Easy Rider – Formalistic Editing and Meaning

Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper injects many different cinematic styles; notably his use of editing and camera movement throughout the film resulting in the counter-culture flavored film Easy Rider. From the establishing shot of Wyatt tossing away his gold watch- literally tossing time away- to the cuts of him (Wyatt) and ‘the Kid’ about to depart cross-country on their Harley’s, he sets the theme of freedom in America and personal discovery. There is spacial continuity in several scenes such as the long shots when Wyatt is changing tires in the barn cut with the shots of the farmer changing the shoe on his horse, symbolizing the quest for freedom and a new frontier.

Camera angles and lighting are used well to capture the feeling of freedom using telephoto lenses and dolly shots as seen in the bike/road scenes as they embark on their quest seeking a new frontier. The majority of the film editing is jarring and creative, ignoring the conventional 180 degree rule. The varying camera angles, quick cuts and zooms distort the scene in the graveyard to mimic an LSD trip. This scene symbolizes that using ‘hard’ drugs will lead to death. Hopper’s use of jump cuts, crossovers, and the quick cuts that are reflective of formalistic discontinuity editing are notably visible in the closing scenes that create anxiety and disorientation in the viewer – leading up to the suprising, violent and symbolic ending of the film. The high angles and birds eye-view camera angles in the final scene along with the wide pans give the film realism and brings closure to the theme the film was trying to get across. As we see the final arial shot of the road and the burning bike we know and realize that the carefree ideology the 60’s counterculture generation represented was gone. The only freedom, as Wyatt and the Kid show us, is through death.

The cultural meaning, the ideological theme of Easy Rider was about freedom, rebellion and the 60’s counterculture. I think it had both symptomatic and implicit meaning. Young people tried to change society and rebel against the status quo. During the 60’s many people became dismayed with the Government, it rules and what it symbolized. As Peter Fonda (producer of Easy Rider) was quoted as saying "That's what happened to America, man. Liberty's become a whore and we're all taking an easy ride." The social message of the film focused on our tendency to dehumanize and ridicule people who are different from us. In the film, the long hair, the wild clothes, the drug use, etc caused the discrimination of Wyatt and the Kid, not the drug use per se but the look they had, their mannerisms and what they represented- this went against the status quo. We can even look at the Nicholson-cast character of the drunken small town attorney. He was seen as an outcast and would have been outcast save his prominent father. As the film reaches its climatic ending we watch as the camera fades from the burning bike, Wyatt and the Kid murdered, and we’re left not with a sense of freedom but with disillusionment and wonder… Is there true freedom left for any of us? Does it exist? Given the meaning of the film the answer is the only way to be truly free and to escape the confinement of the rules of society is dying.

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