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Ending the Exceptional: Convention Defiance in Dennis Hopper’s 'Easy Rider'

Daniel Schneider

Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider not only defied cinematic and social conventions upon its release in 1969, but also the very idea of American exceptionalism.

Easy Rider

Director: Dennis Hopper
Cast: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
US Release Date: 1969-07-14

Since it's beginning, the United States of America has possessed and promoted a myth of national exceptionalism. As early as the mid-1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was proclaiming the United States as holding a remarkable place in the world as a nation of immigrants living in the first democracy of the ‘modern’ era (Democracy in America, 1954). But what the French political scientist did not consider was how this ‘exceptionalism’ was, indeed, a myth -- one that had to be sustained through a perpetual progression. Expansion towards the Pacific provided the easiest mode of sustaining this advancement, and for a long while it was assumed that westward growth was the surest sign of success. In fact, some of the earliest films (and eventually television) to hold captive the American audience’s attention were spectacles of US positivism, where good always triumphed over evil and the biggest assumption -- that Americans were, somehow, inexorably always right -- was never defeated.

This overarching assumption is more difficult to find in later Westerns; films like John Ford’s The Searchers, while not overtly condemning the actions of its mysterious protagonist, are certainly not exactly ecstatic about the Western White Man, both in his attempts to control a land and an indigenous people who never seemed to want him there in the first place. In fact, that old teleological ethic -- which kept America strong through a civil war, two world wars and two centuries of expansion -- was beginning to erode. In 1969, after years of protests against institutional racism, the Vietnam War and what many of the nation’s youth saw as dated social mores, that erosion turned to perforation.

If The Searchers was a sign of wear showing in the cloak of exceptionalism, then Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was the first big tear. This film presents something fairly alien in cinema, especially within the Western genre: two characters attempting to escape from a country they never asked for, in any way that they can. It defies as many conventions of American cinema as it does conventions of American social life. By modifying the conventional Hollywood ‘road’ movie narrative, incorporating modern folk/rock music as non-diegetic sound and utilizing shocking imagery--both socially and in terms of editing style -- Easy Rider stands as a testament to the changes going on in the nation during the late-'60s.

It is imperative to this analysis that the conventions of cinema which Easy Rider defies be clearly established. To begin, let's look at the aspects of the ‘road’ movie either present or disobeyed in the film. In his essay entitled On the Road: What's the Difference Between a Road Movie and a Movie That Just Happens to Have Roads In It? (The Believer, March/April 2008), Chuck Klosterman provides a dissection of the genre, defining the traditional road movie narrative as such:

  • A character experiences abstract loss and attempts an exodus from normal life.
  • The character reinvents his or her self-identity while traveling.
  • Along the way, the character encounters iconic individuals who (usually) illustrate authenticity and desolation.
  • Upon the recognition of seemingly self-evident realizations, the character desires to return to the point of origin.

Based upon this paradigm, Easy Rider doesn't follow the traditional ‘road’ movie formula. While all of these ideas might apply to ‘Captain America’ (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), everything that would link the conventions of ‘road’ cinema to their actions is only implied. It seems as though the Captain and Billy are attempting an exodus from normal life; however, it is wholly possible that they have long since dropped out of ‘normal’ living and are merely trying to complete the final phase of their journey (implied by Billy when he speaks, at the film’s end, of "retiring to Florida").

It seems as though the Captain has a realization of sorts after taking LSD in a New Orleans graveyard and, thusly, has a subtle change of identity; but this is never stated explicitly, only implied in the Captain’s despondent demeanor after the Mardi Gras festival when he tells Billy that "we blew it". While the two "iconic individuals" met along the way – the hitchhiking hippie and the ACLU lawyer -- do not necessarily appear to be ‘authentic’ or ‘desolate’, it seems as though they have a semiotic importance related to those ideas. So when the conventions of the ‘road’ movie are only detectable in whiffs and peripheral glances, it becomes very difficult to argue that Easy Rider is following typical narrative protocol.

Another instance of the film’s violation of narrative conventions is a little subtler, but even more meaningful in establishing not what this film is not as a ‘road’ movie, but what it is. The narrative structure of Easy Rider is set up so that, as the movie progresses and the two drifters ride further from the Pacific, their interactions with everyone from George the ACLU lawyer to local townsfolk begin "casting judgment on American society’s failure to live up to its ideals", as William Cummings suggests in his essay "Easy Rider and American Empire: A Postcolonial Interpretation" (International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, November 2005). Easy Rider is a movie about being a stranger in your own country, about the sense that the land you live does not really belong to you, anymore.

When the Captain and Billy travel from West to East (as opposed to the usual ‘road’ movie East to West), it is because they have nothing left to gain from the old America. The Manifest Destiny has run its course, the atomic bombs could fall at any minute and none of the antiquated patriotism seems to mean anything anymore. The characters show a sense of this when the travelers are in the desert, and the hippie hitchhiker says "the people this place belongs to are buried under here". Perhaps the Captain and Billy feel that in traveling back to the East they are, somehow, giving back the land that may not ever have been theirs in the first place. The narrative structure of Easy Rider is set up so that, as the movie progresses and the two drifters go further back towards the Atlantic, "casting judgment on American society’s failure to live up to its ideals".

There are many scenes in Easy Rider that transgress acceptable American filmic imagery. There has always been a rule in mainstream cinema that drugs, when used on screen, should either be detrimental to a character’s life or signifying of a character’s deviant status. Neither of these things is true of the Captain and Billy (and, later on in the movie, the ACLU lawyer, George). Their use of drugs is portrayed sympathetically throughout the movie, marijuana in particular being shown as nothing more than a means of evening relaxation. Even though the drug use of the cyclists is meant to separate them from ‘mainstream’ society – and, thusly, ‘mainstream’ protagonists – all it really serves to do is highlight their sense of disillusionment with the American Dream. As Billy and the Captain meander through New Orleans during an acid trip, we see not images of decadence or deviance, but those of fear and loathing.

This all occurs after the death of their ACLU friend, George; a man with such deep concerns for the state of his country, who could actually see past the bright colors, through the pot haze and understand that this new generation was restless for a reason. A man like George, with his eloquent speech and unique outlook on America, could have been the salvation of his country; instead, he is killed by the members of what he referred to many times as the "antiquated hierarchy" that exists in the US (although we would probably call them ‘rednecks’). By the time the two cyclists reach New Orleans, their use of drugs is no longer a form of relaxation but a sad sacrament, symbolized by the images of the Virgin Mary and the Flag edited in when they are having a ‘bad trip’ on LSD.

Even the use of non-diegetic sound in Easy Rider shows a disconnect from the ‘old’ America, in terms of cinematic conventions. This film has always been noted for its use of popular music of the day, like Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds, eschewing typical methods of soundtracking like an orchestral score. While the music for Easy Rider was put in mostly a matter of chance (the editor for the film, Donn Cambern, listened to the music used while working on the movie and decided to integrate it), there is importance to be found in the use of rock and folk music for a soundtrack. It helps to establish the ‘counterculture’ which the Captain and Billy are supposed members of as not a hollow ancillary of American society but as a living subculture, complete with its own attitudes, modes of living and music.

At times the music even has direct meaning. As the two vagabond-cyclists ride through the desert, ‘The Weight’ by the Band plays in the background. This is a song ironically juxtaposed to the situation of the Captian and Billy; the man in ‘The Weight’ carries a burden because he has to go to a definite place (Nazareth) and do something specific (give "regards for everyone"), whereas our travelers carry a weight because they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. They are a part of a counterculture that feels disregarded by the Establishment for possessing ‘radical’ views on the Vietnam War, the use of drugs and styles of dress, choosing to wander until a place can be found which accepts them. Because they are "Born to Be Wild", they will not be able to "take a load off" within the realm of mainstream society.

Despite this existential (and literal) transience, the duo eventually makes their way, at the film’s end, to New Orleans. This excursion not only involves some of the most decadent scenes in Easy Rider, but some of the most visually shocking as well. When Billy and the Captain enter the cemetery and first take LSD with the two prostitutes they’ve picked up, nothing seems to be amiss -- the lighting and angle of the camera almost make the scene look like a bad public service announcement on the dangers of drug use. What follows, however, is anything but conventional cinema; super-fast edits, jarring sound effects, Catholic prayers and shots of the Virgin Mary attempt to replicate the sensation of a ‘bad trip’ for the audience. What we see is what the characters are supposed to be experiencing -- a level of subjectivity more common to French Impressionist cinema than within the conventions of Hollywood.

The films closing scene is also very visually startling, in addition to it being narratively curious. Almost without warning and within only two minutes of screen time, both Billy and the Captain are shot down on the road by a shotgun-wielding man in a truck. This final episode in the story of the travelers is not only narratively idiosyncratic -- no falling action or conclusion with a happy ending -- but provides an interesting visual metaphor. After Billy is shot, the Captain circles back aid his dying friend. Right before he leaves to get help, the Captain removes his jacket and covers Billy with it, leaving an image of the American flag lying face-up on his body.

This moment, in which the flag, which is supposed to be protecting the hippie motorcyclist, is the same flag that the man in the truck uses to justify his hatred, is rife with maudlin irony. Even though the American flag looks the same to both men, there is a great difference in opinion over what it really stands for. On one side is exceptionalism and the American dream; on the other is the death of that dream, where progress is no longer -- as American sociologist Robert Nisbet explains it -- an "unalterable destiny with our civilization as the essence" ("Foreign Policy and The American Mind", Commentary, September 1961).

Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was the filmic signifier for a new ideological structure that began to congeal in 1960s America, a mode of thought that would be met with resistance by the ‘Establishment’. It was also the sign, along with movies like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), for a new era in American moviemaking. An era not about perpetuating the antiquated ideals of a nation through the medium of film, or upholding the status quo through conventional techniques. With a little bit of hand-wringing over who is ‘really right’ (for good measure), Easy Rider took the position that Tocqueville’s assessment had fallen short in the second half of the 20th century. It showed not a seedy underbelly of America, but a frustrated ‘other half’ expressing itself though an unconventional narrative, soundtrack and visual composition. Through the antics of Billy and the Captain we can see what happens to the American dream deferred -- first it dries, like a raisin in the sun; then it explodes.

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