Monday, July 14, 2014

A Movie With No Story

"You've got a nice place. It's not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud."

Wyatt (Peter Fonda)

"Easy Rider," which premiered on this day in 1969, is part time capsule, buried in the late 1960s, and part timeless road/buddy picture.

The basic story was that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had pulled off a cocaine deal and were riding their motorcycles through the southwestern United States. The backstory was missing, though.

Every time I have seen it, I have thought that parts were hopelessly dated and other parts were relevant — but they haven't been the same each time. It is (pardon the pun) a moving target.

Well, I suppose the violent ending is mostly a reflection of the deep division in American society in those days and probably always will be seen that way — but, even there, one can see relevance to modern times.

While there were undeniably rough moments to get through in "Easy Rider," the flip side was the joy the lead characters — Hopper, Fonda and Jack Nicholson — experienced on their journey.

And that, to me, sums up the '60s.

There was a lot of pain and a lot of conflict. There were demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and demonstrations for civil rights.

But there were also moments of bliss and pure joy. Young people reveled in their freedom as perhaps no other generation before them. Some felt threatened by that. Others were liberated by it.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that people like Henry Fonda (Peter's father) — and, certainly, his more conservative friends in the movie community — were bewildered by "Easy Rider." It didn't have a story.

That sort of went against the conventional grain.

"[I]n fact, director Dennis Hopper has done an old and respectable thing," Ebert wrote. "He has told his story in cinematic shorthand, instead of spelling it out in dreary detail. Fifty years ago, Hollywood figured out that if you put the good guys in white hats you could eliminate 10 minutes of explanation from every Western. Hopper has applied this technique to the motorcycle movie."

I'm not entirely sure that is what Hopper did — at least, not deliberately.

"If you follow the story closely in 'Easy Rider,' you find out it isn't there," Ebert wrote. "The rough cut of the movie reportedly ran over three hours, and Hopper edited it to a reasonable length by throwing out the story details and keeping the rest. So the heroes are suspended in an invisible story, like falcons on an invisible current of air. You can't see it, but it holds them up."

There was a lot of talk, around the time that "Easy Rider" was showing on the big screens of America, of gaps. That wasn't really new, I guess. Five years earlier, "Dr. Strangelove" mocked the politicians and their "missile gap" rhetoric. By 1969, the culture was awash with angst about all kinds of gaps — between the generations, the races, the genders, you name it.

(Several small children could be seen in a segment of the story that took place in a hippie commune. One of those children, Henry's granddaughter and Peter's daughter, 5–year–old Bridget Fonda, was making her movie debut, about 20 years before her breakthrough part in "The Godfather Part III.")

Those gaps were becoming increasingly violent, too. So the ending of "Easy Rider," as obscene as it was, was the only way the movie could have ended — to end it any other way would have robbed the story of its meaning.

Even if, as Ebert said, the movie had no story.