Easy Rider Will Tell You Something About Subtext

Easy Rider shows how subtext is not what most teachers and gurus tell you it is. Many mistake subtext with non-verbal communication. It is true that most of our communication is non-verbal, but when you can write this well, it doesn’t mean you master subtext. I believe we need to re-think the oversimplified secrets-and-lies approach to subtext.

Robert McKee went in the right direction with his statement “If the scene is about what the scene is about…” But great writing does not stop at avoiding to ‘write on the nose’.

We just need to go a little further.

I saw Easy Rider for the first time a long time ago. In fairness, I was never too keen on seeing it again. My recollection of it was slow, self-indulgent, and celebrating a culture I am not a part of.
Recently I studied thresholds, those sequences in movies where characters are on the move, as a metaphor of their psychological progress. I wanted to understand what this legendary road movie had to say about that.

Arthouse With A Story

subtext in easy riderEasy Rider was released in the year Nixon took office. Close to fifty years later, it is baffling how little has changed in the grand scheme of the American socio-political landscape. Easy Rider feels like an end-of-an-era movie, and today we are there again. While all hope is lost, the masses are watching Captain America and preparing to vote for Trump.

The first seven minutes of Easy Rider show what anti-heroes Billy and Wyatt (Captain America) are all about: two seemingly careless bikers who finance their freedom with the occasional drug deal.

When the opening credits roll over Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild, the film is already breaking new ground, as soundtracks had never consisted of existing song compilations. Against some spectacular cinematic backdrops – trademark of the movie and its cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs – the sequence launches the first minor threshold, leading us into the story.

And this may be an arthouse pic, but there is a clear visible goal: to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras.

Of course this is not the type of film that keeps you hooked because of its riveting plot. What matters lies under the surface.

No Subtext Without Serious Digging

easy rider - monument valley - subtextAfter the hippies pick up a hitchhiker, and fill up with gas, we’re in for some serious musical sightseeing. Over The Weight by The Band, the bikers cruise through Monument Valley, where they hole up for the night.

After the beauty, fun and freedom of the riding scenes, Wyatt now seems reflective; perhaps even tormented.
Billy asks “What’s the matter?” Wyatt replies: “I’m a little tired.” Later he says “I’m just getting my thing together.” I believe that’s exactly what this movie is about.

In the non-verbal, conventional sense , what Wyatt is saying here is “I don’t really want to talk with you any further right now.” The real subtext of the scene will only transpire later in the movie, when a pattern is established.

That pattern: Wyatt is tired of this life. He is ready to make new choices. Always being on the run from society may not be the solution for him. To me this seals the first act of this film; we know the destination, and we understand the psychological challenge the hero is facing.

America Getting Its Thing Together

Easy Rider is Captain America’s quest for identity and purpose, and by association, this is a metaphor for the nation’s journey towards redemption. Metaphors are part of the deeper subtext of a story.

When Billy laughs irreverently, the hiker tells him to be ‘a trifle polite’, as “the people this place belongs to are buried right under you.” In a non-verbal sense, the hitchhiker doesn’t like Billy’s attitude.

On a broader subtextual level, this may be why the hiker has fled the city. Because it builds on the burial grounds. His remark to Billy may also be criticising the nihilist attitude of those who attack everyone and everything, but don’t have a valuable alternative to offer.

Billy has long lost any values he might have had. He now floats from one high to the next, ignorant and numb. Without Wyatt, he is nobody. Wyatt seems to be more aware. He wasn’t born to follow – tons of subtext in the music, here – and he is still hopeful for that redemption. If only he might find himself somewhere along Route 66.

Spoiler alert: he won’t.

What Subtext Really Is About

easyrider-watchFather Henry Fonda didn’t understand what his son Peter was going on about with Easy Rider. This is not your regular Hollywood picture. Its meaning doesn’t lay bare on the surface. But it’s there for those willing to look.

A scene early in the movie sets it up. Billy (Hopper) and Captain America (Peter Fonda) invite themselves for lunch with a farmer and his large family. “My wife is catholic, you know.” Wyatt commends the rancher on the fact that he’s built a good living for himself.

The contrast between the rancher and his family, and the free-riding bikers who haven’t achieved anything tangible is stark. For Wyatt, this is a call to adventure. Perhaps it is a solution to his empty soul.

“No, I mean it, you’ve got a nice place. It’s not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”

And although Captain America is literally saying what he means, this line of dialogue provides true subtext. It is the meaning of the movie, and we are not (yet) aware of it. It will gain greater depth as the movie rolls on, and if we make an effort to look beyond merely non-verbal communication, we will slowly become aware of it.

Wyatt is ready to seek a purpose. He even considers settling. Easy Rider is the journey he goes on to figure this out.

-Karel Segers


7 thoughts on “Easy Rider Will Tell You Something About Subtext”

  1. Nicely ironic how a technically on-the-nose line from the Wyatt/Captain America character actually provides subtext at the scene and story level. :) A good example how subtext is not a formulaic, purely non-verbal, thing.

    Also the “Captain America” tag name for Wyatt has triply symbolic and thematic dimensions for the metroplex cinema universe of today. Not only might Wyatt be a symbol of America back then, he might be a symbol of the state that Hollywood is contemporarily in from a mass audience storytelling point of view. (Nicely barely co-incidental that Marvel (“Captain America”) movies do well with the mass viewing audience … Whereas, in general, less escapist movies do not … Might this be a hint of some kind of deeper cultural void or denial??)

    • I agree with the Captain America irony.
      Back then, it was a hippie trademark that would infuriate the mainstream.
      Today, the image has been completely hijacked by Hollywood.

  2. I suppose you could say I am somewhat infected by Easy Rider. The Strand Theatre in Pitt Street Sydney (now alas a victim of progress) was a small boutique arts theatre that showed the film morning noon and night continuously. I at the time bore the proud title of Assistant Projectionist so I saw the movie many times – times beyond count – somewhere between 200 and 1000 but who’s counting.

    Some trivia for you. Terry Southern lent his name to the project in the early stages of pre-production, because they were having trouble raising funds. It was shown for so long in Sydney at the Strand that it broke several records. It was (and probably is) one of the most successful box office stories ever.

    It was shown in wide screen format using back projection reflected through mirrors at a 45 degree angle. The mirrors were especially engineered with the silver reflecting surface on the top surface of the mirror. This was to save space and reduce aberration in colour and light scatter which would happen with a normal mirror.

    I enjoyed the film from the start, which was just as well as when you see something that many times, you are either going to like it – or go nuts.

    Some observations. This is a classic narrative in that follows a quest into new territories with our two explorers tested at every turn – coming to grips with new challenges and trying to find a way through. They are offered various solutions – suggested lifestyles along the way – but are always guided back on their “search for America” either by choice or by circumstances.

    To me Jack Nicholson is the joker in the wood-pile. He is the yeast that fires the energy to a new level. When Wyatt asks him:”Got a helmet?” His response: “Oh I go a helmet. I got a beauty!” is pure gold as is the image that immediately follows of George (Jack) behind Wyatt on the bike kitted out with grid-iron helmet.

    I see the film as an odyssey in all senses of the word. Like the classic poem it is a series of incident stories cobbled together and forming a rather chaotic whole. It is the music which makes it all come together. Not just the the obvious Born To Be Wild and (God Damn) The Pusher but also If You want to Be a Bird and It’s All Right Ma (I’m only Bleeding.) (Thank you Mr Dylan.)

    What is more interesting than the subtext within the film itself – is the subtext of the relationship between the two main creatives: Hopper and Fonda. Fonda as the producer tried to get Hopper fired on several occasions during the early stages of the movie. They ended up barely on speaking terms and for years were in conflict over money and creative differences which surfaced during the making of the film and afterwards.

    See: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064276/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv

    There are also a number of commentaries which detail the explosive nature of the process during the making of the film. Final credit and kudos must be shared between them (Fonda and Hopper), Laszlo Kovacs (DOP) and Donn Cambern – the editor.

    What this goes to prove is that the great entertainment often comes at a price. But the price has to be paid if there is going to be a transfer of energy – a transformation of character born out of chaos and forged in passion and determination. If we try to tame the beast within we will end up with something which is bland, insipid and forgettable. Only something which tears at our hearts and rips open a can or worms which we are barely able to conyain – can we fire up something which will grip an audience and make them forget where they are in a moment of pure desperation. We are not meant merely entertain – but grab our audience by the throat and shove them into a furnace of voyeuristic uncertainty and delight. “Is this the fun part? Are we having fun yet?”

    • Thanks John, that’s great stuff.
      The trivia about this film in IMDb are just sensational. Couldn’t stop reading!
      Don’t forget Henry Jaglom, who saved the day in the edit, but didn’t get the credit…

      • Yeah, but the quote I love is: During production, Dennis Hopper divorced his wife Brooke Adams. As part of the divorce, it was within her right to claim half of his profits from the film, but she decided against it, because “I didn’t want him coming at me with a shotgun”. It just shows to go that there are always layers within layers – or wheels withing wheels Brendeth.

  3. As a (now) 60 year old white American male, let me add that this film embraced several other layers of subtext at the time; perhaps most notably the Vietnam War. Tensions ran both deep & wide; between & amongst friends, neighbors, males sons and fathers (most of whom had themselves served in WWII and/or Korea), as well as the more obvious tension between “us” and “them”; the “them” in this case being authority figures in ANY “uniform(s)”. In my own case, my father was a decorated WWII Pacific Theater veteran; as such, he was adamant about MY serving in Vietnam should my “number” come up in the (then in place) “lottery system”. My mother was equally adamant about my NOT going, to the point of procuring me a set of Canadian road maps, and gathering all the information that I would need to renounce my US Citizenship at the US-Canadian border; luckily in my case, I missed this gig by a single year – a few of my friends, not so much…

    I first saw “Easy Rider” when it came out; for me and most of my friends, this movie provided the mental traction that we needed to come to grips with our own feelings about “authority figures”; to wit: the police, our fathers, the older generation, and The Military Machine in the USA. The “subtext” was clear; even if you can’t win, the “fight” against authority was worth the price of admission; better to lose your life fighting against “authority” than to lose your life by succumbing to authority. Perhaps THIS was the (subtext) journey that Wyatt was looking for, and why both Wyatt & Billy “blew it” in the end. In my own case, it’s a fight that I have been fighting ever since! Great Blog, BTW – I’m all-in!


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