The roots of Easy Rider lie primarily in the Hollywood B movie, also known in the 1960s as the ''exploitation film.'' Producer/actor Peter Fonda, director/actor Dennis Hopper, actor Jack Nicholson, and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs had all worked for Roger Corman's production unit at American International Pictures. The story idea of Easy Rider, credited to Peter Fonda, stems from exploitation movies Fonda had acted in for Corman, especially The Wild Angels (motorcycles) and The Trip (drugs). As Ethan Mordden points out, the exploitation movie was a way ''to treat a theme of the day with some abandon.''1 Big-budget films from the Hollywood majors had standards of craftsmanship and taste which made for fairly conservative filmmaking. Exploitation films were supposed to be about sex and violence, rather than story, which means they could take liberties with the ''wellmade narrative.'' Films such as Wild in the Streets and The Wild Angels express something of the anarchic energy of 1960s youth culture. But the downside of the exploitation film (aside from sloppy technique) is that one never knows if the filmmakers are in any way committed to their material.
''Exploitation film'' suggests not only a disinterest in film content but an actual bamboozling of the audience. It can be dispiriting to watch films where writing, acting, and technical crafts are so bad that the film doesn't seem to be trying. In The Trip, for example, the LSD trip itself has some interest, but for the rest of the film the actors are just going through the motions.
The innovation of Easy Rider was to apply the low-budget production methods of the B film to a deeply felt, contemporary subject. The screenplay, written by Fonda, Hopper, and Terry Southern,2 traces the adventures of two long-haired motorcyclists, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt, often called Captain America (Peter Fonda). They buy cocaine in Mexico, sell it in Los Angeles, and set off on their ''bikes'' for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Along the way they have several encounters with characters and scenes emblematic of rural and small-town America: a farmer with a Mexican wife and a large family; a hippie commune in the desert; a parade where they are arrested for ''parading without a permit''; a jailhouse encounter with George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a lawyer with ACLU sympathies; a restaurant where the local sheriff and his cronies make threatening remarks while some giggling teenaged girls ask for a ride. The evening after the restaurant scene, as Wyatt, Billy, and George sleep in the open, they are attacked by vigilantes with clubs. George is killed, his head beaten in. Billy and Wyatt continue on to New Orleans, visiting a high-class bordello in George's honor. They stroll around Mardi Gras with two prostitutes, and all four take LSD in a cemetery. This leads to uncomfortable imagery and a certain amount of soul-searching. With a quick cut, the two motorcyclists are on the road again. A rural type in a pickup truck shoots at Billy, to scare him, and wounds him badly instead. The truck then circles back and the shooter kills Wyatt. The camera rises in the only helicopter shot of the film, revealing green pastures and a river as the ''Ballad of Easy Rider'' ends the film.
The production situation of Easy Rider throws some light on its unusual qualities. Originally, the film was planned as an American International release, with actors Fonda and Hopper taking over production duties as well. However, producer Fonda got a better deal from BBS Productions, an independent company affiliated with Columbia Pictures. BBS, a partnership between Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner, was sponsored at Columbia by Abe Schneider, Bert's father. BBS had made a lot of money on
''The Monkees'' TV show, and was now willing to take a chance on a low-budget ''youth movie.'' Novice filmmakers Fonda and Hopper were given a good deal of autonomy but were expected to stay within the $365,000 budget. Fonda and Hopper's inexperience led to some awkward moments but also to an opportunity to create a different kind of film.
Easy Rider is a modest film which gained tremendous ''weight'' because of its placement in cultural history and its overwhelming reception. It was a runaway hit in North America and Europe, eventually earning $60 million. Easy Rider's success led to much discussion of the ''new generation'' of American youth and to new approaches to making films. The ''hippie generation'' or ''counterculture'' had by 1969 been established as a force in popular music, with San Francisco rock, British rock, and so on, but had made little impact on the film industry aside from the previously noted B pictures. Peter Fonda describes the cultural void filled by his film: ''In 1968, we had our own music, art, language, and clothing, but we didn't have our own movie.''3 Suddenly, with Easy Rider, the culture of long hair, drugs, and rock and roll was prominently featured on the world's movie screens.
The impact of Easy Rider's release can be gauged by looking at what else was playing in American movie theaters in July 1969 when the film came out. Variety's July 23,1969, edition reports that the three top-grossing films for the previous week are The Love Bug from Disney, True Grit from Paramount (starring John Wayne), and April Fools from National General. Other noteworthy films in the top ten are Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli version), Where Eagles Dare, The Wild Bunch, and Oliver. In places eleven through thirteen, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Funny Girl rank just ahead of I Am Curious, Yellow. Further down the list are Old Hollywood films such as Sweet Charity, MacKenna's Gold, and If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium; youth culture films such as Midnight Cowboy, If, Che, and Putney Swope; and the long-running, uncategorizable 2001: A Space Odyssey.4 Overall, the list shows tremendous diversity, but no particular pattern. It's a portrait of a film industry in disarray, where traditional blockbusters are no longer reliable, but nothing has taken their place.
Stephen Farber sums up the period in Film Quarterly's Winter 19691970 edition, saying that ''Summer 1969 may well turn out to be one of the crucial moments in American film history. . . . Almost all of the big, expensive, traditional-style commercial films . . . have failed miserably.'' Instead,
''the changing movie audience . . . has finally registered its preferences" for youth films like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and Alice's Restaurant. Further, the studios are excited by the success of the new, ''small'' movies. ''Right now they want every film to look like Easy Rider.'5 In a very brief period, Hollywood had moved from investing in traditional, big-budget productions to an enthusiasm for new talents and experimental, low-budget films. The American film industry seemed to be undergoing a major shift, and Easy Riders success was the primary catalyst.
The narrative of Easy Rider is a journey consisting of several loosely linked adventures, plus footage of Wyatt and Billy on the road. The journey is not particularly suspenseful or melodramatic, but it does have mythic roots. It is first of all a celebration of the beauty, promise, and diversity of America, consciously connecting traditional elements (e.g., the small farmer, the magnificent desert landscapes) with new initiatives (e.g., the hippie commune). In discussing the scenes set in the desert Southwest, Dennis Hopper acknowledges the influence of ''John Ford's America''; it was Ford's Westerns which established Monument Valley as emblematic of the power and majesty of America as both a social/political and a natural/geographical entity.6 The names ''Wyatt'' and ''Billy'' also clearly descend from the Western genre. But Easy Rider is not really a Western, since the direction of travel is West to East and the heroes head not to an open frontier but to a closed land of bigotry. The desert spaces of the first half of the film are much more appealing than the lush, built-up spaces of the film's second half. As soon as the heroes enter into the organized life of the small-town parade, they are arrested. As George Hansen says in a campfire monologue, the Americans of 1969 give lip service to freedom but are terrified of the real thing.
This overarching symbolism gives substance to a story which is often slight. The opening scenes are hurried; we learn little about the backgrounds and motivations of Wyatt and Billy. Lee Hill notes that several expository scenes were cut, which puts the film's emphasis on action and visuals.7 Later, the journey scenes focus on the people the heroes meet; therefore any changes in Wyatt and Billy happen unobtrusively. The actions of the Southern bigots are explained primarily by George Hanson's monologue. Another hint comes from the flirting of the teenaged girls with the three ''hippie'' visitors. Wyatt, Billy, and George threaten the patriarchal order of the town, and therefore (the film suggests) they are attacked. But aside from these hints, the violence of the film is underdetermined. In general, Easy Rider follows the B film in stressing theme and visuals and omitting the psychological depth of the well-made plot.
However, there is more to Easy Rider than a sketchy plot. The visuals are very important, and they communicate with a non-narrative directness unusual in Hollywood cinema. The several montages of Fonda and Hopper riding motorcycles are themselves images, or descriptions, or synecdoches of freedom. Out on the open road, no clocks, no limits, just man guiding machine. Laszlo Kovacs's photography glides lovingly over the customized Harleys, showing details of wheel and chrome as the bikes are in motion. In one scene, Dennis Hopper veers across the road, and the camera zooms out slightly to include him in an unobtrusive image of freedom. Another scene, this time more emphatic, compares riding motorcycles to flying, with the musical accompaniment ''So You Want to Be a Bird.'' Some images are presented with a kind of reverence: the earth, water, and sky of the Southwest; the rancher's family at dinner and the commune members saying grace; the early morning scene with sky peeking through an abandoned shack; the pot-smoking scene in an Indian ruin. Other images are confining or ugly: the jailhouse scene and especially the acid trip in the cemetery. Here, 16 mm shooting on a rainy day creates an ugly, depressing, confining mood, as the actors (Fonda and Toni Basil in particular) play out psychodramas amidst the monuments and statues.
Easy Rider is an odd mixture of the obvious and the subtle and is therefore open to several different levels of interpretation. For some critics, the film is a kind of nouveau exploitation film, provocative but incoherent. The hip, contemporary nature of the subject does not make up for a thinness of both plot and character. Jeff Greenfield finds both the verbose Billy and the taciturn Wyatt/Captain America irritating in their shallowness.8 Diana Trilling complains about the drug angle of the film, saying it never comes to grips with the moral implications of dealing cocaine.9 Margie Burns is strongly critical of the film's violence, calling it a ''trivializing echo of the fate of three Mississippi Freedom Riders.'' Overall, Burns sees Easy Rider as a demonization of the rural South and therefore a rationale for the rapid growth of suburbs.10
A second type or level of interpretation is provided by Stephen Farber, who finds Easy Rider interesting as a sociological rather than artistic text.
Easy Rider Columbia pictures.
Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) on the open road. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.
Easy Rider Columbia pictures.
Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) on the open road. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.
For Farber, the great achievement of Hopper, Fonda, and Southern is that they feel the pulse of young America. They are very good at reflecting the fantasies of alienated youth, less astute at shaping these fantasies into artistic form.11 I would certainly agree that for many viewers, the tour of an alternative America was the key element of Easy Rider. The film encompasses the drug culture, bikers, hippies, the commune movement, a revived interest in the American Indian, and an excellent rock and roll soundtrack. In itself, the soundtrack suggests the vitality and diversity of American youth culture in 1969, via such performers as the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Steppenwolf, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and so on.
A third interpretation of the film sees an overall coherence expressed by mise-en-scene and music as well as dialogue and plot. For Henry D. Herring, Easy Rider is ''a song to the possibilities of the 1960s ... a quest for genuine selfhood and personal freedom.''12 Images of alternative America and music about freedom (Steppenwolf, ''Born to Be Wild'') and nature's beauty (The Byrds, ''I Wasn't Born to Follow'') carry a sense of life's possibility. The musical score, chosen by Dennis Hopper, usually avoids the pleonasm of repeating exactly what the image says; it enhances, it counterpoints, it deepens the themes of the film. On the level of plot, Herring thinks that the film makes distinctions between Billy and Wyatt's quests for freedom. Billy ''remains bound to strictures that parallel the bondage of the larger society: time, cashing in on the big money,'' a need for behavior that makes sense.13 Wyatt is more relaxed, more of an individual. There is at least a chance that Wyatt can achieve ''the complexity of a self both connected and free.''14
Easy Rider supports all of the above interpretations, and more. Its great strengths, and great weaknesses, can perhaps be explained if we consider Easy Rider as an ''amateur'' film, in both senses of the term. As a first film by director Hopper and producer Fonda, Easy Rider is sometimes less than professional in construction. For example, the Mardi Gras scenes were shot in a great rush, by non-Hollywood camera operators (Laszlo Kovacs was hired afterward), because Peter Fonda was mixed up about the dates of Mardi Gras. One should not expect much coherence in those scenes. Also, I think the filmmakers do evade some of the hard questions implicit in the film: they do not take an attitude on the cocaine sale which finances the journey, nor do they convincingly motivate the violence that ends the film. However, Easy Rider is also a film made by people who love cinema— ''lover'' being the other meaning of amateur. They have crafted a beautiful and original film relying heavily on visuals and music. Also, by shooting quickly, on location, and with a mobile camera they have demonstrated the potential of low-budget production to create striking imagery of the open road.
A key to understanding Easy Rider is the Wyatt/Captain America character. Billy is a fairly obvious character, a loudmouth whose constant stream of chatter masks his insecurity. The quiet, observant Wyatt is more enigmatic. Is Wyatt a deeper, more thoughtful character than Billy, or is he just as superficial, just as unsatisfactory in suggesting a new direction for American youth? Herring suggests that Wyatt can be profound, but Jeff Greenfield finds him cliched and irritating. My own reading of this character is that he is sweet, passive, and open to experience. Wyatt/Captain America is receptive to the various characters met on the road, and thus in a sense he generates the narrative. He is not at all a comic-book, action-oriented superhero (the nickname ''Captain America'' is interestingly ironic); instead, his dominant characteristic is sensitivity. But with thirty years of hindsight, Wyatt cannot be read as a guru or prophet. Some of his comments are pithy and sweet, as when he agrees to give two commune women a ride because ''We're eating their food.'' Other comments are silly and cliched, for example ''I'm hip about time, but I just gotta go.'' And occasionally, Wyatt's instincts are just plain wrong. After observing the hippie commune's pitiful attempt at agriculture—no plows, no irrigation even though a river or canal runs through the land—Wyatt proclaims ''No, they're going to make it.''
Wyatt's most provocative comment comes late in the film, during the final campfire scene. Billy, shaking off recent events including George's death, exclaims, ''We've done it. We're rich, Wyatt.'' Wyatt responds ''You know, Billy, we blew it.'' This could be a statement on drugs, on the unpure origins of the journey. It could be about an ultimate failure to connect with the America outside the big cities. It could even be a metalinguistic comment on the impossibility of creating a new culture using the structures of the old, as David James suggests.15 The emphasis on personal failure could lead the viewer back to interrogate the film. But ultimately this is a gnostic comment, a gesture at profundity that is not necessarily profound. The comment defines a fragile and contingent character who cannot easily summarize his experience.
To further consider the power and naivete of Easy Rider, let us focus on two additional issues: the violence directed against the protagonists, and religious imagery in the film. The violent ending is a difficult compromise between a need for narrative closure and a desire not to trivialize a complex social situation. If Easy Rider is a genre film, in the motorcycle and/or Western genres, it needs to come to a strong and probably violent climax. If Easy Rider is a semi-exploitation movie, it can avoid thoroughly explaining the ending. But to stereotype and demonize the rural Southerners in the pickup truck would diminish a film which is surprisingly complex in its judgments.
So, the filmmakers treat the deaths at the end as, in a bizarre sense, accidental. The good old boys in the pickup truck want only to scare Billy with the shotgun. Though the shooter is trying to miss, he ineptly hits his target. The men in the truck then kill Wyatt in a gesture of self-protection. The ending becomes tragicomic (like the ending of Godard's Pierrot lefou), and its "message" is split: (1) America is a violent place, with near-civil war between classes, regions, and generations; (2) the deaths we see are nevertheless unusual, excessive, accidental. This compromise is a good try, but ultimately it is more about exaggerated, B movie violence than about social comment.
However, it is possible that the viewers of 1969 saw Easy Rider's ending as, among other things, a response to the political rhetoric of the time. According to Jonathan Aitken, in George Wallace's third-party run for President in 1968 an oft-repeated line was ''if one of them hippies lays down in front of mah car when Ah become President, that'll be the last car he lays down in front of.''16 The semi-accidental shooting of the hippies in Easy Rider may be a symbolic representation of this kind of extremist rhetoric. Patrick McGilligan, biographer of Jack Nicholson, makes the same point in a succinct phrase: ''The killings were allegorical, of course.''17
Easy Riders religious dimension is subtler and more satisfying than its treatment of violence. The film has a diffuse spirituality, a nature-loving pantheism well-represented by the song ''I Wasn't Born to Follow.'' There is also at least an attempt at Christian symbolism. According to Herring, Wyatt is at times presented as a Christ figure: ''The whorehouse is an old church, he comes into the room on the word ''Christe'' in ''Kyrie Eleison'' and his prostitute is named Mary.''18 In another striking Christian connection, Wyatt, on LSD, sits in the lap of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Also, Wyatt's death at the end is never shown; it is simply indicated by a hurtling, burning motorcycle. Could this omission (probably the result of a low budget) also be creating the chance of a Resurrection? There are two possible explanations for the Christian symbolism. One is that Hopper and Fonda do want to suggest a connection between the murdered hippies and Christ—though Hopper, in an interview, chose to link them instead to the two thieves of the Crucifixion story.19 Another explanation would be that the filmmakers ultimately reject the Christian references—the bordello as church is hardly a positive reference, and while on the Madonna's lap Wyatt says, ''I hate you so much.''
The last few moments of the film draw heavily on religious imagery without affirming or denying a link to Christianity. Wyatt dies (we think), and the camera ascends via helicopter to a point far above the ground. The details of bodies and burning motorcycles are lost in an image of green land and beautiful river. The helicopter shot could be an ascent to heaven, following Christian tradition, but it is more immediately an affirmation of the bond with nature. Wyatt and Billy's tragedy is only a tiny point in the continuity of nature, an idea brought home by Roger McGuinn's lyrics for ''The Ballad of Easy Rider'': ''River flows, it flows to the sea, wherever it flows, that's where I want to be.'' This shot highlights the strengths of the film: original imagery, original thinking. Easy Rider is a film which broke the Hollywood mold.
Alice's Restaurant is based on a popular song, Arlo Guthrie's long (nineteen minutes) talking blues, first released in 1967. The song tells two autobiographical stories. First, it recounts how Arlo was arrested on Thanksgiving weekend in Stockbridge, Massachusetts—for littering! Second, it describes Arlo's induction physical at the Whitehall Street, New York City, office of the Selective Service. The link between the stories is that Arlo is turned down for the draft because of his criminal record. The song ''Alice's Restaurant'' is not really about Alice or her restaurant, which is part of its charm. The song is full of false leads, odd inclusions, and equally odd omissions. It does finally get to the point, Arlo's rejection by the draft, but much of the pleasure lies in the telling.
In adapting this narrative song for the screen, writer/director Arthur Penn and co-writer Venable Herndon faced a series of problems: (1) the song ''Alice's Restaurant'' was well-loved by a youth audience, and this created an expectation that the movie would closely follow the song; (2) the song offers little context and no character development; (3) the autobiographical song was closely identified with Arlo Guthrie, but Arlo had no acting experience; and (4) the song alternates between realist narrative and caricature. The filmmakers found ingenious responses to all of these challenges. They added new episodes and an emphasis on character to the story without contradicting the general outline of the song. They even added new passages of Arlo playing guitar and telling the story; one characteristic of a talking blues is that it is infinitely expandable. Arlo Guthrie does play himself in the film, which limits the protagonist's emotional range but also creates an interplay between documentary and fiction. Most of the other main parts are played by actors, but Officer Obie (William Obanheim) appears as himself. Stylistically, the film is primarily in a realist mode, but in the littering and draft physical episodes Arlo's sarcastic narration comes to the fore, accompanied at times by broadly farcical visuals. For example, as Arlo describes telling the army shrink he wants to ''Kill! Kill! Kill!,'' we see Arlo and the shrink gleefully jumping up and down. The caricatural moments and the voice-over excerpts from Arlo's talking blues remind us that Alice's Restaurant is a construction, a fictional expansion of a real situation and a song.
The film's story begins with Arlo enrolling in a Montana college to escape the draft. But both Arlo and his friend Roger are beaten up and run out of town by unfriendly locals in cowboy garb. Arlo returns to the East and stays for a while with his friends Alice and Ray Brock, a couple who offer hospitality to a number of young hippies in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge. Arlo also spends time in New York City, visiting his father Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer, and playing in small folk clubs. Woody is in bed, paralyzed, suffering from the nerve disease Huntington's chorea. The two main events of the song, littering and the draft physical, are presented at length in the film. Arlo and Roger are arrested by Officer Obie, the crime is thoroughly documented, and Arlo's sentence is a ''twenty-five-dollar fine and pick up the garbage.'' At the induction center, the film (like the song) describes the dehumanizing process of an institutional physical in great detail.
The film's major addition to the song's plot lies in the characters of Alice, Ray, and a young heroin addict named Shelly. Alice and Ray, a couple perhaps in their thirties, establish a sort of extended family/youth hostel/ hippie commune where young people drop in, stay awhile, then drift away. Their ideal of a community based on voluntary association is presented as an alternative to the more conventional institutions of family, school, church, and government. What the young dropouts in this community find objectionable in mainstream society is not confronted head-on, but one powerfully suggestive scene provides some clues. Arlo, visiting Stockbridge, finds an old friend, a black man named Jake, at Alice and Ray's. Jake, a Vietnam veteran, now has a metal hook replacing one of his hands. The film emphasizes the hook via silent reaction shots of Arlo, Jake, and Shelly, but does not otherwise explain it. The spectator is supposed to make the link between a crippled young man and a faraway, unpopular war.
The film suggests some less-than-altruistic motives for Ray and Alice's generosity to the hippies and dropouts that surround them. For Ray, the commune is a way to stay young, to race motorcycles and deny responsibility. He is highly competitive with his younger friends, and is terribly disappointed when he finishes behind Shelly in a motorcycle race. He can also be violent; he hits Shelly and Alice in moments of rage. Robin Wood suggests that Ray has a latent homosexual attraction to Shelly, which would partially explain some rough horseplay between the two as well as Ray's odd use of the term "baby" in talking to Shelly.20 Alice wants to mother everyone, and to offer her body to assuage all hurts, including her own. She sleeps with Shelly on one occasion, and she offers herself to Arlo as well. Alice founds the restaurant as a way to extend and commercialize her maternal instinct, but this venture struggles because no one but Alice will be responsible for it. The commune lifestyle has not magically transformed the imperatives of making a living, nor has it erased the distinctions between ''men's work'' and ''women's work.'' Arthur Penn and his collaborators deserve credit for showing the unresolvable tensions of communal living—Easy Rider was not so candid in its commune scene.
Alice and Ray's commune experiment is ultimately not able to help Shelly. Shelly, a confused and unhappy young man who uses heroin to block out his troubles, is almost a son to the couple. However, Ray's competitiveness and Alice's compensatory sexual response make Shelly even more confused. After being off drugs for several weeks, Shelly reverts to heroin use. When confronted by Alice and Ray, he roars off on his motorcycle. Soon Shelly is dead of a heroin overdose. The film memorializes Shelly with a stylized scene of Joni Mitchell singing a requiem in a snowy graveyard. As Stephen Farber suggests, Shelly ''is meant to stand for all the problems that are too intense for a loving family to solve, pain too twisted and unmanageable to be absorbed into Alice and Ray's pastoral ideal.''21
Alice's Restaurant makes an interesting link between the hippies and the Old Left. Woody Guthrie is the bard of the union and political struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, and Arlo clearly idolizes his father. In a memorable scene, Pete Seeger (another figure linking Old Left politics and the popular culture of 1969) and Arlo play and sing ''Pastures of Plenty'' in Woody's room. ''Pastures of Plenty'' is a Woody Guthrie song about migrant farmworkers, cut off from the affluence they serve. This duet suggests that the hippies represented by long-haired Arlo have inherited some of the moral and political ideas of the Old Left. However, the film has previously undercut this connection with a scene involving Arlo and Ruth, the middle-aged manager of a folk club in New York. Ruth gives money to pay Shelly's back rent and then starts reminiscing about the good old days of the Movement. Then she quickly makes a sexual advance to Arlo, which he rejects. Arlo leaves the club, his welcome at the folk club presumably ended. As with Alice and Ray, the good works of the club manager stem from a personal and limited agenda. She is not so much generous as wishing to recapture a romantic image of herself, and this puts a pall on the presentation of the Old Left generally.
The draft physical scenes in Alice's Restaurant are surprisingly apolitical. Yes, the song and the movie satirize the institutionalized process which turns young men into killers-in-training. No one in the induction machinery is interested in Arlo as an individual. He is poked and prodded and asked only one question: ''Kid . . . have you ever been arrested?'' He is eventually rejected by the draft because of his Stockbridge arrest, another encounter with an unthinking, unresponsive government agency. But Alice s Restaurant is not about draft resistance or opposition to the war in Vietnam; it is about one young man's lucky escape from the draft. There are a few lines about organized resistance in the recorded (1967) version of the song: Arlo suggests that young men tell the Army shrink ''You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant,'' and then walk out. But these semi-serious lines are omitted from the film. Opposition to the war in Vietnam may be intuited from the overall wintry tone of Alice s Restaurant, and from the specific image of Jake with a hook replacing a hand. But although the film presents a general opposition to American ''business as usual,'' it does not explicitly challenge United States policy in Vietnam.
Like Easy Rider, Alice s Restaurant has a religious aspect. The commune is in a deconsecrated church, with the pews torn out so that people can actually live in the building. On Thanksgiving Day, the ritual meal bringing people together at Alice and Ray's is visually paralleled with images of the other churches in town. We see a montage of exterior views of New England churches, with a congregation singing ''Amazing Grace'' on the soundtrack. Then we switch to an interior view of Alice and Ray's church, and discover that this ''congregation'' is doing the singing. The sense seems to be that the gathering at Alice and Ray's is creating a community and a spiritual bond similar to what is happening elsewhere. A further step in this direction is Alice and Ray's remarriage and homemade "reconsecration" of the church after Shelly's death. This is an attempt by Ray to reestablish the spirit of the commune with a brief, satirical ceremony and a big party. If a church is primarily a community, and good works, perhaps even a state of grace, then Alice and Ray's home is a church.
Despite Ray's frenzied attempt to throw a party, Alice s Restaurant ends on a somber note. Alice is shown in a long take at night on the steps of the church, alone in the cold. She is not ready to forget Shelly's death, or her husband's casual violence, or the ''woman's work'' which defines her role in the commune. A carefully designed camera shot, simultaneously zooming in and tracking back (with short lateral movements, as well) while the image remains about the same size, emphasizes the instability of this moment.22 The wordless ending shot is a far more effective way to express the limitations of the new youth culture than Wyatt/Captain America's comment ''We blew it.'' Alice s Restaurant is not primarily about Alice, but it ends with her pain.
The year 1969 was the high point of the youth culture's encounter with cinema, the moment at which enormous changes seemed to be possible. If, Lindsey Anderson's British film about student revolt, won the Grand Prize at Cannes, and Easy Rider won the prize for Best New Director. Midnight Cowboy won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Easy Rider was the blockbuster of the year, and Putney Swope, Alice s Restaurant, and Medium Cool received good reviews and fair-to-good audiences. Among the other New Hollywood films of the moment were Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Downhill Racer, Goodbye Columbus, That Cold Day in the Park, They Shoot Horses, Don t They?, The Rain People, and Last Summer. In 1969, film content, film style, and the film audience all appeared to be rapidly transforming.
Given this atmosphere of positive change, it is interesting to note how modest and muted Easy Rider and Alice s Restaurant now appear, especially in their relation to social change. Both films are about, and presumably addressed to, middle-class white youths. Easy Rider suggests a multicultural society in its scenes of the Southwest, and Alice s Restaurant includes an occasional black or Asian face, but neither film has much to say about race or class. Further, both films are surprisingly negative about the possibilities of the hippie lifestyle. The commune of Easy Rider is an excellent example of how not to do agriculture, and the deaths of George, Wyatt, and Billy are hardly a positive statement about freedom. Alice's Restaurant balances the good humor of Arlo Guthrie's song with a more melancholy view of Alice and Ray's extended family. The film shows deep flaws in the couple's reaching out to alienated young people. Vincent Canby's review cements this point by noting that in 1969 (two years after the events shown in the film) the real Alice and Ray are already divorced.23 Perhaps the main virtue of Easy Rider and Alice's Restaurant is lucidity. They show how difficult it is to live even a little bit differently.
If 1969 was a banner year for new films and new talents in American cinema, 1970 was a year of retrenchment. Most of the films about youth culture and student revolutionaries produced by the Hollywood studios in the wake of Easy Rider were less than popular at the box office. Thomas Schatz describes a ''deluge of youth-cult films'' that were ''obviously calculated in their appeal to America's disenfranchised (but ticket-purchasing) young.'' Specific films he mentions are Getting Straight, The Strawberry Statement, Move!, Joe, and Little Fauss and Big Halsey.24 He could have added RPM, The Revolutionary, Cisco Pike, and perhaps even Michelangelo Antonioni's American-made Zabriskie Point. Some of these films were obviously derivative (which I think is Schatz's point), but it also seems likely that audiences in 1970 were no longer comfortable with confrontational youth films. Acceptance of drugs and drug pushers lasted only a few months, thus dooming Cisco Pike, and films about student revolutionaries faced opposition both from college-aged liberals seeking authenticity and from frightened people of all ages (a much larger group). The two biggest hits of 1970 were Love Story and Airport, genre films about simple, easy-to-grasp problems.
One exception to this trend was Five Easy Pieces (1970), the next important film from BBS Productions, the producers of Easy Rider. The film was directed by Bob Rafelson, a partner in BBS, and it confirmed the star status of Jack Nicholson. Rafelson had previously directed the Monkees in Head (coscripted by Nicholson), an exercise in neo-Beatles slapstick. Five Easy Pieces is a more substantial effort, which builds on the road movie element of Easy Rider as well as on Jack Nicholson's role of George Hanson in the earlier film. In Easy Rider, George was the prodigal son of a privileged Southern background, a liberal-leaning attorney whose father's influence kept him out of trouble. In Five Easy Pieces, the background of Bobby Dupea is still privileged, but now he is escaping his family of distinguished classical musicians by working as a rigger in the Southern California oil fields.25 He lives with a waitress named Rayette (Karen Black) from the Deep South who listens to the music of Tammy Wynette.
One theme of Easy Rider was that the frontier was closed; there was nowhere for adventurous young people to go. This theme is seconded by Five Easy Pieces, where Bobby's geographical displacements do not bring him happiness, fulfillment, or peace. The closing of the frontier is announced metonymically within the film when Bobby picks up two female hitchhikers headed for Alaska. The unhappy, aggressive hitchhiker played by Helena Kallionotes complains incessantly about human filth and announces that ''Alaska is cleaner.'' Though Bobby makes fun of this character (''That was before the big thaw''), his own quest is similarly irrational and impulsive. He journeys first to Puget Sound, where he finds only pretention and alienation on his family's island estate. Then he sets off (for Canada?) with Rayette but abandons her at a gas station and hitches a ride on a logging truck bound for . . . Alaska. Bobby may understand the futility of escape, but he cannot get beyond it.
Though Five Easy Pieces is not a hippie film, it does fit into the 1960s youth culture project of building a new life. In Easy Rider and Alice's Restaurant this project was expressed via new forms of communal living. Five Easy Pieces explores the alternate approach of changing one's social class. Bobby Dupea, concert pianist, becomes a blue-collar worker. Aside from working in the oil fields, he is shown drinking, bowling, playing cards, and having sex with a woman he meets in the bowling alley. Bobby's best friend is Elton, a hell-raiser with a wild laugh who is eventually arrested for jumping bail on a robbery charge. That Bobby is more attracted to partying than to the entire package of working-class values is shown in a conversation with Elton about kids. Elton married his wife when she became pregnant, and by now he enjoys having a kid. He expects Bobby to do the same thing with Rayette (though she never announces a pregnancy on-screen), but Bobby objects and stalks off. At this point Bobby quits the oil fields job and sets off for his family's island home—with Rayette.
The film's attitude toward its two featured social milieus seems to me uncertain. The interlude in the oil fields provides Bobby with friends, work, an opportunity to blow off steam. Yet he cannot entirely enter into a working-class identity. He objects to Elton's telling him what to do, and he never completely accepts Rayette as his lover and partner. Rayette's characterization throws some light not only on Bobby's hesitations, but also on the filmmakers' ambivalence about a working-class subculture. Rayette is simple, affectionate, dependable, genuinely in love with Bobby. She can be perceptive, but she sometimes seems dumb to the point of caricature. When she interacts with Bobby's family at dinner, her remarks seem both off-the-wall and cliched. Rayette is also characterized by "her" music, the songs of Tammy Wynette. These simple, emotional tunes do provide a sense of cultural setting, but they lack the sophistication and depth of the classical music associated with Bobby's family.
If the working-class lifestyle is not entirely satisfying, the cultured intellectual milieu of Bobby's family is even less fulfilling. On the island, Bobby's brother, sister, and father live in an isolated, highly artificial way. All of them are, in one way or another, crippled: the brother wears a neck brace, the sister is emotionally starved, the father has had two strokes and cannot speak. The father of this film, present but yet absent, is uncannily like the Woody Guthrie (also a musician, also paralyzed) of Alice's Restaurant. The difference is that Arlo Guthrie loves and admires Woody, but Bobby has no particular love or respect for his father.
By far the most interesting resident of the Dupea estate is Catherine van Oost (Susan Anspach), who is studying piano with Bobby's brother Carl. Catherine seems content with the quiet island setting and the long hours of practice, but when pushed a bit she makes love passionately with Bobby, or Robert, as he is called on the island. Then she backs off, citing fairness to Carl but also doubts about Robert. In a memorable speech, Catherine says: ''If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something, how can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?'' Catherine is certainly a poised and articulate young woman, unlike Rayette. With no chance to continue a relationship with Catherine, Bobby/Robert leaves the island.
Gregg M. Campbell has proposed that Catherine, not Bobby, is at the center of Five Easy Pieces. For Campbell, the film is a feminist work by scriptwriter Adrien Joyce (a pseudonym for Carol Eastman). Catherine is the "true heroine,'' and even Rayette ''is essentially more dignified and human than the male protagonist.''26 Campbell admits that Catherine's choice of a sheltered, limited existence may be a ''cop out,'' but he then labels this choice ''the profound flaw of accepting the tragic nature of life'' (tragic because pain, conflict, limits are inescapable).27 This is an interesting construction, but I do not think the film supports it. Clearly, Bobby is the main character of Five Easy Pieces; the narrative follows his adventures and his dilemmas. And though Catherine is capable of intelligence and dignity, the film connects her with the crippled lassitude of the island estate. She chooses the ''rest home,'' as Bobby labels it, over the challenge of the unknown. Because she opts for the safe and easy approach, Catherine is a less memorable proto-feminist figure than the Alice of Alice's Restaurant.
We are left with the troubled Bobby as the thematic as well as narrative center of Five Easy Pieces. Bobby is at home nowhere. He has a tremendous energy to explore, to enjoy, to struggle, to ''light out for the territory'' like a modern Huckleberry Finn. He is a kind of hippie without the signature clothing or the naive cliches. The film affirms Bobby's brief moments of spontaneous connection with the world: the camaraderie with Elton, playing piano on a moving flatbed truck, the famous restaurant scene (Bobby tries to get what he wants in a coffee shop which accepts no substitutions), the lovemaking with Catherine. But most of the time, Bobby is enfolded by absences and contradictions. Rayette is loving but stupid, Catherine smart but distant; neither is entirely ''there'' for him. His father is present yet absent. Elton is his friend but not his friend—when angered, Bobby calls Elton an ''ignorant cracker.'' Even on a metaphysical level the film is beset by contradictions. Thus, one of Carl's intellectual friends proposes that rationality is a byproduct of human aggression, a hypothesis that denies its own basis in reason. More mundanely, Bobby's final abandonment of Rayette is shown in long take, prominently featuring a gas station sign: ''Gulf.''
Stephen Farber cautions that Five Easy Pieces is very much a film about an individual and that it resists social explication.28 Nevertheless, I would point to two social themes in the film: first, a continuation of the restless exploration of Easy Rider and Alice's Restaurant, the search for a more authentic way to live; second, a misanthropic sense of the uselessness of such a search. In Five Easy Pieces, the audience can empathize with Bobby's
Five Easy Pieces Columbia pictures.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) playing piano on a moving truck. A moment of spontaneous connection with the world. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.
Five Easy Pieces Columbia pictures.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) playing piano on a moving truck. A moment of spontaneous connection with the world. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.
quest for fulfillment, happiness, connection to other human beings. But problems of identity are crushing, and little can be expected from this quest. Bobby may, in fact, be heading for death at the end of the film. The driver warns him, ''Where we're going, it's colder than hell.''
Bobby's difficulties may stand for the impasse of a generation, for whom traveling, intoxication, and sexual license do not solve underlying problems. As with Easy Rider and Alice's Restaurant, this film's primary virtue may be its lucidity.
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