Easy Rider

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I was sad­dened to read that Dennis Hopper died today at the age of 74. Obituaries are start­ing to appear here and there, and most share a view of his career as errat­ic and uneven. What they fail to see is that Hopper was not an actor, but an artist who hap­pened to do some act­ing on the side. And like every artist, he was prone to his mood swings and long spells of ennui and disenchantment.

The times they are a‑changin’.

Dennis Hopper’s great roles were few and far between, but when they came, they grabbed us by the cojones and didn’t let go — until the next great role came along, which in some cas­es was a decade lat­er. He gave us, among many oth­ers, a drug-crazed yet bril­liant pho­tog­ra­ph­er in Apocalypse Now (1979), a mur­der­ous yet child­like sadist in Blue Velvet (1986), and a tough yet lov­ing father in True Romance (1993).

While his first role came in the land­mark film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), it all began for Dennis Hopper with Easy Rider (1969), his direc­to­r­i­al debut and a free­wheel­ing ride on the winds of change that blew through the 1960s. The film is unapolo­getic to the point of approach­ing nihilism in its depic­tion of two bik­ers’ trek across the United States.

Life

Early in the film, the bik­ers pre­pare to  embark on their jour­ney. One of them waits at the side of the road to watch a plane fly over­head and land in a near­by airstrip. The scene is shot with a long tele­pho­to lens, which short­ens per­spec­tive, and the char­ac­ter and air­plane appear quite large in the frame.

The scene is serene and pic­turesque, and word­less­ly express­es the theme of the entire film: an entire nation rag­ing with anger and fear. The motion of the air­plane from behind the cam­era, past Fonda, and into the dis­tance sug­gests that the young char­ac­ters are sub­ject to the unfath­omable pow­er of change in an America in the midst of war: his­to­ry, cul­ture, and iden­ti­ty are all in flux. And with the screech of the air­plane’s wheels on the run­way, the rid­ers’ jour­ney begins.

Goodbye yel­low brick road.

Death

After much trav­el­ing, the two rid­ers stop at a New Orleans grave­yard to take a trip of a dif­fer­ent nature. They drop some LSD and their jour­ney takes an omi­nous turn as each man falls prey to his demons and tum­bles into a well of despair. The grave­yard trans­forms into a frag­men­tary vision of hell as they hal­lu­ci­nate their worst night­mares and most haunt­ing memories.

This is the flip­side of the free­dom that the char­ac­ters have up to that point embraced, enjoyed and then abused through their trav­els and is a potent com­men­tary on lost dreams and wast­ed youth.

A few years ago, Dennis Hopper was at the Skirball Cultural Center to intro­duce Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961). During the Q&A, I asked Hopper about his role in David Lynch’s equal­ly sur­re­al Blue Velvet, which I called “the last American Surrealist film.” In response, he briefly cor­rect­ed me by declar­ing it not the last but the first, and went on to give an elo­quent descrip­tion of his approach to the role.

That’s Dennis Hopper in a nut­shell: His career was one of firsts, where instead of fol­low­ing trends he cre­at­ed them. Then he qui­et­ly sat back as they were emu­lat­ed, copied, and final­ly banalized.

Dennis Hopper, you shall be missed.

Directed by Dennis HopperStarring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda

This sto­ry is from Meedo’s upcom­ing book mon­tage­space: Cinema and the Making, Un-Making and Re-Making of Architecture. Please feel free to con­tact us for more details and read relat­ed sto­ries here.

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