Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tonto and the Lone Ranger Do Counterculture

From the opening credits to the end, I think Easy Rider has to be one of the most stereotypically "cool" movies we've watched all semester. Filmed during the first part of 1968, Easy Rider exemplifies the best and the worst about the booming counterculture going on all across the United States, and sort of foreshadows the darker turn the movement would make shortly after the filming of the movie. The movie kicks off with lots of drugs and lots of rock n' roll (don't worry, we'll get to the sex a little later), much like a lot of stoner movies nowadays. However, I seriously doubt that Easy Rider could be classified as a stoner movie--although the main characters are indeed stoned for a good deal of the film--due to its serious outlook on American society and grim themes violence and the less happy side of drug culture.

Like most movies in the bildundsroman genre, Easy Rider has the main protagonist and his sidekick. Now, I think we can all spot the fact that Peter Fonda's character Wyatt is the main protagonist from a mile away--for the love, Billy calls him Captain America! That, of course, leaves Dennis Hopper's character Billy as the ever-faithful sidekick. From the very beginning, they kind of reminded me of an amoral Tonto and the Lone Ranger. However, in this story, I don't feel that Billy supplemented Wyatt's personal growth; rather, he provided a contrast to the sort of life that Wyatt thought the counterculture was all about. Billy lived off of and actively participated in the counterculture and all of its glories and excesses, but in the end his mindset was not so different from that of a staunch old Republican: take advantage of capitalism and make a fortune, then find a nice condo in Boca and settle in for the rest of your days. He is very casual about the whole journey, from the commune to Marti Gras Billy is along for the ride, having a good ole' time.

Wyatt is another story. Much more reserved and removed, everything Wyatt does has an air of sacredness to it. Take for example the acid trip toward the end of the movie. Wyatt deals out the tablets like he is a priest delivering the Eucharist on Sunday morning. He also seems to subscribe to a somewhat virtuous code of living, at least when it comes to hospitality and being a polite guest. He makes sure to compliment the owner of the farm on his "nice spread" and in the commune he gently chastises Billy for wanting to refuse some of the women a ride to another place, pointing out that he and Billy had eaten their food and therefore owed the women a ride. Unlike Billy, Wyatt is not so much into the coke dealing and living off of other people's money. At the commune, he seems genuinely interested in the idea of being self-sufficient and living off of the land, and appears pretty impressed with the farmers, even though they are almost certainly doomed to failure.

Between Wyatt and Billy, I'd have to say that Wyatt is most clearly the epitome of cool within the film. However, the question must be asked: are either one of them that cool? Sure, they are kind of free and definitely represent freedom of the open road, but what is the frame of reference for coolness? Personally, I don't find the drug scene all that cool, and they were both pretty deeply involved in that. I think what Easy Rider said most to me is that there is no hard and fast rule of cool.


  1. I like your Tonto and Lone Ranger reference! Why do you think stoner movies today are so much more lax about the negative effects of drug use? Is it because we are more accepting of drug use today, or because we no longer feel that responsibility to show the truth behind that lifestyle?

  2. I second Anna in both the Lone Ranger reference as well as the desire to hear more about what you see going on in stoner flicks today!

  3. Maybe Billy was there as more than just a contrast. Maybe he was there as a hindrance as well. It seemed like he was always diverting attention away from truly important matters towards himself.