EASY RIDER AND THE AMERICAN SUBLIME

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ON THE ROAD

Easy Rider is about the search for happiness. Such search goes beyond the search for freedom – Easy Rider searches for what makes us full of emotions when we travel across countries on a motorbike. Towards the end Wyatt realises they blew it – they got it wrong, happiness is not where they thought it was; Wyatt wakes up to the awareness that they were searching for the illusion of freedom. Their freedom will be taken away from them. Freedom they already had, we are born with it and nothing can take it away from us, only our judgements can (on, for example, the importance of money). What they were looking for were the best conditions to implement that freedom.

The American Sublime exhibition contains those works of art that through landscape painting refer to that very search, with all the achievements and obstacles (the apples of sin we eat, the icebergs that sank ships (like in Church’s Icebergs, in which all that’s left from the ships are two pieces of wood crossed as a crucifix – and by the way, the same cross structure we find on Ground Zero made out the rubble of the WTC steel structure – religion is always present), etc.). Comparing the pieces of such painters to Easy Rider is not inappropriate, in that American landscapes in the film are one of the main characters, if not the main, filmed as if they were solo photographs, and caught in their changing moods (also, we should remember that Hopper is (and was before Easy Rider) a painter and a photographer), attending the circles of the Beat Generation.

The whole course this term was about the search for happiness and physical freedom of the people of America. We can call it the American Dream – and its failure. So we have all the riots against lynching and discrimination, we have jazz music that tries to give back to men and women what has always been theirs; we have filmmakers trying to make art out of dreams and history. The truth is that America is founded on social discrimination and, to a large extent, a decadent class system.
A crucial point is that of contradiction, the underlying characteristic of all American life. ‘United We Stand’ – behind the corner people of different colour kill each other and you cannot drink a beer in the street but you can if you hide it in a paper bag. The contradiction in Easy Rider is between the beautiful and amazingly peaceful landscapes and the narrow-minded and unhappily ignorant Americans of the South.

‘A MAN WENT LOOKING FOR AMERICA AND COULDN’T FIND IT ANYWHERE’

1) Easy Rider (1969 – the year of Woodstock and the year after the major student demonstration) opens with the two ‘buddies’, Wyatt and Bill, arriving at the ‘La Contenta’ (i.e. the happy she). It is a typical arid South/West American landscape that they travel through. The sign for the bar is big and readable – something I’ve noticed in a number of other movies, like All That Heaven Allows, a subtextual means for the director to create a movie within a movie, to let us know what the players in the movie are going through, to let us see inside them (showing against telling), without giving us a specific background.
The language we first hear being spoken is not English but Spanish… Amigos, buenas dias, etc. said repeatedly America is not of the English speaking, real America today is a mixture where the white Anglo-Saxon is a minority, yet like in all hierarchical societies, is the one with the big money.
Wyatt and Bill buy coke, which they will sell in order to realise their dream of having enough money to live without being caught up in the murderous consumerist-capitalist life-working system. The person who sells the coke is Jesus – Jesus sells ‘pura vida’ (pure life). Has Jesus always fooled his disciples?
When the actual sale is made, it takes place near the runaway of an airport, and the noise of the airplanes flying just a few feet above their heads is deafening. This is very symbolic: The ‘real’, that of the Indians, or that of those who in America were truly looking for something that goes beyond money, is invaded, engine after engine, by ‘civilisation’. Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness gave us a premonition: the small eagle looking at the horizon is sitting on a tree trunk, writing for chaos to happen. “Twilight in the Wilderness is Church’s great icon of America, celebrating a northern landscape innocent and untouched. Yet by 1860, when the painting was exhibited to great acclaim, the United States was only a year away from the civil war. The political and economic tensions between the industrialised stated of the North and the slave-owning South had become unsustainable. In retrospect, it is possible to see Church’s flaming vision as an apocalyptic portent of the violence that will soon engulf America.” After all, this is what makes America so interesting – and (at times) sublime… this mixture of good and evil and sense and non-sense and bewildering beauty, ‘awful grandeur’, bitter-sweet, earthquakes, that awakens fear and horror…

2) Billy and Wyatt are the modern (peaceful) cowboys. Their looks reflect their different personalities. Wyatt has a strong confidence and determination to achieve the American Dream. He has trust that America has a lot to offer, and is sensitive to what he considers right and wrong. He is the one who has an American flag on his helmet, his jacket and the oil tank of his bike. The flag is often on close-up and juxtaposed to the rest of the frame where we never see one.

Wyatt and Billy are the modern Kindred Spirits of Asher Durand. The poets pictured in this painting, and whose name is written of the tree trunk, are, like Wyatt and Billy, walking through the lands looking over the sublime landscape.

In a comparison with The Great Gatsby, Wyatt and Billy are more like Gatsby, in their search for the American Dream, a search they all blow – they ‘reach’ that dream through corruption and illegal means. Their lives are spent theoretically rejecting the conventional American way of life but practically seeking it. But there is a presence that overlooks all this: nature in its sublime landscapes in Easy Rider, and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. Yet this force doesn’t seem to have much power on the happenings – the eyes look but don’t move, the nature looks but doesn’t help.

Gatsby’s character is quite close to that of Wyatt, more than Billy. The two share a similar kind of romantic hope in and outlook on life.

Another theme common to both works is that of ‘injustice’. We see in both works that those who are rich are the corrupt and the ‘immoral’ narrow-minded, which actually leaves little hope (in fact, the two bikers get killed, and Gatsby dies with very few people attending the funeral).

3) We’re flying. They bike through fields and infinite, untouched landscapes at sunset, from LA to New Orleans (which obviously wasn’t chosen casually as a final destination) where they plan to arrive before the Mardi Gras celebrations.
The song that’s playing in the background tells us they were ‘born to be wild’. It just really makes me think what am I doing sitting here in a library with an air-conditioner playing in the background…
The soundtrack of the movie is mainly rock ‘n’ roll – the freaky hybrid child of black and white origins.

4) When on their first night they look for a room in a motel, a sign swiftly tells them ‘No Vacancy’. Obviously, that means that there is no room for them two in American society – the ‘excluded’. So they are forced to camp out in the fields, and here they smoke their first joint in the movie. We’re flying. Like Gothic churches meant to elevate men to a higher level and closer to God in their prayers, so in Easy Rider it is cannabis what can help elevate their spirits, make them closer to freedom (not that I’m saying that God=freedom), help them be positive, relax in the middle of the ‘Far West’ when it is becoming so impossible to relax (the airplane engines are right above our brains, ready to shutter them). It “gives you a whole new way of looking at the day”, as Wyatt will say at a later point in the movie.
At those times drugs were a way to rebel to a society that didn’t make most of us feel welcome, and ‘real’ rebels were often taking drugs. In conservative prohibitionist America taking drugs was a peaceful way of giving the finger, of distancing oneself from the system and create an original world that would fit one’s own individuality. Today, things have changed radically, and taking drugs has become an (illegally) institutionalised part of the system, it is ‘normal’ to do so; the youth have clubs and music tailored for them to use and abuse such substances that much do but make us more interesting, more creative, more intense. Through ecstasy we are branded, through acid we are marketed, through cannabis we escape to heaven for a few hours, disabled, unable to speak up our mind, loving, at last.

4) Billy and Wyatt are invited during one of their stops to have lunch with a rancher, his Mexican young wife and their children. It is like a vision of God. The engines of their bikes stop and we are drawn into the ‘indigenous’ lives of this family. We are all impressed. They live the way we all wish we were able to live. “It’s not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud,” Wyatt tells the rancher. Billy threw his watch on the ground some time earlier, as a sign of having had enough with the daily stress of contemporary society – the rancher has done that effectively, and long time before.

5) The scene at the gas station where a stranger they’ve picked up on the way is high in symbolism. Billy fails to ‘trust’ people he doesn’t know, afraid that they might take away from him what is his private property, a concept he still cannot do without.
While leaving the station, we see a Hispanic girl looking out of the window, as if in captivity. Here we have a strong critique of how women fit in society, as inferior beings with little hope in partaking of the American Dream… little hope in being free and independent. As Daisy says in The Great Gatsby, “I’m glad it’s a girl, and I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” We are still very far from the America Dream. Or is that the actual realisation of the American Dream for those who invented it? The American Dream is a myth created by rich white people for rich white people.

The Stranger has stopped looking for that dream, and has been brave enough to leave the airplane engines to themselves – “All cities are alike. That’s why I’m out here now; because I’m from the city, and that’s where I want to be right now.

He tells Billy to be careful because there are Indians buried right there, underneath the ground. He shows respect, yet the contradiction comes up again. When they arrive at the commune (in the ultra anti-communist US communes can only live in the desert), Billy plays cowboys and Indians with the children. As we’ve seen throughout the lecture programme, the killings of the Indians have been mythicised and transformed into spectacle and entertainment. We learn to play cowboys and Indians before we learn that the cowboys murdered all Indians. Billy is not invisible as he says he is. Some mud, earth, the same earth he’s made of hit him – mother America kills its own children.
Terrifying reality is transformed into game.

7) The notion that ‘real’ America is the mixture of populaces through millenniums is reiterated in the mis en scene when Wyatt is sitting next to a commune girl and the two are leaning against a rock that has imprints of shells once there was sea there, fish, then humans, Indians, trees, and slowly the engines of ‘civilisation’ is killing them all one by one.

Some people from the commune put up a play, where at one point one of the characters plays the Devil, and says: “we’ve come to play for our dinner. Or should I say, stay for
our dinner. Or even slay for our dinner. We’ve come to drink your wine, taste your food and take pleasure in your women.”
‘We’ is white Americans. ‘You’ is the Indians, and all those other people for whom there was no room in vastest America.

“YEAH, I’M… I’M HIP ABOUT TIME. BUT I JUST GOTTA GO.”

8) The best scene so far in my opinion is the one where the camera pans around and catches the still faces of all the diverse members of the commune. We see the Viking, the French, the Indians, the hippie, the dark, the intellectual, the Hispanic… all people from all backgrounds can be together, peacefully, at least for some period of time.
And the last person we see is Jesus number two, who (looking the way that the Church wants Jesus to look, and not nearly dark enough) seems to reach Heaven when he simply says “We’d like to produce simple food for our simple taste. […] Thank you for a place to make a stand.”

9) The next scene will take us back to the city, where majorettes are dancing around, bureaucracy and policemen maintain order, and Billy and Wyatt are right away arrested for ‘breaking the rules’, for partying where they are not welcome to do so while everybody else is.
In their cell, we read ‘I Love God’ on the wall. In the same cell, they meet hangover George, a lawyer who has done some work for the A.C.L.U. (American Civil Liberties Union). Hopefully, he would have been really involved in today’s issues on antiterrorism legislation – and surprise surprise… he gets killed.

George tells Billy and Wyatt that people there don’t like guys with long hair you know, and they have razors with which they shave their prisoners’ heads (the Nazis?). George tells them that he can help them find what they are looking for, and makes a crucial (absolutely sharp) comment – the kind of comment that makes me wonder why the Western world still seems to adore America: ‘you’ll be fine as long as you haven’t killed anybody, at least nobody white’.

Corruption and moral decadence run the system (crf. Great Gatsby once more)– and with a few dollars under the table the three are out of prison. George joins them on the road to New Orleans. When they stop at night, George smokes his first joint ever, after some persuasion (he’s afraid of getting hooked), and he tells the two bikers of the existence of UFOs and aliens… “they’ve got bases all over the world you know… they’ve been living and working among us… We have leaders we rely upon… these leaders repress this information because of the shock that it would cause to our antiquated system.”
Who are these aliens? These aliens could be us foreigners (we are indeed called ‘aliens’ by the bureaucracy), or all those, like George, Wyatt, Billy, the commune, the rancher and his wife, who like foreigners don’t fit the canons of good old white conservative America. These aliens represent the ideal of freedom and equality, and the government keeps all this hidden from us, like they keep hidden a lot of information that could/ would change a lot of things in the American political and social structure, mainly implying a great loss of money for those who run America.

“THEY ARE SCARED OF WHAT YOU REPRESENT TO THEM – FREEDOM!”

10) In the next scene, we see George, Wyatt and Billy going into a diner (that doesn’t have a name – universalising? It could be anywhere, like rednecks are everywhere…) in a small provincial town. The three are not welcome – the Sheriff calls them ‘troublemakers’. Once more, all judgements are based on their appearance, the clothing, the long hair. Some young girls in contrast are actually turned on by the presence of these weird looking aliens. The conversation between customers perfectly exemplifies why America has been the worshipped centre of contradiction – freedom and prejudice. Some customers suggest they’d like to mate the strangers with some ‘black wench’; another sees them of green colour; their long hair is talked about with conformist disgust and hinted at as sign of (intolerable) homosexuality. There you have it – the whole bigotry lot.

Indeed, Wyatt and Billy represent – as George will say later on that night, the night that he’ll be killed – all the provincial Americans’ fears: freedom, individualism, diversification, anything that looks different from what they’re used to, happiness. George explains that they’re not free, but never tell them they’re not… or they’ll start killing in order to show you that they are (something that I feel perfectly fits the American government way of thinking these days…). George also says that it didn’t use to be like that – yet doesn’t specify what time he’s referring to. After all, Cole already saw the catastrophe in his The Course of Empire, a five-painting series. “Wealth and military power have reached their zenith in Consummation of Empire. In Destruction and Desolation the empire suffers the consequence of decadence and corruption.”

DRUGS, SEX AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

11) George having been killed, Wyatt and Billy go and do what they think George would have liked – not a moaning session in a church like ‘good’ Americans would do but they go eat, drink (in the restaurant Kyrie Eleison rock ‘n’ roll version plays on the soundtrack) and have sex with some prostitutes at the House of Blue Lights. The environment there is sordid, and there are religious paintings on the walls (as we’re noticing religion is always present). In Easy Rider we could see a clear contrast between artificial religion (like that of prayers and religious images) and the real religion, like that expressed in the paintings of Cole or Church, the religion that ‘offers a glimpse of the divine’ in the overwhelming beauty of the American landscapes that Wyatt and Billy know how to appreciate.

We have at this point another flash-forward that, we understand by the end of the movie, consists in the final scene of the film where Wyatt’s bike is on fire after he’s been killed.
Hopper employs such cinematic technique with originality, in order to break free – form-wise along with content – of the classic Hollywood cinematic conventions. This step forward makes the showing against telling even more powerful.

Once there, Billy and Wyatt choose the prostitutes and decide to go out in the streets where the Mardi Gras feast is taking place.
In it curious that the song playing here is ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ – we’ve reached a climax, where from anti-heroes our characters are becoming heroes in their own way, and are like saints (martyrs) walking down the streets of the city of jazz.

In a cemetery the four take some acid. It is confusion. Images of varied nature alternate in a very agitated and choking way, assaulting our senses like the acid must have assaulted their senses (Natural Born Killers comes from this). In the background we here a female voice (along with a mechanical and constant noise) praying frenetically…
One of the two prostitutes, entrapped naked in between two white walls screams: “I want to get out of here!” (which we can read as her wanting to get out of America, of her life as a prostitute, of the illusion of the American dream).

WE BLEW IT. GOODNIGHT, MAN.

12) The night before they are murdered, Billy is excited at the idea that they’ve made it, they’re rich. Wyatt can’t share the excitement, conscious that what moved them to do what they did was the same thing as what they were running away from – the search for the big money, the corrupted life, etc. “We blew it. Goodnight man.”

This weary life, this burden I detest;
I long for death to come and bring me rest. (Faust: 49)

It will be the same solitary landscape that so warmly welcomed them all throughout the journey to be the site of their murder. Death seems once more to be the only solution. We have seen in the previous term in works such as Faust, Mephisto, Hamlet, and Spring’s Awakening. Those who for some reason are ‘different’ at one point or another seem to have to disappear, either by taking their own life or by being murdered.
Wyatt and Billy are probably free now; and with them, the American Dream has gone too (an American Dream that included Caucasian foreigners before it concluded blacks).
The American flag burns with Wyatt’s bike.

Hopper knew the American Dream was just a white illusion. “In 1993 he took part in the Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King. Here with his hippie look he met with the aggressive behaviour of southern rednecks. “I realised I didn’t have to be black to be hated.” This acquaintance with the harsh elements at the lower end of society made a deep impression on Hopper and sharpened his political awareness. But the anger of his generation, which rebelled against the hypocrisy of the ‘Affluent Society’ also had a highly nihilistic and iconoclastic element. In 1967 he built the Bomb Drop, a replica of a device from WWII, an absurdist macho machine. These tendencies are also quite visible in Easy Rider.” Like The Great Gatsby, Easy Rider is critical of what America was becoming – of its materialism, individualism and social structures.

The last shot is that of a river, that flows quietly like the life Wyatt always wanted and never had (a quietness well portrayed and appreciated in some of the paintings of the artists of the Amrican Sublime, like Emerson).

The river flows, it flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road to some other town
All I wanted was to be free
And that’s the way it turned out to be…

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jan Hei Sassen, Along the Western Trail in Dennis Hopper: A Keen Eye, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2001

American Sublime brochure.

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