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The first five minutes of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider is so perfect that at the end of it you feel like you had watched a whole movie. By the time the music kicks in, "The Pusher" from Steppenwolf, you feel like you are watching a sequel to those first five minutes.
The sound effects, the silent yet deafening jets landing and taking off. The colors and the crazy psychedelic drug dealer played by Phil Spector. Finally, his butler and Rolls Royce make for one insane visceral experience that sets the tone for the rest of the film, and has rarely been rivaled for bizarre movie openings.
And then just as "The Pusher" closes, begins another Steppenwolf classic, Born To Be Wild and what today looks like the coolest retro music video of guys riding across country, but then all of a sudden the credits, which today are at the end of a movie, here are in the beginning. It's essentially 10 minutes and 45 seconds in before the actual credits end. But by then, you feel intimately connected with their characters.
Back then in 1969, Dennis Hopper must have actually been pretty wild to actually act that way. It feels like as director, Dennis Hopper gave himself a lot of latitude to play the character as he saw it. Fonda is so intensely experiencing life in the film, that you find yourself fluctuating through the eyes of these two very different riders, hard to even tell yet if they are friends or just met or what common goals exactly brought them together.
One guy is fixing a horse shoe and the other guy is fixing a flat reinforcing how this truly was a binary period of change. The closing of the 1960s made counterculture a rallying cry for the next two decades, until counterculture became mainstream pop culture at the turn of the century.
The 1960s is remembered for the decade of enlightenment, finishing what began in the 1920s but was disrupted by two world wars. It took two decades after World War II, for enlightenment to begin again, and for people to start breaking down the walls that even today still divide us.
"I Wasn’t Born to Follow" by The Byrds, blares from for the full length of the song, beginning to end, like a 1980s MTV retro video. The video serves as a narrative tool to quickly establish a new relationship with a hitchhiker. With almost no dialogue, the music transitions to "The Weight" by The Band. Another music video reveals the grand American countryside. It is quite a beautiful scene that makes you realize how small the biker's story is in the scope of the world, but no less important than any other person's tale.
I can only imagine they were really smoking weed both in character and out. Dennis Hopper's laugh is nuts.
The middle act of the film, which is a like a trippy vaudeville act is where the reality of the situation morphs into a carnival like environment. The mimes and traveling entertainers from the city work off debt for room and board. The traveling hippies remind you of settlers in the wild west a century earlier.
Women and children all migrating out of the cities into really what is still a wilderness of civilization. Hopper gives us an intimate glimpse of this migration. From a religious ceremony asking for a strong harvest to the nude canyon river romp, each minute is a vignette filled with music. The sexuality is so muted and fluid, that it is hard to tell who was who while everyone romped in the water. It was less sexual. It was as if the hippies were all tripping on mushrooms playing Marco Polo in the water.
And then the peace of the desert pioneers is broken as the movie reaches its midway point and the noise of early urban racist middle America interrupts the silence.
Parades and sirens precede our heroes change of luck. They are thrown into prison for a nonviolent crime. Everything is the antithesis of the first half of the movie. The graffiti on the walls of the prison cell tell the stories of previous occupants. It is then that the audience is introduced to the great Jack Nicholson, long before he was the icon he became in American cinema.
Jack is a drunk lawyer who can't remember the night before. The locals have a visible hatred for the free and counterculture lifestyle. Jack Nicholson's character, a local who doesn’t know what 'dude' means, helps get the bikers out of jail and back on the road, but decides to go along for the ride and his own enlightenment. The attorney is a rebellious soul who has suppressed his inner demons for quite some time. A one time football star for the high school, he grabs his helmet and climbs on the back of Peter Fonda's bike.
Nicholson treks along for the final stage of the journey to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, learns how to smoke weed and turns from alcoholic to stoner. His dissertation on how its use leads to harder stuff sounds right out of the original reefer madness.
Weed leads to sci-fi discussions on the truth behind UFOs. Literally a prophetic discussion about a race of intelligent beings with no leaders, no money and all the best technology. He calls them Vinusians. Real trippy stuff.
We blast from the innocence of a first joint to "If 6 was 9" by Jimi Hendrix.
In the foreign territory of the rural south, where the men really hate the hippies, the women seem to love them. This makes the guys want to kill them.
Nicholson explains that the hippies represent is freedom. While that’s what the rural bigots believe they represent, there is a difference between talking about it and being it.
He further explains, People of America pretend to believe, but when they see real freedom in the hippies it frightens them. It makes them dangerous because in truth, it will eventually mean an end to their way of life.
New Orleans is like a city in transition from rural to urban, a blend of race, age, vibe, color and even fantasy as masked revelers pass the bikers by. A moment bent by road kill that ends with a smoke in the cemetery. And peyote. Tripping, but conveying a bad trip buried within a good trip (which is the essence of the movie). Finally, when they come down they actually debate the merits of the whole journey, not just the trip. In a moment it was over, but now I cannot get it out of my head.