The recent death of 79-year-old Peter Fonda got us thinking again of his 1969 road outing, East Rider, which Fonda produced, co-wrote and costarred in (with Dennis Hopper and a young Jack Nicholson).
Fonda’s Aug. 19 obit in USA Today was typical in that it described the film as a “groundbreaking counterculture classic.”
Okay. Easy Rider was certainly groundbreaking, signifying a ground shift from the grind-it-out movies at the end of the big studio era. It was a worldwide box office hit. But a “classic?”
Not many movies, but more than you might suspect, can meet that heady but often misused qualification. Often a picture is declared a “classic” by over-enthused critics the instant of its initial release. Then, when seen a decade or two later, it plays flat and dated.
An obvious example is Easy Rider, which made Nicholson a star. As noted, it was hailed then and now as a low-budget groundbreaker about alienated youth. But we say Easy Rider is tough to take seriously today (despite its appealing musical soundtrack).
The film is a historic depiction of the counterculture era of the late 1960s and early 70s. And the use of drugs is realistically depicted. In fact the actors actually ingested the drugs their characters are shown using.
The plot is almost irrelevant. Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) are drug dealers and on a roadtrip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They encounter hippies, a commune of free love, and bigots. They are arrested and meet George Hanson (Nicholson), a drunkard lawyer in jail. George helps them get out of jail and the three continue on to Mardi Gras.
What the film does is to capture the sociopolitical climate of the times. Mainstream culture somehow see the hippies as a threat. The hippies are driven by a yearning for freedom. And drugs provide the route. The scenes of drug use, especially the cemetery scene when Wyatt and Billy drop acid with two prostitutes, Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil), are intense.
These unscripted LSD scenes with a mix of jump cuts, distorted imagery, the use of fish-eye lenses and close-ups of the sun make it a psychedelic must see movie.
But that was then, as the phrase goes. Easy Rider illustrates a cardinal rule that movies closely tracking the zeitgeist of their times run the real risk of dating themselves when times change.
A movie classic must, in our view, be timeless, not necessarily timely. The actors and actresses must visually be as striking now as they were then. The plot and the acting must not seem a function of period, as when hammy, over-reaching stage-trained actors were laughed off the screen when talkies were introduced in late 1920’s.
The folks at the British journal Sight and Sound occasionally do some heavy thinking about “classics”and what makes them so. They reported that the British Film Institute’s Classics Book Series rules that a movie should be at least 10 years old to qualify.
They say: ”Each re-viewing (of a classic) offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first. Yet even when we see the film for the first time, it gives us a sense of seeing something we have seen before….The films never exhaust all they have to say. They come to us bearing an aura of previous interpretations , and trailing behind them the traces they have have left in the cultures through which they have passed.”
Good enough. Sorry, Easy Rider doesn’t pass the test.