In the following essay, I will attempt to highlight the phenomenon in cinema known as the “counterculture youth-pic.” This trend in production started in the late 1960’s as a result of the economic and cultural influences on the film industry of that time. The following essay looks at how those influences helped to shape a new genre in the film industry, sighting Easy Rider as a main example, and suggests some possible reasons for the relatively short popularity of the genre. “The standard story of the counterculture begins with an account of the social order against which it rebelled, a social order that was known to just about everyone by 1960 as the “mass society.” The tale of post-war malaise and youthful liveliness is a familiar one; it is told and retold with the frequency and certainty of historical orthodoxy.” (Thomas Frank, Conquest of Cool) Following World War II, The United States entered a decade of prosperity. Consumerism flourished, and the middle class worker enjoyed the benefits of an economy on the rise.
Part of the reason for this rise in the economy, was the change in the work place. Time management and efficiency were emphasized, and the conditions of corporate America reflected it. The cubicle, nine to five workday, and business dress were all products of this change. This focus on efficiency could be seen outside the workplace as well.
“College campuses were such Monoliths of conformity at the decade’s start that university of California chancellor Clark Derr, confidently predicted that “employers will love this generation” because “they were going to be easy to handle.” (Shaky Ground, Alice Echols) However, this conformity of the populace to fit the needs of the adult consumer society aroused feelings of disgust in the youth of the day. They felt as though corporate society saw them merely as pieces of a machine, to be worked over and used for the greatest profit. The counterculture movement can be read as a direct result. Many factors converged to create the hippie counterculture, namely drugs and rock’n’roll, but the forming of this subculture wouldn’t have been so popular had America not at that moment economically well off. While the rebel youth of the 1960’s were rejecting America’s relentless materialism, their revolt was enabled and underwritten by America’s unprecedented prosperity.
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Following the beatnik movement of the late 1950’s a number of young people, embracing some of the same ideas, congregated in San Diego’s Haight suburb. But it was not necessarily just the youth of the day that were part of this social rejection. “The last half of the 1960’s saw the emergence of seemingly new cultures among young people, which were promptly collapsed under the label youth culture by adults. Even so, these cultures were neither entirely novel, nor limited to young people, nor so homogeneous as to be described by one label.” (Grans, Comparative Analysis) Part of what made this movement so distinguishable at the time was the rebellion against the fashion industry, as well as social norms. It was relatively easy to pick out which people sympathized with the movement, especially with the characteristic male look of the “Jesus Christ hair and beard.” They dressed to highlight their, combining clothes of other times and cultures. “Davy Crockett buckskin, military surplus, Buddhist robes, Edwardian suits, Errol Flynn pirate shirts, native American headbands, capes, cowboy and Beatle boots, hats-bowlers, stove-top, cowboy, Eskimo, anything-and beads, of course.” (Echols, Shaky Ground) It was not only the social values and fashion trends that were experimented with.
... dive deeper into what has become the most genuine counterculture of modern times. Marijuana was originally viewed as merely another tool for ... know what's going on.' It is these people who are at the culture's heart, and ultimately, it will be them ...
This period in history also saw a large rise in drug usage. Marijuana in particular became very popular. The invention of acid (LSD) was also crucial to the music scene at the time, which was a large part of the counterculture. These new drugs allowed the mind to experience certain stimuli that the brain under normal functioning reduces to a slight impulse. The theme of drugs and drug usage was prevalent in the counterculture symbols of the time as well. And towards the end of the 1960’s one of those symbols became the counterculture youth pic film.
“As for America, the poor boy and rich girl story (or rich boy and poor girl), which was the staple of the popular film before World War II, had disappeared. Money as romance had receded, not because everyone was now rich but because the middle class image has replaced both the poor image and the rich image. There was, for example, little difference in appearance between the clerk’s car and the boss’s. The ascendancy of the middle class had reached the point where it was strong enough to control cultural forms, and to magnify its own image in art.” (Frank, Conquest) The movie industry at the time had been filling the screens with spectacular productions, melodramatic love stories, and popular culture. These films, which were very successful early on, soon became clich ” ed, and were no longer profitable. For the first time in its history, Hollywood was having trouble pleasing the audience.
The culture of the time had worked so hard to condition American audiences to accept a certain image onscreen, that they had removed their desire for change. “Despite its apparent enthusiasm, goes the standard binary narrative, the Establishment was deeply threatened and in mortal conflict with a counterculture that aimed to undermine its cherished ethics of hard work and conformity. Easy Rider concludes with its hip heroes murdered by white Southerners; the hero of Zabriskie Point and those of Bonnie and Clyde are shot as well; the hero of Hair disrupts a society dinner party, is arrested, and then killed in Vietnam; and in Shampoo, a free-spirited hairdresser is bested by a loathsome financier. “This society fears its young people deeply and desperately and does all that it can to train those it can control in its own image,” wrote Ralph Gleason, one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone, in January, 1969.” (Frank, Conquest) Seeing this trend as a potential threat to future profits, the film industry took a gamble. They invested in a “counterculture youth pic.” A prime example of a counter culture youth pic, and indeed the most popular, was the movie Easy Rider. The movie starred Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson.
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This was by no means the only film depicting the behaviour and attitudes of the counterculture however. Films such as Wild Angels (also starring Peter Fonda) and A Hard Day’s Night (starring the Beatles) were also popular at the time. “In California, folkies David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Roger Mcginn were “Beatle Struck” after seeing “A Hard Days Night.” Crosby remembers “coming out of that movie so jazzed that I was swinging around stop poles at arm’s length. I knew right then what my life was going to be.
I wanted to do that. I loved the attitude and the fun of it; there was sex, there was joy, there was everything I wanted out of life.” (Echols, Shaky Ground) Directing movies at a subculture (especially a drug subculture) audience continues today with films such as Half-baked, and Da Chronic Spot. However, Easy Rider was one of the first to intentionally highlight and depict a subculture. The roots of Easy Rider lie in the Hollywood “B” movie, which is closely related to the 1960’s the exploitation film.
The narrative plot of Easy Rider, developed by Peter Fonda, is heavily influenced by the exploitation films Fonda had acted in previously (Wild Angels).
Big budget films from the major Hollywood studios had traditions of craftsmanship and taste, which would often restrict the limits of filmmaking. The exploitation films however, were not held to these traditions, and often were about sex and violence, rather than story. But the downside of the exploitation film is that one never knew if the director was committed to the ideal they were presenting. The name “exploitation film” suggests not only a disinterest in film content but deceiving the audience as well. Not many audiences will pay to see movies in which writing, acting, and technical crafts (lighting, makeup, cinematography) are so bad that the film doesn’t look even semi-professional.
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Originally the film was supposed to be released by American International, with Fonda and Hopper as producers. But BBS studios, an independent film studio owned by Columbia Pictures, offered Fonda a better deal. BBS was more than willing to front Fonda the $365, 000 to produce what they called a “risky teen pic” film. Hopper and Fonda were given relative creative freedom, which caused small problems at times, but provided for some innovative and experimentally creative footage. The idea of easy rider was to apply the low-budget production methods of the B film to a deeply felt, contemporary subject.
The screenplay, written by Fonda, Hopper, and Terry Southern, traces the adventures of the two long-haired motorcyclists, Billy (hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) from a drug deal in Mexico, to LA, and then to Mardi Gras, via the American Southwest. Along the way they have several encounters with characters and scenes characteristic of rural and small-town America. They meet a farmer with a Mexican wife and a large family, stay briefly at a hippie commune in the desert, are arrested for driving through a parade, are put in a jailhouse where they meet and pick up lawyer George Hansen (Nicholas), and stop at a restaurant where the local sheriff and his cronies make threatening remarks while some giggling girls ask for a ride. That evening, while the three of them are sleeping, a group of unsettled country residents bludgeon Hansen to death, and injure Wyatt and Billy. Following Hansen’s recommendation, they continue on to Mardi Gras, and visit a high class bordello house. They spend the day drinking and dropping acid in a cemetery with two prostitutes.
The movie ends with the murder of both riders by a man in a truck with a shotgun, while driving through the southern country. Easy Rider’s relative success can be gauged simply by looking at what else was playing in American movie theatres in July 1969, when the film was released. The three top-grossing films for the previous week are The Love Bug (Disney), True Grit (Paramount), and April Fools (National General).
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These and other titles constitute a very diverse market, put no particular pattern. It’s a portrait of a film industry in disarray, where traditional blockbusters are no longer reliable, but nothing has as yet moved in to take their place.
Enter the immensely successful Easy Rider. In a very brief period following the movie’s success, the studios moved from investing in traditional, big-budget productions, to an enthusiasm for new talents and experimental, low-budget films. The American film industry seemed to be undergoing a major shift, and Easy Rider’s success was the reason. Easy rider was a cheap film that gained tremendous “weight” because of it’s placement in cultural history and its overwhelming reception. It was a hit in North America and Europe, eventually earning 6 million.
Its success led to much discussion of the “new generation” of American youth, and new approaches to making films. The “hippie generation” or “counterculture” had by 1969 been established in popular music, but had made little impact on the film industry, apart from the B movies of the time. Suddenly, with easy rider, the culture of long hair, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was featured on the world’s movie screens. There was nothing innovative in the narrative of Easy Rider. It consisting of several loosely linked adventures, plus footage of Wyatt and Billy on the road. The journey is not particularly suspenseful or melodramatic, but it does have a certain mythic element to it.
It is a celebration of the beauty, promise, and diversity of America, connecting traditional scenery with new ideas. It was the westerns of John Ford that inspired the footage of monument valley, as well as the names Wyatt and Billy, but easy rider was by no means a western movie. The desert spaces of the first half of the movie are visually much more appealing than suburban towns of the second half. As soon as the heroes enter into the organized life of the small-town parade, they are arrested. They are nearly forced out of a caf’e by the people who are supposed to be upholding the law. This effort to transform them from relative freedom to conformity is mentioned during George Hansen’s speech, when he says that the Americans of 1969 give lip service to freedom, but are terrified of the real thing.
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The encounter at the caf’e highlights the supposed threat that these “hippies” are posing to the patriarchal society, and the film suggests that this is the cause for the attack that ends up taking Hansen’s life. These were issues dealt with every day by the youth culture of the 1960’s. This symbolism gives substance to a narrative plot which is often weak. The opening scenes are hurried, almost unimportant to the overall plot. The audience learns little about the backgrounds and motivations of Wyatt and Billy.
Later, the scenes focus on the people the heroes meet, taking the attention off any character changes that Billy and Wyatt might be unconsciously making. The emphasis is put on the visual style of the movie (particularly the violence common in B pictures of the time) which takes the focus off a less psychologically well developed plot and lack of overriding narrative. However, there is more to Easy Rider than a sketchy plot and senseless violence. The visuals are very important, and they communicate ideas with directness unusual in Hollywood cinema. The several montages of Fonda and Hopper riding motorcycles are themselves images of freedom. They ” re on the open road, with no sense of time (Wyatt removes his watch and tosses it into the sand at the beginning of the film).
Lalo Kovac’s photography focuses much of the time on the customized Harleys, showing details on the wheels and chrome as the bikes are moving. In one scene, Dennis Hopper veers across the road and the camera zooms out slightly to frame him against the background in a particularly moving image of freedom. Some images are presented with a kind of reverence: the earth, water, and sky of the Southwest; the rancher’s family at dinner, and the commune members saying grace. Other images are meant to covey conformity and a side of the human being not otherwise shown in the film (the jailhouse scene and especially the acid trip in the cemetery, respectively).
16 mm shooting on a rainy day seems to convey an ugly, depressed mood, as the actors play out their little psychodramas amongst the graves. This duality of liberating beauty and depressing wretchedness was also part of the mentality of the social movement of the time. Easy rider’s unconventional production can be read as a sociological, rather than an artistic piece. The film sympathizes with the alienated youth, though the presentation may be less than professional. Part of the movie’s success was attributed to its representation of an alternate America. The film more than references, it encompasses the drug culture, bikers, hippies, and the commune movement, a revived interest in the American Indian, and an excellent rock and roll soundtrack, including influential bands of the time like Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, The Band, and Jimi Hendrix.
However, this film does present certain issues of the time without taking a particular position on them. The trafficking of cocaine and smoking of marijuana, prostitution, and the motivation for violence against “hippies” in the south, are never directly dealt with. These issues seem to be presented more as a reality of what was happening during that time, than a social critique of society. The violent ending can be read as an amateur combination of a narrative need for closure, and a desire not to take an offensive position on a complex social situation. The film consists partly of a motorcycle movie (which often end in violence), but mostly as an exploitation film. The latter of these genres has a tendency to leave endings open and unresolved.
The fact that Billy’s death was accidental (the shooter was only trying to scare him) simultaneously avoids a deeper social statement, and helps the killer retain some innocence. The huge influence Easy Rider had on the movie industry did not go unnoticed by the rest of the advertising industry. The counterculture market was soon targeted for all kinds of different products. .”..
advertising in the sixties, and afterward, counselled consumers on maintaining individuality and purpose in a time that sought to deny individuality. The move to this more hip style was fully established by 1965, well before the counterculture had made its national media debut (by my own count fully 70 percent of automobile advertising appeared in Life magazine in 1965 was distinguishable as hip, as was 55 percent of all advertising in six product categories).
And in the later years of the decade, when youth and counterculture became the paramount symbols of this new sensibility in ads, hip became virtually hegemonic, almost extinguishing the older, square style altogether (the high point came in 1968-69, when hip advertising hit 79 percent in Life’s auto ads went above 70 percent in all ads).
Hip advertising ran the entire width and breadth of the corporate spectrum.” (Frank, Conquest) On the February 1971 edition of GQ magazine cover there was a long-haired, bell-bottomed, pot-smoking Uncle Sam. Inside, the patriotic symbol of traditional Americana was pictured on a motorcycle with the distinctive long handlebars and extended fork that Peter Fonda’s motorcycle sported Easy Rider. Ironically, the very culture which strived to contradict, downright defy, society and its conventions, was eventually assimilated and even manipulated by the mass market to turn a profit.
The establishment-destructive and non-conformist ideals of the generation were turned into norms. This could be seen as a major reason more counterculture films following Easy Rider did not do nearly as well. Instead of being groundbreaking and socially explicit, the movies became clich ” ed and redundant. Easy rider became at the same time the first, pinnacle, and last of the counterculture exploitation films. Bibliography Echols, Alice. Shaky Ground: the Sixties and Its Aftershocks…
New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 17-50. Grans, Herbert J. (1999) “A Comparative Analysis of High and Low Culture.” In Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste (pp.
New York, NY: Basic Books. Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1997. 74-166..