Captain America is about to appear in theaters for the fifth time since 2011 (the sixth, if you count that cameo in Thor: The Dark World), and audiences are eager to see him once again. Although the character – a flag-draped symbol of patriotism – has proven popular with action-hungry teens, his fame doesn’t seem to coincide with any sort of actual American politic. The producers of the Captain America films have been careful to orchestrate the character as being refreshingly politics-free, allowing us to cheer a very, very abstract form of America – one that can be interpreted and championed no matter what – rather than any specific American ideal. In Captain America, America is distant and eternal.
It wasn’t always eternal.
As it is depicted in Dennis Hopper’s seminal indie masterpiece Easy Rider – currently available on a Criterion Blu-ray – America is more or less at an end. Throughout the 1960s, a free-spirited idealism ruled the minds of the young, and, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, there was a universal feeling that everything you were doing was right. By 1969, however, that idealism had dramatically soured into a robust cynicism. The free-spirited hippies were beginning to get hangovers from their drug consumption, and a dishearteningly inevitable violence had crept into the margins. This was the year after the Tet Offensive, and the same year as the tragic events at Altamont, the horrifyingly mismanaged Rolling Stones concert, as depicted in the documentary Gimme Shelter. America was not in a good mood.
Easy Rider is, to offer my critical due diligence, a film about Dennis Hopper as Billy, a wild-haired hedonist, and Peter Fonda as Wyatt, nicknamed Captain America, the mellower and more detached of the two. They ride around the American South on their motorcycles, sleeping by the side of the road, sometimes sleeping in prisons, and more or less living as cleaner, high-octane hobos. These are two men who are, in their own way, trying to live as free as possible, and it’s easy to see the legacy of Kerouac lingering insistently in their minds. Although, as depicted in the film’s opening scenes, “living free” means dealing cocaine and hiding money from passers-by. These two will eventually witness death, freak out in a cemetery, and have uncomfortable sex with groupies and/or prostitutes.
When critics discuss Easy Rider, the conversation usually skews toward its place in cinema history: How it broke from conventional storytelling mode and allowed American cinema to blossom into a full generation of stern, adult drama. How it rang the death knell for the hippie generation. How it spearheaded a nationwide aesthetic movement of naturalist filmmaking, jettisoning conventional narrative in deference to mood, character, and picaresque vignettes.
But these discussions too often fail to address the power Easy Rider possesses as a drama. To repeat a sentiment found in our recent review of Bicycle Thieves, any seminal film can be celebrated for its place in history, but that view often ignores the upfront, immediate, emotional power these films possess. If one were to strip Easy Rider of its historical significance, and view it for the first time in 2016, how would it play as a film?
As it turns out, incredibly well. Easy Rider, even for those uninterested in the legacy of 1960s counterculture, punches the viewer in the gut with its hopelessness and emptiness. One doesn’t necessarily need to know where America was in 1969 to understand that Billy and Wyatt are essentially burnt out. We see on their weathered faces the echoes of hope, now distant, all given way to a weary acceptance of their drifting plight. One can only drift so long before they drift away.
A lesser film may be tempted to give the audience some sort of dramatic release; a speech or a solid symbol clearly representing the goal of the characters. In Easy Rider, their only goal is to go to Mardi Gras. These are men without dreams or ambitions. We can hear in their dialogue the makings of ambition, but their words are now just an oft-repeated mantra, a distant copy of something that once had meaning. The infamous ending, which I shall not describe here, is the only release we get, and it’s not a voice of hope or a button on the proceedings. It’s just bleak absurdity.
Easy Rider, as it has been said by some who have clearly misread it, is an optimistic film about a long-lived defiant refusal of “The Man,” and a clarion call to arms against an oppressively conservative America. There is nothing exhilarating or defiant in the actions of the characters. They are empty-eyed shadows of men who were once defiant, but who ran out of anger long ago. Hopper’s film has most certainly earned its spot in the cinematic Hall of Fame, but revisiting it in 2016 proves that it can still hurt.
Top Image: Columbia
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.