Columbia Pictures/Art by Derek Bacon
Every week this summer we’ll be exploring movies that are perfect for the season. Cinematic stories for watching in a cool, dark room while it’s sunny outside.
If there’s an ultimate lesson in Easy Rider, it’s to do your own thing in your own time. The movie tosses out that koanistic nugget right up front when Captain America and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) praise a farmer for taking control of his own destiny by living off the land. He does as he likes with a massive blue sky overhead, and they dig that.
For our heroes, applying that lesson means smuggling drugs in their motorcycle gas tank in order to achieve the financial solvency necessary to live more comfortably, although it’s unclear how much more comfortable they can get. They ride, you know, easy. Gasoline costs money, but otherwise the farmland-hopping duo seems set as they roll on through God’s Country toward New Orleans.
Summer is freedom, and this film’s got freedom in spades.
The sweaty season is also the perfect time for road trips and movies that don’t stand still. Easy Rider offers us a view through a giant swath of gorgeous America. Woody Guthrie’s America. Here, in panoramic view, are the ribbons of highway and fruited plains that Thomas Jefferson’s ghost probably wanders around eternally. This is a bright movie with sunglasses on, lit by sunshine during the day and campfires at night, celebrating wide open spaces and a million miles of road.
Yet it’s the people that mean more than the horizon. Making connections, building new friendships, and letting a football helmeted Jack Nicholson join your crew are all pumping at the heart of the story. When Captain America and Billy hang out with a hippie commune (narrowly avoiding a prolonged performance from the local mime troop), their new pals are a pit stop along the highway — a dot on a broad road map within a wandering singular task. They are vital, but temporary, like sleepaway camp friendships. Fast-burning and potent. Our traveling duo take life as it comes, buzzing amiably and refusing to plan.
On the less breezy side of the spectrum, encounters with racist assholes punctuate and offer a funhouse mirror for what happens at the commune and out on the road. Outside the city limits, freedom rings, but restrictive borders and the small minds inside of them make all the other cooperative relationships in the movie more meaningful. There’s a “Zen and the Art” dichotomy at work. Some people want to get high, share with others and have a good time. Everyone else wants to hate the people who want to get high, share with others and have a good time.
Skinny dipping, cookouts, community theater, heavy pot use, bizarre happenings, joining parades at random, wasting time with Jack Nicholson in prison. That’s a full summer calendar, and we haven’t even talked about the soundtrack yet.
Steppenwolf, Holy Modal Rounders, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, Bob Dylan. Clamoring fuzzbox noise and pulse-lowering folk. The Band’s “The Weight” is aural marijuana.
All of this screams sunshine, and the plot of the movie — in its glorious thinness — reinforces its easy-going philosophy. After all, there’s no goal but movement, so everything that happens along the way is important, but incidental. Captain America and Billy’s ultimate reason for heading to New Orleans ends up not even mattering all that much. They make it, they earn their money, they get weird with two prostitutes in a graveyard, and then they roll on. No problemo. The movie doesn’t end there because they certainly won’t.
Which brings us to the one thing that might keep a pristine summer at bay. The end is a shocking punch to the senses that goes against everything that Captain America and Billy sat up for. In a flash, they become icons of peace brought down by pointless violence. There’s a clear political message in the finale, as well as some obvious echoes of real life public pacifism, but it’s also a painful message that the cycle of culture and counterculture continues unabated. Here are two men who go against a jealous natural order. They do their own thing in their own time, and some people can’t handle seeing that kind of freedom in others, so they bring the sun crashing down. Even summer has to end.