Professor Marc Lapadula: Why at the end of Easy Rider (1969) are these guys killed? Why not just let them ride off into the sunset on their motorcycles? They’ve been through enough already in this movie. Their friend got murdered (Jack Nicholson's character). They've already had a bad trip at Mardi Gras — literally a bad trip getting down there, and the drug trip was also a bad one. They could come back for another day. But no: the power of Easy Rider is that it's the rise and the fall of the hippie movement all in one film.
The film follows two philosophizing hippies who go on a drug-fueled cross-country motorcycle trip “in search of America.” Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, is a reference to Billy the Kid, while Peter Fonda’s Wyatt echoes Wyatt Earp. It's a modern Western. Instead of horses, horsepower (of motorcycles). It uses John Ford locations like Monument Valley, where The Searchers (1956) was shot.
Easy Rider celebrates the counterculture only to condemn it at the end. When Peter Fonda’s character, Wyatt, says, "We blew it." Those words echoed across that entire generation of young people in the late 1960's, who brought this country to the verge of real change, but they were young. They weren't fully coordinated. They were losing a lot of their leaders to drug overdoses, or they were killed in protests, or they got older, and as we get older we become more conservative. So time was not on their side. But this movie was critical of the subject matter it was portraying. That's the brilliance of that film, even if it's an uneven movie— largely because they used real marijuana in the scenes. Dennis Hopper wanted that sense of verisimilitude, but he may have been on a lot of drugs while he was behind the scenes directing. Even still, it's a great film.
So, why would Easy Rider want to show these guys killed? These rednecks just come out of nowhere. But in the campfire scene, right before Wyatt says, "We blew it," they’ve made that big drug deal. Billy says, "We've done it. We've done it. We're rich, Wyatt. We're rich. We can retire to Florida now, mister." So if you're 30 years old, and you're talking about retiring to Florida? You might as well be dead. That's what that movie is saying. There really is no place for them to go but death. The Steppenwolf song at the start of the film, "Born to Be Wild" (Steppenwolf, 1968), says, "I never want to die." Later we get a song, as he's loading the money into the plastic tube and putting it into the gas tank of the chopper, and the song is, "With tombstones in their eyes" ("The Pusher," Steppenwolf, 1968). It was an interesting period. Easy Rider’s power is its honesty. It looks truthfully at its subject. It doesn’t water down the conflicts and contradictions inherent in the hippie movement. This film is just one example of the medium’s capacity to hold a mirror up to society through artistic expression.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969)
There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending. Sometimes an upbeat outcome can affirm or enable us to embrace values that we wish we lived up to more often. But if the happy ending is all we get, then the movie never makes us feel like we have anything at stake. It’s mere entertainment, mere spectacle.
But is that what I think when I go to the theater? Is that all I want? When I go to a museum, and I look at these artists from Mark Rothko to Picasso to Dali, aren't they challenging me in ways to come to terms with certain things that are a little darker, a little more unsettling? When I examine those aspects of my psyche, my own personality, my world, my relationships with others, don't I then have an opportunity to become a better man, if I'm honest with myself? So that's what true art is supposed to do.
When cinema acts as art and literature, that would be Kubrick. That would be Hitchcock at his best. That would be Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). That would be John Ford's The Searchers. When we're only interested in spectacle or entertainment, there's nothing wrong with that, but at the same time, I don't want just a steady diet of fast food. I sometimes want a more interesting, complex meal. That's what we get from a Kurosawa or Bergman or a Fellini, or certain directors at their best — a Francis Ford Coppola with Godfathers I & II (1972 and 1974), Peter Bogdanovich with the beautiful The Last Picture Show (1971). It really does come down to what we want and what we expect from the movies.
At least on occasion, I want a movie to be something that aspires to art. Otherwise, film would be an empty vacuum of a medium, for me. I wouldn't look forward to going to the movies.