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top three of each year

revisiting easy rider (dennis hopper, 1969)

I thought to remember Peter Fonda by watching one of his movies, and I had a Blu-ray of Easy Rider on the shelf that I hadn't watched yet, so I decided to revisit that film.

At this point, 50 years on, does it even matter if Easy Rider is any good? If you were teaching a history of cinema, you'd want to include it. If you were teaching U.S. popular culture of the late 60s, you'd include it (although, having taught more than one course like that, I tended to use Wild in the Streets). Easy Rider mattered then, and so it matters now. But I'd argue that its importance never had much to do with whether it was actually any good. It struck a chord with young audiences who made it a box office hit, and that did matter. 

Wikipedia claims that "Critics have praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, visuals, and atmosphere." Well, three out of six ain't bad. Outside of Jack Nicholson, the performances barely exist. The general slack acting and often aimless feel are not a reason for me to praise the directing. And no one has ever been able to ascertain who wrote what, or even if the movie was "written". On the plus side, the music is excellent, and the visuals (hat tip to cinematographer László Kovács) are the best thing about the movie (Thelma and Louise's beautiful travelogue is the most notable of many ways the two movies are connected). As for the atmosphere, it's true that few movies do as good a job of drawing the audience into the milieu of hippies, communes, drugs, etc.

But Easy Rider drags, and while its We Are Martyrs theme is certainly a big reason for its popularity at the time, that theme is not as in-your-face as I remembered (final scene excluded, of course). Jack Nicholson delivers a monologue, Peter Fonda praises "doing your own thing in your own time", and all the southerners act like rednecks. That's it. When Fonda says "We blew it", it comes out of nowhere.

And women? There are the earth mothers at the commune, the teeny boppers in the cafe, and then Karen Black and Toni Basil turn up as whores. This definitely isn't Thelma and Louise, which at least allows for a couple of interesting male characters.

I'm not sorry I watched Easy Rider again, but it wasn't life changing. #414 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Criterion released it in a box set with Head, Five Easy Pieces, Drive He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens. It's not the worst film in the box.

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