Ending the Exceptional: Defiance of Conventions in Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider"

By Daniel J. Schneider
2010, Vol. 2 No. 07 | pg. 1/1

The myth of American exceptionalism has existed since early on in our nation’s history. As early as the mid 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed that the United States held remarkable place in the world, as a nation of immigrants living in the first democracy of the ‘modern’ era (Tocqueville 1). But what the French political scientist did not consider was how this ‘exceptionalism’ was, indeed, a myth - one that had to be sustained through a perpetual progression.

Expansion towards the Pacific provided the easiest mode of sustaining this advancement, and for a long while it was assumed that westward growth was the surest sign of success. In fact, some of the earliest films (and, eventually, television) to hold captive the American audience’s attention were spectacles of U.S. positivism, where good always triumphed over evil and our biggest assumption - that we were, somehow, inexorably right - was never defeated by naysayers (even metaphorical naysayers, as was often the case of the ‘man in black’).

This overarching assumption is more difficult to find in later Westerns; films like John Ford’s The Searchers, while not overtly condemning the actions of its mysterious protagonist, are certainly not exactly ecstatic about the Western White Man; both in his attempts to control a land and an indigenous people who never seemed to want him there in the first place.. In fact, that old teleological ethic - which kept America strong through a civil war, two world wars and two centuries of expansion - was beginning to erode. In 1969, after years of protests against institutional racism, the Vietnam War and what many of the nation’s youth saw as dated social mores, that erosion turned to perforation.

If The Searchers was a sign of wear showing in the cloak of exceptionalism, then Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was the first big tear. This film presents something fairly alien in cinema, especially within the Western genre: two characters attempting to escape from a country they never asked for, in any way that they can. It defies as many conventions of American cinema as it does conventions of American social life. By modifying the conventional Hollywood ‘road’ movie narrative, incorporating modern folk/rock music as non-diegetic sound and utilizing shocking imagery – both socially and in terms of editing style - Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider stands as a testament to the changes going on in our nation in the late 1960s.

It is imperative to this analysis that the conventions of cinema which Easy Rider defies be clearly established. To begin with, we will first look at the aspects of the ‘road’ movie either present or disobeyed in the film. Chuck Klosterman, in an essay dissecting the genre, defines the traditional road movie narrative as such:

  • A character experiences abstract loss and attempts an exodus from normal life.
  • The character reinvents his or her self-identity while traveling.
  • Along the way, the character encounters iconic individuals who (usually) illustrate authenticity and desolation.
  • Upon the recognition of seemingly self-evident realizations, the character desires to return to the point of origin. (Klosterman 1)

It is plain to see, then, that Easy Rider does not follow the traditional ‘road’ movie formula. While all of these ideas might apply to ‘Captain America’ (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), everything which would link the conventions of ‘road’ cinema to their actions is only implied. It seems as though the Captain and Billy are attempting an exodus from normal life; however, it is wholly possible that they have long since dropped out of ‘normal’ living and are merely trying to complete the final phase of their journey (implied by Billy when he speaks, at the film’s end, of “retiring to Florida”).

It seems as though the Captain has a realization of sorts after taking LSD in a New Orleans graveyard and, thusly, has a subtle change of identity ; but this is never stated explicitly, only implied in the Captain’s despondent demeanor after the Mardi Gras festival when he tells Billy that “we blew it”. And while the two “iconic individuals” met along the way – the hitchhiking hippie and the ACLU lawyer - do not appear to necessarily be ‘authentic’ or ‘desolate’, it seems as though they have a semiotic importance related to those ideas. So when the conventions of the ‘road’ movie are only detectable in whiffs and peripheral glances, it becomes very difficult to argue that Easy Rider is following typical narrative protocol.

Another instance of violating narrative conventions are a little more subtle, but even more meaningful in establishing not what this film isn’t as a ‘road’ movie but what it is. The narrative structure of Easy Rider is set up so that, as the movie progresses and the two drifters ride further from the Pacific, their interactions with everyone from George the ACLU lawyer to local townsfolk begin “casting judgment on American society’s failure to live up to its ideals” (Cummings 1). Easy Rider is a movie about being a stranger in your own country; to a sense to that the land you live doesn’t really belong to you anymore. When the Captain and Billy travel from West to East (as opposed to the usual ‘road’ movie East to West), it is because they have nothing left to gain from the old America. The Manifest Destiny has run its course, the atomic bombs could fall at any minute and none of the antiquated patriotism seems to mean anything anymore. They characters show a sense of this when the travelers are in the desert, and the hippie hitchhiker says that “the people this place belongs to are buried under here”. Perhaps the Captain and Billy feel that in traveling back to the East they are, somehow, giving back the land that may not ever have been theirs in the first place. he narrative structure of Easy Rider is set up so that, as the movie progresses and the two drifters go further back towards the Atlantic, “casting judgment on American society’s failure to live up to its ideals”

There are many scenes in Easy Rider which transgress acceptable American filmic imagery.[1] There has always been a rule in mainstream cinema that drugs, when used on screen, should either be detrimental to a character’s life or signifying of a character’s deviant status. Neither of these things is true of the Captain and Billy (and, later on in the movie, the ACLU lawyer, George). Their use of drugs is portrayed sympathetically throughout the movie, marijuana in particular being shown as nothing more than a means of evening relaxation[2]. Even though the drug use of the cyclists is meant to separate them from ‘mainstream’ society – and, thusly, ‘mainstream’ protagonists – all it really serves to do is highlight their sense of disillusionment with the American Dream. As Billy and the Captain meander through New Orleans during an acid trip, we see not images of decadence or deviance, but those of fear and loathing.

This all occurs after the death of their ACLU friend, George; a man with such deep concerns for the state of his country, who could actually see past the bright colors, through the pot haze and understand that this new generation was restless for a reason. A man like George, with his eloquent speech and unique outlook on America, could have been the salvation of his country; instead, he is killed by the members of what he referred to many times as the “antiquated hierarchy” that exists in the U.S. By the time the two cyclists reach New Orleans, their use of drugs is no longer a form of relaxation but a sad sacrament, symbolized by the images of the Virgin Mary and the Flag edited in when they are having a ‘bad trip’ on LSD.

Even the use of non-diegetic sound in Easy Rider shows a disconnect from the ‘old’ America, in terms of cinematic conventions. This film has always been noted for its use of popular music of the day, like Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds, eschewing typical methods of soundtracking like an orchestra. While the music for Easy Rider was put in mostly a matter of chance (the editor for the film, Donn Cambern, listened to the music used while working on the movie and decided to integrate it), there is importance to be found in the use of rock and folk music for a soundtrack (Biskind 1). In helps to establish the ‘counterculture’ which the Captain and Billy are supposed members of as not a hollow ancillary of American society but as a living subculture, complete with its own attitudes, modes of living and music.

At times the music even has direct meaning. As the two vagabond-cyclists ride through the desert, ‘The Weight’ by the Band plays in the background. This is a song ironically juxtaposed to the situation of the Captian and Billy; the man in ‘The Weight’ carries a burden because he has to go to a definite place (Nazareth) and do something specific (give “regards for everyone”), whereas our travelers carry a weight because they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. They are a part of a counterculture which feels disregarded by ‘Establishment’ for possessing ‘radical’ views on the Vietnam War, use of drugs, styles of dress, etc. and has chosen to wander until a place can be found which accepts them. Because they are “Born to Be Wild”, they will not be able to “take a load off” within the realm of mainstream society.

Despite this existential (and literal) transience, the duo eventually make their way, at the film’s end, to New Orleans. This excursion not only involves some of the most decadent scenes in Easy Rider, but some of the most visually shocking, as well. When Billy and the Captain enter the cemetery and first take LSD with the two prostitutes they’ve picked up, nothing seems to be amiss - the lighting and angle of the camera almost make the scene look like a bad public service announcement on the dangers of drug use. What follows, however, is anything but conventional cinema; super-fast edits, jarring sound effects, Catholic prayers and shots of the Virgin Mary attempt to replicate the sensation of a ‘bad trip’ for the audience. What we see is what the characters are supposed to be experiencing - a level of subjectivity more common to French Impressionist cinema than within the conventions of Hollywood.

The films closing scene is also very visually startling, in addition to it being narratively curious. Almost without warning and within only two minutes of screen time, both Billy and the Captain are shot down on the road by a shotgun-wielding man in a truck. This final episode in the story of the travelers is not only narratively idiosyncratic - no falling action or conclusion with a happy ending - but provides an interesting visual metaphor, at one point. After Billy is shot, the Captain circles back aid his dying friend. Right before he leaves to get help, the Captain removes his jacket and covers Billy with it, leaving an image of the American flag lying face-up on his body. This moment, in which the flag which is supposed to be protecting the hippie motorcyclist is the same flag which the man in the truck uses to justify his hatred, is rife with maudlin irony. Even though the American flag looks the same to both men, there is a great difference in opinion over what it really stands for. On one side is exceptionalism and the American dream; on the other is the death of that dream, where progress is no longer an “unalterable destiny with our civilization as the essence” (Nisbet 1).

Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was the filmic signifier for a new ideological structure that began to congeal in 1960s America, a mode of thought that would be met with resistance by the ‘Establishment’. It was also the sign, along with movies like Bonnie and Clyde and the Graduate, for a new era in American moviemaking. An era not about perpetuating the antiquated ideals of a nation through the medium of film, or upholding the status quo through conventional techniques . With a little bit of hand-wringing over who is ‘really right’ (for good measure), Easy Rider took the position that Tocqueville’s assessment had fallen short in the second half of the twentieth century. It showed not a seedy underbelly of America, but a frustrated ‘other half’ expressing itself though an unconventional narrative, soundtrack and visual composition. Through the antics of Billy and the Captain we can see what happens to the American dream deferred - first it dries, like a raisin in the sun; then it explodes.

Works Referenced

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. New York, NY. Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Chuck Klosterman, "On the Road: What's the Difference Between a Road Movie and a Movie That Just Happens to Have Roads In It?". The Believer. March/April 2008. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200803/?read=article_klosterman

Cohan, Steven and Hark, Ina Rae. "The Road Movie Book". New York: Routledge, 1997.

Cummings, William. "Easy Rider and American Empire: A Postcolonial Interpretation". November 2005. http://ijms.nova.edu/November2005/IJMS_RT.Cummings.html

Nisbet, Robert. "Foreign Policy and the American Mind". Commentary, pp 194-203. September 1961. http://mises.org/books/foreign_policy_nisbet.pdf

Tocqueville, Alexis . Democracy in America. New York, NY: Penguin, 1954.

[1] It is important to note that these visual ‘social sins’ are ones which can be taken out of narrative context and still hold meaning as standalone images.

[2] To add to the controversial nature of drug use in Easy Rider, it is worth mentioning that all illegal drugs used in the making of the film were real.

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