Sunday, June 26, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
Those who may think this groundbreaking film is simply a celebration of the 1960’s hippie culture as a newly found prescription for living should reconsider their position. As director Dennis Hopper said, he primarily saw this movie as a western, and that it was a road picture with John Ford’s vistas as the backdrop. In many ways this motion picture, despite its modern found music soundtrack, is about a nostalgia for America’s past, and a critique of its present.
If there is any doubt about the non-glorification of the story’s two main characters, just watch the beginning. They are, as producer, co-writer, and star Peter Fonda described it, “scoring junk in a junk yard,” in Mexico. They buy what appears to be a large quantity of cocaine from Mexicans and then sell it to a rich guy (played by music producer Phil Spector) who drives up in a Rolls Royce. In the background we hear the rock group Steppenwolf singing the indicting words, “God damn the pusher man.” So these guys are really capitalists making a huge profit in a transaction with another well-to-do businessman. There is no altruistic idealist activity going on here. They immediately do what most modern day Americans do when they come into money – they upgrade, in this case by buying two new motorcycles. One of them has a gas tank with the American flag painted on it. Their cash is rolled up, inserted into a tube, and shoved into the tank. This symbol of intercourse implies, as Fonda said, that they were “f…… America.” (Hopper said the title of the movie refers to a man who takes the earnings of a prostitute who loves him. Basically business people have pimped out America for profit. He also said by the time the movie was made that “The Summer of Love” was over, and that the dealing of hard drugs killed the counter-culture). So the above noted scene is emblematic of the degradation of what the United States once stood for. The tear drop shape of the tank may signify the sorrow felt for what the country has become.
But let’s not dismiss these two men as totally negative. Fonda’s character has two names. One is Captain America, referencing the hero of the comics who fought for all that is good about his country. He also has a jacket and a helmet depicting the nation’s flag. These items could be seen as ironic. But many in the counter-culture era in which the film was made mockingly wore clothing with the flag on it to demonstrate how the symbol had lost its meaning in a country that waged an unjustifiable war in Vietnam and allowed the violation of civil rights. The Captain America name may imply that Fonda’s character longs for a past where the country’s ideals were cherished. The character’s other name is Wyatt (we don’t hear this name until the end), which refers to Wyatt Earp. It fits the character’s personality. Earp was lawman, but he also was a gunfighter, arrested many times, and may have been involved in fixing a prize fight. In the film, Wyatt appears to be the more complex one. Despite his dope-dealing, he has more sympathy for others, admiring farmers, escorting girls at a commune, and, in a sense, freeing the prostitutes from the brothel toward the end of the movie. Hopper’s character is Billy. The director said that in a country that carries out unjust actions, the only alternative is to become outlaws. So, his name conjures up Billy the Kid. He also constantly wears what appears to be a buckskin outfit, a cowboy’s clothes. Both characters’ names conjure up that nostalgia for the Old West and the idealized individuality it represents.
The two men do symbolize the 1960’s desire to recapture the desire for individual freedom that was the primary goal of the Founding Fathers. At the beginning of the movie, Wyatt takes off his watch and throws it away, obviously signifying the desire to be free of time’s restraints which are inextricably tied to a life dominated by obligation and mortality. Fonda said he wore the unorthodox leather pants he dons in the movie while immersing himself in water, so that the material would cling to him, appearing like a second skin. In a way, it shows his very nature is one of rebellion against external restraints. At one point he says that he never wanted to be anybody else, which points to his strong sense of individuality, and his imperviousness to being subservient to the will of others to remake him into their image of what they think he should be. The scene where the cowboys replace the shoe on a horse as the men fix a flat on a bike shows the motorcycle as a mechanistic equine replacement. One can see the shot as nostalgia for the older form of transportation, but it also can indicate that we still yearn for that exhilaration we feel as we fly unrestricted through the nation’s expanse as its wind washes over us.
Wyatt and Billy give the Stranger on the Highway (Luke Askew) a ride and they go to the commune where he resides. The people there could also be considered outlaws from the modern materialistic society, wanting to, again, return to the past by having “simple food for simple tastes,” which they acquire by living off of the land. As the Stranger says, he is from the city, and wants to be “a long way from the city,” which represents modern corruption. This yearning for the frontier places this film squarely in the realm of literature that idealizes the unspoiled frontier as the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The Stranger offers Wyatt a wafer of supposedly the hallucinogen LSD to be shared with the right people at the right place. He says that this could be the right pace. He also says, ominously, to Wyatt, “The time’s running out.” This scene is a pivotal one in the story. Billy is all about time, wanting to rush Wyatt to the next place. Here, he wants to get to the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. He is sort of a dark force dragging them to their demise. Unfortunately, Wyatt says he has to go.
The two men join in a parade in a small town in the south with their bikes. They are arrested for parading without a permit. This action signifies that one has to comply with the rules of society, whether or not they are fair, to travel in the mainstream, to be part of the community. They go to jail not really because they do not have a permit, but because they have long hair and dress differently, rebelling against the established norms by refusing to blend in and accept standardized modes of appearance. Luckily, they befriend a local lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson, in an Oscar-nominated, star-making performance), who is, in his own way a rebel - a drunk, and representative for the ACLU - but who is from an influential family, and gets the two men off by greasing palms with cash. In a sense Wyatt and Billy liberate him, too, by allowing George to join them on the way to Mardi Gras, a life-long desire of the lawyer’s.
Along the way, they stop at a local restaurant where locals harass the three visitors. One of the town’s residents warn that they won’t make it to the county line. They leave without getting any service. They camp out, and George basically voices the desire for the way the country used to be, and how freedom in America is now at risk. He says, “this used to be a helluva good country.” Billy says that people seem to be scared of them. George says, “They’re scared of what you represent to ‘em.” He says they fear their freedom, which Billy questions, since freedom is “what it’s all about.” George replies, “Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna’ talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But, they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare em.’” And, that reminder that they have compromised their freedom for monetary gain, warns George, makes them dangerous.
George’s foreboding words come to pass. The three are ambushed while they sleep, and the attackers beat George to death. Hopper said that it would have been too straightforward if George was an African American, because it would have showed the murder as a limited act of bigotry. By killing not only a white person, but a Southerner, it showed that America was capable of killing any one of its citizens, even one of its own local residents. It showed that the killers were sending a message that a traitor of the accepted area’s culture received his just punishment. And, Wyatt and Billy can’t disclose the act of violence, since the sheriff was one of the harassers, and the two would probably be held as the prime suspects.
They do travel on to New Orleans, and Billy wants to go the bordello that George hoped to visit. There are a number of religious paintings and icons at this place, sort of reversing the usual association of sex with sin, and in keeping with the film’s desire to return to a Garden of Eden type of innocence. It is at this point that Wyatt has a premonition of his own death, his bike in flames on a road. The name of the prostitute who is paired with Wyatt is named Mary (Toni Basil), emphasizing the pre-apple eating lack of needing to distinguish good from evil. The other prostitute is played by Karen Black. The four share the psychedelic wafer Wyatt received at the commune, and which Fonda later compared to participating in a sort of hippie holy communion (the similarity between “commune” and “communion” was, I am sure, intended). They wind up, again ominously, in a cemetery. We hear The Lord’s Prayer recited, but the words are undercut with the sounds of a money-making oil drill in the background. We see Wyatt sitting in the lap of a statue featuring Liberty. The point, according to Fonda, was to question whether freedom was real in fact, or now just an illusion. Hopper said that the man reading a book and then wandering off brandishing an open umbrella was a reference to a symbol of death used by Cocteau, another bad omen.
After Wyatt and Billy head out on the road again, we then see the two camped out. Billy says, “We did it, we did it. We’re rich man. We’re retirin’ in Florida now, mister.” To which Wyatt responds, “You know Billy, we blew it.” The idea of making your fortune and then retiring to Florida is the clichéd goal of modern American materialism. Fonda said that he hated the idea of retirement, when there was so much work to be done to fix what’s wrong with the country. Wyatt realizes that the road on which they have been traveling is the wrong one after all. They missed the opportunity to do something that was unselfish and beneficial to others.
The dangerous prediction of George and the other forebodings become realized when two rednecks in a pick-up shoot Billy on a road after he flips them the finger after their abusive comments. Wyatt goes to him and significantly covers him with his flag-designed jacket, a sort of bestowal of a countercultural shroud. He rides off for help, but the two in the truck shoot at him, too, and we see his bike fly into the air as it disintegrates, like his freedom, and bursts into flames. We then get an aerial shot. Fonda said the camera shows the audience the man-made road with man-made violence, and then pans to show a river next to it, which is God’s road. We have the contrasting beauty of that natural, unspoiled path made long ago from which the country has strayed.
The next film is Citizen Kane.