Dennis Hopper died on Saturday. He had a long career as an actor, director, photographer, and painter.
I’ll remember him as the director, co-writer, and co-star of Easy Rider, which shot to the top of my list of favorite movies when I first saw it at age fourteen and has stayed there ever since.
I had never seen a movie like it before. Every shot of László Kovács’ camerawork looked as carefully composed as a painting. It had a rocking soundtrack, cool characters, and an epic journey on the open road. I was also intrigued by a dark undercurrent that got darker as the movie progressed. What more could an angsty teen itching for freedom ask for?
As I grew up I kept coming back to it, like when I chose to major in archaeology as people around me shook their heads and muttered words like “practicality” and “earning power”. I watched it several times in my twenties, and again in my early thirties when I decided not to pursue my Ph.D., as my colleagues urged me to reconsider and not “waste all that work”. It’s followed me through ten years as a writer, a career with less “practicality” and “earning power” than archaeology.
The more I watched Easy Rider the more I saw in it. While it’s superficially about Wyatt and Billy, two friends who have scored big on a drug deal and set off on a cross-country motorcycle trip headed for Mardi Gras and a life of freedom, it’s about much more than that. The film is laden with symbolism. Their cocaine dealer is named Jesus and Wyatt’s prostitute friend is named Mary, just for starters. Plus their visits with hippies and communes show a stark despair under all the drugs and flowers. The rural Americans they meet are hostile, and the two friends get threatened and jailed at every turn. As the film progresses you see what Dennis Hopper and coauthors Peter Fonda and Terry Southern were getting at. Two young men with all the money they need are on a quest for freedom, and they fail–miserably, horribly, and, because they rejected a better path when it was offered, inevitably.
Many other films are beautifully shot and carry deep messages under the surface glitter, so why is this my favorite? It comes down to one scene, one line really, a line I’ve always felt but never heard anyone else say. I didn’t need to hear that line at fourteen because I had already figured it out for myself, but it sure helped to know someone else felt the same.
At one point Wyatt and Billy pick up a nameless, arrogant hitchhiker. While camping in an old Indian pueblo Wyatt turns introspective and quietly asks nobody in particular,
“You ever want to be somebody else?”
The hitchhiker, too cool to communicate, tokes on his joint and says, “I’d like to try Porky Pig.”
Wyatt gives a little laugh, pauses a moment as he stares into the campfire, and says softy,
“I never wanted to be anybody else.”