The Easy Rider Paradox


The following is an excerpt from Create or Die: The Lost Films of Dennis Hopper by Stephen Lee Naish:

It is almost impossible to write and discuss Dennis Hopper and his movies without exploring the cultural and social significance of Easy Rider.  The impact this small film had on the subsequent decades of filmmaking is immeasurable.  We are still feeling the wave rippling today in independent cinema throughout the world.  Although the content of Easy Rider has now perhaps passed by, the do-it-yourself aesthetic is still relevant to many filmmakers who wish to distance themselves from the Hollywood system, as well as equivalent studio systems, and maintain their independence and keep their artistic vision intact.  Easy Rider meant many things to many different people from all kinds of social backgrounds and the film addressed a wide scope of subjects relating to its time and place.  But what did Easy Rider mean to Dennis Hopper?  By all accounts Easy Rider meant everything to him.  His willingness to discuss and dissect his own movie has meant that there are hours of recorded interviews and documentaries, as well as pages and pages of articles and critiques that explore the phenomenon of Easy Rider.  One interesting aspect of Hopper’s post Easy Rider career is his incessant need to reference and refer to Easy Rider in other films in which he has appeared. One could point out that this is a blip in the filmic universe, a paradox of reality and fiction that is only unique to Dennis Hopper.

I first noticed this phenomenon in the 1990 film Flashback.   In this film Hopper plays the character of Huey Walker, a sixties activist and hippie throwback, who, for the past twenty years, has been on the run from the FBI who want to indict him for a childish prank of social disobedience that embarrassed the then Vice President Spiro Agnew, while he toured the United States in the late sixties.  In the late eighties, the Feds finally catch up with him and place him in the custody of young uptight FBI agent Buckner (Keifer Sutherland).  When we first meet Huey Walker, it is almost as if we could be meeting Easy Rider’s Billy twenty years down the line.  The character shares the same tussled long hair, bushy beard and fidgety mannerisms that defined Billy’s erratic personality.  Of course we as an audience know this can’t be Billy, Billy is dead, shot by a redneck from the side of a truck.   So who is Huey Walker?  A relative or perhaps a ghost, certainly a caricature. The plot thickens, and the merging of two films becomes more apparent. The captured Walker and the straight laced fed Buckner travel cross county by train.   Over dinner Huey jokes that he has spiked Buckner’s food with a little acid.  Buckner becomes paranoid and panics, drinking copious amounts of booze from the carriage bar to counter the effects of the acid trip.  However, there is no acid; Huey has tricked Buckner into getting wasted and losing his otherwise ice-cold persona, thus giving Huey a chance to escape.

Back in their train compartment, Huey shaves his beard, cuts his hair and steals Buckner’s sharp suit and FBI badge.  He now looks like a typical FBI agent, slick and sharp suited. Buckner passes out on the floor; Huey dresses him in his own ragged old clothes.  They make an overnight stopover in a small town where Huey meets the local sheriff and hands over a passed out Buckner to his officers for a stay in the local jail.  Huey walks the town and ends up in a bar where two middle aged, middle class guys are drinking lots of beer and reminiscing about the good old days of the sixties and the weirdness of the eighties. Huey sparks up a conversation with them about their rebel credentials and asks if they remember the activist Huey Walker.  Huey informs them that Huey Walker has been caught and is rotting in the jail across the street.  The two ex-hippies are furious, Walker plays up to his new image of sharp suited agent and mocks them, delivering the line: “It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel”, to which one of them replies “I happen to own Easy Rider.”  As a viewer, ones does the inevitable double take what was just said by Hopper‘s character.  What are we seeing here?   How could the character of Huey Walker have seen Easy Rider, without seeing himself in the role of Billy?  It’s almost as if a parallel universe, admittedly a filmic parallel universe, has come into existence, one in which Dennis Hopper, Billy and Huey Walker exist in the same world, but as separate individuals. That the two ex-hippies don’t even acknowledge the fact that Huey strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of the main characters of Easy Rider defies belief.  However shameless it appears, Hopper uses Easy Rider as a cultural reference point in order to define the sixties era to the, perhaps younger, audience. After all, no piece of cinema illustrates that period like Easy Rider.   As the old saying goes Flashback is ‘only a movie’ and that would be an acceptable argument if it wasn’t for the fact that Hopper repeats this paradox again and again.

In the Wim Wenders directed film The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund), Hopper plays Tom Ripley, a wealthy American art dealer living in Hamburg, Germany, who befriends a dying local picture framer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz).   During the first hour of the movie while standing on the balcony of his plush rented house, Tom Ripley, with wireless radio by his ear, begins to bellow out The Ballad of Easy Rider. One of Easy Rider’s signature songs, it was written for the soundtrack by Bob Dylan and performed by The Byrds front man Roger McGuinn.  As Ripley sings the words “Where ever that river flows that’s where I want to be” he opens his arms and embraces the city below him.  It’s an odd moment in an otherwise brilliant film. Hopper’s use of the song in no way fits into the mould of the film.  Tom Ripley is a character adapted from the novel Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith, and in no way is he any sort of ex hippie or former sixties activist.  Hopper plays the character of Tom Ripley very differently from the book versions, making him less emotionally detached and distant and giving Ripley an essence of regret and ethics that the literary character disregards. He also plays Ripley as very much in tune with his Americanism; something the Ripley of the novels abandons in order to embrace European values.  The use of The Ballad of Easy Rider could be to mirror co-star Bruno Ganz’s random humming of old Beatles songs.  Much like Easy Rider, The Beatles were a defining phenomenon of the sixties. Dennis Hopper’s use of The Ballad of Easy Rider does not distract from the narrative as it does in Flashback.  Hopper’s interpretation of Tom Ripley allows the character to have a conscience and a genuine feeling of friendship towards Jonathan.  Hopper and Ripley’s use of the line could be seen as a longing to be free of the murky world and double crossing that Ripley inhabits.  It’s still a strange moment in an otherwise flawless film.

A very brief example of Hopper’s referencing of Easy Rider is in the eighties teen flick My Science Project, a bizarre little sci-fi oddity that no doubt was made to fill the void left by Star Wars, and to make use of newly discovered cheap visual effects.  Hopper plays high school science teacher Mr. Roberts, a caring teacher who is partial to a quick natural high and continues to carry some disregard for authority, a hangover from his time as a peace activist during the social revolution of the sixties.     Although this is a minor role, Hopper‘s performance remains memorable.  The teenage heroes of My Science Project discover a piece of alien technology left over from a UFO crash that happened decades earlier.  This piece of technology opens a gateway to moments in history, merging time and space.  When the teens show Mr. Roberts the device, he gets sucked in to the vortex and disappears for the remainder of the film.  The teens are left to fight off dinosaurs, Neolithic ape men and futuristic monsters, which have descended on their school via the time vortex.   At the end of the movie Mr. Roberts returns from a flash of light looking like Easy Rider’s Billy, with shaggy hair, beard and moleskin jacket, preaching revolution and raving about Woodstock and the Beatles.

Although there is no direct referencing of Easy Rider in Hopper’s third directorial effort, Out of the Blue, Hopper does try to inject an edge of similarity between the two films, “You could say that the father and the mother probably saw Easy Rider and that the father was probably a biker in his day.”   Hopper is perhaps suggesting or offering an alternative ending to Easy Rider’s Billy if he had survived the shooting, which we are led to believe ends his life at the end of the film.  Or maybe Hopper is commenting on the direction his own generation headed towards after the social upheaval of the sixties.  The audiences that lapped up Easy Rider’s statement of intent, but neglected to do anything constructive with it were now on the receiving end of Out of the Blue’s nihilism.  The utopianism that Easy Rider pointed towards perished in the seventies and eighties, replaced by greed and a capitalist dream.

Most disturbingly, during his second renaissance, in the eighties Dennis Hopper seriously considered the idea of a sequel to Easy Rider.  The proposed plotline consisted of a resurrected Billy and Wyatt, blazing across a post apocalyptic dystopian American landscape.  How and why this would happen was thankfully never explained. Depending on the proposed film’s budget, one could envision the film as a idiosyncratic take on the post punk scene that had become commonplace in American independent films of the eighties, such as the Alex Cox directed Repo Man and Straight to Hell (made for $1,000,000 apiece) or the burning landscape and desolation of the original Mad Max (made for $400,000). However there was always a danger that the film would have become as overblown and irrelevant as Mad Max: Beyond Thunder Dome ($14,000,000), or as excessive as the damp squid that was Hopper’s later film Waterworld ($175,000,000).  If Easy Rider Two had maintained the original films aesthetics of low budget and improvised shooting and dialogue, it might have been a worthwhile sequel that may have made relevant comments on the failure of the post sixties and the slide into capitalist greed of the eighties. However, Hopper and Peter Fonda could not settle their creative differences and the sequel to Easy Rider was shelved.  During the early nineties acting legend Martin Landau’s (North by Northwest, Ed Wood) production company began working on a proposed sequel which would follow Wyatt and George Hansen’s sons as they retraced their father’s steps in an effort to find the men responsible for their deaths. As nothing was ever mentioned again, one can assume it didn’t make as far as pre-production.   This round of misfires did not stop another group of independent filmmakers producing an unofficial sequel/prequel to Easy Rider.

Easy Rider: The Ride Back premiered in 2009 to little fuss or fanfare.  Born out of a law suit that pitched the newbie filmmakers against the original producers Bob Rafalson and Burt Schneider over rights and use of unused archival material, the film offered a controversial back story to the original.  The story delves into the turbulent family history of Peter Fonda’s character Wyatt.  Following in Wyatt’s footsteps is his younger brother Morgan Williams (played by the mysterious Phil Pitzer, a man who could well be Peter Fonda’s real brother) and his journey across country that takes in the familiar sights of Billy and Wyatt’s original journey.  Pitzer’s character Morgan even wears the same leather threads as his older brother and rides a stars and stripes draped motorcycle.  Although obviously a labor of love for Pitzer (as well as starring, he also co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced, an effort that took him six years) the film appears to abandon the original’s intentions, such as engaging the audience in the horrors of the Vietnam War, where Easy Rider chose toignore this element of history.  Although the motorcycles are an important and iconic part of Easy Rider, bringing the freedom of the road that both characters so desire, they do not define the film as a whole.  The bikes are discarded in the jail scene where Wyatt and Billy first meet lawyer George Hansen and vanish from the screen again as soon as characters arrive in New Orleans to party with escort girls and partake in the Mardi Gras.  That’s not to say that the original Easy Rider doesn’t indulge in some ’bike porn’ once in a while.  With Easy Rider: The Ride Back you get the impression that the filmmakers are bike nuts and have basically crafted a film around the lifestyle and rituals of the outlaw motorcyclist, roaring engines, high speeds and hot girls.  By all accounts it seems that only the hardcore biker communities have truly embraced this film, with screenings at motorcycle festivals across America being hugely successful.  However it has, at present, yet to find a distributor or a general audience.  As Hopper himself has stated “Easy Rider was never a motorcycle movie to me. A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country.”  For Dennis Hopper Easy Rider was much more than a road movie, a buddy movie, a motorcycle movie, a drug movie or a youth movie.  It was everything Hopper wanted to say and more about the country he loved and the era it evoked, and in Hopper’s opinion, no other movie ever said it better than his.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *