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A skeleton key to Easy Rider

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Title:
A skeleton key to Easy Rider
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Brou, Derek
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vii, 93 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Easy rider (Motion picture) ( lcsh )
Easy rider (Motion picture) ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Includes bibliographical references (leaves 91-93).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Derek Brou.

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University of Florida
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Full Text
A SKELETON KEY TO EASY RIDER
by
Derek Brou
B.A., University of Louisiana, Lafayette, 1987
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Humanities
(Interdisciplinary Program, Department of Humanities)
2007


2007 by Derek Brou All rights reserved.


This thesis for the Masters of Humanities
degree by Derek Brou
has been approved by
argaret Woodhull
H hi /
Date
9o0j~


Brou, Derek (Masters of Humanities, Interdisciplinary Program)
A SKELETON KEY TO EASY RIDER
Thesis directed by Robert Metcalf
ABSTRACT
This study is an interpretation of the film Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). It approaches the interpretation through the interdisciplinary humanities in what Robin Wood calls an interpenetrative or synthetic criticism, to show the film as a reflection of its epoch, and to find the nature of its major themes through the application of a variety of theoretical models. These models will include such work as Robert Warshows theory of the Western genre, David Bordwells ideas on art cinema, Northrop Fryes theories on Romanticism, Jungian depth psychology, Paul Schraders theory of Transcendental Style, the tenets of mystical thought, and the cultural views of anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, among others. The purpose behind the study is to decipher the films elaborate system of beliefs, to plumb its depths for an explanation of its transitory allure, and to outline its impact on culture today.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend its publication.
Signed.


DEDICATION PAGE
I would like to dedicate this work to my wife Anna and our wonderful children.


ACKNOWLEDGMENT
I would like to thank all of my committee members for their thoughtful and generous support throughout this process, which for me has been an incredible journey of its own. I would like to thank my graduate school professors, each of whom have given me much food for thought. Lastly, I would like to thank my sister Mandy for her invaluable and inexhaustible proofreading skill.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I. GET YOUR MOTOR RUNNING: AN INTRODUCTION TO
INTERPENETRATION............................1
II. AMBIGUITY AND REPOSE: ART CINEMA AND THE
WESTERNER...................................7
III. CHIVALRY AND THE UNREAL CITY: A ROMANTC
MYTH.......................................21
IV. JUNG AND EASY: THE HEROS JOURNEY.........29
V. THE MYSTICAL TRIP AND TRANSCENDENTAL
STYLE......................................46
VI. ECSTASY: TICKET TO RIDE...................59
VII. TALKIN TO BULLFROGS: REVITALIZATION AND
RESISITANCE................................70
VIII. CONCLUSION: FROM CONTENTMENT TO
ANNIHILATION ..............................86
BIBLIOGRAPHY........................................91
vii


CHAPTER I
GET YOUR MOTOR RUNNING: AN INTRODUCTION TO INTERPENETRATION
As my title implies, this study is an interpretation of the film Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). The idea of a skeleton key to the study of this work was inspired by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinsons A Skeleton Key To Finnegans Wake. In their work, Campbell and Robinson try to unlock the driving concepts behind Joyces novel. The picture that emerges there is one of a shadowy, dream-like vision of the cyclical nature of human experience. While perhaps not as convoluted or as vast as that extraordinary novel, Easy Rider is a difficult film to interpret in its own right. The sense of impenetrability that the film carries is due to its scope and structure, but that impenetrability fades with a few compass clues. In this study I use an interdisciplinary approach to the interpretation of this film, to show it as a reflection of its epoch, and to find the nature of its major themes through the application of a variety of theoretical models. The purpose behind the study is to try to decipher the films elaborate system of beliefs, to plumb its depths for an explanation of its allure, and perhaps the transitory nature of its popularity.
Despite initial critical acclaim, Easy Rider has not garnered universal respect as a film of pivotal import. It has, instead, become a favorite target of countless parodies and mocked as self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and frivolous, a mere amalgam of popular music, fashion, slang, and drug sub-culture, or viewed as a documentary
1


caricature of its controversial times. What has been written in critical analysis has been that the film defines its generation. Other approaches have focused on the films material successes and its importance to the evolution of independent filmmaking. Even Lee Hills collection of essays accompanying the 35th anniversary edition DVD approaches the subject of analysis from a purely historical prospective.1 It is true that the success of the film helped to change the view of independent films held by the industrys executives. But the nerve that this film touched with its generation (the reason for its success) had less to do with the fashion, speech, or attitudes of its heroes than with the message, its defining pessimism.
There are three main reasons that the study of Easy Rider remains important. First, filmed in 1968, it is a work that describes a pivotal period in American history, one that lies between the desperate rebellion of the late 1960s and its subsequent disillusionment in the early 1970s. The 1960s youth movement or counter-culture stood conspicuously outside the norms of the majority culture, and (perhaps because of this alien position) is a major force in the shaping of American cultural life today. The loss of its political and popular momentum is felt today and expressed in films like V For Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005) and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2007).
Second, it is a time period that is still close enough to the present to exert some influence over the course of contemporary judgment, and at the same time far
1 For more on the making of Easy Rider see Hill, Lee. Easy Rider. BFI Modem Classics.
2


enough removed from us to allow a measured and detached critique. A close study of this time period gives us a better idea of where we are now and why. Despite popular myth, this movement was not merely a generational conflict. The threats posed by the 1960s sub-culture to the ruling political and religious orders remain unresolved. And although the term sub-culture implies cohesion, if not community, it is not immediately clear to what extent this group attained solidarity, and what shared ends (if any) their movement proposed to serve, or to what extent the altering of consciousness could constitute an act of rebellion against the hegemony of power of both government and religion.
And finally, Easy Rider is unique in that it was made exclusively by members of the youth culture. Before this film, most of what was presented to the youth culture as its representation was not made by them. For example, Jungs ideas on myth and symbol were making their way into the literature and music of this generation, but the tight control over film production by previous generations had largely kept the unique expression of these ideas out of the Hollywood mainstream. At a time when studios (the establishment) overwhelmingly controlled the content of films available to wide audiences, these filmmakers succeeded in producing a work that managed to bridge the gap between fiction and reality while establishing itself as an enormous financial success. With a budget of only $365,000, it was made completely without meddling or input from studio executives. It was conceived, written, directed, acted and edited by a handful of young male artists who relied on many little miracles, tapping into the archetypes of the collective unconscious. It
3


culminated with an authentic, visceral experience of the culture. And despite its fall from this place of high reverence (or perhaps because of it), it is consequently one of the most important films to come out of that decade.
The traditional way of reading film has been to approach it through a theoretical structure of value such as ideology, genre or as an expression of authorship (auteur theory). In his essay Ideology, Genre, Auteur Robin Wood proposes a more holistic approach.2 Wood explains that reading a film with regard to two or more of these categories at the same time opens it up to a wider and more complete understanding. Since each of these areas can offer insights into different aspects of a film, a combination of them will allow the critic to see beyond the validity of a single position. Sometimes the combination of categories creates its own context of understanding. In other words, if we view one in relation to the other, we get an understanding of the meaning behind a film by how, when or why it deviates from these categories. This is what he refers to as synthetic criticism. The synthetic approach then, often yields meaning that would otherwise be lost, and these deviations would be attributed to mere accident.
Woods concern arises out of his belief that a good critic should approach film criticism openly, acknowledging the ambiguity of life, what he calls the opposing pulls, the tensions of ones world (Wood, 718) instead of adhering to a pet ideology
2 Wood, Robin. Ideology, Genre, Auteur from Film Theory and Criticism, Edition 6. eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press: New York, 2004. (pp. 717- 726).
4


or theory. One of the greatest obstacles to any fruitful theory of genre, he says has
been to treat the genres as discrete (Wood, 720). Wood points out that these
categories often overlap, and that only in their most prototypical forms are they free
from outside influences. Furthermore, Wood argues that psychologically, all of the
critical matrixes contain hopeless contradictions and unresolvable tensions
(Wood, 719). Taking into consideration the wide range of ideas or modes that are
used in the creation of a film can yield a more complete understanding of the text.
It is only through the medium of the individual that ideological tensions come into particular focus [....] It can perhaps be argued that works are of especial interest when the defined particularities of an auteur interact with specific ideological tensions and when the film is fed from more than one generic source (Wood, 720).
Once a fuller understanding of the synthesized film is gained, one can then look to questions of validity of the position of the auteur. Woods reading of Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock, 1943) illustrates the effectiveness of his interpenetrative theory. In it he gives a convincing account of the subversive nature of the film. By overlapping family comedy genre with film noir genre, Wood is able to show Hitchcocks reversal of the accepted values usually attributed to Hollywood family comedies. Added to these overlapping genres is Woods ideological approach, the Catholic and psychoanalytic interpretations of the film. These work together to support his claims of subversiveness, and help the audience to more readily identify Hitchcocks authorial perspective. While each of these approaches taken singularly might reveal important aspects of the film, the fullness of the interpenetration makes a reading of any one of them alone seem flimsy and facile. Woods position of interpenetration
5


seems to imply that both the immediate emotional experience of a film as well as its characterized ideology should be taken into account in the interpretation of the work. As we will see, with Woods theory a film does not have to fit neatly into a strict genre but that any film can be read in terms of various genre conventions, perhaps gaining a deeper understanding of it.
6


CHAPTER D
AMBIGUITY AND REPOSE: ART CINEMA AND THE WESTERNER
And so what of reading Easy Rider as a Western? At first blush there is very little to recommend such an approach. The film is generally thought of in terms of drama, or adventure. But a sensitive audience following Woods advice to be alive to the opposing pulls will soon read compelling clues to this assertion.
By way of synopsis Easy Rider is a film about two men, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) who have undertaken the illegal sale of cocaine that they have smuggled in from Mexico. After the sale they hide the money in plastic tubes stuffed into Wyatts fuel tank. Then they ride off into the desert to lay-low from the authorities. Their intention is to ride their motorcycles to New Orleans, make a short stopover for the Mardi Gras festival, and then continue on to Key West where they will retire and live off their loot. On this journey they encounter a ranchers family in Arizona, a hippie commune in New Mexico, and in Texas they are temporarily jailed for parading without a permit. There they meet George Hansen (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic ACLU lawyer who joins them on their trip to the Mardi Gras. In Louisiana, they experience verbal abuse and violent opposition to their way of life. George is killed by an angry mob. Wyatt and Billy have to go on without him. The two of them visit Madame Tinkertoys House of Blue Lights (a New 3
3 IMDbs Genre description http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0064276/. It is also'generally considered as both a road film and a buddy film.
7


Orleans brothel) where they meet Mary (Toni Basil) and Karen (Karen Black), two young prostitutes who take them into the streets to witness the festival. The four end up in a cemetery where they engage in an unpleasant drug-induced hallucination. The next morning the young men are shot and killed by two locals in a pickup truck.
Let us begin by reviewing the Western genre. The Western film traces its roots to the 1903 release of Edwin S. Porters The Great Train Robbery. All the essential elements of what subsequently became the typical Western are there: good guys versus bad guys, the naturalistic setting, the crime, the chase, and the final showdown. Although academic and critical attention has been paid to filmmaking since its earliest days, it wasnt until the 1950s that critical analysis of genre first emerged along with the literary movement. Westerns had long been derided for their simplistic morality, but through the emergence of genre studies they came to be seen instead as a series of conventions and iconic symbols that act as short-hand for the audience. Iconic elements of the Western are responsible for both its allure and its immediate identification. A white hat represents the good guy; a black hat represents the bad guy. Western films can be read this way as a series of codes and variations on code that make up the Western paradigm.
Most Westerns are shot on location in isolated deserts, remote mountains, or open plains. Location then plays an important role in the authenticity of the Western in the mind of the audience. Besides the isolated desert, common locations include the campfire, the ranch, the homestead and the saloon. The naming of characters in the Western as well as the typical frontier mode of dress is important to cementing the
8


Western paradigm in the minds of the audience. Iconic images such as the presence of horses, outlaws, the east/west dynamic, and the partner or sidekick who many times acts as the heros conscience like in The Searchers (Ford, 1956) or El Dorado (Hawks, 1967), all serve to reinforce the genre and to form the pattern of discourse.
To view Easy Rider in light of Robert Warshows theory of the Westerner in classical Hollywood genre at first seems incongruous. But the deeper Warshow delves into what makes up the genre, the clearer it becomes to us that Easy Rider is replete with Western icons, and that Wyatt resembles Warshows figure of repose.
According to Warshow, the Westerner is an exclusively masculine character. Women can neither understand the world of the Westerner, nor do they belong in it. Historically, Westerns have only included women either as representations of the male fantasy or of the land itself, as a landscape through which the male characters carry out their quest for identity. Easy Rider is not an exception. It conforms to this pattern to the nearly complete exclusion of female roles. Accordingly, it is shown to be a way of understanding the geography of masculine experience in America.
Robert Warshow defines the Westerner of the typical Western film in terms of his ethos, and in stark contrast to the Gangster exemplified by their particular affect. It is here in the display (or non-display) of emotion where the spectator receives the bulk of information about character. While both character types represent a relationship to violence, their contrary personal stance is the indication of a contrary value system. For Warshow composure is the trademark of the Westerner. He is self-sufficient and ruggedly individualistic. He adheres to a moral code that arises both
9


from the unique deprivation and isolation from civilized society that comes with frontier life, and from the temporal proximity to Victorian morality. The horse-opera as it is sometimes referred to, portrays a glorified past, one of fading values where the Westerner stands out as a lone adherent. It is his calling to protect justice and order, and it is in this calling that all his profound knowledge and legendary skill is used and displayed. Even in defeat the Westerner maintains this higher morality in that his fight is not for advantage but for identity. Warshow ultimately argues that the difference in the relationship to violence between the Gangster and the Westerner rests here, in the Westerners idealism and the Gangsters materialism. For Warshow the true theme of the Western is not the freedom and expansiveness of the frontier, but its limitations...
Its material bareness, the pressures of obligation, then even the landscape itself ceases to be quite the arena of free movement it once was, but becomes the great empty waste, cutting down more often than exaggerates the stature of the horseman who rides across it (Warshow, 144).
Immediately we are struck by the similarity of the setting of Easy Rider to that of the
typical Western. The isolated desert in the film represents alienation, although here it
appears to be self-imposed. The film opens with Billy and Wyatt committing the
iconic criminal act. They spend the remainder of the film fleeing justice. They are
outlaws on horseback riding effortlessly over the barren landscape, although in this
case the horses are made of iron. They carry the names Wyatt and Billy, the names of
famous Westerners from the historical past (Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid). Wyatt
also carries the handle Captain America, linked to military rank like with Colonel
Cord McNally (Rio Lobo, 1970) or Lieutenant John Dunbar (Dances With Wolves,
10


1990).4 Their dress too is unmistakably Western: cowboy boots, leather, buckskin and denim. Although these aspects might be admittedly superficial, and cannot by themselves drive the genre comparison, they are iconic elements of the Western, and are further supported by more concrete evidence.
Monument Valley has been used in so many Westerns (most notably those of John Ford) that its appearance in a film unavoidably links it to the Western genre. Many times it is the sole image used by a director to evoke the genre. Films like Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991) employ the high mesas, stark landscape and dramatic skies of Monument Valley to recall the genre in order to emphasize how civilization similarly deals with those who the law is not meant to represent, both independent women and outlaws of the Old West.
As stated above, there are many typical settings that invariably convey the western motif. The film uses many of them besides the isolated desert. On the first night of the journey, for example, the two men are at a campfire (a common setting) where we get our first verbal cue that this film should be read in Western parlance. Billy affects the voice of the stereotypical cowboy. Holding his wide-brimmed hat in one hand, he holds his other hand like a six-shooter, he jokingly declares: Out here in the wilderness, fighting Indians and cowboys on every side! (Fonda, et al, 55).
4 It is interesting to note that Peter Fondas father (Henry Fonda) was himself an iconic figure in the American Western film genre, appearing in over 20 Western films from 1939 1979.
11


The ranch appears in Easy Rider early on, when Wyatt repairs his flat tire.
Wyatt and Billy work on the tire in the barn while the rancher and his hired hand shoe a horse in juxtaposed sequences, drawing ready parallels between motorcycles and horses, westerners and bikers. The film presents a hippie commune as a contemporary version of the iconic homestead. These homesteaders too have left the cities of the East and are trying to make a life for themselves in the harsh and unforgiving arid West. They have experienced hardships reminiscent of the early pioneers, but (as Wyatt believes) with fortitude and spirit they are likely to prevail. Wyatt displays his role as protector of order by defending the commune from Billys derision. They ask him to stay with them in their new society, but he refuses, remaining part of the wilderness.
There is the typical confrontation with settlers displayed at the Louisiana cafe standing in for the iconic Western saloon. Mary recalls the prostitute with the heart of gold who seems predictably to understand Wyatts brooding, and his indifference to love. And there are other, perhaps more subtle hints, such as the theme of Time that weaves itself through the story. Wyatt finds a stopped pocket watch in drawer of a broken dresser, in the ruins of a homestead. Then he thumbs through a tattered dime novel. Wyatts own discarded wristwatch and his discussions about time seem to signal that the film should be read anachronistically, with deference to history and to the atemporal nature of the story.
But as Warshow points out, Western films are not strictly horse-operas. The icons of the Old West act as short-hand, and create the paradigm of the Western in the
12


mind of the audience so that certain expectations are formed. Central to these is the
notion that the film will convey the struggle of the hero to maintain his moral/ethical
code in the face of overwhelming (sometimes supernatural) anti-forces. This
combination of Victorian morality, and of fair play borne of the harshness of the
landscape and the isolation from the protection of the civilized East is known as the
Cowboy Code.5 Among his moral positives are loyalty, generosity, hospitality and the
like, but above all is the categorical imperative to mind your own business. And
holding this code together is the cowboys repose, the requirement that none of this
appear too much for him to maintain. He is a man whose strict code of honor requires
his careful deliberation, sometimes making him appear to the uninvolved observer as
introverted. Because the Western is always about the dynamics of this system, the
cowboy often comes across as this brooding figure.
No matter what he has done, he looks right, and he remains invulnerable because, without acknowledging anyone elses right to judge him, he has judged his own failure and has already assimilated it, understanding [...] that he can do nothing but play out the drama of the gun fight again and again until the time comes when it will be he who gets killed. What redeems him is that he no longer believes in this drama and nevertheless will continue to play his role perfectly: the pattern is all (Warshow, 146).
In Easy Rider, we find many instances of the brooding hero. Im getting my stuff
together, Wyatt responds to Billy on the first night at the campfire when Billy
confronts him about his dark mood. Very often we find Wyatt off to the side,
separated from the action: swimming at the water hole, dinner at the restaurant, at the
5 One famous example is Gene Autrys Cowboy Code.
13


bordello, and again at the camp fire on the last night. Wyatts repose indicates quiet on the surface but turmoil beneath the surface.
Adherence to the code can be seen here too, not just with the hero but with many of the characters of this Western. The rancher feeds them after they repair the tire. They pick up the Stranger (Luke Askew) hitchhiking on the highway. The Stranger takes care of the fuel.6 The people at the commune feed them. George helps them out of jail. And the loyalty between Wyatt and Billy is displayed repeatedly. Billy confronts George in the jail for slamming the door while his friend is sleeping. Wyatt covers Billys bleeding body while he goes for help, and so on.
Where the code breaks down is important too. At the commune Billy doesnt want to give the girls a ride to the next valley, but Wyatt reminds him Were eating their food (Fonda, et al, 98). This is not the only time we see Billy failing to live up to the code. He demands from the Stranger to know where he is from, something a good cowboy would never do. While the confrontation with George in jail works to illustrate his loyalty to Wyatt, it also demonstrates his disregard for consideration of others. But George reminds him of the cowboy code, saying, Were all in the same cage here. A particularly interesting scene is the Louisiana cafe where the heroes are not only berated and threatened, but also denied the courtesy of food which the cowboy code expressly prohibits.7 And it is most disturbing to Wyatts sense of
6 The Stranger played by Luke Askew says, Its already taken care of. We dont actually see him pay for the fuel, nor do we see anyone come out to collect the money adding to his mysteriousness.
7 In the interviews on the 35th Anniversary DVD, Hopper tells us that the customers of the Louisiana cafe were local residents of the town of Franklin, Louisiana. Their
14


loyalty that they leave Georges decapitated body in the woods, take his card for Madame Tinkertoys House of Blue Lights, and go and celebrate the success of their caper in New Orleans. Not only is this a failure to mourn their friend, but it also casts aside their sacred cowboy obligation to avenge the injustice. These limitations work for understanding the boys in terms of the ideal cowboy, but also works to de-mythologize the genre.
Reading Easy Rider as a Western helps us to understand certain vague aspects of the film, but does not give us a complete understanding of its meaning. The movie ends with the death of the hero and his sidekick. Read in Western terms alone, as the iconic showdown, it seems wholly pointless and without honor. Similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill, 1969) the heroes mark the end of an era. But where Butch and Sundance put up an admirable resistance against the overpowering forces of progress, Billy and Wyatt are not given that opportunity. There is something else going on here, and perhaps reading Easy Rider simply as a Western in contemporary time is not enough. Perhaps it is useful to consider forces at work from outside classical Hollywood narrative.
David Bordwell argues that art cinema can be seen as a distinct mode of film practice (Art Cinema, 774). The art cinema motivates its narrative not only by a loosening of causal relationships but by its realism and its authorial expressivity as well. According to Bordwell, art cinema differs from classical narrative in three
dialogue is completely improvised by these non-actors, and is compelling evidence of the films devotion to realism.
15


important ways. First is realism: real locations and real problems, and real characters with an ambiguity of motivation and action, ranging from documentary factuality to intense psychological subjectivity (Art Cinema, 777). Second is authorial expression. In art cinema psychological realism merges with authorial expressivity to create an ambiguity that mimics la condition humaine. Much of the realism is found in natural settings and authentic dialogue.
The urgency of the authors expression is part of the films system. Bordwell tells us that any deviation from classical norms of filmmaking is evidence of authorial commentary. Unlike in classical narrative, characters of art films lack defined goals, sliding passively from one situation to the next.
But it is not just the notion of ambiguity within the personality of the character that can be expressed. Aspects of ambiguity are expressed in much of classic Hollywood narrative as well. Wood states that ambiguity is often expressed by the blurring of genres, especially those of obvious opposition. When the lines of genre are merged the conflict between the two says something new about both sets of genre code, but also something about the ideology of the film. He explains that the values comprising an ideology contain inherent contradictions in themselves. Hollywoods capitalist notion of America the land where everyone is happy for example holds its opposite notion, that of the trap of petty materialism and happiness as a fagade. It is the tension between these two ideologies that is brought out when genres are juxtaposed. This intentional blurring of genre to illustrate ideological tensions is an important aspect of auteur theory.
16


It is the impact of art cinema on Hollywood narrative, the appropriation of art cinema devices that makes Bordwell argue for art cinema as a mode of production. The techniques he describes are usurped by American filmmakers, while controlled within the established genre framework.
The methods of art cinema are readily apparent to the viewer of Easy Rider.8 The films devotion to realism, both physical and psychological, is plain. Like living beings, the characters here are complex and their motivations are often unclear to us and to themselves. Billy and Wyatts plan is to make it to Florida, but beside that vague destination, the journey has a distinctively episodic feel. As Bordwell explains: The protagonists itinerary is not completely random: it has a rough shape: a trip, a search, even the making of a film (Art Cinema, 776).
The use of the fragmentary flashforward (a clear device of art cinema) is found in the film. There are occasional flash scenes of Wyatts burning motorcycle at the side of the highway. As an authorial expression it can be read as inferences we should make about the logical end of this type of scenario, of Wyatts current course of action.
The flashforward is unthinkable in the classical narrative cinema, which seeks to retard the ending and efface the mode of narration. But in the art cinema, the flashforward functions perfectly to stress authorial presence: we must notice how the narrator teases us with the knowledge that no character can have (Art Cinema, 779).
8 Peter Fonda cites II Sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962) as one of his major inspirations for the creation of Easy Rider. Liberman, Lawrence. Playboy Interview With Peter Fonda. Playboy.
17


It is unclear whether Wyatt too sees this flash as insight, but contrary to Bordwells assertion, it appears by Wyatts continuing brooding as though he does.
The ill-defined motivation of character is not the only version of ambiguity found in Easy Rider. Ideological ambiguity is created by the contradictory expressions of the traditional Western and modem art cinema. The Westerner, who personifies the cause and effect linkage of action and defined desires, is undercut by the sense of drifting. It is an intentional subversion of the Western genre and of the values that it represents. This mode causes each of the traditional Western values to face its opposite. The western genre codes are unraveled this way. Even the typical East verses West dynamic is turned on its head, as the action of the film has the heroes moving from West to East instead. The sidekick does not act as the conscience of the hero but the catalyst to his demise. And it is ironically the civilized East, instead of the wild and isolated West where we find the savage nature of man.
Once you begin to read Easy Rider in these terms, all sorts of opportunities for interpretation open up. The isolated desert of the iconic Western tradition becomes a symbol for the contemporary alienation common to art film narrative. The two men as characters are alienated from the mainstream of American society, but also Wyatt as Captain America, the symbol for America and American ideals of justice and fair play, is alienated from itself and its people.
Woods synthetic criticism opens up a wide array of possibilities. Through his lens Easy Rider becomes much more than a document of a generations fashions and idioms. By juxtaposing the Western with the modes of art cinema, the filmmakers
18


have established a reversal of polarities, and inherent ambiguities are thus exposed. The truth of the credo of liberty and justice for all becomes a lie. America, the land of material abundance becomes both the nurturing mother and wasteful whore. If both the Westerner and Captain America stand for America, then the belief that America is built on honesty and hard work is reversed to the idea that America is a criminal state, unjust and lost, an easy rider living off the hard work of others while producing nothing of value, and destined to be destroyed in a fiery crash by its own shallow and ignorant people.
The generation that the film is supposed to be defining is a product of great historical stress. The same apprehension of tensions and hypocrisy that led many to join the student uprisings in the first place were now instilling in them a sense of futility.
1968 exploded in violence with the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, rioting in American ghettos and university campuses, the street fighting and protests that shattered the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The feeling of collapse intensified through 1969 as the Vietnam War continued, and the counter-culture began to fall apart in the aftermath of the Manson murders and the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont speedway (Hill, 33).
Easy Rider finished filming in June of 1968 just after the death of Robert Kennedy, which might account for the decidedly pessimistic tone of the ending. The pessimism comes from audience identification with the hero. But the demise of the hero is at the same time necessary. The old order based upon the drifting code of morality must be destroyed. This is the ultimate ambiguity of meaning created by interpenetration.
19


As the film reaches the final showdown, Billy and Wyatt are riding out of town toward their material success. The redemption that Warshow speaks about is seen in the way in which the two address their end. Billys aggressive resistance to conformity is upheld by giving the finger to his killers when they suggest he get a haircut. Wyatts is upheld in his going for help, and the loyalty shown to his partner in the face of his own personal danger. And (as Warshow predicted of saloon girls or prostitutes) the girls of Madame Tinkertoys have validated the two mens absolution, being the only ones who understand the brooding hero.
Although Wyatts premonition of their impending demise causes him dismay, the blowing it he speaks of on the last night is the failure of the collective, the drifting morality and petty materialism of America, not the failure to live up to his own personal code. On the surface their gunfight seems without honor, but because the code stands above life itself, their deaths do not alter their final victory. Both their weapons were pulled first.
20


CHAPTER III
CHIVALRY AND THE UNREAL CITY:
A ROMANTIC MYTH
Through this sort of reading the power of the interpenetrative approach to criticism is quite clear, and some of the films impenetrability has faded. Of course looking at Easy Rider with any kind of rigid Art/Westem interpretation is problematic. Much of the imagery is either incomplete or unaccounted for, and many scenes are incongruous to this reading. In fact the majority of imagery still remains to be discovered. In order to accomplish this we must look for clues. One such clue is offered up in the films mise-en-scene at Madame Tinkertoys House of Blue Lights.
In the scene, a brooding Wyatt wanders through the now quiet room taking in the strange baroque decor and finds three inscriptions. The first he reads aloud; the audience does not see the actual inscription. The second he reads to himself backwards, the camera panning from right to left over the inscription, one word at a time. The third we see stationary and alone in the frame for several beats. The first and third are rationalist sentiments, while the second is Romantic. If God did not exist, he reads from the first inscription, it would be necessary to invent Him. The well-known quote is from the famously rational Voltaire. We will have more to say about this later. Billy responds, Thats a humdinger! (Fonda, et al,152). The third quote reads: Death only closes a mans reputation and determines it as good or bad. Its author is unidentified but the sentiment can be easily read as Rationalist. The
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reason for the delineation becomes clear when we look at the second quote: All paths of glory lead but to the grave (Shaw, 1013). He reads the line backwards, and as he finishes he is obviously impressed by its theme. It is taken from Thomas Grays Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
Of primary importance is that Gray is an 18lh century English Romantic poet. The tenets of Romanticism are discussed in great detail in the work of Northrop Frye, who states that the main idea behind the movement was its emphasis on anti-Rationalism.9 Frye wants us to understand Romanticism in terms of culture. For Frye the emergence of Romanticism, while a reflection of structural changes in literature and the arts, is really a reemergence, a renewal of repressed ideas and beliefs. Romanticism is not so much an historical movement as it is cultural. When looked at it terms of history, Romanticism is a change in the form and structure of poetry, art, music, etc. But when the same movement is looked at as a cultural movement it becomes much wider. It is a fundamental change in the way that people perceive their world, and consequently bleeds over into scientific, philosophical, and even theological thought.10
In Fryes words, Romanticism is an attempt at a recovery of projection (Romanticism, 14). Instead of projecting human consciousness onto a creator God, the idea is to project oneself onto nature. Romanticism adopts an anti-Christian (or pre-Christian) world-view in contrast to the deist world-view held by the
9 Frye, Northrop. A Study Of English Romanticism. Random House: New York,
1968.
10 Frye calls these cohering ideas.
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Enlightenment. It is a world-view that sees humankind as a part of nature, not
separated from it by its relation to God.
With the Romantic movement there comes a return to something very like a polytheistic imagination. The avenging spirit of the Ancient Mariner is a portent of much to follow: the forsaken Classical gods who haunt so many German Romantics, the spirits of Strindberg and Yeats, the angels of Rilke, the dark gods of Lawrence. All these illustrate the principle which Freud perhaps more than anyone else has made us aware of. When our attention is focused on ourselves and our existential relation to nature, as distinct from the attention of science which is turned toward natural law and the attention of theology which is turned toward an intelligent personal God, we become immediately conscious of a plurality of conflicting powers (Romanticism, 16).
Romantic imagery depicts the human society that is based on rationality as leading to
alienation rather than identity with nature. And according to Frye, Romanticism is
concerned with wanting to reestablish the connection to nature that was cut by the
rational thought of an enlightened Europe.
During this period literature becomes less rational, more emotional less
urbanized and with more feeling for nature, less witty and more oracular
(Romanticism, 4). Artistic themes center around pastoral or idyllic scenes. The epics
of pre-Christian Europe (such as the Arthurian legends) reappear in Romantic art with
an emphasis on the disconnection from, or reconnection with the nature cycles. One
favorite theme of Romantic art is the Fall of Man. The cyclical myth of the fall and
redemption of man in Romantic terms is more like a loss of identity with nature. The
Fall is no longer seen as the separation of man from God by sin, as it is with
Christianity, but the transformation of humans from the innocence of animal nature
into self-consciousness and rational thought, the gradually increasing urbanization of
the human society. It is seen therefore by the contrast of the Garden of Eden with
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something like the Unreal City of Eliot. Romanticism sees human self-consciousness
increasing with time so that earlier ages are seen as closer to that state of grace in wild nature. Images that reflect the human condition as moving from Innocence to Experience11 is used over and over in Romantic art, and can be recognized in the overall plot structure of Easy Rider. While Billy and Wyatt seem to be drifting across the country, they move through scenes of ever-increasing urbanization. The action moves from the desert, to a remote ranch, to a small social community, to an established town and finally into the city, not coincidentally moving geographically from west to east. Easy Rider has usurped the Western genre through this geographic image, and thereby commandeers the Romantic world-view as well. If Innocence is the original irrational chaos, then the first stage of Experience would be the small family settlement. The ranch is as close as any society can come to pure nature. Its not every man that can live off the land, you know. Wyatt tells him. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud (Fonda, et al, 60-61). Next is the commune. It is a small gathering of families. Their connection to nature is evident in the prayer offered for thanks, but as we will see in subsequent chapters, it is already exclusive and leans against the individual.12
By the time they reach the town, they have entered a decidedly formal social structure. The boys are arrested and put in jail for riding their motorcycles in a parade. They entered the parade in the same spirit as the townsfolk, but they are
11 Taken from William Blakes The Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary Sides of the Human Soul. 1794.
12 Chapter VI, the morality play.
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outsiders, individuals. The prayers we find here are the desperate scribbling of long gone prisoners. This scene is extended to the town where they encounter open hostility from patrons of the cafe. The continuum ends in New Orleans. The grotesque images of debauchery and drunken revelry in the scenes of the Mardi Gras illustrates most clearly the complete loss of Innocence of the Unreal City. It is chaotic without being true chaos. The Unreal City is pure Platonic Rationality, the complete loss of individual identity. Romantic redemption then is the recovery of the original identity with true chaos, or unspoiled nature.
Further, Romanticisms revival of the Code of Chivalry correlates with the tenets presented in the Code of the West, essential to the Western genre. Both set up codes which center on civil cooperation, responsibility for the weak and infirmed, reverence for women, and personal honor. And although they both contain verbiage related to respect for authority, they are not specifically anti-iconoclast. At heart each is ruggedly individualistic, designed to allow humans to live side by side in a world without resorting to a religious morality or legal duty, something isolated Westerners were forced to do and Romantics wished to do.
The reemergence of myth is not mere coincidence for Frye. He argues that Romanticism signals both the birth of a new mythology and a new attitude toward mythology in general. This new mythology embraces irrationality and recognizes ambiguity as essential to existence. Frye sees myths and their corresponding mythology as particularly important in establishing a societys views of its own origin, situation and destiny.
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He outlines two main structures found in a culture which descend from
mythology: one is literature that inherits the fictional and metaphorical patterns of mythology, and the other is a body of cohering ideas such as religion, philosophy and kindred disciplines. The informing structures of literature are myths, fictions and metaphors that represent aspects of human experience with images of the natural environment. A Romantic mythology no longer considers the real event to be the universal or historical, but the mental, personal or psychological. This accounts for the tendency for anti-mimetic art, the anti-historical re-telling of biblical stories or ancient legends. It is a rejection of social reality in favor of social ideal. The very idea of Chivalry then works this way. It reappears in Romantic art not for its historical factuality but for its social idealism. This Romantic structure is clear in Easy Rider in the code that Billy and Wyatt live by on the road, but even more so in the tale told by George of the extraterrestrial civilization that will guide humans into a world of peace, equality and prosperity.
With the advent of Romanticism, for the first time in Western literature the
poet is both the teller of the tale and the hero himself.13 14
The Romantics take the next step. In their age the patron is beginning to disappear, and the poet is becoming immersed in society as a whole. [...] He sees society [...] incarnate in himself. [...] Thus he himself steps into the role of the hero (Romanticism, 36).
13 Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1957.
14 Frye uses Aristotles notion that the poet deals with the universal instead of the personal event. The poet is separated from the hero by his proximity to a personal event.
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The poets unique ability to see through the illusory reality into the sublime allows
him this binary role. What Romanticism refers to as the sublime we can call the
transcendent or the mystical,15 and from this comes the sense of nature as oracular,
dropping hints of these expanding mysteries into the narrowed, rational unconscious.
In this way Romanticism is responsible for the authority that is given to artistic genius
in modem times. This attitude is revolutionary. In 1968, the date of publication of his
study of English Romanticism, Frye claims that this revolutionary movement had not
yet ended. He claims that both the new mythology and its cohering ideas have
trickled down from Romantic literature through existential philosophy, and into youth
consciousness, instilling into it its individualistic perspective, its iconoclastic drive,
and its notion of the artist as the voice of authority.
The Romantic poet often feels, even more oppressively than his predecessors, that his calling as a poet is a dedication, a total way of life, and that a commitment to it has an importance for society far beyond poetry itself. (Romanticism, 15).
The myth is an account of the great adventure. Grays poem speaks to this idea of the cyclical nature of man that is so often (in the West) represented by the story of Jesus. But Jesus also represents the emphasis of individual autonomy over doctrinal authority, individuality over civilization. This theme is repeated in Easy Rider. Full many a flower is bom to blush unseen, Gray writes, And waste its sweetness on the desert air (Shaw, 1013). This Romantic theme comes up again and again in the film. Every person has this same potential for psychic evolution, the potential for heroic quest. Some become leaders of movements; some blush unseen.
15 To be discussed more thoroughly in Chapter VII of this work.
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In Romantic myth The Fall is the change of humankind into self-consciousness (the creation of a subject-object relation to nature, the loss of Innocence). So for the Romantics the primary conscious feeling of human beings is that of separation. Humans are bom into the myth of the loss of paradise because of their alienation from nature as civilized human beings. When man is bom the sense of identity with nature remains'unborn and it is the quest of the soul to bring it to birth (Romanticism, 126).
As for the question of the first and third inscriptions, we are not yet fully ready to discuss them. The reason for the deferral will become clearer with the next chapter. For now we must remember that there has been set up an ambiguity by the juxtaposition of Rationalist ideas with Romantic ones. This dynamic is at the heart of Romanticism, at the heart of mythology, and also at the heart of Easy Rider.
With the idea of Romanticism as the expression of mythology the question is begged as to what type of myth Easy Rider might be. The idea of the pastoral myth as the creative power of humans latent in the psyche is reminiscent of the Jungian idea of the psyche seeking its evolution. Being bom into alienation from nature is also reminiscent of the Jungian notion of the loss of the unio mystica of early childhood. For this reason, I will look to Jungian depth psychology, and to Joseph Campbell to analyze the film as an allegory of the heros journey, mythic in scope, and carrying with it the struggle for fully realized humanity. Its narrative, imagery, dialogue, signs and songs allude to this myth repeatedly. It is enigmatic and strange, and can be read as a mighty allegory of the struggle for psychic evolution.
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CHAPTER IV
JUNG AND EASY: THE HEROS JOURNEY Jung sees myth as the stuff of life. His vision of the world embraces the irrationality of magic and the occult, while at the same time it remains steeped in the logic and rationality of scientific psychology. For Jung, mythology is a language, the primary method of communication between the collective and the individual, between the mind and the soul. In the Jungian sense, myths are the cultures expression of the archetypes that have autonomously emerged from the collective unconscious, and are crucial, both for understanding of the culture from which it arises, and for understanding the psyche itself.16 In the case of the hero myth it is the expression of Jungs process of Individuation, also known as psychic evolution.17 But before we can talk about Easy Rider as an example of the hero myth, or the hero myth as an example of the Jungian process of Individuation, we first have to know a little about Jungs model of the psyche. To give a thorough reading, a brief analysis is required: the ego, the shadow, the anima/animus, the collective, and how the system works toward Individuation.
16 If we look at the sublime in Romanticism as the collective unconscious (whence the artist receives his inspiration), and the inspiration or the hints as the archetypes of the collective unconscious, the two notions seem not so very different.
17 Jung, C.G., Symbols Of Transformation. (C.W. 5). Part 2, IV Origin of the Hero, and The Portable Jung, Aion, (C.W. 9,1). Conscious, Unconscious, and Individuation, and A Study of the Process of Individuation, and (C.W. 9, II). The Self.
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What then are the divisions in the psyche on which Jung creates his model?
As stated above, the Jungian model divides the psyche into ego, shadow,
anima/animus, persona and self. Whereas the ego is consciousness (the conscious
I of the personality), the shadow represents the unconscious, and the anima/animus
is a liminal figure that can at times be either conscious or unconscious. The persona is
our conscious mask, the way we want to appear to the outside world. The self, or
Great Self is the goal of the process of Individuation. It represents either the
fragmented (self) or the actualized whole (Great Self) of the Individuated personality.
The shadow resides completely in the unconscious. The healthy shadow is
the inborn savage animal; the ancient primal self; the instincts, and memory of animal
wisdom. The figure of the shadow can be recognized in myths as dark figures, animal
figures, or by its hedonistic nature. When repressed it becomes the repository of
inferiorities, inflated and monstrous, and will look for projection hooks. Any inferior
qualities it has will be projected onto others.
Civilized life today demands concentrated, directed conscious functioning, and this entails the risk of considerable dissociation from the unconscious.
The further we are able to remove ourselves from the unconscious through directed functioning, the more readily a powerful counter-position can build up in the unconscious, and when this breaks out it may have disagreeable consequences (Portable, 277).
On the other hand, when it is embraced by the ego, the shadow creates an outlet for the beast. It is able to go wild at times. It is sexual, and able to express anger without self-destruction. 18
18 Jung C. G. The Portable Jung, Aion, (C.W. 9, II). The Shadow.
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The anima/animus is more difficult for the ego to accept because of societal repression.19 Simply put, it is the feminine element to the male personality (anima), and the masculine side of the female (animus). The imprint of the anima is personified by the figure of a woman, and all feminine attributes are projected onto her. She is creativity, nurturing, intuition on the positive side, and irrationality, emotionality, and stagnation on the negative side. She is life-giver and life taker, womb and tomb. The animus is order, strength and defender on the positive side, and cruelty, treachery, and aggression on the negative side. He is civilizing agent and warmongering tyrant, king and killer. The anima/animus is the guide into the realms of the unconscious, communicating the archetypes to the conscious. The goal of Individuation is to recognize these qualities in ourselves, and to embrace them.
Archetypes are the living content of the collective unconscious and are virtually unlimited in number. Jung describes them as amorphous potentials, including future potentials, which emerge autonomously into a culture, and are then expressed by individuals as myth, or meaningful stories. They always express their opposites as well. In point of fact, archetypes always appear in quatemarius: masculine, feminine, positive and negative.20
Mother is an archetype, for example, because everything in our experience reinforces the idea. From the time we are conceived until late into adolescence, mothers give birth to us, feed us, and protect us. But the positive implies the negative.
19 Ibid., Aion, (C.W. 9, II). The Syzygy: Anima/Animus.
20 Ibid., Mysterium Coniunctionis, (C.W. 13).
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We can see in bad mothers what tremendous damage can be done to a childs psyche. The feminine also implies the masculine. Where there is creation, there is destruction. Where there is intuition, there is reason. We see this reflected in the world. The Earth gives life, and feeds us, but it can be harsh and abusive. The universe seems to function under natural laws, but then there are claims of miracle or natural anomaly. This quarter-faceted nature is important to understanding archetypes.
The process that Jung refers to as Individuation has a direct correlation to
the idea of the heros journey. The psyche, seeking to evolve through the process of
Individuation discovers, and embraces these archetypes as pairs of opposites, and
everything in the unconscious seeks expression to facilitate the evolution.
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of effective spiritual aid (Campbell, 11).
For Jung, the human psyche is generally in state of dissociation with itself. Early on
the infant is inculcated away from the unio mystica. This is simply the mystical unity
of all the aspects of the psyche functioning as one as they did at infancy. But by
adolescence, the ego has separated out the animal, instinctual shadow, and the anima,
the original androgynous nature of the psyche. The loss of the shadow and the anima
by repression causes the consequent loss of wholeness that Jung equates with
psychological health. Individuation is the process of the psyche regaining the lost
unity.
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The story of the hero is a metaphoric representation of the process of
Individuation. He enters the unconscious seeking to find hidden treasures (the
archetypes), and if successful, he undergoes a spiritual rebirth. It is a painful, often
dangerous process to bring these aspects into consciousness and to hold them in equal
esteem with the ego. The person must accept a complete change in personality, which
is what makes the process both difficult and dangerous. He is seen as a hero because
of the heroic effort required to throw off the persona and to embrace the archetypes.
The danger lies in exploring his own unconscious to find these aspects of his
personality that are ugly and shunned by the society. It is made even harder because
Individuation itself is shunned by the society out of fear. Jung warns that this
exploration into the unconscious can lead to psychosis. The change in personality is a
kind of spiritual death and rebirth into a new personality, what Jung calls the
descent into nekyia (death) and apotheosis (being made over in the image of a god).
This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world of objects, bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large (Portable, 127).
Wholeness arises from enantiodromia, a combining of opposites, the dark and light, good and bad, animal and civilized, masculine and feminine. This does not mean acting upon murderous instincts, but acknowledging the instinct within. The treasure in a myth is often times represented as a plant or potion that will give the hero immortality, or in Jungian terms, with wholeness. He must then return to his people to deliver the boon to the culture. This process is expressed in hundreds of thousands of
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myths worldwide. Jung believes that every man is capable of such a journey, but that only the hero undertakes the task because of the tremendous difficulty, and the aura of danger that surrounds it.
The collective unconscious so far as we can say anything about it at all -appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents (Portable, 39).
Unlike with diffusionist theories, Jung does not believe the process to be
superimposed upon cultures, but rather spring up autonomously through the collective
unconscious and are then expressed by individuals to their culture in the form of these
myths or legends. Joseph Campbell gives us countless examples of this process that
have been revealed to us through myth, legend and fairytales.21 In a hero myth, each
character is either the personification of an aspect of the psyche, or else an archetype.
Interpreted as a heros journey, Easy Rider is the process of Individuation of
Wyatt. He hears the call of the hero, and takes to the road to win his treasure. The
films credits open with mythic imagery in the form of a song bidding the hero to
heed the call:
Get your motor running, head out on the highway,
Looking for adventure in whatever comes our way,
Yeah, got to go and make it happen Take the world in a love embrace,
Fire all of your guns at once,
And explode into space (Bonfire).
The road itself is a time-line, representing both spatial and temporal dimensions. The motorcycles are what the primitive myths referred to as soul-chariots. These are the
21 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
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mechanisms of movement, on which we all take our lifes journey. And the love embrace is Individuation.
All hero journeys contain a spiritual death, but where there is no resurrection, the hero is a failure. Wyatt is a mythic figure who hopes to gain the treasure of wholeness, though he appears to fail in his attempt. But the defeated heroism of the superficial reading is usurped by the ambiguity presented by the mythological reading.
A hero myth begins with the abaissment du niveau mentale, or a descent into the unconscious. The unconscious is symbolized in many ways. It is seen as vast bodies of water, deep pools, mighty rivers, open frontiers, wilderness, deserts, sleep, death, and the underworld (to name a few), all of which are part of the films backdrop. We are continuously reminded that Wyatt has entered the unconscious. The following images are just a few of those found in the film.
Our attention is first drawn to Wyatts procession into the unconscious by his entrance into the desert. The landscapes are wide and empty. On the first night of the journey, Billy announces Wyatts introversion beside the campfire: Youre pulling inside. Youre getting a little distance tonight man. Youre getting a little distance (Fonda, et al, 9). Along the way from Los Angeles to the Texas/Louisiana border, the camera pans across wide desert skies, and bleak dry wilderness. Then at the border into Louisiana, we get another clue to the unconscious nature of this journey by the music cue when the two protagonists cross the bridge. It is an abrupt change both from the dry Texas landscape to the lush thick Louisiana bayou, signaled too by the
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song from Jimi Hendrix, called If 6 Wfos 9 22 Although numerically six and nine are not, strictly speaking, opposites, their symbolic nature is. They represent the idea that things have turned upside down, that the unconscious now rules and the conscious is hidden. The two numbers together (69) bears close resemblance to the astrological symbol for Pisces (a deep water symbol), which we also learn is Wyatts own sign. Moreover, this symbol bears an uncanny resemblance to the yin/yang (a symbol of wholeness created from opposites). The songs lyrics support this idea as well, calling out pairs of opposites: lightness and darkness, mountains falling to the sea, long hair/short hair, etc. The ingestion of LSD also signals to us that Wyatt is in the unconscious. They are all reminders from the unconscious that we are in its realm, and that the authority of what we are allowed to witness belongs to it alone.
Supporting archetypes within the myth help us to determine its numinous nature. Such things as magical events, spirit guides, potions, dragons, monsters, and wise old men often appear in myths and legends.
One of these types of supporting concepts is the heros prescient knowledge of his own death. Before leaving for his journey, Wyatt takes off his wristwatch and throws it on the ground, offering twofold symbolism. It represents the atemporal nature of the unconscious, and also his running out of time. The stranger on the road acknowledges Wyatts lack of time. Wyatt himself evokes an ambiguous image when he uses the slang for sleep, saying: I think Im going to crash (Fonda, et al, 37). Wyatts reading of Grays inscription backwards is another clue that he is in the
22 Hendrix, Jimi. If 6 Was 9. MCA Records, Universal City, CA.1968.
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unconscious. The glory is the attainment of Individuation; the grave refers to the spiritual death all heroes must face. The use of the flash-forward editing makes us increasingly aware of a prescient knowledge of death, making Wyatts quest an urgent one.
The heros journey often contains a soothsayer or a magical guide. In Easy Rider we are introduced early on to the hitchhiking Stranger. He is a magical figure from a foreign city whose name he cannot utter. He foretells of Wyatts imminent death, and urges him to find his place. Wyatt refuses because he realizes that if he stays with the commune, he will not maintain the role of hero, but rather will join as a disciple of the hero already in place there. When Wyatt leaves, the Stranger gives him the magic potion (the LSD tab) that will bring him to his epiphany at the right time and with the right people (Fonda, et al, 57). The Byrds song, I Wasn t Bom To Follow, begins as he rides away.
Although Wyatt is a personal consciousness, as Captain America he is also representative of the collective consciousness of the 60s youth culture. He is the future. He is the promise of the American psyche. All the characters can be said by this token to be aspects of the collective ego represented by Captain America. Billy represents the collective shadow, driven by animal lusts, hedonistic pleasure seeking, irresponsibility, and infantilism. He is a very human and vulnerable aspect of the society, but as we have seen he is also a loyal and obedient partner at times. 23
23 Goffin/King. I Wasnt Bom To Follow. Prf. The Byrds. Capital Records, Hollywood, CA. 1967.
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We shall probably get nearest the truth if we think of the conscious and personal psyche as resting upon the broad basis of an inherited and universal psychic disposition which is as such unconscious, and that our personal psyche bears the same relation to the collective psyche as the individual to society (Portable, 93).
George is the rational, calming voice of the times. He is the unrealized leadership of the youth movements. He has the power of persuasion, the vision of progress, and the understanding of the current system needed to make the required changes, but his own flaws, his alcoholism, cripple him. Like the various young leaders of the time, he is murdered by the ignorant and fearful collective. As a representation of the psyche, the death or repression of George is the regression into the shadow function. It is a reliance on the animal instinct of fight or flight, the tendency of a normal psyche under conditions of attack. Beheaded, he is lost to consciousness.24
Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday) is the last day before Ash Wednesday when practicing Catholics observe forty days of fasting and meditation before Good Friday. It is therefore tied inextricably to Easter, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The pursuit of pleasures of the flesh that Wyatt and Billy undertake is symbolized by this powerful image of the urgent hedonism of Mardi Gras, and points to the broader idea of a cultural hedonism which began with the 1960s. Wyatts prescient
24 George was beheaded with a machete. In myth, beheadings often represent repression, or succumbing to a psychosis. In Jungs view psychosis is the complete emersion of the self in the unconscious. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Fonda, et al. Easy Rider.
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knowledge of his own death is reminiscent of Jesus (and in fact many other hero myths), and is represented many times in the film.
In the climax of the story (the symbolic death characterized by the LSD Trip in the New Orleans cemetery), the aspects of the psyche undergo a profound test or judgment. Reminiscent of the Eucharist, Wyatt places the divided tab onto the tongues of his followers, and drinks it down with wine. Wyatt is the ego divided into four, two pairs opposites: the masculine positive and negative (Wyatt and Billy), and the feminine positive and negative (Mary and Karen respectively). In the traditional concept of homeostasis, the dead soul stands before its maker stripped of raiment. During the ordeal of the Trip Mary as the positive anima shows herself naked before her creator, while Karen has mistaken physical beauty with goodness, sex for intimacy. Karen is afraid. She rehearses her final judgment behind the graves. She cannot show her true self to her creator without terror. But although Mary is also a prostitute, she is unafraid. She has regained her eternal virginity or pureness, as represented by her shamelessness in the eyes of God. Wyatt embraces his personal positive anima in Mary, but Billy being possessed by the shadow, the animal drive for pleasure, rapes the negative anima figure of Karen in the cemetery, failing to embrace her in the true sense.
There can be no wholeness without all sides of the psyche. In his symbolic death, Wyatt appears to be unable either to escape the infantilism of the lure of the shadow, or the mystery and power of the archetypes. He seems to have lost the treasure because he did not incorporate the all attributes of himself into himself. But
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has he? Wyatt seems to think so. He tells Billy on the night before he is killed that they blew it. What did he mean by this? We will have to put this discussion off until we can see a bit about what is going on here.
Depth psychology has given us a good understanding of the psychic condition of the characters, of the Zeitgeist, of the culture and of the myth. The hero myth is generally talked about (what Campbell calls the monomyth) in terms of being universal, timeless expressions. Although Jung, Campbell and Frye agree as to the timeless and universal qualities of mythology, they are also quick to point out that the myths themselves will carry the trademark of their historical place as well. Looking at a work of art in relation to Jungian depth psychology helps to reveal certain aspects of the collective that are generated by and contained within the work. We have read Easy Rider in terms of the Western and in terms of Romanticism, both of which explicitly exclude realistic women figures. Much like these traditions the language of the hero myth also seems to take it for granted that the quest is a masculine
ac
undertaking. There is no denying the domination of masculine language in myths of the hero, and in the works of those who orient their thinking toward mythological function. The very fact that it is the undertaking of a hero (and not a heroine) makes it masculine. In Easy Rider the focus is clearly and exclusively on a masculine quest and its attendant homo-social bonding. The absence of psychologically driven female roles in Easy Rider supports two arguments: it can be said to point to the film as
AC
The Demon Lover. Robin Morgan, 1974. Robin Morgan and other feminists have pointed to the gender specific language of myth to illustrate the claim of an historical and worldwide patriarchal hegemony.
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being a specifically masculine experience, and because myth carries with it the particularities of the culture that experience presented as universal can be seen as (and probably is) a symptom of the animus centric culture of the 1960s America. Jung argues that the cultural expressions are not accidental properties, but rather acts as an illustrator for the way in which the culture is out of harmony. But at the same time myths are archetypal expressions that are for everyone in a culture. Ginette Paris points out in her book Pagan Meditations that myths of goddesses, nymphs and virgin mothers act as archetypal psychology as well. They represent both positive and negative patterns for women, and are also helpful to men for insight into the feminine quest for psychological harmony, much as the hero myth presents the masculine quest.
While the pattern of the hero myth can be said to be uniquely masculine, there are in fact numerous cases in which this pattern is expropriated for the female hero quest as well. As we stated earlier, the film Thelma and Louise uses the iconic desert setting of Monument Valley to evoke Western genre motifs, it also adapts this image to Jungian effect. The problems associated with a realistic reading of the film are overcome by a mythological reading. Its fantasy quality emphasizes rather than precludes a clearer understanding, and it is instead the realistic aspects of the film that hinders interpretation.
The female hero myth is different from the male hero myth in many ways, but it is similar enough to be grouped in with the monomyth. In contrast to the hero myth, her quest involves assimilation of masculine characteristics of her psyche illustrated
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by animus figures. Her initiation is less often symbolized by a second birth than by rape trauma. As in Thelma and Louise, the quest is undertaken in response to this trauma, and their response to it allows them to break free of the imprisonment of domestic enclosures and female inferiority. Besides these crucial differences, the myths (female hero and male hero) are identical. The process of Individuation brings them to the abyss where they face the real terror associated with death in order to be made whole and gain the hidden treasure. Though for Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) the assumption of realism is that they die at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the mythological symbolism is that they have gone beyond nekyia, and by assimilating the animus figures Jimmy (Michael Madsen) and J.D. (Brad Pitt), and also by embracing each other as binary opposites of the female, they have experienced apotheosis.
But in the case of Easy Rider the anima is not the only missing archetype. It is immediately apparent that the Senex, or wise old man is missing entirely. Indicative of the popular slogan of the time to never trust anyone over thirty, it appears that his absence may in fact be important. To understand the omission, we must understand what the archetype represents. The Senex is represented as old because the attributes that we associate with him are those that usually come with long experience. Responsibility, wisdom, kindness, non-sexuality and urbanity are some of his positive aspects. The opposition can be any one of the three remaining parts of the quatemity: the hedonistic young man, the wise old woman, or the hedonistic young girl. Because of the lack of women roles (and because Mary and Karen already have a
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representational role) fully half the potential is cut-off from the archetype. Without a positive Senex, the journey is without adult guidance, absent of sage wisdom, rudderless. It is problematic for the process of Individuation, and as much a sign of its times as the missing anima is.
In Jungian depth psychology, Individuation equates with the dying and rising god. It is the god-image that is imprinted onto the psyche, which recapitulates itself in myths and religions worldwide. With Jesus, Dionysus, Mithra, Tammuz, Huitzilopochtli, Attis, etc., we are saved by the gods death and resurrection because we eat his flesh and drink his blood, taking in his essence, and becoming god-like in the process. Said another way, we participate in his Individuation through ritual.
A living example of the mystery drama representing the performance as well as the transformation of life is the Mass. [...] The Mass is an extramundane and extratemporal act in which Christ is sacrificed and then resurrected in the transformed substances; and this rite of his sacrificial death is not a repetition of the historical event but the original, unique, and eternal act. The experience of the Mass is therefore a participation in the transcendence of life, which overcomes all bounds of space and time. It is a moment of eternity in time {Four, 51-2).
Religion offers the opportunity to live a symbolic life within ritual. Followers can experience vicariously these changes of personality undergone by the hero. But this requires a vital participation by the person. Ritual reenactment renders the treasure useful to all. But modem religions often water down their numinous qualities so that a
43


symbolic life is nearly impossible, so that humans branch out from traditional
Oft
religions into areas of the occult.'
For Jung, UFOs hold a special place. The image of the Venusians coming from that distant society where there is no monetary system, no kings or government, points to the Jungian notion that every man has the capacity to become whole and to be made over into a god. It is a matter of evolution of the mind. He suggests that because of their numinous quality, UFOs might be archetypal patterns. He believes that the rise in reported sightings and the belief in extraterrestrial life are due to these patterns being presented to the culture by the collective unconscious. It might be that these archetypes are preparatory images, for when such an event as contact with alien life might occur. But it is more likely that this alien life is found within us as self-actualized beings that have risen above common experience.26 27 But whatever the purpose of the image in the collective society, its placement in the film is another expression of the archetypal pairs of opposites and the drive of the psyche to evolution. It points to a mythical land where the entirety of humanity has undergone Individuation. George tells Billy his theory about UFOs living among men in an advisory capacity, and manages to convince a very skeptical Billy of at least the possibility. After this, Billy willingly follows George and Wyatt who ride together on the same soul-chariot, and watches them with admiration and approval.
26 The loss of the numinous in everyday life as the source of many neuroses. Jung, C.G. Memories Dreams. Reflections.
27 For more on the role of UFOs in modem society see Flying Saucers: A Modem Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. C. G. Jung. Harcourt Brace: New York 1959.
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It is, however, the image of the dying and rising god that holds the greatest numinosity for the film. In the mise-en-scene of the Texas jail there is a sign which reads: Jesus: the same to-day, tomorrow, and forever. This role of Wyatt is hinted at continually in the film, so that by the Eucharist in the cemetery, it is undeniable. The first quote (referred to in the previous chapter), the Voltaire is read aloud and the audience does not see the words.28 If we see this as a symbolic act, that he embodies the thought, then we can decode the scene in a way that reconciles all the images therein. If God did not exist it would be necessary for us to create Him. It is not so much (like Voltaires Rationalist perspective) that God does not exist, but rather that He is actually re-created again and again in the hero. The fact that Wyatt reads the second inscription (the one from Gray) backwards is crucial. It reverses the idea behind the poems line. Instead of paths of glory leading to the grave, the grave then leads to a path of glory. This is the cyclical myth of the dying and rising god, and it is the foundation of much of religious life.
As an image of Captain American, on the other hand, it is less subtle. Captain America is ruled by the rational. The creation of God is the necessary means by which the ruling class maintains control over the masses. With this one fragment of image we get a clear understanding of the complex and often paradoxical nature of existence being presented. The picture of life that starts to emerge from Easy Rider is far from stereotype, frivolous or self-indulgence.
28 The third inscription will be addressed in Chapter VII.
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CHAPTER V
THE MYSTICAL TRIP AND TRANSCENDENTAL
STYLE
For anyone remotely acquainted with Easy Rider, the now famous Trip scene in the New Orleans cemetery immediately comes to mind. While the scene itself is full of wild, mysterious elements, neither the characters nor the audience comes to this scene blindly. There is an abundance of preparatory material between the opening credits and the Trip in the last ten minutes of the film. In order to understand the full impact of the scene, it is important to explore the gradual widening of vision that prepares the audience for the experience. For this reason I will put off discussion of the Trip briefly, and focus on this preparatory material.
There are three (somewhat overlapping) categories of images working together toward the singular vision of the sequence. First is the presentation of overt religious iconography throughout the film. Second is the category of archetypal images, or perhaps mythological images that point to a mystical sentiment, which support and are supported by the religious themes. And third are those filmic forms and metaphors that are referred to as making up a transcendental film style.
The religious imagery in this film is fairly straightforward. It includes overt gestures such as prayer, or the colorful crosses scribbled over the walls of the Texas jail. As William James points out, prayer is the essence of religion. In the film, prayers are offered before meals throughout the narrative, first at the ranch, then
46


again at the commune, and in the cemetery. At the commune though it takes on its most meaningful quality. The camera pans left 360 degrees over all the faces of the diners. Their expressions are intense and pious and still (and perhaps depressed or bored), while Jack (the Commune leader) offers an impassioned prayer of thanks. The rustic table, the mode of dress, the styles of hair and grooming, even the muted colors brought out by the natural lighting from above, streams of sunlight, bring to mind Da Vincis The Last Supper and evoke that sacred mood.29
In the graveyard mourners read funeral prayers aloud amid statues of the Virgin and Justice, cherubs, angels and the like. The four characters (Wyatt, Billy, Mary and Karen) cry, scream and pray. The psychedelic hallucination is the union with cosmic consciousness, the contemplation of the Godhead. Mary takes off her clothes; they wring their hands, hide behind graves, and mourn their own passing. All the while there is the unearthly sound of the pile driver echoing in the background. These symbols are visual clues to the numinous, and they flash by as the pilgrimage is played out of standing before God, naked of persona, to be judged.
But rarely are the religious symbols of Easy Rider more overt than those of (what I call) the communes morality play. A mime troop sings the childrens song, How Do You Wear Your Hair? A young woman from the commune walks by, and Billy follows her. She enters a circle of the communes men who are engaged in secret conversation, indicating the hidden knowledge of the initiates. Jack (the Christ figure here) is surrounded by his disciples (there are eleven of them) and the Stranger.
9Q
They sit in a circle, itself a sacred symbol.
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They welcome the woman into the group with an embrace. But when Billy tries to follow her into the circle, he is stopped by one of the disciples who holds out a white crucifix to bar his way. Like St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, the Stranger walks up, and insinuating the voice of a gangster doorman of a 1920s speakeasy, he says, Who sent ya? Billy retreats without responding. He understands all too well that he cannot enter the secret circle. As he backs away, the song takes on an ominous tone. The singing becomes more and more urgent, and like hellish demons the singers relentlessly torment him. They grab at his clothes from the stage, and force him to run away.
Before Billy and Wyatt leave the commune Wyatt is invited to stay there to take on the role of the twelfth disciple. Your times running out, the Stranger tells him. Im hip about time, he responds. But I just gotta go (Fonda, et al, 102-3), echoing his statement in the Anasazi ruins that he never wanted to be anybody else. He is a leader, and not a follower.
The second category of images is the archetypal or mythological, including those that contain impressions of cyclical nature, or that generally relates to a metaphysical ambiguity. We find many of these types of images in Easy Rider that are not necessarily attached to either the hero myth or united to any specific religious theology. The first of this type we recognize is timelessness. Set amongst the distant horizons and wide, colorful skies, the films opening action moves through rundown buildings and rusted automobiles, symbolizing (among other possibilities) the ambitions of long-dead men broken into ruins. Wyatt takes off his watch and throws
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it to the ground. In an empty drawer left on the ground of a failed homestead he finds a broken clock and a torn coverless paperback. The changing of a flat tire is juxtaposed with the shoeing of a horse on the Arizona ranch. This is timelessness. Wyatt is both free of time in the personal sense, and in the mythological sense as well. This journey could happen in any age. Past and present are the same. Although timelessness is not religious per se, the concept is an archetypal one and acts to support the iconography and mood.
Next is the characteristic behavior of the mystic that tends to tie the Stranger to an archetypal pattern. The hitchhiking Stranger presents as a prototype of the mystic. The only thing that can be told about him is from an etic perspective. Even if we can identify with the heroes, Wyatt and Billy, we can never identify with the Stranger. We have seen nothing of what his motivations might be. He is vague and elusive, in every sense a stranger. As the three men sit at their campfire amid the ruins of an Anasazi village, we get the first idea of his unusual character.
Billy: How much farther we got to go, man?
Stranger: Not much farther.
Billy: Thats what you said this morning.
Stranger: I sometimes say it all day.
Billy: Where you from, man?
Stranger: Its hard to say.
Billy: (Laughs) Its hard to say? Where you from, man?
Stranger: Well its hard to say because its a very long word, you know.
Billy: I just want to know where youre from man.
Stranger: A city.
Billy: (Laughs) Just a city?
Stranger: Mmm-mmm. It doesnt make any difference what city. All cities are
alike. Thats why Im out here now.
Billy: (Laughs) Thats why youre out here now?
Stranger: Yeah.
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Billy: Yeah? Why?
Stranger: Cause Im from the city, a long way from the city and thats
where I want to be right now.
Wyatt: Do they know you in this place?
Stranger: The place were coming to, or the place were at right now?
Wyatt: This place. (Laughs)
Billy: (Laughs)
Stranger: (To Billy) Youre right on top of em.
Billy: Im right on top of em?
Stranger: Yeah. The people this place belongs to are buried right under you.
You could be a trifle polite.
Billy: A trifle polite? (Laughs)
Stranger: A small thing to ask.
Wyatt: You ever want to be somebody else?
Stranger: (sighs) Id like to try Porky Pig.
Wyatt: Mmm. I never wanted to be anybody else (Fonda, et al, 72 4).
While this sort of language might seem to be the incoherent ramblings of a marijuana haze, it is typical of mystical language in its ambiguity and in what it seems to conceal. The Stranger does not answer direct questions, except in riddles. He refers to his city of origin in terms reflective of other-worldliness. He implies not only that he knows the dead (an already curious claim to make), but also that he is known by them. We recognize some hidden knowledge in him.
Those who have reached higher levels of spiritual consciousness have always confounded those of us who have not. They speak and act in ways that baffle normal univocal consciousness. They are commonly portrayed in literature or film as possessing magical or superhuman powers. Much of the Kung Fu genre is based on this notion. This neither proves nor disproves the actual ability of these people to perform miracles, but points rather to the common perception that such powers can be obtained through spirituality. This belief corresponds to what Jung calls re-emergence of the Shadow. It points both to faith in the ability and the benefit of psychic
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evolution, and not less so the way that lower (more primitive) levels of consciousness perceive higher levels as magical. The idea re-emerges from repression of the earlier levels of consciousness that humans have passed through, and is represented in myth by the Spirit archetype. Often the Spirit is a theriomorphic being that gives the hero a few of its hairs as a magical device. In the case of Easy Rider it is the Stranger that performs this function. We recognize his magical powers at the gas station when with a wave of his hand he tells Wyatt that the cost of fuel has been taken care of. Whatever action took place to take care of the fuel bill occurs off camera. We see no one come out to collect the money, nor do we see the Stranger go in to pay. We have only the slightest intuition that there was not enough time for either to happen. We accept the wave of his hand as authority.
And he is surrounded by other occult images.30 We have discussed Wyatts prescient knowledge of his own death in previous sections. But it is the prescient knowledge that the Stranger has of Wyatts imminent demise that is further supports the Stranger as the Spirit archetype. Your times running out, he tells Wyatt. He is not only aware of Wyatts problem with longevity, but also aware of his inner conflict. When Wyatt refuses his invitation to join the commune, the Stranger as Spirit gives him the tab of LSD that will hasten his final stasis. Consequently, it makes the Trip crucial to the narrative.
30
Even in incidental ways he appears steeped m the numinous, such as the ritualistic way he washes, his purple military tunic, and the lighthouse patch on his sleeve. Purple is a recognized ecclesiastical symbol, and the lighthouse is a symbol for guidance. He puts us in mind of a soldier of God.
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The very act of quartering the tab of LSD in the cemetery, and washing it
down with red wine puts us in mind of the Eucharist. This powerful and sacred image
bleeds into the story as the nature myth, the archetypal cycle of birth, death and
rebirth that countless world religions hold at their center. Wyatt is in fact (as the sign
in the jail read): Jesus Christ, the same today to-morrow, and forever.
Very often music in Easy Rider signifies Wyatts inner monologue. Take for
example this excerpt from the song, Wasnt Bom To Follow,31 which enters the
narrative just prior to the Strangers first appearance:
And when its time Ill go and wait beside a legendary fountain till I see your form reflected in its clear and jeweled waters and if you think Im ready you may lead me to the chasm where the rivers of our vision flow into one another (Goffin/King).
The Song itself contains definite mystical overtones. Wyatt is signaling his
willingness to be lead to the chasm. The Stranger appears as if in answer to his
prayer, and represents his readiness for the journey. The form reflected in the waters
is God, the universe, the mystical unity, cosmic consciousness, or what-have-you. But
it is the Stranger who has led Wyatt to the chasm by giving him the LSD tab. The
song appears again after Wyatt refuses to join the commune. We get more insight into
Wyatts inner monologue: his reasons for the refusal.
I would want to die beneath the white cascading waters. She may beg, she may plead, she may argue with her logic, and mention all the things Ive learned that really have no value, in the end she will surely know I wasnt bom to follow (Goffin/King).
31 Goffin/King. I Wasnt Bom To Follow. Prf. The Byrds. Capital Records, Hollywood, CA. 1967.
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And then there is Transcendent Style. As defined by Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style is a representative filmic form. He has identified the form by analyzing the works of filmmakers such as Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. What he is able to extract from these directors is a universal style dictated by two things: the desire to authentically convey the Transcendent, and the very nature of the film medium. It is a method of expressing the holy or transcendent on film. Schrader reviews the works of these three artists, and from them discerns a set of strategies that are intended to accomplish this. His complex analysis reveals a tripartite system: the reliance on form over subject, the breakdown of screens, and resolution in stasis. For Schrader, the form of Transcendent Style and its corresponding critical approach are nothing less than the creation and study of contemporary artistic hierophanes (Schrader, 9).
Since human works cannot by definition inform about the transcendent but can only be expressive of it, a film of this sort must rely upon its universal elements. Because subject matter is dictated by culture, it is not universal. Form then becomes the primary method of inducing reaction. Subject matter becomes a pretext for the form. This form often takes the shape of a theological metaphor as in the case of Bressons prison cycles and/or martyrs. For Bresson, the notion of imprisonment is a ready metaphor for questions of free will or predestination, the prison of the body versus the liberty of the soul. Martyrdom looks at questions of human suffering and sacrifice (and in a sense is a subset of the prison cycle). These are the universal characteristics of form.
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In Easy Rider we find a smaller version of Bressons prison cycle in the Texas jail. Instead of expanding this image throughout the films narrative, this brief episode acts to remind us of the motif. It only alludes to this theological problem of predestination, servitude and redemption, and it is supported by jailhouse graffiti of crosses and a painted sign that tells us of the eternal cycle of the hero. Jesus Christ, the same today, to-morrow and forever. The presentation of the prison cycle is enough to justify Easy Rider as utilizing this aspect of Transcendental Style.
Screens are those aspects of film that tend to get in the way of an experience of the transcendent. Schrader discusses the many ways that these directors try to break them down. Screens range from plot and dramatic action to music and sound effects. As discussed earlier, Wyatts attitude of repose also works here as one of the ways that the filmmakers have attempted to break down screens. What Schrader refers to as surface reality must be broken down to allow the audience to see through the everyday and into the Transcendent. This is accomplished by limiting the dramatic action to its bare essentials. By stripping away the actors interpretation of a scene, the action becomes divested of meaning. It becomes hyper-real the closer it comes to non-expressiveness. The same is true for plot. Transcendental Style sees plot as a screen as well, regards it as a limit to the psychological action. Since the Transcendental film is interested more in the interior state of the character than the exterior, plot allows the audience too much control over their emotional connection to the film. It allows a viewer to anticipate the proper emotional response to the actions resolution before it comes (and even if it does not come). Reading Easy
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Rider as plot-driven, as anything other than a Transcendental film, makes it facile and nearly incomprehensible.
Another screen that Schrader talks about is that of the soundtrack. In the case of Easy Rider, the soundtrack is made up almost entirely of nondiegetic, appropriated music, with no underscoring music, and documentary natural sound effects.
According to Schrader this is the quintessential stylization of Transcendental filmmaking. The natural sounds (wind, creaking doors, children playing, dogs barking) all help to reinforce the everyday. Music (in Transcendental Style and also in Easy Rider) is used only for blasts of emotion within a cold context. But as we discussed earlier, in Easy Rider music provides another Transcendental function, that of narration. In Transcendental Style, narration holds the function of broadening the viewers knowledge or feelings of an event. While the usual use of narration in film is to give new information to a scene, Transcendental Style uses it instead to reinforce information already given. Action and song copy each other, which results in the simultaneous intensification and arrest of the viewers ordinary emotional response. This doubling of information keys the viewer in on the idea that this is beyond a day-to-day reality. We have seen in previous chapters how this occurred with If 6 was 9 and with Wasnt Bom To Follow, but a careful viewing will reveal that this occurs with each song of the film.
This screen breaking which is essential to Transcendental Style is not an end. Schrader points out that mere breaking down of screens amounts more to a stylization than to a style. In order to move from the breaking down of screens to
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resolution, a Transcendent film must create tension through what Schrader calls disparity. In the restaurant in New Orleans, a rock version of the Kyrie Eleison is heard while the two men drink wine, and eat rich food behind glass beads, and Sauciers flames. But at the same time this overtly religious theme hides the disparity it creates. It is with this disparity that the religious enters the realm of Transcendental Style. The chanting continues to underscore the mise-en-scene of conspicuous pleasure seeking. The polarity is exaggerated by the wild extroversion of Billy set against the brooding introversion of Wyatt, and reflected by the Latin Mass set to the music of hedonism. And again at the brothel the list of icons is long: gothic architecture, baroque decor, fresco-painted ceilings and walls, classical portraits of naked women, kings, the Virgin with a flaming heart, naked women in chains, Virgin and child, Christ on the cross surrounded by Angels, more angels; there are live, naked women dancing on tables, or sitting half-dressed on upholstered couches, statues of gods, kings and classical nudes. The iconography nearly overwhelms the senses. Presenting these traditionally religious symbols with those of orgiastic pagan ones (the Godly and the Godless) creates a dichotomy in the mind. Tension is created. These religiously and psychologically charged symbols are piled one on top of the other throughout the film so that by the time we reach the cemetery, we wholly anticipate a significant, inevitable event.
The scene of the Trip is not a real mystical event. It is only the attempt to convey one through art to an audience. While a real mystical experience might contain none of the religious symbolism of this scene, it is important to remember
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that the experience being conveyed is a direct experience of the numinous, and in our culture it is an easy method (if also a clumsy one) of passing on the idea of the numen in visual text.
The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its particular emotional mood (James, 368).
The Trip scene is a peak at the personal experience of the character that experiences
the mystical in this way. It tells less about the nature of mystical experiences than it
does about the personal makeup of Wyatts state of mind, which is decidedly
religious. The mystical themes however are accurate. The scene has conveyed an
ineffable experience, one that is transient, paradoxical, and transcends both time and
the ego. Most importantly, for Wyatt the experience is noetic. It carries with it this
quality of a revelation of truth and a strong sense of certainty.
The potent symbol of the Eucharist falls under the category of religious icon,
yet there is another dimension to it that places it squarely here in Transcendental
Style. Setting this Last Supper in a Graveyard displays an inherent and potent
dichotomy.
Death itself, the concept of it, has two polarities that promote the disparity needed before resolution. There is the idea of it as an end, a frightful ceasing to be, or the transformation into uncertainty and perhaps eternal suffering, the confrontation with the mysterium tremendum. But then there is the other. There is the idea of death in the mythological sense, that of a necessary, though painful and dangerous process,
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in which death then is itself transformed into the positive, the eternal cycle of decay and regeneration. In this way the image itself is both disparity and stasis.
The point of creating tension through disparity is to bring the characters inner turmoil into resolution, or as Schrader calls it, stasis. Tension is created and gradually built up to the breaking point where we get the decisive action often resulting in the death of the character. For Transcendental Style this represents transformation, and is designed to move a viewer through the stages of recognition, struggle and (finally) acceptance of the inherent ambiguity of the universe. Stasis is what Schrader describes as the quiescent, frozen or hieratic scene (Schrader, 82) that follows the decisive action. It is a final icon on which the viewer can reflect, and in which all the opposing forces co-exist in harmony. Easy Riders ending captures this idea of stasis. The film ends with Wyatts crashed motorcycle burning on the roadside as the camera rises sharply into the air. It is the symbol of Wyatts rising soul. As the camera rises we can see the wide horizon (itself a symbol of eternity). And as Schrader predicts music acts as a signal of this stasis. We hear the quiet strumming of guitar, the lyrics: The river flows, flows to the sea, wherever that river goes thats where I want to be. Flow river, flow. Let your waters wash down, take me from this road. The song, like the emerging vision of the long Mississippi River snaked across the land evokes the archetypical water cycle, the the river of life flowing eternal.
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CHAPTER VI
ECSTASY: TICKET TO RIDE
The idea of the transcendent has persisted throughout history in art, literature, music, and now in film. This fact alone points to its importance to humanity, and to the way it experiences the world. Wyatts ecstatic experience that is triggered by his ingestion of LSD bears closer scrutiny. But why are we talking about the transcendent in relation to drug-induced intoxication? Is there any reason to equate the two? First lets review the characteristics of mysticism. The following discussion is admittedly rudimentary, but sufficient as an introduction into exploration of the themes of this type found in the film, their importance, and for the interpretation of their meaning.
The main problem with the study of mysticism comes from the decidedly rational tendency of social science. As far back as Plato, Rationalists have held that humans are essentially social animals, discounting the validity of individual experiences. The idea that a personal experience without social function could be life altering is considered absurd.
One view of the world is that it is an intelligible presentation which is spread out before us for our detached and dispassionate examination; its nature can be grasped by thought, analysis and classification alone. This view has been held by most philosophers and scientists. Another view is that the world is not like that at all, that it is a mystery, the secret of which can only be partially grasped by thought, analysis, and classification. To penetrate its deepest secrets one must not stand aside from it, but try, as it were, to feel it, to become part of it (Happold, 70).
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But how does one go about conveying this idea of the ineffable nature of existence in rational terms? Carl Jung cautions that every statement about the transcendental ought to be avoided because it is invariably a laughable presumption on the part of the human mind, unconscious of its limitations (qtd. in Happold 64). But no discussion of this kind can begin without some understanding of what is being said. Scholars such as James and Otto have acknowledged this difficulty, and have tried to treat the subject with sensitivity, meaning only to define it in terms of its value. Any subject that has had such a demonstrable impact on humankind (so too any film that might have something to say about it) cannot be without value.
Mysticism is a philosophy of, or belief in, a transcendent realm where lies a reality that is wholly separate from the normal waking reality of the sensual world. It can also be the practice of contemplation, meditation or prayer for the purpose of moving consciousness into that mystic state in order to commune with that nonreality. The mystic state itself is ineffable, due mainly to its strictly experiential nature. Nonetheless, comparison of mystic texts from throughout history and across the globe has led scholars into general agreement about what constitutes a mystical experience. It is described as a state of consciousness that cannot be conveyed with direct language, one in which all the usual methods for gathering information, i.e. sensory data, are useless. It is a uniquely personal experience. As William James demonstrates in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there is no sense of temporal or spatial orientation to it, making it separate from place. The five senses often undergo a synesthsia, blending them together so that sound is seen (for
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example), or light is felt, etc., or discarded altogether. But most importantly, and what
differentiates this state from similar states such as dreaming, daydreaming or deja vu,
is the profound sense of real meaning attributed to it by the participant.
Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of their subject between the times of their recurrence (James, 330).
The participant is left with is a strong conviction that the normal waking consciousness of humans is only one type of reality that can be experienced, and very often he is left with a belief that he has been given special knowledge of the workings of the universe. Consequently, whole cultures have been transformed by the ecstatic experience of a single individual.
James ascribes four qualities that make up the mystic state: Ineffability,
Noetic quality, Transience, and Passivity. Only the first two of these he claims are necessary, while the second two are usually present. Transience is the usual form of this state, since invariably the person comes out of it, which is why the mystic tries both to convey this experience to others, and often dedicates the remainder of life trying again to reach this state.
This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In the mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by clime or creed (James, 362).
Very often this unity is expressed in religious terms, but as James points out there is no guarantee that the experience is expressed this way. He groups artistic, scientific, or philosophical insight into this type of experience.
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According to Rudolf Otto the holy no longer contains within its definition
the original feeling quality of the word. Religious ritual and mythology are designed
to approximate this mysterious trait, but have been turned into orthodoxy and dogma
by the rational tendency of man to create a plausible fabric of interpretation (Otto,
27). The word has consequently become one-sidedly intellectualistic because it is so
hard to describe the ineffable nature of the experience. Instead he introduces two very
useful terms to the study of the mystical to stand in for the holy. The first is numen,
or the numinous. This term is most closely related to awe in its most profound
sense. The second term is mysterium tremendum. This term carries both the hidden
aspects of this non-reality in mysterium, and also the awe of the numinous. It is
important to note that the terror implied by tremendum, is not accurately fear per se. It
is more than just fear. It is an urgent, spectral dread, a shuddering to the very marrow.
There is the aspect of real terror, but also it represents a duality of feeling, much in
the same way the awe can be used both as awesome, or awful, positive and negative.
The numinous is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. The participant is
impressed by a strong creature-feeling, helplessness and powerlessness beside the
great power of the universe, but also by an understanding of unity and sameness with
this power (knower and known, the same).
It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible above all creatures (Otto, 13).
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A person impressed by such a state, who then desires to convey the
importance of the experience to others, is left with a dilemma. Language (being
created by and for those with an experience of the world through their senses) is too
small for the largeness of such an event that has transcended the rational.32 During the
mystical state, language becomes figurative. The mystic assigns meaning to words
that may not figure into the actual meaning at all. When the feeling passes so do the
figurative qualities of the words leaving only non-sense. Often it is not conceptual
speech but music is the best element through which mystical truth is spoken.
Like the poet and the musician, the mystic has to find a language of his own; it is to a great extent a language of symbols, and it is of the nature of symbolism that it conceals as well as reveals (Happold, 68-9).
Metaphor and simile are the closest things that the rational world has to mystical
experience. It makes sense that the origin of metaphor would be to describe these
ineffable qualities of the mystic experience.33
If consensus is to be found among scholars, it is that the mystic state consists
(more or less) of eleven characteristics, which do not all have to be present. As we
have said though, it must be ineffable in that it defies description, at least in a direct
sense. And it must be noetic and convey insight into a form of knowledge or truth that
is non-conscious in any other state, and this truth is enveloped by a strong sense of
certainty. It is transient, unable to be sustained for any great duration. And it is
32 Ironically, Otto presents rational thought as a consequence of the attempt to communicate the ineffable nature of the mystical state in dogma and orthodoxy.
33 In this sense God is a metaphor, because the word points to the ineffable nature of the thing, and is not the thing itself. Durkheims totem can be seen as a living metaphor.
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passive in that it cannot be willed, but instead begins at its own genesis. There is generally an overwhelming sense of the unity of all things, and a conjunction of all opposites. Because of the difficulty of sensing the passing of time during the episode it is said to be timeless, an overcoming of time and space. It is a transcendence of the ego state, impressing upon the observer a sense of the falsity of the ego as the true self. It conveys to the observer a sense of paradox, which explains the contradictory language used by mystics to convey it to others (dark silence, brilliant darkness, deafening silence, teeming desert, etc.). Many mystics have described the ultimate reality as a dark void, or an infinite nothingness, expressing God (or the ultimate consciousness, or in the case of Meister Eckhart, the Godhead) as a via negativa,34 It is above all a non-rational, intuitive experience. And it is often reported as a profoundly humbling experience.
It is important to note here that despite the desire of mystics to hasten the return of this state, not all mystical experiences are positive. As Campbell puts it: Suppressed Gods turn into devils...and it is these devils that we generally encounter first when we turn inward (Hero, 42). The terrible side of the mysterium tremendum can overwhelm. Carl Jung said that one of the functions of religion is to defend us against the experience of God (qtd. in Thou, 60). Old Testament Jews understood the terror of looking into the face of God. There is a very real sense that the experience can lead to insanity, or even to death. This is the core of what we experience as the mysterium tremendum.
34 Meister Eckhart: A Modem Translation. New York: Harper and Row, 1941.
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Despite a general consensus that a person cannot will (or cause) the ascent
into a mystic state, there is still an overall tendency of mystics to try. Historically
many methods have been employed to this end including fasting or special diets, self-
flagellation, mortification of the flesh, taking of botanical hallucinogens, or
meditation. St. Ignatius Loyola recommended contemplation of religious history
(focusing the mind on the lives of the saints, the crucifixion of Christ, etc.) to ready
oneself for the transcendent state. The contemplation of Loyola and others
corresponds to Jungs active imagination, which is meant to purify the soul in
anticipation of the return of the mystical state, not necessarily to trigger its return.
William James breaks down the question as to the validity of an experience by
dividing the question into two distinct issues: 1) what is the origin? 2) What is the
significance? They are not the same. He writes in response to the position of what he
calls the medical materialists of his day that want to group all states of psychology, or
of consciousness into physiological terms, including those of genius and insanity.
They are effective with their talk of pathological origin only so long as supernatural origin is pleaded by the other side, and nothing but the argument from origin is under discussion. But the argument from origin has seldom been used alone, for it is too obviously insufficient (James, 29).
James argues that the origin of the state may be suspect while at the same time its
significance for the betterment of mankind might be great, and vice versa. This is
James pragmatist position from which he has launched his entire study of the
phenomenon of religion, and religious experience. The implications of his position is
that he must concede that the drug induced nature of the ecstatic state must be looked
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at as possibly valid under these circumstances, from the prospective of the usefulness to the participant.
Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at the time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded (James, 335).
What he argues is that these types of experience transcend the rational, and in many circumstances might be superior to it. He does not go so far as to claim its existence outside of the human mind, but for James this is immaterial because of the practical application implied by it. And he is quick to point out that if it were a completely illegitimate notion, it would be unlikely that it would manifest itself in similar or identical forms wherever on the planet it is found.
Use of botanical or chemical substance, taken to occasion spiritual or mystical experience that transcends our normal range of mental and emotional powers is documented throughout the animal kingdom. Humans are by no means an exception to this. Botanical anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios explains that botanically induced intoxication has been common, especially in religious ritual, since prehistoric times. The drive for ecstatic intoxication is a near universal trait of the human species according to Dobkin de Rios. Many of these intoxicants are of the
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psychotropic or hallucinogenic type, such as marijuana, peyote, mescaline, hashish or mushrooms.35
Robert Fuller looks at the ritual use of intoxicants throughout history, and points out that wine, coffee, special diets, and tobacco have also played historical roles in religious ecstatic vision, and have been sanctioned (under certain conditions) by all western religions at one time or another.
Psychiatrist Dr. Walter Clark documents in his book Chemical Ecstasy that patients treated with LSD describe a sudden awareness of unity, reality and infinity in space and time of all creation. They relate a feeling of joy, peace and a sense of the sacred, spatial and temporal distortion, and an overwhelming indescribable paradox. Clark references numerous research projects and individual cases where personality change was so drastic after LSD that incurable alcoholics stopped drinking, violent criminals became non-violent, atheists espoused God, depressives returned to work, etc. He asserts that drugs can be an important factor in religious experience. Some of the descriptions offered by his patients of visions induced by psychotropic drugs resemble in close detail those described as religious visions, or revelation by the greatest religious leaders in history. Included in his definition of drugs are the biochemical hormones, endorphins and dopamine produced naturally in the body through fasting, self-flagellation, meditation, etc.
35 Religion is not found in the chemical compound itself but in ritual. The chemical only triggers the religious experience; without a guide the individual only gets an enhanced sense of his own cultures pervasive belief systems.
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Despite the claims enthusiasts make of psychotropic drugs being a social and psychological panacea, the dramatic personality transformations are striking. They are suggestive of the power of ecstatic vision to affect change in an individual, and consequently a society. Clark, Fuller and Dobkin de Rios all suggest that more than just a family resemblance exists between drug induced, and non-drug induced experiences, adding helpful insight into both the essential similarities of these states, and the popular perception that they are the same.
If these two states are perceived to be equivalent by the culture, then it is not inaccurate to claim that one represents the other. The perceived authenticity of the drug-induced state is important to the study of the film. Wyatt (Fonda) appears to gain insight from his Trip, and undergoes a radical transformation of personality and perception, marks of a true ecstatic state. More importantly though, establishing the fact of this perception both by the mainstream and by the counter-culture in the 1960s is important to the meaning of what the filmmakers are trying to say. The attitude of the film is that one equals the other, that is to say that drugs (certain types) are medicinal and incorrectly interpreted as bad.
The viewpoint here is that LSD is not a drug of casual use, but that it should be ingested, at the right time, and with the right group of people. Even the quartering of the tab is ceremonial. Through this study we see that LSD is equated with spirituality. Cocaine is equated with opulence and superficiality. Alcohol is too often abused and then is no real method of encountering the transcendent. And finally, through Georges introduction to it, that marijuana leads to focused inner
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contemplation and self-awareness, and that it does not lead to harder stuff. Instead it gives one a fresh, sharp outlook, a whole new way of looking at the day. And as George counters, Well, I sure could use a little of that! (Fonda, et al, 129).
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CHAPTER VII
TALKING TO BULLFROGS: REVITALIZATION AND RESISTANCE
If Easy Rider is to tell us anything about the 1960s cultural Zeitgeist out of which it was created, we should view it (at least in part) as the filmic reflection of extreme volatility in America, a time of rapid cultural metamorphosis. It becomes important then to understand something about how cultural change works. The transformation of a culture is commonly regarded as a classic process of acculturation, influenced by such phenomena as evolution, drift, diffusion, or historical change that can take years, decades, centuries or millennia to manifest itself. The Revitalization Movement, on the other hand makes the more direct and abrupt transformation of society intelligible. According to cultural anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, a movement toward revitalization of a cultural system is a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture (Wallace, 10). It seems at first blush to be fairly straight forward, but let us look more closely at these processes of deliberate cultural change that Wallace calls: the Revitalization Movement, and the organismic analogy.
A Revitalization Movement is a very broad class of phenomenon. It involves a (usually unconscious) recognition of the established pattern of social organization or thought (the mazeway as Wallace refers to it) as unsatisfactory, the (again usually unconscious) apprehension of a new mazeway that promises to relieve the stress, and
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the attempt to reorganize the personal or social structure along the lines of this new mazeway, which then usually spawns organized resistance to it.
To describe the interaction between individual and society, Wallace uses the analogy of a natural organism. His organismic analogy describes the system of communication responsible for the conveyance of stress indicators back and forth from the cellular level to the national level. It is interesting to note that this system analogy closely resembles concretely the vaguer notion of a mystical unity of all living things brought out by mysticism. The adaptation of an organism in response to certain stresses works to change the patterns of the system to provide a more efficient system for providing satisfaction to stress. Wallace understands that a society under conditions of normalcy will work in a coordinated way to preserve its integrity whenever stress is experienced.
As he points out, stress on one level of a system (such as on the cellular level
of an organism) produces stress on all levels of the system. Given that an organism is
a network of cells in constant communication with each other, the analogy shows the
intricate relationship an individual has to his society. In the human body a network of
such cells make up the organs, or the nervous or skeletal systems, etc.
This holistic view of society as organism integrated from cell to nation depends on the assumption that society as an organization of living matter is definable as a network of intercommunication. [...] Organized by the individuals own experience, it includes perceptions of both the maze of physical objects of the environment (internal and external, human and nonhuman) and also of the ways in which this maze can be manipulated by the self and others in order to minimize stress (Wallace, 11).
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Wallace calls this cybernetic mental image the mazeway. This cell-body-personality-nature-culture-society system alludes to the intimate connection an individual experiences with regard to its culture, the ineffable relationship between the self and the transcendent realm.36 But the mazeway, while being the system of cell-nation communication, is also the method by which the individual gains his solution for the relief of his stress. The connection between cell and god becomes an unbroken line of communication that wholly constitutes the self.
Functionally, every person in society necessarily maintains this mental image of the system and its innate regularity in order to be prepared to act in a way that will reduce stress at all of the levels. Wallaces theory helps us to see this same functionality of relationships in the societal organization as well. Communication is
36 Durkheim argues that through the totem a tribal unit creates a symbolic image of the clan by which each member, and therefore the society as a whole, can recognize itself. The symbol as a concrete object points to the ineffable relationship between the self and the transcendent realm. Thus the god and society are one and the same, and by understanding the totem as both god and self, the elementary religious cult ostensibly practices self-worship. In this very limited context, Durkheim and Wallace are saying essentially the same thing. Wallaces cell-body-personality-nature-culture-society system alludes to the intimate connection an individual experiences with regard to his culture. Durkheim would take this system further to include society-environment-totem-world-universe-god. The connection between cell and god become an unbroken network of communication that wholly constitutes the self. Admittedly this reconciliation of the two theories ignores many differences in favor of a few loosely connected lines of thought, but it is included here in an attempt to get at the transcendent nature of ecstatic vision. Nothing that I have seen in either theory is drastically altered with this inclusion to render them implausible or weakened in any way. In fact, the inclusion of god to Wallaces system helps to explain the authority the prophet accepts for his ecstatic vision or new mazeway. Furthermore, this adaptation reconciles both theories to the Jungian notion of cellular, and even inorganic matter-consciousness and phylogenic memory, which again emphasizes the mystical nature of transcendent reality.
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vital to understanding his analogy, as it is this intercommunication that likens the system to society, and in fact makes one grow organically from the other.
Few Americans would argue the point that stress is a common, defining quality of modem life. But what appears modem is actually an integral part of life in all ages. The perception of stress can be understood psychologically as an instinctual human drive. When an individual is under chronic stress, he looks to his current mazeway for a way to reduce the stress. If his mazeway fails to offer a satisfactory solution, he is then faced with the possibility of abandoning his current mazeway for another. And it is by no means necessary for the entirety of the system to act in this way, but any part sufficiently large to accommodate this maintenance of what he calls the minimally fluctuating, life-supporting matrix for its individual members (Wallace, 11).
The class of phenomena that Wallace terms as Revitalization Movements reflect a process that, beginning with the original steady state, follows certain stages of development before reaching a new steady state. He identifies the processual structure in some detail.
The structure of the revitalization process, in cases where the full course is run, consists of five somewhat overlapping stages: 1. Steady State; 2. Period of Individual Stress; 3. Period of Cultural Distortion; 4. Period of Revitalization (in which occur the functions of mazeway reformulation, communication, organization, adaptation, cultural transformation, and routinization), and finally; 5. New Steady State (Wallace, 14).
Wallace claims that a movement toward revitalization is usually centered on a
moment of inspiration. He likens these moments to dreams or visions, thereby
stressing the transcendent aspects of an ecstatic vision to the sort of insight needed to
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transform a society in beneficial ways. He believes that a large proportion of religious
phenomena have originated in personality transformation dreams or visions that have
advanced through the stages of the revitalization process to become routinized. These
visions carry a personality transforming element, a new synthesis of values and
meanings, often in a positive therapeutic sense. Myths, legends and rituals are then
relics of the manifest content of vision-dreams, or replication of the historical acts
that set the new system in place. Wallace argues that:
...all organized religions are relics of old revitalization movements, surviving in routinized form in stabilized cultures and that religious phenomena per se originated in the revitalization process i.e., visions of a new way of life by individuals under extreme stress (Wallace, 17).
A Revitalization Movement is an attempt to overthrow the old relic for a new one that
may be better equipped to relieve the stress of the community.37
Fuller explains that the emergence of a movement requires that the followers
perceive his vision to be authoritative. While there are other factors that determine if
a movement will ultimately be successful (such as organization, flexibility and
resistance), perceived authority is key to the formation of the movement.
^7
' That religions are relics of old revitalization movements appears at first to be inconsistent with Eliade, but in fact supports the Eliadean notion very well. The repetition of ritual that reestablishes cosmos in the Eliadean model can be described as survivals of the original act in illo tempore, or by the prophet. The difference is that for Wallace the ontology does not stop with the primitives mythical archetype, but with the actual primordial act. For Wallace, the prophet acquires the knowledge of his revitalization movement from a god, or at least from the transcendent reality. It is revealed to him in what ways he should act to reduce the stress of society or of the individual. These acts attain the level of myth or ritual once they complete the requisite five stages to become routinized. The ritual repeats the act to affect the same or similar stress-reducing re-establishment of cosmos. In this way revitalization is not a contradiction of Eliade, but perhaps adjunct to it.
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The process of religious innovation often focuses upon an individual [...] who emergefs] as a prophet of a new sacred order. [...] an agent of religious change who takes on the responsibility for announcing a break in the established normative order. To legitimate this break, the prophet must invoke a source of spiritual authority. Not surprisingly, this authority is often grounded in the prophets personal experiences of the sacred, experiences in which he or she claims to see, feel, or touch a sacred reality independently of the religious establishment and its ordained officials [...] much of the use of marijuana and LSD in the 60s and 70s fits this pattern (Fuller, 12).
The characteristics of Wallaces prophet-vision have been shown to be cannily
similar to those of ecstatic hallucinations reported by Clark and Fuller. This seems
especially plausible in light of the numerous cases of positive therapeutic
transformation through psychotropic experience that is reported by Dr. Clark with
regard to alcoholism, crime and depression. As discussed in previous chapters, nearly
every culture possesses religious rituals that are specifically designed to induce
altered states of consciousness including those that emphasize the ingestion of
intoxicants. Marlene Dobkin de Rios postulates that botanical hallucinogens may
have played an important part in the evolution of Homo sapiens as a species, perhaps
even being responsible for stimulating the formation of human language in order to
communicate information about the ecstatic experience. In this way, psychotropic
drugs might have necessitated the prototypical Revitalization Movement.
38 Of course, she does not claim psychotropic drug use to be the cause and origin of religious belief. Since religion creates the system of consciousness from which humans operate, it is the cultures religion that ultimately shapes the structure of thought. She does, however, acknowledge that psychotropic drugs have had an important influence on belief systems throughout history. And ecstatic vision very often carries an aura of legitimate authority in cultures of all ages, and in all parts of the globe.
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How does this translate to Easy Rider? When viewed through the lens of this
theory it is not hard to imagine Easy Rider as a model for revitalization and resistance.
In the late 1960s the nation is under some demonstrable stress: violent student protests, riots, bombings, political assassinations, the Vietnam War. Wyatt as Captain America, a symbol of the nation, comes into contact with some of the ways that individuals in the society are trying to relieve this stress within the current mazeway short of political action (since revitalization is a spiritual and not a political movement per se). The ranch, commune, small town, and city are types of lifestyle that offer varied levels of human interaction and convenience. Both the sale of drugs, and even ingesting drugs, are ways of living that can offer some relief. None seem to satisfy him.
The student uprisings of the 1960s are evidence of this sort of belief, that the current mazeway cannot relieve the stress perceived by some portion of the society. Some of this feeling is expressed by George just after the ordeal in the Louisiana cafe. The ideals upon which America was built appear to him to be hypocritical. Americans have no real liberty; they are bought and sold in the marketplace. Certainly to the youth movement America did not appear to be the protector of democracy, but a plutocracy that was undertaking an illegal colonial war in Asia, and whose government of and by the people routinely sent its youth to its death in war, or else it murdered any of them who challenged its authority.
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Since the individual is not alone in his experience of stress, the phenomenon of multiple individuals seeking relief through traditional and non-traditional methods creates a distortion of the culture where ethical rules, community values and relationships seem to be breaking down. This is known as cultural distortion. There is plenty of evidence of actual cultural distortion during this time period. As for the film, distortion is symbolized in several ways. Georges problem with alcohol (for example) represents some segment of the society seeking to relieve its stress by alcoholism. Levels of alcoholism and addiction are often used as indicators of a cultures stability. His representation of a young professional class then makes his jail time represent the ineffectiveness of alcohol for relieving prolonged periods of stress. The commune is another interesting image of distortion in that the very fact of its existence seems to be a result of people trying to escape into a new type of community, a place to make a stand, as the commune leader puts it in his prayer.
The Mardi Gras festival is linked to cultural distortion. As a ritual of rebellion and religiously sanctioned festival, the Mardi Gras represents to the Catholics a sanctioned period of cultural distortion that is alleviated by the process of catharsis. Theoretical anthropologist Mircea Eliade explains that sacred center is renewed by rituals of rebellion. Over time chaos impinges on order, and by deliberately inverting the sacred and the profane the power of chaos is lost. The rebelliousness in this case is both against the world and for the world. The juxtaposition of the image of the spring season with Wyatts death works this way. The power of death is lost because it is springtime when all things come back to life (much as with the story of
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Jesus crucifixion). Time, specifically Wyatts stepping out of time equates to the abolishment of the profane time and the reestablishment of sacred cyclical time, and so also relates to the naturism of Romanticism. The image we get of the institution of prostitution is a very strong image of cultural distortion. Such an institution is illegal. But here it appears that Madame Tinkertoys is government sanctioned, operating openly in the center of the city. It is a profitable business, and one that Billy and Wyatt come to by grace of the Governor of Louisiana. All of these images serve the purpose of illustrating cultural distortion in the film.
The 60s drug sub-culture drew its authority from nature religions and mysticism. Any form of spirituality that is based upon the belief that contact with God can be initiated within nature, that every human being can awaken to the presence of the divine power, stands in direct contradiction to the religious orthodoxy of both Judaism and Christianity, the primary beliefs systems in the United States. Their fundamental teaching is that any contact between the human and the divine realms can be obtained only by divine intervention, miracle, or in revelation. This is partly why religious institutions are generally wary of mysticism among its members, and why as Fuller explains, the western religious orthodoxies exclude them from ritual. Mystical experience is an implicit challenge to the authority of the ordained clergy, as it implies that individuals can initiate contact with the divine on their own, and it helps to explain why religious institutions have negative attitudes toward ecstasy-producing drugs. According to Fuller, this is true even when drug-induced mystical states were prevalent in the early development of a religion. Their
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prohibition is motivated by the desire to prevent individuals from having direct access to the divine. Dobkin de Rios concurs that there has always been a resistance to drug use outside the established order because of both its implicit and explicit challenges to the ruling authority.
In the context of Wallaces theory of resistance, the chemical altering of consciousness represented to the 1960s establishment an act of rebellion against their hegemony of power. The action of resistance is in the form of criminalizing the buying, selling and use of these types of drugs. As broadly defined here intoxicants have often been encouraged by the religious powers for their particular sedative, unifying and focusing qualities. There are also economic factors involved that can either work to promote or prohibit certain types of intoxicants. These would include both other legitimated uses like rope-making, medicinal applications, and ownership of production modes by the ruling classes. So just as drug-induced mystical states can be used to authorize rebellion against the existing order, they can also be used to legitimize resistance to a movement or sustain the existing order.
The concept of resistance to revitalization helps both to understand the drug sale in the first scenes of the film to the American ideal, and the ambiguous nature of this symbolic rebellion itself. That the sale of drugs is illegal and represents rebellion is interesting when you consider that the formation of the United States (also considered a Revitalization Movement) was precipitated by rebellion as well. The reason that Wyatts (and by representation, Americas) current course is doomed is
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that it was based on an ill-conceived and unethical act from the start. It was based on
capitalism in the pursuit of happiness.
In this light the ending of the film takes on a new meaning. Retirement from society, selling drugs to retire, counter-culture; these are new mazeways proposed by Wyatt. They are at heart less anti-social and more anti-societal. Wyatts is a call to rebellion. And it is made clear that the strong, organized, persistent and ruthless resistance set up by the mainstream culture could bring the counter-culture to an abrupt end. Wyatts death represents the aborted movement, the failure to reach the new steady state. Or it could also represent the murder of its leadership. But the conclusion is left up in the air so to speak. The film ends after Wyatts death. The camera rises sharply into the sky and pans across the wide land, seeming to express that it is now up to the audience to determine if any of the proposed new mazeways will become a new steady state.
Since the prophet arises from a period linked to cultural distortion, his appearance is therefore linked to the breaking down of traditional values, and therefore understood by many as destructive. In many cases he is portrayed as the cause of the cultural distortion. This is the essence of resistance. And since the threat of drug intoxication represented for the establishment the potential for any member of the counter-culture to become a prophet, all members were regarded with suspicion, as a real threat. A Revitalization Movement is a revolutionary organization, and as such it will inevitably encounter resistance. Resistance can be more or less hostile, and more or less organized. The quality and scope of that resistance depends upon
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many factors, but will tend to focus on the amount of real or perceived threat the new mazeway poses to the ruling system.
The conditions of the scope and strength of resistance may require that the Revitalization Movement adapt through doctrinal modification, political maneuvering, or force if necessary. Re-working makes the new doctrine more acceptable to the populations cultural and personality patterns. Where organized hostility to the movement develops, crystallization of counter-hostility against unbelievers frequently occurs, and emphasis must shift from cultivation of the ideal to combat against the unbeliever, or else be destroyed.
The country witticisms of the townsfolk at the Louisiana cafe are violent. Their words reflect a quintessentially resistant stance. We get a picture of the dynamics behind resistance by the open hostility shown to the boys. Later that night George clarifies their position:
George: You know this used to be a hell of a good country. I cant understand whats gone wrong with it.
Billy: Huh. Man, everybody got chicken, thats what happened, man. Hey, we cant even get into like a second rate hotel, I mean a second rate motel, you dig? They think were going to cut their throats or something, man. Theyre scared, man.
George: Oh, theyre not scared of you, Theyre scared of what you represent to them.
Billy: Hey man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut. George: Oh no, what you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: Well, what the hells wrong with freedom, man? I mean thats what its all about, man.
George: Oh yeah. Thats right thats what its all about, alright, but talking about it and being it thats two different things. I mean its real hard to be free when youre bought and sold in the marketplace. Course dont ever tell anybody that theyre not free, cause then theyre gonna get real busy killin and maimin to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, theyre gonna talk to you,
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and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free
individual, its gonna scare em.
Billy: Mmmm, well that dont make em runnin scared.
George: No. It makes them dangerous (Fonda, 142 -145).
This speech of Georges is remarkable for a number of reasons. George, only hours before his death at the hands of those he defends, explains to Billy the motivations of his killers. There is no sense of tirade. Though they were denied food and water, and bitterly mocked, George portrays them with compassion. They are unfortunate slaves to the system, and are only reacting to a perceived threat, something very much human. His patient insight convinces Billy to forestall his own judgment of them.
Wyatt is a member of the counter-culture, but he is also Captain America. It this way he also symbolizes the mazeway of the current steady state. His personal inner conflict that we see as repose is also the inner conflict of the nation. And like with the Jungian binary opposition Billy also makes up this image. Together Wyatt and Billy represent binary halves of the American whole. Wyatt through his adherence to the cowboy code represents the idealism of America, the side that formulated the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the side that declared: all men are created equal. Billy is the hedonistic side of America, not evil but self-interested, pleasure seeking and rebellious. When Wyatt tells Billy that they blew it, he is saying that the mazeway that they created together, the American way, is rotten. He has recognized that the American experiment must be abandoned altogether.
Since the boys have done nothing to warrant such hostility, we can only assume that their representation of individual freedom is a threat to the townsfolk. It
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represents a break with the establishment. It is the threat of the new mazeway. When George is killed, he no longer exists as a threat to the establishment. The removal of his head is symbolic of unconsciousness. Wyatt is badly injured in the attack as well. But the intention of the mob is to destroy the new mazeway regardless of how badly they have to hurt Captain America while doing it.
George ends his speech on individual freedom by flapping his arm and saying, Nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik Swamp!
Billy responds, Youre right, man. Whew. Swamp.
What is this? Is its meaning as silly as our experience of it? Or is it something
else entirely. Could it be Georges way of summing up the reason behind his strange
past behavior for the boys? He has just explained the danger that free individuals face
in this country. He has shown himself to be a free individual (at least free in
thought). How then does he protect himself against this danger? He affects eccentric
peculiarities. Flapping his arms and exclaiming, Fire! Swamp! or Injuns! helps
him to blend in with the herd. He might look colorful, but he does not look other.
And George ends his conversation with a curious joke:
George: Did ya ever did ya ever talk to bullfrogs in the middle of the night?
Billy: Not generally. (Laughs)
George: You dont?
Billy: No, man.
George: You know what I used to do?
Billy: What did you used to do, man?
George: Well, Ill tell one thing I didnt used to do is talk to bullfrogs in the
middle of the night, foolish. (Laughs)
Billy: (Laughs) Youre out of your mind.
George: Thats right.
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Talking to bullfrogs then is another symbol of Georges behavioral modification. He has had to assume the disguise of the redneck in order to fit in. But by joining Wyatt and Billys journey, he has exposed himself as an outsider. He pays for this mistake with his life.
So what is this new mazeway that has spawned the Revitalization Movement of the counter-culture? Such a question is impossible to answer for certain, because of the vastness of the phenomenon and the seemingly endless factional movements that are generally grouped together under the title counter-culture. According to Fuller, one way to approach the answer is to look at what was being read and discussed by the counter-culture on a broad scale.
This new mode was charged with excitement, mystery, and intrigue. [...] In this way the use of psychedelics and the literature describing this use -meshed perfectly with the eras growing interest in writers such as Robert Heinlein, Hermann Hesse, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell (Fuller, 85).
Not to mention Northrop Frye, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Huston Smith, Alan Watts, Richard Alpert (Ram Das) and Allen Ginsberg to name a few more. What they have in common is some interest in, or insight into the irrational nature of the universe.
And so at last we can see the significance of the third inscription now that we understand what the resistance is resisting against. Death only closes a mans reputation and determines it as good or bad. The sentiment is rationality. By isolating the third inscription through soundlessness and via framing, we are to understand that Wyatt is separate from its idea. We are given time to read it, and then
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there is a flash forward cut to the final shot of Wyatts burning motorcycle. The juxtaposition of the inscription with the flash of insight makes it clear that Wyatts destiny (and therefore the films plot) is tied somehow to this quote. Wyatt embodies the first, usurps the second, but he is annihilated by the third. We are to understand that rationalism will be responsible for his demise.
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CHAPTER VIII
CONCLUSION: FROM CONTENTMENT TO ANNIHILATION
Thus far we have traced the rivulets of thought that feed Easy Rider back to their sources. Tributaries to a powerful current, they have run together into a single channel of meaning. We have seen the effect that the interpenetrative approach has upon reading the film as a Western in the art cinema mode, how the values of the genre are used against it to invert the fable of the American dream. We see how the films mise-en-scene reveals its allegiance to Romantic ideals of anti-Rationalism and individuality, and that the mythology of Romanticism is a drive back to nature and its rich ambiguity. We used Jungian depth psychology to find out what kind of myth Easy Rider might be, and found that it is the myth of the heros journey. We have seen that the bombardment of religious icons and symbolic images presented via the films Transcendental Style imparts a feeling of something ineffable, as well as a sense of definite knowledge being bestowed. Because of the universality of the symbolic language, it bears the ring of authority and truth, and conveys the experience of the mysterium tremendum. We have also seen how the film conjoins the mystic tradition in its drug ecstasy. In the end what we have done is to render a rather abstruse film more intelligible by unpacking its dense images. We can see it now as an intricate and elegant film, and this study in no way exhausts its vast possibilities for reflection. Its elegance lies in the balance it strikes between the minimal approach
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to scene and language through the beautifully stark cinematography of Lazio Kovacs, and the indefinable complexity of the images.
The film begins with the Mexican cantina La Contenta (standing for the contented one): it ends with the ancient symbol of the river as cyclical nature. Let us not forget that water is the symbol for the unconscious. As Wyatt dies The Ballad of Easy Rider begins quietly as the camera rises ever higher: The river flows, it flows to the sea. Wherever that river goes, thats where I want to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town (McGuinn). Wyatts soul (and possibly too the audience) is lifted from the world. The idea of him is deposited into the collective current, preserving the possibility that Wyatts annihilation is not failure.
If Easy Rider is such a powerfully imbued text, why then did its popularity decline so abruptly in the years after its initial successes? Why did this story fail to rise to the level of the enduring tales of brave Ulysses, or of Gilgamesh, or Arthur? Maybe it is a peculiarity of time that works such as these must percolate a while before they being fully embraced by a culture. Perhaps the fault rests with the nature of film itself, it being a transitory medium because of its primarily documentary structure. It may be due to its lack of viable anima figures. Perhaps it has failed to do what the hero myth is supposed to do, to bring us into communion with the cyclical nature of existence. But the question does not seem so difficult when we look at myths such as the Arthurian legend as the stories (remnants) of successful
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Revitalization Movements. Viewed this way, as historical markers of shifts in cultural paradigms, then maybe Easy Rider falls short because the movement itself failed.
Although the counter-culture and its many off shoots were indeed responsible for positive social changes such as the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism, in actuality these are absorptions into the existing establishment and not the complete cultural transformation that constitutes a new mazeway. The youth movement did not bring about the kinds of radical changes the film calls for, a complete destruction of the old order for the new. Perhaps this is why the story of Easy Rider is not celebrated in our collective mythology. Perhaps it is for all these reasons together. Whatever it is, the fact remains that it is not yet grouped in that illustrious class of story. When the film is viewed today it is viewed with some suspicion. The symbols and presentiments seem somewhat pointless because we recognize the story as fruitless. We know the history and so the mythology is stillborn.
Because the hero myth is the allegory of the survival of human spirit over adversity and the disintegration of religion, love, and morality; over the hypocrisy of politics, the puerile fascination with sex, gossip, and vacuous celebrity it is necessarily also a statement of positive affirmation for the promise of the future. Despite its anti-establishment stance, the film does not focus on issues of race, war or politics. It is at heart not a story about Americas specific sociopolitical problems, but a film about the state of health of the American dream. The nerve that this film touched with its generation has to do with its message.
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Describing Easy Rider as an affirming hero myth is problematic. And even more problematic is to say that it is not the story of failure. Death seems to us so final. But what Wyatt represents is America, and America is not only the establishment but the counter-culture as well. The boon this hero returns to the culture is the knowledge of its own wrong-mindedness. In order for America to survive, it must undergo the radical transformation of annihilation and resurrection.
If Robin Morgan is right about the sources of violence, then events such as the Weather Undergrounds Days of Rage, the Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Simbianese Liberation Army, or The New Years Gang and the like (however gruesome and unconscionable), were not reactionary movements. In essence they were responding to the call to arms that is reflected in Easy Rider. Am I saying that Easy Rider caused the upheaval of the early 1970s? Certainly not. But the ideas that led the filmmakers to create Easy Rider are the same as those that led to the types of violent acts perpetrated by Charles Manson, the SLA and The Weather Underground. They were explicit attempts to overthrow the existing order for a new one. When seen in terms of Wallaces Revitalization Movement we recognize that the counter-culture was not the cause of cultural distortion, but was created as a reaction against it. And this reaction is not a quiet and submissive one. It is rather a combative stance against what they perceived to be the cause of their stress.
Notwithstanding its problems, Easy Rider is indeed a hero myth. It is an affirmation of life. But an affirmation is not the same as a celebration of the
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pleasurable. However distasteful it is to out rational sensibilities, it is a cold, hard fact that revolution and death are part of the nature of living. It is lifes paradox of inseparable hope and dread that is brought out by the film. Reading the Western as an art film raises this notion of the ambiguous nature of existence. Romanticism praises it. Jungian depth psychology justifies it, and Mysticism and Transcendental Style supports it.
Before Wyatt and Billy set out for the Mardi Gras and retirement in Florida, before they participated in the foundational act of commerce that allowed them the easy life, they met Jesus and he gave them drugs. Wyatt leaves contentment and the opium of the masses, moves against the grain of manifest destiny, and in this symbolic act of questioning, he articulates the problem of his own existence.
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Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Princeton: Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1949.
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Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Mans Spiritual Consciousness. London: Methuen and Company, Ltd., 1967.
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Full Text

PAGE 17

(Rio Lobo, (Dances With Wolves,

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looks

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fa condition humaine.

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unio mystica

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(Portable, 277).

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in quatemarius:

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unio mystica.

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nekyia apotheosis (Portable, 127). enantiodromia,

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(Portable, 39).

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abaissment du niveau mentale,

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If6 Was

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I Wasn't Born To Follow,

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(Portable, 93).

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nekyia, apotheosis. Senex, Senex

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Senex,

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The Last Supper

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knows is known by them. lung

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mysterium tremendum.

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deja vu,

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mysterium tremendum. mysterium, tremendum,

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via negativa.34 mysterium tremendum mysterium tremendum.

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vice versa.

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in illo tempore,

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Homo sapiens

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mysterium tremendum.

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Esquire: Evergreen Review,

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Reflex Magazine: Playboy:

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