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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