Three men sit around a campfire in the middle of the desert, a couple of misfits and a hippy, sharing a joint. One of the misfits, Wyatt, also known as Captain America and played by Peter Fonda, rubs his eyes. “Oh man, the smoke’s getting to me.” The hippy puts the joint to his mouth. “Yeah but I notice you’re not moving.” The trio burst into laughter, and the conversation moves on without a pause.
This more than any other moment most aptly illustrates the tone of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film, Easy Rider. It is one smattered with profundity cloaked under a hazy smokescreen from the joints the characters religiously smoke. Amongst the film’s moments of hilarity and sentimentality, there lay darker themes that make Easy Rider a period dystopian classic.
The story starts with a drug deal in Mexico, and after successfully flipping the cocaine in L.A, Billy and Wyatt mount their glammed-up, low riding Harleys, check the time, and toss the watch into the dirt. They lift boots and begin riding towards the distant mountains. Whilst their destination is New Orleans in time for the Mardi Gras celebration – the duo’s desire to get there is merely a detail brought up now and again in passing, very much secondary to the ritual of the journey.
As the pair drift along, elements of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road spring to mind. Easy Rider, like Kerouac’s novel, lulls the viewer into a trance, courtesy of its music – a classic rock soundtrack compiled by editor Donn Cambern, featuring Jimi Hendrix, The Band, and Steppenwolf, which simultaneously matches and creates the tone of the film to hypnotic effect.
Though the pair repeatedly participate in ‘criminal’ activity, Wyatt and Billy are not bad people. And one can’t help but think: if two individuals who were defined by their physical freedom through movement on the road, holding the American Dream on their sleeve can’t make it, then what lays in store for the rest of us? True, it’s a different time, but in a postmodern world where we’re all special to the point that no one is, in what way are we free? Easy Rider demonstrates the importance of social connections, and, while it offers few answers, it highlights the dangers of living in a society full of individuals, not communities.
Just as Hopper looked to the French for inspiration, let’s look to postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault for a final insight. In an essay released in the same year as Hopper’s film, he declared: “The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is […] to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).”
So sit down and watch Hopper’s dystopic road movie, and think about how we, as individuals, can shake things up and, hopefully, bring ourselves closer together.