Revolution in the can

The Criterion Collection continues to expand its catalogue in the UK.  Fiona Pleasance has been on a journey with Easy Rider, their latest release, which hits the road today.

Easy Rider is a film which glides in with a whiff of petrol fumes, marijuana smoke and the strong scent of its own mythology.  Its first claim to fame is as one of the three movies widely credited with kick-starting the mini-movement known as The New Hollywood at the fag end of the 1960s (the other two being Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichol’s The Graduate), though as Easy Rider cost the least to make and made the most money, it won the jackpot as far as the suits were concerned.

This is not to claim, however, that any of the people involved in making the film made a habit of wearing suits; in fact, they might take exception to the very idea.  By the 1960s, the heyday of Hollywood Studio System – the most effective means of producing movies the world has known – was over.  That decade had brought industrial, economic and societal changes to which the Studios struggled to react.  All of a sudden, not only was there room for new personnel in front of and behind the camera, but the Studios were willing to risk some good money on these fresh faces.  Hell, they needed to reach that young, countercultural-yet-media-literate audience somehow.  Who better to make movies which appealed to that group than young people drawn from its ranks?

And so it was that the producers, writers, director and stars of this movie looked like, and partook of the recreational pastimes of, hippies.  Given the quantities of weed smoked on and off the set, it’s nothing short of amazing that director-star Dennis Hopper managed to keep it together long enough to even make the movie.  In fact, according to accounts of varying bitchiness, he didn’t; but let’s be generous and assume all of the participants were similarly affected; and, well, you know what they say about remembering the ’60s.  (The story behind the making of Easy Rider is worth a book to itself – and, oh look, it already exists).

Actually, there is very little that is soft-focus or peace-and-lovey about Easy Rider.  Like its two companion New-Hollywood-precursors, it is deeply sceptical about the power of liberal youth to change the world, and shows its protagonists doomed in the attempt to find a little piece of America in which to be themselves.  The Summer of Love proved to be a flash in the pan.  Easy Rider started shooting just a couple of months after 1967 ended, but the film was released in 1969, the year of Altamont and the Manson murders, and it reflects the harsh, sad end of the decade which once had promised so much.  Far from being freed of material concerns, Wyatt and Billy are fixated on money, specifically their haul from the drug deal which is to finance their ‘retirement’.

Like the Summer of Love, the New Hollywood was a short-lived phenomenon.  The Blockbuster Era which began in the mid-1970s gave the power back to the suits, and their willingness to gamble on people and subject matter decreased as quickly as the cost of making movies rose.  Filmmakers working outside the mainstream had to look elsewhere to get their movies made and released.  Countercultural voices had a harder time being heard.

Watching this beautiful restoration of the film, two things stand out.  One is László Kovács’s stunning, pristine cinematography.  American vistas have never looked lovelier, and the driving rock soundtrack which accompanies them set the template for the road movie for years to come.

The other is how little has changed.  It’s not hard to imagine two long-haired bikers having similar travails on a cross-country trip in 2016.  Lawyer George Hanson – Jack Nicholson in a career-making turn – comments about probably being able to get Wyatt and Billy out of prison, “…if you haven’t killed anybody.  At least, nobody white,” which resonates a whole lot more than it still should.

Ian McDonald’s seminal study of the 1960s through the music of The Beatles, ‘Revolution in the Head‘ suggests that, far from resulting in social change to accommodate the radical ideas of the younger generation, the real legacy of the ’60s was actually the individualism and conservatism of the 1980s and beyond.  The revolution in the head took place there and only there: in the head.  “The counterculture was less an agent of chaos than a marginal commentary, a passing attempt to propose alternatives to a waning civilisation…. the hippies’ unfashionable perception that we can change the world only by changing ourselves looks in retrospect like a last gasp of the Western soul.” Easy Rider, with its depiction of conciousness-enchancing drugs, free love, communal living and reflections on the nature of the freedom in American society, is almost too perfect an example of such “marginal commentary”.  But the film’s stance towards all of this, and Wyatt’s notoriously ambiguous statement to Billy near the end of the movie, when escape to Florida appears to be in their sights – “We blew it” – seem like prescient confirmation of McDonald’s thesis.

Easy Rider‘s tagline was “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere”.  Forty-seven years on, America is still there.  But I bet you’d have trouble finding that man.

The Criterion Collection Special Edition Blu-Ray of Easy Rider is released in the UK today.  It includes a high-definition digital transfer, two audio commentary tracks, two documentaries and assorted other extras.

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