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To me, a film is great if you’re still thinking about the ideas it dramatized twenty years later. Night of the Living Dead (1968) for example wouldn’t remain such a haunting masterpiece if not for the parallels the drama brought out, such as willful self-deception when family members are involved and, of course, race. If the lead character, played by Duane Jones, had been a flavor of the week pretty white boy (the Hollywood standard), I doubt the film would matter all that much to so many people. Such brilliance as casting the protagonist with a black man, surrounded by frantic and often irrational white people, elevated the film to its esteemed status.

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Easy Rider is also a masterpiece, and is one of the 1960’s most salient time capsules. Not quite realistic, but hyper-real. It captured the spirit of an era, with a war of ideas concerning society, concerning America and the types of people found here. It focused on two outsiders, the two motorcycle-riding drug dealers who take off across the southwest in search of a place they can settle down in and call home. They went “looking for America” and I do believe they found it.

This was Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, and of course, Hopper also co-stars in this extensive road movie done for $360,000. Estimates of its returns are listed as $60,000,000, making this one for aspiring indie filmmakers to take notes on. The film succeeded for its artistry, for its musical score which is superb and includes classics of the era, and for its hard edged story.

Hopper refused to pull his punches. With a script by Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, as well as himself, the story doesn’t attempt to gloss over anything. For this rawness and unflinching look at the conflicts of the age, the movie received several nominations and wins, including at Cannes.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Particularly memorable scenes and sequences stick in the mind, very captivating and mature in their selection. The two riders make their big play by visiting Mexico and transporting a quantity of cocaine back in their motorcycles. The drugs are slyly stored right inside the gas tanks, sealed inside of plastic tubing.

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At the deal, it’s not gangsters and men with bulging guns beneath their jackets. There aren’t any clichéd speeches or tedious exposition. The buyer, Phil Spector – an actual music industry legend and purported freak – simply meets them at the end of the runway of a major airport (LAX?), where the landing planes and idling jet engines make all dialogue impossible. The scene plays out visually, with Spector’s creepy persona carrying much of the weight. It’s so quick and matter of fact that one wonders if this is how the filmmakers actually financed the rest of the production?

A scene that stuck with me long after the end of the viewing is one where Captain America (Fonda) decides to toss away society’s dictates. He studies his own wristwatch, and then just flings it off into the sand. He’s thrown off the constraints of a society enslaved to scheduling, where life is divided up by units of time, and most people’s actions are dictated by the hourly wage economic system. Perhaps he’s changed his class status, or perhaps he’s embarked on a journey not previously taken. There is an air of magical realism throughout the film, helped along by the psychedelic soundtrack that accompanies the two riders as they travel east toward New Orleans, with a tentative destination of Florida.

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Their gas tanks are now full of cash money, rolled up in tight wads and packed into the plastic tubing. These two epic outsiders then attempt to find the American Dream, some kind of happiness, somewhere to be. Picking up a hitchhiker at the side of the road, Fonda decides to give him a lift on his chopper back to the man’s hippie commune. Hopper, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with strangers in need, and a conflict simmers between them. The hitchhiker, one can infer, is probably supposed to be Jesus himself!

Interesting reception back at the commune, where Fonda is welcomed as generous and on the side of light, while Hopper is naturally shunned and treated as if he was evil. Fonda is taken in by the ideas the commune represents, and they do eventually hook up with a couple of young free spirited girls, whom they take to a nearby lake.

Fonda, Captain America, wants more though. Enticed by the promise of America, with a tank full of Benjamins, the crucial decision of the film is meant to be this one. The riders ignore the commune, which could certainly have used their financial support, in favor of throwing the dice and seeing what else America had to offer them. This won’t become so obvious until the end.

I’ll not spoil too much of the plot, but of course Jack Nicholson is wrangled into their little pilgrimage. He manages to spring them from jail, where the two hapless yahoos had been held on a bogus, small town charge of “parading without a permit.” Nicholson had a dream of going to Mardi Gras, but he never made it all the way to New Orleans, despite several attempts. This is unexplained, but foreboding. Nicholson’s, quirky alcoholic lawyer character, who’d never been stoned before, earned him a best supporting actor nomination.

In the end, Captain America realizes that he “blew it” and abandoned the regular people, the commune who were trying to build a better society for themselves and their kids. Enticed by stories of Mardi Gras and unspecified myths of prosperity, he made the wrong choice, and he feels remorse over it. After Mardi Gras brought him nothing but visions of death and emptiness, set apart from society and apart from love and purpose, he finally sees the errors of his choices.

But it’s too late.

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