I normally don’t think much about Easy Rider. I saw the movie somewhere along the way and my general reaction was “I guess you had to be there.”
Then I ran across Ileana Douglas’ top ten movies at the Criterion Collection website (which you can view here), which led me to her twitter page, which led me to her podcasts, which you can sample here–highly recommended, just be sure you have some time on your hands because it’s kind of addicting.)
But one quote from her comments on the first time she saw Easy Rider stuck out.
…let me tell you, the first time I saw it on TV, all cut up, I thought: This is the movie that ruined our lives and turned us into dirty hippies? I just didn’t get it.
By “our’ and “us” she meant her own family, especially her father, who took the movie for a road map on how to live the rest of his life, an obsession that was bound to have an effect on his then five-year-old daughter.
Her father, as it happened, was the son of a famous Hollywood actor who called himself Melvyn Douglas (the family name was Hesselberg). Douglas herself, chose her grandfather’s profession and adopted his surname. And eventually she came to terms with both her “dirty hippy” upbringing and Easy Rider. Hence its inclusion in her Top Ten Criterion films (which I recommend reading in full–on top of her abundantly self-evident charms, she’s an excellent writer).
I’ll probably watch Easy Rider again at some point. Movies sometimes grow with repeated viewings. And no movie can be entirely without existential interest if the main characters are based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.
And I’ll keep Ms. Douglas’ reassessment in mind.
But I’m pretty sure one thing will stick in my craw. That’s the ending, which imagines the Modern Southern Redneck, not as the natural ally of hippie culture that he was (I’m speaking as someone who grew up around as many rednecks as Ileana did hippies), but as an extension of the Klan, come out from under the sheets and gone hunting hippies.
One can never say something-or-other didn’t happen to somebody-or-other somewhere-or-other some-time-or-other.
Maybe somewhere, sometime, some hillbilly killed a hippy for the frivolous reasons presented in Easy Rider (frivolous as in “I just don’t like them sons-a-bitches. Let’s shoot ’em!”)
For a better look at the real flavor of backwoods’ paranoia, I’d recommend Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which came out in the early eighties (and seemed to take something out of Hill, who was never quite the same again).
But you can get the gist from the music that defined the relationship between the hillbillies and the hippies–Charlie Daniel’s “Long-Haired Country Boy,” Hank Williams Jr.’s truly paranoid “Country Boy Can Survive,” and especially Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” which circles back to Viet Nam, catches up the whole story and brings it to its natural conclusion.
The message from the hardcore hillbilly has been the same going all the way back to the Scottish highlands.
Best leave me the hell alone.
In this respect, at least, Easy Rider took the easy way out.
Just like the rest of the country.
Left us with the movie–and the world–that defined my childhood…Which was much tougher, much funnier, didn’t tell a single lie, and didn’t have the answers either.
May have to write about that some day.
Meanwhile, I’ll just keep in touch with that other world I didn’t quite grow up in, in the usual way. By listening…