1969 was an interesting year for movies. The hippie movement was in full swing. Woodstock would attract an audience of 400,000 in August. Old genres like the big production Hollywood musical were falling out of favor, with Hello, Dolly! underperforming and respresenting pretty much the death of the entire genre. What was in? Counterculture darlings. Midnight Cowboy, a rated X movie, would win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Western was still around — and John Wayne’s True Grit was released this year — but increasingly it was trending towards less traditional movies like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch.
Oh, but the city fathers were clucking there tongues and asking, “What ARE we to do with Hollywood?”
And then there was Easy Rider, a movie that was made by smoking a metric ton of weed and which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. It is a movie about drug smugglers trying to get high and get laid in a dangerous world where the squares constantly have their heads in the crosshairs. Roger Ebert pointed out in his 1969 review that the movie didn’t come out of nowhere. Motorcycle pictures like The Wild Angels and Hell’s Angels on Wheels were familiar to teens who went to drive-in theaters. Easy Rider was basically the motorcycle movie gone legit. Associate them with the hippie movement, and they go from being fearsome hoodlums to put-upon anti-heroes… doomed by an establishment that sees no use for them.
Ebert, in his follow up “Great Movies” review, made an interesting observation about Peter Fonda’s character.
Captain America … is cool, quiet, remote, a Christ figure who flies the American flag on his gas tank, his helmet and the back of his leather jacket. (It would be a year later, after the release of “Joe,” that flag decals were co-opted by the right.)
It’s a microcosm into a short-lived time when the American flag stood for rebellion and bikers were sympathetic… before the hippie movement came crashing down in December 6 of the same year at Altamont when drugs make people violent rather than mellowing them out and bikers like the Hells Angels were scary again.
And yet… I don’t really love this movie. I suppose I should give it a try some time again, perhaps when it’s on streaming. A lot of cinema in that era assumed that righteous anger and rebellion against conformity and The Man was enough to get the audience to side with the protagonists. Their instincts were probably right, at least with the Boomer generation.
Not to me, though. I found the protagonists unlikable and unsympathetic. But then again… I didn’t grow up in an era where the Vietnam War was a daily concern, and conscripted soldiers weren’t returning disillusioned in a country that betrayed them at every turn — from the government right to respectable society to good ol’ boy rednecks. Maybe giving everyone the finger was the only way. That and taking it to the open road where people will leave you alone.
I may not like Easy Rider, but I do respect it.
So today’s prompt: What “great movie” do you find unappealing despite all your instincts telling you that you should like it?
Fun fact discovered whilst reading Wikipedia: Rip Torn was originally going to play George Hanson. Dennis Hopper began ripping on the rednecks he’d run into while scouting locating in the South. Torn, a Texan, took offense and the two came to blows. (In an interview on Leno, Hopper said that Torn pulled a knife on him. Torn sued Hopper over that anecdote for defamation and won.) Torn left the project and was replaced by Jack Nicholson.