Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: 'Easy Rider' Blu-ray

It’s well known that the gritty, independently minded cinema that defined the seventies officially began in the final year of the previous decade with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. It was the perfect bridge between the goofy acid and motorcycle movies of Roger Corman’s sixties independents and seventies landmarks like Five Easy Pieces and The French Connection, with their sexist antiheroes and unflinching cynicism. While Easy Rider has a hazy reputation for celebrating the sixties’ hippies, drug culture, and Rock & Roll, it’s really a eulogy of that era. 

Hopper is Billy and co-screenwriter Peter Fonda is Wyatt, outlaws in cowboy hats and leather jackets riding across the wide-open west on their iron horses. Just like the cowboys of frontier times, they are also doomed to extinction. They visit a hippie commune lapsed into depression and destitution. Instead of changing hearts and minds with their in-your-face freedom, they meet a succession of unmovable, hostile, long-hair-hating rednecks. They end up weeping on acid. They end up in jail. There they meet a short-haired, tie-wearing lawyer (Jack Nicholson in the performance that rightfully made him a star) who’d never even smoked pot but seems to understand and embrace the joys of freedom more than they ever could. Wyatt sums up the film’s true message when Billy crows about a drug deal that will make them “rich” and able to “retire in Florida” (hardly hippie ideals) with a deflated “We blew it.” Things get worse from there.

Easy Rider is a defeated survey of sixties Utopianism. It packs a particular punch because it’s made by two guys who’d believed in that ideology. The general failure of that ideology largely led to the cynicism that plagued seventies cinema. Yet there is joy in its songs (The Byrds, The Band, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix), László Kovács’s gorgeous panoramic cinematography, and Jack Nicholson’s exuberant performance. The set piece in which the guys sell drugs to Phil Spector as heavy airplane traffic roars twenty feet above their heads is an ingenious piece of ultra-noisy “silent” filmmaking. The haunting graveyard acid trip is cinema’s first— and perhaps only— psychedelic sequence that does not feel like a comic strip parody. Don Camber’s flashing editing creates tension in the most serene scenes.

In 2010, The Criterion Collection gave Easy Rider a major hi-def renovation as part of the America Lost and Found: The BBS Story blu-ray/DVD box set. Last year, Criterion began the process of breaking up that collection with a stand-alone release of Five Easy Pieces, and it continues this year by putting out Easy Rider on its own (Head, meanwhile, will be part of Rhino’s endlessly upcoming Monkees Complete Series box set). This release is identical to the one in The BBS Story with the same hi-def restoration, extras (two commentaries; two documentaries from the nineties; a revealing interview with BBS’ Steve Blauner, who gives some fascinating information on his days working with The Monkees;  two minutes of B&W footage from Cannes 1969 featuring Hopper and Fonda), and even booklet essay. Fortunately, all of that stuff was great in The BBS Story, so if you wanted Easy Rider but didn’t want to spring for the whole box, this new release is ideal.
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