The following is the latest entry in a series dedicated to the films of BBS Productions, as collected in the recent Criterion Collection release America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.
George: What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.
George: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.
The following post contains spoilers for Easy Rider. But I assure you, there is almost nothing that can “spoil” the film for you.
Everything that’s great and awful about Easy Rider is summed up in that little exchange there, perhaps the most famous from the film. On one hand, George is sort of right, but the film is also so proud about everything he and Billy and Wyatt say about everything. These warring impulses are what makes Easy Rider such a frustrating watch today.
On one hand, it expresses freedom, true freedom, better than almost any other film I’ve seen. The roads are wide open, with the camera and riders swaying between traffic lines for what seems like eternity. In an increasingly small world, you really have to get out and drive for hundreds of miles before you begin to realize how big the world really is. How much goes unseen, and how much will be left that way. In its best moments, Easy Rider has that kind of fascination with the world, in the riding montages or the swimming scene or the commune that precedes it. In its worst, it expresses an absolute certainty of the world that today, if it didn’t then, feels helplessly naive.
I generally don’t have a problem with films that feel dated. I don’t mind, and often really appreciate, a view of the world as it once was through the eyes of people who lived it. And Easy Rider is more interesting for that. But because the film has grown so far beyond its capacity, it has suffered greatly since its release. The archetypes it’s built have been torn down and mocked relentlessly both in pop culture and inadvertently by those still trying to uphold its values. The lifestyle it promoted is no longer desirable, and seems as much a bygone era as that which it was reacting against. None of this is the fault of the film, at its base level, but when you’ve built the definitive expression of a movement, you’re also going to be directly tied to it.
I typically describe Easy Rider as “almost a good movie,” because for as self-involved and narcissistic as it can be, Wyatt’s “We blew it” line would completely redeem the picture if left relatively alone. The line is unbelievably vague (and, in the special features of the Blu-Ray, we learn that was very much by design), but all that matters is that one of them expresses doubt about anything. And if the film had ended on that note, the doubt would forever linger; the last, most important question of a generation that questioned everything.
And through that line, we are reminded once again of how big the world truly is, how many ideas it contains and how fluid it can be.
The ending, unfortunately, undermines that, and underlines how cocksure Wyatt and Billy are when they are gunned down by two rednecks. This underscores the film’s regional and cultural bias, and the final shot, an endless pullback from their final resting place, turns them into martyrs and myths. Suddenly, instead of asking questions, the film thinks it has all the answers. This is echoed in the special features, in which Peter Fonda explains the final shot by saying the road that man built and the road that God built (a river) are side by side, and look where the road of man gets you, man.
I liked Easy Rider a lot more watching it a second time (and the new transfer on the Blu-Ray does it a lot of favors in that arena), but there is still so much that keeps it from being the film it could be. It’s charming in its own ways for being so outlandish and certain of everything, but it’s better when it’s calling everything into question, including its own beliefs. It’s still probably the most important film that, in the end, isn’t a good movie, and if you haven’t seen it, that’s something worth correcting. It’s a major statement about a feeling that once existed in America, and it’s a milestone in American cinema. That doesn’t mean it has to be good, though, and why should it?