Friday, June 29, 2007

Father Time

By Lars Trodson

In one of the opening scenes in “Easy Rider”, Peter Fonda -- aka Captain America, aka Wyatt -- throws his wristwatch into the dirt. Then he and Dennis Hopper (Billy) speed off on their choppers, out onto the open road, out into an unsteady America, out into a place they or any of us, hardly, even really knows.

So begins the journey.

We get a glimpse of our emotional panorama in this remarkable film, in part because Fonda and Hopper played the two sides of our national coin: Fonda is the truly free one, and Hopper, while enjoying the trappings of an unfettered society, is still pretty much constitutionally and philosophically rooted in a more conservative age. He’s pretty uptight for a longhair. He seems to prefer his booze and cigarettes and easy women over the more modern pharmaceutical and societal choices.

“I gotta get out of here, man,” Hopper says to Fonda after they have spent some time at a commune.

“Hey, man,” says Fonda, “We’re eating their food.” It was a gesture to say they needed to show these people some respect.

It is while they are at the commune that Fonda says to the stranger they had picked up on the highway, played by that wily actor Luke Askew, that he is “hip to time, man.” I always thought it a mournful thing to say for the guy who threw away his watch.

So the journey continues.

Apparently made on a budget of about $400,000, I was struck, as I watched the movie the other night, just how reverent it really is toward our country, and this is because of the photography by Laszlo Kovacs. In the scene at the commune, just as they are about to say a secular prayer over the food they are about to eat, Kovacs takes his camera and takes the time to spin slowly around the room so that we get to see all the faces, the faces of these hippies, and you can see the faces of almost every type of person there: the defiant ones, and the frightened, and the carefree and the concerned, and the lost, and the faces of the children. It is truly a beautiful moment in film.

He also captures the mid-west landscape beautifully, the Indian burial grounds, Monument
Valley -- this is John Ford country -- the highways of an as-of-yet overdeveloped country. The country stores are still there. The little Mexican cantinas (which reminds us just how much of a cultural mixture our country has always been between what we consider American and Mexican. It has been blurred since the beginning.) There is the little farm they stop at to fix their bike. When Fonda and Hopper share a meal with their hosts, Fonda says to the farmer: “You should be proud. It isn’t every man who can make a living off the land. Doing his own thing in his own time.”

It’s a hippy line, but still a goddamn good one. And then they move on again.

It’s interesting, in a back story way, that when Fonda and Hopper and the rest talk about the film, they talk about how much they were aware of what a successful commercial venture this was going to be. They knew they would make their mark, and undoubtedly earn a bucket of cash. The film was nominated for two Oscars – one for the screenplay (credited to Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern), and one for Jack Nicholson. I wonder if these guys were disappointed when they lost, which would be an institutional reaction, one would think.

It doesn’t matter, though, because I think they made an honest film. Some of Fonda’s spiritual “live and let live” attitude doesn’t play so well today, but then we can always look to Hopper to give us some acerbic realism.

I looked at the cover of the DVD and was somewhat amused by my own warm reaction to the photo of Hopper and Fonda out on the road. It seems nostalgic and romantic to me, and I am continually surprised how much I like these guys. After all, they make their money at the beginning by selling a batch of cocaine (to a nameless cat in a Rolls Royce played by music producer Phil Spector). These are not my guys, but the screenplay is also savvy enough not to portray them as saintly.

When they are refused a room at a seedy roadside hotel, Hopper yells out after the owner has turned on the “NO Vacancy” sign: “Asshole!” That would have been enough justification for turning them away, I suppose. So it isn’t just a couple of carefree, harmless guys trying to make their way in the world. But the important question to ask is: Who among us is? Who wants to be treated badly for who people think we are, rather than what we actually might be?

So the journey gets complicated.

Nicholson plays the voice of the audience. He’s a lawyer, George Hanson (who does work for the ACLU) and a juicer, and he has some pull in the little community where Hopper and Fonda get tossed in jail. Nicholson is in the pokey, too, cooling his heels after a night of drinking -- not much different from the old Otis character on the Andy Griffith show. We can feel comfortable with this guy, even though he’s slightly off his rocker.

The scene in which he tells the bikers how the Venutians have quietly infiltrated our society is a riot -- even more so because at one point Nicholson obviously breaks character and bursts into laughter -- and later when he is murdered you feel cheated. The violence is unnecessary, as it always is. He was OK, that guy, just a little troubled. Who among us is not?

As the end of the movie came nearer I felt a little uneasy, even though I knew what was coming. It’s abrupt and sadistic -- this is not the ending of moralists, or free-thinkers, but the ending of people who feel despair over the kind of self-proclaimed freedom they are promoting. I don’t know if I like it. I wonder what our thoughts on the movie today would be if Billy and Captain America had lived, and I certainly wonder what effect it would have had on the box office at the time. Was it a reaffirmation to those who went to see the movie seeking comeuppance for these two bikers? Or was it a reaffirmation to the hippies themselves who always knew they would never be accepted? I imagine a little bit of both. The hippies faded away, but many of their ideals and habits remain, both good and bad, even in a society that strains to keep its conservative side its public-facing persona. Since the movie was filmed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the ending seems a logical extension of those two horrific events.

I think I might have tried to spare our fictional heroes in light of how many real ones were getting murdered. But I can’t make that decision now and what do I know, anyway? It does seem to fit into the context of how hopeful and bleak those times seem to us now.

The journey of Billy and Captain America ended, but the ambiguous, unanswered effects of its aftermath continue. And I guess that is a gift.