The Road Movie Book

By Steven Cohan; Ina Rae Hark | Go to book overview

8

THE ROAD TO DYSTOPIA

Landscaping the nation in Easy Rider

Barbara Klinger

A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.

(Ad copy for Easy Rider)

In 1988 George Bush proudly noted that the United States had made a successful recovery from the excesses of the “Easy Rider society” of the 1960s (Dowd: A11). In the Reagan-Bush era, reference to Easy Rider (1969) instantly conjured up demonic images of the hippie counter-culture with its long hair, experimentation with drugs and sex, and violent social protests. For this more conservative political era, such images represented a permissive degeneracy and destructive militancy that had to be eradicated for the nation to thrive.

Unlike many films from the past, however, Easy Rider didn't have to wait for retrospective canonization (however dubious in its motives). It was literally a legend in its own time, serving as an instant emblem of its generation. Easy Rider's story featured two hippies named Wyatt/Captain America and Billy (played, respectively, by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper), who travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans on their motorcycles only to find dramatically increasing hostility from local citizens along their journey. Budgeted for $375,000, Hopper's directorial debut made over $50 million worldwide during its original release and won the 1969 Cannes Film Festival Award for “Best Film by a New Director.” 1

While the film generated substantial debate, critics from the alternative and mainstream presses alike generally saw it as a spectacular document of its times that effectively represented the hippie ethos as well as the serious rifts between counter- and dominant cultures. The critic for the Washington Post hailed the film as “lyrical and brilliant, the reflection of its generation . . . like a Bob Dylan song on celluloid, while Rex Reed wrote that “by taking up where Kerouac and Lawrence Lipton and all the Holy Barbarians left off, Fonda and Hopper

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