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Candice Dehnbostel: Easy Rider

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider works as a piece of art that stands for the ‘60s counterculture’s values. The film, following Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson’s trip to Mardi Gras, uses montages, visually bright colors and popular rock songs of the time. The film is meant to do two things. It validates the counterculturists’ way of life, and it serves as a statement to those in the “mainstream.? The film seems to make the point that a life outside of mainstream society is possible, and that it does not need to be violent, racist or constraining. Yet, mainstream life is what forces violence, prejudice and oppression on those who do not conform.

The bikers’ trip highlights many of the aspects Miller discusses. While Fonda and Hopper are on the “open road,? the viewer sees many shots of the natural environment; plateaus, mountains, shining sun and green trees and their beauty are all around. Love can be seen from a wide definition when Fonda picks up the hitchhiker, when they swim with the women from the commune and the commune itself. Yet, Miller’s definition of love, as an “emotion, a state of mind, a feeling that radiated optimistic moral power? (p. 104), is not always there. Hopper isn’t sure the commune will last, but Fonda says, “They’re going to make it.? Then Hopper does not want to take the women with them, but Fonda reminds him they are eating the commune’s food. Even the premise of the film, that the protagonists go looking for America, but can’t seem to find it vilifies Miller’s definition of love.

The prominence of drug use falls back in line with Miller’s writings on “dropping out.? Also, the bikers’ lack of jobs, hippie clothing and motorcycles buck the establishment. Money and material goods mean nothing to the bikers, as displayed when Fonda throws his watch onto the side of the road. Accepted society’s concept of time means nothing to him. Their mocking of the all-American parade lands them in jail.

Fonda and Hopper could be seen to represent both negative and positive aspects of the counterculture. They worry about how they will get by, sometimes slighting others because of it. But, they cannot conform to the rest of society. As Costello suggests, the idea of movement, from state to state, the open road, signals a disdain for static life (p. 189). Even with George, Nicholson’s character, the bikers encounter trouble that has racial undertones. In the diner, the sheriff makes a comment out them looking like “refugees from a gorilla love-in.? The sheriff and townspeople end up causing the three protagonists to leave because of the violent undertones, just as African Americans were made to feel uncomfortable at integrated lunch counters. They’re later beaten with baseball bats by the townspeople, killing George, as some African Americans were.

Through all of this, the bikers retain a connection to the mainstream. They need money for Mardi Gras, they smuggle and sell drugs. They visit whorehouses and they freak out from adverse drug effects. They fall into what they are trying to escape. As discussed in class, the counterculture faded away. Hopper discusses retirement in Florida and the bikers, and their values, are killed at the end of the film. Hopper and Fonda showed no real organization; they roamed freely. They had no set of core principles, they just knew what they didn’t like. The final scene of the film sums up the counterculture’s life. It was fun to feel free, but one is never truly free from society. The extremes of mainstream and counterculture collided violently and consumed each other, leaving failed attempt at real change.