A sense of primordial vastness runs through Easy Rider like a fragile wire. Dennis Hopper’s film is one of the great American road movies for the way it allows one to feel the road as a touring passageway through the promise and damnation of a “free” country that resents freedom—and it’s also a wonderful modern western, with hotly colorful tableaus that suggest John Ford working on acid. As Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) cruise through the Midwest on their iconic motorcycles, making their way to New Orleans from California, audiences revel in their journey as a figurative flight and state of being.
In the film, the beautiful yet inhospitable mountains of the West have a druggy, free-associative jaggedness. The desert sand is forebodingly white and glistening, like the roads themselves, particularly when Wyatt and Billy stop at a commune to survey land that refuses to produce crops. The roads, often shot by Hopper and D.P. László Kovács from a street level that draws our eyes directly to the verticality of the pavement, suggests both oceans and skies, existing as man-made channels to everywhere and nowhere.
Hopper has a prodigious sense of imagistic flow—of the dreamy half-tranced revelry that a road trip can inspire. Much of Easy Rider is composed of scenes of Wyatt and Billy on their bikes, enjoying their periodic detachment from the American prejudices that governed the late 1960s as well as the 2010s. The movement of these scenes is intoxicating, glorious, with that glory heightened by the music of the Byrds, the Band, Steppenwolf, and many others.
Easy Rider’s protagonists are what used to be called hippies: hairy, dressed semi-ironically in Native American and American flag-inspired regalia, wielding the names of dead gunslingers with an unresolved kind of contemptuous nostalgia, enjoying drugs and casual sex, hopeful of living off land devoid of corporate influence. They wander looking for like-minded souls, and find plenty of them, yet they can’t not wander so as to risk missing something. In their own fashion, Wyatt and Billy also have the American drive to consume, moving ever forward.
There are shades of Antonioni in Hopper’s ability to render haunting existentialism out of recurring images of landscape dwarfing man. An early sequence shows an airplane flying low directly above Wyatt, as he participates in a business deal that will pollute his soul. In this context, the plane connotes commercialist industrialism itself, wrapping its tendrils around the heroes. Wyatt and Billy are briefly their own men—defined only by their bikes, their drugs, and the money they procured from smuggling a large shipment of coke out of Mexico into Los Angeles, which they sold to a connection amusingly played by Phil Spector. The irony of Wyatt and Billy’s self-definition, which hinges on less possessions than most people but on possessions nevertheless, isn’t lost on Hopper or Fonda, who co-wrote and produced. That’s what Wyatt’s legendary line, “We blew it,” truly means. Wyatt and Billy represent the first of the countercultural sell-outs, especially Billy, who openly dreams of money and distrusts most everyone who crosses his path.
The film exhibits a doomy sentimentality as well as an under-acknowledged notion of sobriety. Hopper and Fonda dramatize the symbolic death of the counterculture at the hands of a more powerful commercialist culture that can appropriate anything, even its opposition, for the sake of profit, empowering a status quo that favors Caucasian patriarchal conventionality. Easy Rider represents both a beginning (of a behaviorally looser cinema that blends formal abstraction, sensuality, and vulgarity with the accessibility of pop culture, wedding American and European values) and an end (of revolutionary idealism). As Fonda’s character in The Limey memorably says, “the ’60s” as an idea rather than a time period, as a myth and a promise of an evening of social scales, was “just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all there was.”
Easy Rider has aged phenomenally well for anticipating the resentment the baby boomers’ offspring would feel toward their parents. The former see the latter as ushering in the age of the über-conglomerate that has polluted long beautiful stretches of the country with strip malls and offices, blowing away history and legacy, destroying unions, and generally leaving our country wanting for hope of individual self-fulfillment. This evolution has born a new, anxious working culture of perpetual freelancers—a modern white-collar ronin capable of dying by lack of health insurance rather than the sword. Retrospection has sharpened, rather than dulled, this film’s edge. One’s inclined to watch Easy Rider now and think, whether it’s true or not, that it was the first cultural acknowledgement of our modern malaise—a catharsis born of the experimental, aesthetically raw films that Hopper, Fonda, and co-star Jack Nicholson had been making over the prior decade. A malaise that now far exceeds these artists’ power of prescience.
Easy Rider is the sort of film that’s supposed to look a little rough. This transfer maintains a healthy amount of grit while emphasizing the beautifully primal intensity of the image’s colors—a combination that forges a wonderfully hot, "druggy" formality. (The film looks equally surreal and hyper-real.) Background and foreground textures are well-detailed, particularly the contours of actors’ faces, the dents on the bikes, and the various "found" signs and product placements cheekily dotting the oppressively classist towns that figure into the narrative. There are three soundtracks, an uncompressed monaural that probably best reflects the conditions in which the film was originally projected, and two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. It’s nice to have the monaural track for historic prosperity, but the Master Audio tracks sound better, boasting greater diegetic depth (check the cacophonies of water running and bugs chirping) and bolder, bass-ier non-diegetic oomph, which most obviously upgrades the dimensions of the many classic songs that dot the soundtrack. A terrific presentation that honors history as well as idealness of presentation.
Most of these supplements are recycled from the Criterion box set Lost and Found: The BBS Story, which included Easy Rider. The most evocative piece is the audio commentary that Dennis Hopper recorded alone in 2009, as he’s tender, melancholy, and largely divorced from concerns of tending his own legend. Hopper often lets the film do the talking for him, offering poetic observations that complement the images in free-associative fashion. Over an early shot of money being hidden in a motorcycle’s gas tank, for instance, Hopper says that he was interested in the symbolism of the United States as a "chrome machine" destined for disaster. He also contextualizes Easy Rider as the result of the collision of dozens of legends, including Bob Rafelson, Roger Corman, Henry Jaglom, and others. The second audio commentary, from 1995, with Hopper, Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis, is more detached and less involving (Hopper and Fonda don’t sound as if they’re watching the film from the same vantage point), but it still abounds in choice observations, particularly on the various subtleties of shot selection.
Two documentaries about the making of Easy Rider, "Born to be Wild" and "Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage," largely repeat information offered by the commentaries as well as one another, restating the film’s importance as a reaction to the Vietnam War, numerous political assassinations and social riots, as well as the sense that mainstream American cinema was lost in a land of prim, overproduced fantasy. Even among these repetitions though, there are choicely evocative nuggets, such as Karen Black’s description of Hopper as a "fabulous quantity of intention," which could mean anything, but sounds great as delivered. Television footage of Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival, a 2010 interview with BBS co-founder Steve Blauner, an essay by Matthew Zoller Seitz, and a series of theatrical trailers round out an entertaining package that could benefit from streamlining and an emphasis on offering contemporary perspectives.
Dennis Hopper’s legendary tale of a motorcycle odyssey gone wrong remains timeless for its diagnosing of the early stages of a social ennui that has now fully bloomed. The secondhand extras are forgiven for the beauty of the lush transfer.