Peter Fonda keeps it cool
The 1969 film Easy Rider is neither as horrible nor great as you may have been led to believe. Curiously, it doesn’t even fall midway between the two extremes. Think of it along the lines of the Woodstock Music Festival: some say it’s the best concert of all time; others, including a few of the performers, remember it as a dreadful event, top-heavy with mediocre music.
If we isolate Easy Rider from its place among the pantheon of iconic culture artifacts of the 1960s and judge it simply from the present day, does it hold up? No, it doesn’t. The film is amateurish without the attendant charm of honesty. Aside from occasional flashes of wonderful cinematography, what do we have? Why do people still talk about Easy Rider among a plethora of biker films cranked out during the 60s?
Easy Rider represented an alluring notion of freedom to the 1960s generation – the so-called counter-culture. You have two young guys – Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) – running around on motorcycles, smoking dope, meeting women, sleeping under the stars. They appear to make ends meet through cocaine smuggling. So far, so good.
Now, in the early part of the 21st-century, our notions of freedom have changed. It was inevitable. All films date – that’s not the issue. Think of the film Casablanca and your first thought likely isn’t Word War Two or North Africa. When you consider Easy Rider, it’s hard to escape the scent of patchouli oil and marijuana smoke that waft off the screen. It’s dated in a way that’s not necessarily self-propagating.
The film’s value, and likely a leading reason why it was selected to reside in the Library of Congress National Film Registry, is that it’s very good at representing a specific time in U.S. history – not due to cinematic achievement – but by the feelings it can stimulate. In that way, Easy Rider is similar to many cult films: its value rests in what viewers wish it – will it – to represent. And perhaps, after all, there’s good voodoo in that.