Sex, Drugs, and Motorcycles

Easy Rider and The effect it had on New Hollywood.

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      Easy Rider is a film that chronicles the story of a man looking for America but not being able to find it anywhere. Released during the same year as many different significant American events, such as Woodstock, the Vietnam War buildup, Nixon’s election, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., it was marketed to the counterculture of the time; hippies and youth. The movie explores the societal landscapes, issues, and tension in the U.S. during the 1960’s. The movie reflects the rise and fall of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle. It was considered a land mark counterculture film, or a “touchstone for a generation”. In 1998 it was added to the U.S. National Film Registry, deemed ” culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Easy Rider helped spark the New Hollywood phase of film making during the sixties. It was one of the first blockbusters to come from the new wave of Hollywood directors. It was a low-budget independent film made for $340,000 dollars, but in box office sales it took in 19 million dollars (Schatz 1). With a groundbreaking rock/music soundtrack of the late 60’s that featured popular musicians such as, The band, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf. The licensing of the music cost more than the movie itself, totaling one million dollars for the music rights.

The New Hollywood by Thomas Schatz states that “the key to Hollywood’s survival in the sixties was the steady rise of the movie blockbuster in terms of budget, production values, and their market strategies.”(Schatz 2) I agree with Schatz because Hollywood before this time was dying. All the major companies were losing money. Only two films made before 1950, Gone With the Wind in 1939 and Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs in 1937 made the top 75 list of all-time commercial hits. Not until the sixties do we see Hollywood depart from the classical era, and more into the “New Hollywood era!” With hits like Goldfinger in 1964 which made 23 million and Dr. Zhivago in 1965 which made 46 million (Schatz 3). Hollywood began using color in their films and had zoom lenses for more flexibility in shots. A lot of the new wave directors borrowed the hand-held shot from Direct Cinema. (Thompson 1) The industry saw a period of widespread innovation; due largely to a new generation of Hollywood filmmakers like Robert Altman and Arthur Penn. These filmmakers were making films for a Euro-American market and bringing Art Cinema into the mainstream. Thus the “American film Renaissance”, was born in which the key constituency was the American youth (Schatz 4). The American youth was considered one of the most dependable segments of regular moviegoers. Easy Rider has this segment to thank for most of its success; the countercultural force saw the antiwar movement, civil rights, and sexual revolution reflected in this movie. With the 1966 breakdown of Hollywood’s Production Code and the new rating system, filmmakers were experimenting with more politically subversive, sexually explicit, and graphically violent material.

Director/writer/actor Dennis Hopper and producer/writer/actor Peter Fonda broke into New Hollywood by creating their future blockbuster Easy Rider. The film opens in a junkyard where the viewer witness’s two biker hippies buy cocaine. They then resell it to another wealthy man outside of an airport. It is loud, with planes flying over head. The viewer gets the sense that all the noise is meant to drown out what they are doing. The man is happy with the drugs the two hippies give him and pay the two more than what they originally paid for the drugs. Up until this scene the viewer hears no English. It is so smooth the viewer can barely notice that there has been no talking because everything visual is very clear. Once they leave the airport it cuts to them driving on a dirt road and the song “Pusher Man” from Steppenwolf starts with a solo of an electric guitar. It becomes clear that this was not the first time they did this. At this moment, the viewer gets an understanding for the times and the market it was directed at. The lyrics “you know I smoked a lot of grass, oh Lord, I popped a lot of pills,” hit home for the counterculture youth. This generation was known for drug abuse. The message of Easy Rider was relatable to these young people. Their enjoyment of seeing their lifestyle reflected on-screen creates a new market for Hollywood to tailor their movies too.

Opening credits tell a lot about a movie; viewers expect to see a “sneak peek” at the journey they are about to witness. In the opening credits Easy Rider  Wyatt, played by Peter Fonda, throws down his watch, a literal and symbolic action that shows his new-found freedom and the rejection of time constraints in modern society. Then they take off on their newly acquired choppers and the biker anthem “Born to be Wild” plays as their adventure begins. They ride past landscapes showcasing the natural beauty of the country. “Born to be Wild” is often used in popular culture to denote a biker’s appearance or attitude. This was a perfect song to go along with the opening credits of this film; the youth of the time lived a wild lifestyle. The song starts “Get your motor running’ head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.” This theme defines Easy Rider, the characters jumped on their choppers and went on an adventure. It echoes the hippie movement, “Like a true nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild, we can climb so high, I never wanna die, born to be wild.”

Dennis Hopper assimilated the jump cuts that Jean-Luc Godard had pioneered in “Breathless”(Thompson 2). He also used techniques that Hollywood would have eventually begun to use to make blockbusters. These techniques include using popular music that fit well with the film. Another technique used was using popular actors such as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The American bad ass, Peter Fonda is dressed in black leather and had American flag patches on the sleeves and on the back on the leather jacket with an American flag paint job on this personal chopper. Dennis Hopper is in Native American buck skins pants, jacket and hat. The two made for a very interesting pair of modern-day cowboys, trading in their horses for motorcycles. They also marketed the film with Jack Nicholson as a star of the movie even though his first appearance in the film is not until halfway through the picture. All three of these men were rising stars at this time and it was marketed as a Cannes winner for best film by a new director.

Easy Rider paved the way for the New Hollywood blockbusters. In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola, directed The Godfather which went on to make over 81 million dollars in the U.S. market. It was followed by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which surpassed The Godfather by 3 million dollars. The 1975 film directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws, surpasses both of these classics earning 130 million in rentals. In 1979 George Lucas broke the revenue record with the release of Star Wars, which earned over 190 million dollars in U.S. rentals (Thomson 3). There is no other cluster of films that have made so much money on initial release. These films got the studios out of bankruptcy with the large profits from these blockbusters.  In closing, look how a low-budget motorcycle movie changed the way America looks at itself and the way films can redefine culture.

Work Cited:

Schatz, Thomas.  “The New Hollywood.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies.  Ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, Ava Preacher Collins.  Routledge, New York, 1993.

Gomery, Douglas.  “The American Film Industry of the 1970s: Stasis in the ‘New Hollywood.’” Wide Angle, vol.5, no.4(1983).

Thompson, Kristin,  “Film History: An Introduction / Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell. 2nd ed.

Pg 516-526, New York, NY 10020. (2003)

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