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Common Tread

50 years later, why "Easy Rider" doesn't matter any more

Jul 12, 2019

By now you’ve likely seen that "Easy Rider" will be celebrating its 50th anniversary with a 400-theater re-release to mark the day it first hit U.S. screens on July 14, 1969. The fact that this press release can be seen published across such diverse sites as Forbes, Ultimate Motorcycling and Variety should remind you of the rather glorified place in history this film has achieved in the last 50 years.

If somehow you haven’t seen the film, you can stream it pretty much anywhere for a few bucks (YouTube, iTunes and Amazon, to name a few). Maybe your digital-device-addled brain won’t let you sit still for more than an hour at a time. If that’s the case, you can read the synopsis here. But to keep this party moving, here’s the gist of the film: Two chopper-riding drug dealers (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) ride across America with an alcoholic lawyer (Jack Nicholson) to discover that hating other people who don’t look like you is as American as gerrymandering, racial profiling and all the other shit we’re really good at being really bad about.

Cannes 1969
Exploiting the “uniforms” loophole in Cannes' strict dress code, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper dressed in U.S. Civil War regalia at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. HUFFSCHMITT/SIPA/NEWSCOM photo.

“And someday it was inevitable that a great film would come along, utilizing the motorcycle genre, the same way the great Westerns suddenly made everyone realize they were a legitimate American art form, 'Easy Rider' is the picture.” — Roger Ebert, 1969.

The quote from Roger Ebert’s original review of the film sums up just what a critical success the film was upon release. Comparing it to the most venerable of film genres, the American Western, is more flattering than an award from Cannes or a nomination from the Academy.

As for me, a 15-year-old who spent his life in a coat and tie at an all-boys prep school for 10 years, I can tell you that it was eye-opening. Not in the fact that I hadn’t been exposed to the world before, but in the way the film was unlike any piece of storytelling I’d seen. Drug-dealing protagonists who end up dead before the closing credits showed me that films didn’t have to be Indiana Jones or Austin Powers. Complementing my experience of the film was my art teacher's enthusiasm for the story behind it. The wild success of Hopper and Fonda with a piece of counter-culture commentary that took the masses by storm.

The impact this film had on a young man was that I went on a 10-year tear of films from directors who actually had something to say: the Coen Brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Errol Morris, Danny Boyle, etc.

Despite everything that this film meant to me, what role does this piece of avant-garde, counter-culture art play in today’s world of overabundant content that’s bastardized nearly every form of cinematic commentary into hackneyed oblivion? The more I thought about it, the more I had to come to terms with the fact that "Easy Rider" just doesn’t matter anymore. At least not in the way it once did. The reason for this is two-fold.

Easy Rider film poster
A copy of the original theatrical release poster hung on my bedroom wall for years. Columbia Pictures image.

First, what matters more than anything is the chain reaction of events that occurred when a couple of filmmakers from Southern California produced a Cannes-debuting film for $400,000, which in turn went on to a box-office haul of $60 million worldwide. That, my friends, is a blueprint for how you attract every capitalist on the planet to your art form with the hopes of recreating the success by any means necessary. That’s not to say that business people hadn't been leveraging that approach for a long time prior. Look no further than the history of American popular music.

What did happen in the ensuing half century since the debut of "Easy Rider" is the speed, and efficacy, with which studios, brands and corporations were able to glean “the next big thing” from the youth of America and spin it into a marketable form. The explosion of biker B-movies in the 1970s and '80s were the reverberation of this (though Fonda and Nicholson had already dabbled in motorcycle cheese prior to 1969 with "The Wild Angels" and "Hell’s Angels on Wheels"). This race to capitalize on new art forms only got faster through the 1990s and 2000s with globalization and advancements in technology. Until we arrived at one of the most important moments in modern film history, in September 2008.

YouTube? The iPhone? Netflix? All of those (plus a thing called the internet) contribute to the fact that none of the handful of folks under 25 who I asked about watching "Easy Rider" had ever seen it from start to finish. But the real inflection point, when it comes to the explosion of cinematic motorcycle films, was the release of the Canon 5D Mk. II in late 2008. That probably means nothing to you, but it’s the reason for the surge in independent film and the “pivot to video” approach that nearly every media outlet in the world adopted at the end of the last decade. The short and sweet of it is that the 5D Mk. II was the first full-frame 35 mm DSLR that also shoots full HD video. Giving cinema-quality digital tools to users at a pro-sumer price level didn’t just lower the barrier to entry. It was like the Mongol hordes breaking through the Great Wall of China. Aspiring filmmakers everywhere now had access to a camera that delivered a look that had previously been reserved for the elite in broadcast and film.

The Canon 5D Mk. II
Toss on a few small handheld components and your Canon 5D Mk. II is now ready to shoot an indie. Within a couple years of its release, numerous full-length features had been shot on this DSLR.
This inflection point in the evolution of digital media is what has contributed, at least in some way, to the second reason why "Easy Rider" doesn’t matter anymore. Motorcycles just aren’t as cool as they used to be.

Do I think they’re cool? Hell yeah, I do! I love the way bikes look, the shit-eating grin I get when I ride one and, at the risk of being vain, I love the way I look in my leather jacket. It’s all just fucking cool. But as you’ll hear the boys over at Highside/Lowside debate on the final episode of the season, we may all just think they’re a lot cooler than the rest of the world does.

At some point, motorcycles were absolutely as cool as it gets. But the peak of that might have been the mid-'70s. There are undoubtedly many reasons as to why motorcycles have lost that romanticized element of equal parts danger, rebellion and freedom. For me, though, part of that causation goes right back to the proliferation of motorcycle content I first mentioned. We might have killed the cool ourselves due to our obsession of obsessing about motorcycles.

Hipster Bike Videos
I actually like more than a few of the videos on this site, but the domain name does in fact say it all. Image from HipsterBikeVideos.com.

At this point, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a hundred moto-vloggers, countless odes to the joining of man and machine and even long-winded, directionless full-length features that grasp for every cliché until you scream, “uncle!” To be fair, the fact that every cliché has been used up and spit out and “nothing’s original anymore” has been the state of things in Hollywood and major entertainment for quite some time. As Derek Thompson (author of "Hit Makers") has put it, “...in market places of abundance, when you have a lot of competition for your attention, sensationalism sells ... even if there almost is [sic] no underlying content or substance.”

And, with that, I’ve come to terms with the fact that a film that led me to a pursuit of indie cinema, and a broadening of my perspective on art, no longer matters in the way it once did. Now’s when I’d throw my watch away to forget about time and how little this film means to the world anymore, but I don’t own a watch and I’m not going to leave my phone on the side of the road.