Nothing says 1969 like “Easy Rider,” the bad-trip Altamont to the ebullient celebration of the next year’s “Woodstock.” While the hippies were partying down, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson were discovering there was no place for them in America, either old or new. On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, Keith Phipps retraced the road trip taken by the gang.
The week-long series is halfway done on Slate, and it’s a good read, tracing what’s the same and what’s different. The biggest difference, though, is the gap between the “Easy Rider” trio and Phipps, whose mode of travel is a “rented PT Cruiser — a far cry from Wyatt and Billy’s choppers” and who knows he’s going home after he reaches New Orleans.
I dig the articles, but I kind of hate “Easy Rider.” As Mike D’Angelo once put it, that “ain’t my favorite film, man, and that’s like an understatement, man, okay, man?” But then, there’s always something inherently smug to me about Baby Boomers cultural artifacts, whether recent or of the moment. “Easy Rider” is despairing, yes, but in a way that congratulates the audience for sharing that despair.
A more enlightening eulogy for the death of ’60s idealism is Robert Kramer’s less celebrated 1975 brick of a movie, “Milestones.” At three hours and change, it’s not for the faint of heart; it can be grating, yes, but in a way that criticizes rather than embraces the reasons it’s grating.
As the title immodestly suggests, this seemingly mundane procession of ’60s acid casualties living their ’70s lives is meant to suggest the transition of an entire generation. As Melissa Anderson puts it, it tracks “the painful process through which collective action gave way to the Me Decade’s enraged narcissism,” spelling out the rancid final destination “Easy Rider” can only glimpse through the combined fug of pot smoke and motorcycle exhaust fumes. The territory overlaps a bit — commune time in “Easy Rider” is even longer in “Milestones,” self-righteous nudists and all — but their overall approaches to the same psychic terrain couldn’t be more different.
What “Easy Rider” does is take the camera along with the characters, getting all subjective: the mobility is both the film’s and its characters. “Milestones” reserves mobility only for the camera: its huge cast is spread out all over, mired in the traps they’ve set for themselves and unable to move.
Which is what makes it more authentic and rewarding than “Easy Rider,” whose locations are iconic enough for Phipps to revisit and compare/contrast the past and present of. “Milestones” is the “real America”: not the mythical nowhere and everywhere Dennis Hopper found, but anonymity, gloom and doom in run-down cities and the countryside you couldn’t figure out where in the world they were if your life depended on it.
If “Easy Rider” says going everywhere ultimately takes you nowhere — except in the iconic imagery it’s not too proud to hypocritically take — “Milestones” says nowhere is pretty much everywhere: a good lesson for the pervasive grunginess of the ’70s. It’s not on DVD, regrettably, but a new print was struck this year that’s making its way around the country sporadically. If it comes near you, it’s worth a look. Here’s a clip:
[Photo: “Easy Rider,” Sony, 1969; “Milestones,” Robert Kramer and John Douglas, 1975]