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‘Easy Rider’ asks: Did my generation blow it?

December 31, 2013

Dennis Hopper as Billy, Peter Fonda as Wyatt, aka Captain American, and Jack Nicholson as George ride the open highway on an ill-fated west-to-east journey in “Easy Riders.” The film at once captured the wanderlust, non-conformity and search for freedom that marked the 1960s but also the violent collapse of a more idealistic and even naive era. File photo

Last time we closed with Wyatt’s statement at the end of “Easy Rider,” saying, “We blew it.”
When my wife Sandy and I met, it was in Peace Corps Iran training in the summer of 1966 in the shadow of the tower on the University of Texas Austin campus. The school and the city had the reputation of being a “liberal” Texas school. On Aug. 1 at noon we were leaving class for lunch when Charles Whitman opened fire, which was really the first of what are now lone gunman massacres that happen nearly every month or so in our country. The motivations are insane, and yet people struggle to understand and ask why. The unanswered question was asked then, and after Sandy Hook, and since then as well without a meaningful answer.
One of the Peace Corps trainees, our friend Thomas, was killed, two others badly wounded. Then I spent two years in the deserts of southeastern Iran in an area called the Sarhad, a long way from the “Summer of Love.” I was a stranger returning to the U.S. the summer of 1968. My land had changed, and I remember the lugubrious people on my flight speaking angrily of the turbulent times in our culture. Drugs, conmen, protest, the horrors of Viet Nam violence. There had been the assassinations Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy while I lived in the cultural isolation of the desert.
Upon my return I remember still naively being filled with idealism and expectation that the Age of Aquarius would usher in a time of peace, personal growth, spirituality and people joining to heal the earth and its people. My wife and I married, our son was born and we journeyed back to my home in New York for Christmas a year later. Joined by my brother and his wife, we saw “Easy Rider,” and loved the simple vision of the first part but felt slapped in the face by the cruel and violent ending. Somehow we knew the dream was over – it wasn’t going to be an easy ride now – but we continued to teach in New Idria, a mining camp, and then in Lone Pine.
After 40-plus years I watched “Easy Rider” again for this essay. It was a sad, nostalgic, challenging experience that I am still sorting out. For at 70 I have the perspective of years to rethink the film, my reaction to it then and now. Have I blown it?
Public dialogue is a matter of freedom and politics and culture now as it was then. The issue of freedom is discussed at length in the film. I feel free now, or relatively free considering the world today. But on all sides freedom is still under attack by the people who constantly espouse their own freedom as it was in 1969.
George Hansen (Jack Nicholson in a brilliant performance that made him a superstar) is the mouthpiece for much of what the filmmakers want to say in the movie. He has several telling speeches about freedom around the campfire. He says, “ … talking about (freedom) and being (free) – that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.” He identifies the capitalist economic system as a major part of the problem plaguing residents of the state of Amerika. “’Course don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah – they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare them.”
Essayist Barbara Klinger sees this debate about freedom from an historic and landscape point of view. She writes, “Commentators further rooted both the appeal and the message of the film in the ‘vast discrepancy between visual beauty of the movie … and the ugliness of the climate of life in the late ’60s’” (Douglas Brode: “Films of the 1960s”). She continues, “The films juxtaposed ‘America the beautiful’ with ‘Amerika the ugly’: pristine wilderness of the landscape, representing the great potential of the country’s historical past, with the profane sentiments of the fascistic and bigoted inhabitants, threatening the very foundations of democracy in the present.”
Returning from the Peace Corps, life seemed full of potential, we were free to act, to protest the Viet Nam war, and it seemed I might break through the strictures of society that were everywhere keeping people in chains. I thought I had had the perfect middle class upbringing, based on the ideals of the country from the beginning, and I began to realize that was not true at all. My dysfunctional family life growing up was painful and scarring.
This time as the film turned darker and darker, so did my thoughts of the future of the country. There are no real political solutions, and I had thought focusing more on internal psycho-spiritual work was the answer. Then came that shockingly violent, almost desultory end of the film. Even in 2013, an intelligent acquaintance insisted to me that the United States was not a violent country both domestically and internationally unlike so many of the countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. I disagreed strongly.
The making of the movie soured the friendship between Fonda and Hopper. Peter Biskind (“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood”)reported, “Fonda and Hopper’s relationship remained tense through out the shoot. ‘I was never afraid of him,’ says Fonda, ‘I was wearing a belt, the primary chain from the motorcycle, chrome. When you’re belted in the face with that mother------, you find that’s a skull crusher.’”
Lee Hill, in “Easy Rider (a BFI Modern Classic Book),” wrote, “The next five weeks of principal photography were fraught with tension. Fonda and Hopper seemed to be in constant conflict.”
Many saw the film as having a profound effect on filmmaking both in style and subject matter, as well as in funding and the rise of the independent film. However, the energy that came out of the success of “Easy Rider” slowly dissipated and Hollywood lost the passion that had resulted. Many visual editing techniques, however, have continued to be used effectively as a new film grammar.
I’m nearly 70 now and watching the film again brought it all back. There was so much hope for me upon returning from the Peace Corps. Slowly it dissipated and I spent my time educating children, and raising my own. I struggled to give my two sons ethics to live by in a confusing, still turbulent world. My generation probably did “blow it,” to paraphrase Wyatt. But individually most of us carried on, living the best lives we could, making better lives for others as best we could, and doing our small part to redeem the creation. So Wyatt here’s my answer: “Blowing it wasn’t quite as bad as we feared nor was it definitely as good as we hoped.” Now it’s up to our children and grandchildren.

(Chris Langley is an independent writer and film historian living in Lone Pine. He can be reached at 760-937-1189 or at lonepinemovies@aol.com.)

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