this day, apparently, Hopper and Fonda are not really on speaking terms.
Chances are you’ve seen this movie already, so the synopsis will be brief. Two guys fire up their choppers for a cruise across America. As they go they discover that the free-wheeling liberal ideal of Los Angeles (from which they hail) hold little sway in the rest of the country. This is a seminal film for the hippy subculture and for Americans of that era.
The movie spans a good portion of the North American continent, from Los Angeles, to New Orleans, with desert and mountains in between. The potential inherent in such a scope is not lost on the production staff of this film, and it is full of exceptional footage and venues of many hues, in day and night. The restoration of the this film is thus somewhat disappointing – while colour and saturation are good, capturing the full breadth of the outdoors’ visual impact, grain and particulate damage are endemic, and the night scenes are murky and unintelligible. While some of these ills can be attributed to the original source material, and some can be lumped under artistic license (the graininess, for instance), the overall impression is still one of a missed opportunity to create a truly great restoration.
As with the video, the audio is a mixed proposition. While there is a 5.1 track available, it doesn’t add much to a movie the deals primarily in dialog, or linear ambient sound. In either 5.1 or mono, all of the sounds are somewhat soft – the engine noise of the choppers, for instance, sounds good – but not great. Its inherent violence is muffled under a blanket of aural fuzziness which extends out to the rest of the film as well. Whether this is due to the quality of the source, or artistic choice is unknown. Personally, I would have sacrificed artistic sensibilities for the sake of accessibility and gone for a more modern transfer.
British Film Institute – Modern Classics, Easy Rider: Enclosed in the box is the novelette sized piece from the British Film Institute, which contains a number of essays (three, actually) on the movie and its production. The essays are well written and informative, if academic. There’s all manner of interesting trivia and insight on the movie buried in these – thinks like the George Hanson character (played by Jack Nicholson) having been written for Rip Torn, for instance. On top of this, the essay in question debunks the notion that Rip Torn left the filming of the movie in anger, to be replaced on an emergency basis by Jack Nicholson; in fact, Nicholson landed the role as a result of Torn’s stage commitments.
Making-Of Documentary – Shaking the Cage: As I’ve alluded to, the making of documentary is an exceptional piece. Composed of interviews with Hopper, Fonda, and assorted others, as well as archival footage, every aspect of the documentary is of very good quality. Hopper and Fonda both make excellent interview subjects, but Fonda particularly shines in his enthusiasm of the movie and the positive associations it stirs up for him. Hopper comes across as a little pretentious to me (especially compared to Fonda’s openness and unassuming nature), but still has plenty of interesting contributions.
Hopper’s Audio Commentary: The commentary is very hit and miss. There is some great dialog from Hopper, but its interrupted with long pauses and extensive off-topic rambling. Not bad, but the Making-Of documentary is better as the interview structure and editing prevent Hopper from getting lost in his own artistic pretensions and recollections.
CD “Songtrack:” While the packaging indicates double-disc, there is in fact only one DVD in the case. The second disc is a CD containing a selection of the songs from the movie. Audio quality is good, and it’s a nice, representative selection of the movie’s music. Put this in your CD player, warm up the lava lamp, and invite some friends over for a sixties party.
The significance of a 35th Anniversary edition is lost on me. Why not 32? Or a Y2K edition? There’s nothing particularly notable about “35” in this context, and it shows in this DVD release. While effort has been made to put together a decent audio, visual, and bonuses package, its not a truly great release – everything falls just slightly short of excellent. That being said, it is a very good release, and there aren’t many movies from this era that look and sound as good as this version of Easy Rider. Factor in a decent set of extras, and there’s certainly a home for this release on the shelves of fans of this film specifically, or this genre in general.
Special Features List
- British Film Institute – Essay Book
- Dennis Hopper Commentary
- Making-Of Documentary
- Talent Files
- Sound Track CD