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Review: Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider (1969)

Directed by: Dennis Hopper

Premise: In the late 1960s, two motorcyclists (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) transport drugs across multiple states and in the process come across the cultural rifts in the American south at this time.

What Works: Easy Rider is one of the defacto New Hollywood films. The picture established filmmaking styles and attitudes that came to define the period and Easy Rider is largely regarded as the picture that started the movement. There are several outstanding cinematic elements of Easy Rider. The first is its cinematography. The film manages a balance of handheld, on-location, guerilla-style filmmaking with the kind of smooth, highly controlled, traditional cinematography of a studio film. This can be seen especially well in the traveling montages and in the Mardi Gras sequence, which combine lots of avant-garde techniques with classical, closed form compositions. Second is its editing. The film uses a lot of cross cutting, especially between scenes, cutting rapidly back and forth between the final seconds of the current scene and the opening seconds of the next. The film uses a similar but less aggressive cutting style in the bike sequences, as the camera cuts back and forth between the men in different geographic locations on their journey and as they spatially relate to one another on the road. This is an unusual kind of editing technique that even now is rarely seen in mainstream feature films (although it is common in film trailers and in music videos).  The other outstanding element of Easy Rider is its soundtrack. This was one of the first films to use the popular music of the period and the film includes artists like Steppenwolf, The Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix to provide a rock and roll background of sound that works beyond just filing in the audio of the scenes and provides narration and commentary on the events taking place on screen. The music selection is also key to Easy Rider’s importance as a piece of cinematic art; the film is a time capsule of the period. This is a movie about the counter culture made by participants of the counter culture which makes Easy Rider unique; the picture deals with subjects such as bigotry, drug use, and alternative hippie lifestyles from the point of view of people within the counter culture looking out rather than outsiders looking in. But rather than just deliver a simplistic, one sided argument, Easy Rider accomplishes something very profound in its last few minutes: the picture puts to question the whole counter cultural movement and the rider’s motives for transporting the drugs. It’s a brief but powerful moment that makes Easy Rider both an artifact of its time and a reflective bit of social criticism.

What Doesn’t: Audiences accustomed to more conventional editing and storytelling styles may find Easy Rider difficult to follow. The film is very much a product of its time and will be best appreciated in that context.

DVD extras: A commentary track and a documentary.

Bottom Line: Easy Rider was not the first biker film but it remains among the best. Aside from being a solid picture in and of itself, this is a film that is important for historical and artistic reasons and like The Godfather it is an essential piece of American film.

Episode: #217 (December 7, 2008)