Several years can change a lot. I first saw Easy Rider when I was about 12 and my chief complaint was it didn't have enough nudity. Several years later I decided to revisit it when I was obsessed with the AFI's 100 Movies list and I found the film loathesome and detestable. 95 minutes of hippies talking out of their ass with one of the screens most anti-climatic endings. I was actually infuriated with the film. Since then I've read a lot about the film thought about it and its significance, changed my stance somewhat regarding hippies and the road movie in general and thought I need to revisit it. Somehow with nothing new to present I found myself transfixed by the picture. Not in a "This film changed Hollywood" sort of way but as a film in and of itself. One that is dated yet timeless.
Hearing the lackadaisical audio commentary from Dennis Hopper it was remarkable how much has changed since the film was made. The then revolutionary soundtrack came about because those were songs playing on the radio when Hopper was editing the film. In 1969 all you needed was the artist's permission to use their music. Hopper spent nearly a year editing the film because they never actually ran dailies. Hopper's original cut was reportedly well over the three hour mark and my guess was that it just made the already heavy hippy talking go on for another 90 minutes or so. For commercial purposes it was a great move to trim the film drastically. Hopper had less restraint on his next film American Movie which was a box office disaster and kept Hopper from directing for nearly a decade.
The film is almost a backwards western. Considered outlaws they trade their horses for "hogs" and Hopper very appropriately named his two leads Wyatt and Billy after Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. They aren't lawless bandits who rob stagecoaches but deal drugs. Instead of whiskey and chewing tobacco they smoke grass and sell cocaine. Other than sampling the merchandise our two heroes largely refrain from the white powder and almost seem to condemn alcohol when George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) appears. However Hopper brings up an interesting point in the commentary, that this was pretty much the first time people smoked marijuana in a film and didn't go out killing nurses.
What makes the film interesting may make it seem cliche. Dennis Hopper was very innovative in his editing. Non-linear editing was well recognized in European films, but was largely unseen in American movies. Hopper mixes 16mm footage, flash forwards, jump cuts, and all kinds of devices. The highlight of the film when I was 12 and when I'm 24 is still the acid trip post Mardi-gras graveyard sequence. Its hard to even describe the sequence to someone who's never seen the film. Hopper's intention was naturally to make us feel like we were taking a "trip" and with the blurry and abstract images and the ultra-fast voice over I for one feel like I'm about to "freak out". It comes at an opportune time, because the picture quickly wraps up afterwards and it serves largely as the climax. A physical consummation of their journey. Although an amalgam of the American Dream, Wyatt sees them as failures. Somehow they lost what it's about.
The ending may seem abrupt and shocking, but watching the film again I realized how blatantly it is foretold. The message may be that people are scared of freedom, and Billy seems completely clueless to this. The greatest indicator was when George was beat to death not more than thirty minutes before Billy and Wyatt receive a similar fate. Keeping in mind the time frame (principal photography was done in 1968) these violent confrontations don't seem like a disappointing end so much as a logical conclusion. Real prejudice that certain cast members faced shooting on location would attest that these conflicts were very much a reality. The abrupt end of music when the two are shot creates a serene ambiance.
The film was a success as everyone knows and what is even more remarkable is that it was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay and Nicholson for best supporting actor. The screenplay nomination is completely a shock considering how much of it was improvised and how little actual plot there is, perhaps it was an Academy concession to acknowledge something that people actually liked. Unfortunately for some this film would be bastardized rather quickly. Although made as a cheap motorcycle movie its success made Hollywood take notice of the youth culture, but only with the idea of how to exploit it. Few would argue that the quality of American cinema in the 1970s was extraordinary but I'd say few if any films are as charmingly imperfect. So much is based on mood and it created a minor revolution in film aesthetic.