Monday, May 31, 2010

Dennis Hopper, "Easy Rider", and the Death of Idealism--Monday Journal #2 (of 2)

Peter Fonda uttered one of cinema's most prophetic lines in the 1969 counterculture classic film "Easy Rider", directed by and co-starring the late Dennis Hopper:

 "We blew it."

With the death of Hopper this week, a little bit more of the 1960's counterculture dream died with him.  

In the years before his death, Hopper himself no longer believed in the druggy anti-establishment he helped to define with the production of "Easy Rider". In fact, like a number of counterculture icons in Hollywood's late-'60's, his life settled into a conservatism at odds with the youthful protest encouraged by and reflected in his landmark film.

(Of course, Hopper had to clean up his act, and relinquish a self-destructive lifestyle.) 

Contemporary moviegoers may remember Hopper primarily for his dual turns in 1986: the first one as an exquisitely frightening criminal in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet"; the other, his sole Oscar-nominated performance, as the pathetic, alcoholic father of a high school basketball player in "Hoosiers".

But for many, Hopper (and Fonda) will always be Billy and Wyatt, the dropped-out, drugged-up counterculture "outlaws", riding motorized "horses" across a troubling western landscape after making a big score.  With Jack Nicholson's freewheeling lawyer in tow, the trio looked for American freedom, abandoning the establishment and its ideas of time and responsibility, never realizing that their "freedom" depended on the very "system" they sought to escape.  Instead of achieving freedom, they became victims of the prejudice and hate buried within that system  that they unwittingly supported.

Hence...."We blew it".

But before that sobering discovery, Billy and Wyatt moved through a landscape of idealism that motivated their journey of discovery, before "being bought and sold in the marketplace": the rancher making a life of his own with a loving family; the hitchhiker from "the city" returning to his friends on the communal farm; and the farm itself, misguided, yes, but born of a true desire to make a successful life among a large blended "family", cut off from the requirements of a button-down corporate lifestyle.

It was the same impulse that drew people to the Woodstock festival the year "Easy Rider" was released.  It was the same innocent and often misguided idealism so beautifully captured in the revived 1968 musical "Hair".

Even Woodstock had been revealed to have been as much a corporate venture as an attempt to create a "nation" of peace and free love.  But the impulse was true, the idealism very real, and unfortunately impossible to sustain.

Even though the "hippie" movement, the counterculture, was not as innocent as the dreamy, glamorized images portrayed in movies and music of the day, there was something sort of wonderful about that time, at least the romanticized version of it, that may become as nearly forgotten as "Easy Rider".

That was the sense of a shared experience, a coming together of people young and old but driven mostly by the young, who recognized the mindless conformity that was killing them spiritually in the marketplace and literally in the jungles of Vietnam. 

Music was concerned with Coming Together, of I'd Like to Get to Know You, of Giving Peace a Chance.  

Artists like Joan Baez sought to organize, kids tried to set up communes, students spoke out for themselves and each other, protested unjust war and injustice all over, and advocated against oppression.   Communications was the popular college major of the day.  There was a belief that that ethereal, peaceful idealism could change the world.

Now, there's a subtle feeling that the lesson of the 1960's is that individuals must look out for themselves.  Shared goals are accomplished individually on-line, and not in groups both jubilant and urgent. There is no longer a meaningful shared musical or media heritage, which once successfully transmitted culture between groups and generations, so that (in spite of the information available on the web) many people have little knowledge or understanding of the relevance of popular culture from before their time.  People remain "connected" yet isolated, their worlds confined to their headphones, their laptops, their texts.  Community service is a requirement of graduation, a way to beef up a resume, and not a genuine outpouring of idealism.

Even though the look and music of "Easy Rider" is today is "dated", fixed in a fleeting period of time, it seems that we have taken to heart that surprising and sad line, "We Blew It."  It seems no longer possible to reclaim the idealism of that time.  The '60's were like the rebellious adolescence of America. 

And now that the world is literally bleeding to death in the Gulf, another one of the icons of that idealism, whether Hopper deserved that label or not, is gone.

The movie lives on...but it can never mean the same thing it once did, ever again.  And in some odd way, it is as relevant as ever.

Because, unfortunately, we continue to blow it.


  1. This movie threw me for a loop when I first saw it. Throughout most of it, I was wondering what the Big Deal was, since it seemed a very episodic and not entirely focused narrative. But that line, as you say, just nailed it, put it all into perspective. Coupled with "They'll make it," the film manages to speak across generations, for those willing to listen.

  2. Excellent analysis of a film I've never seen.

  3. Wow, thank you all for checking in here. Walter, the bookend statement "they'll make it" which you astutely observed really helps define both sides of this generational coin.
    Andrew, I look forward to your reaction to Easy Rider some day.
    And Burning Reels: Welcome! I hope you visit often.