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See America First

Easy Rider

directed by Dennis Hopper. Columbia Pictures

Alice’s Restaurant

directed by Arthur Penn, produced by Hillard Elkins

In 1969, the Year of the Pig, participants in what is known as (descriptively) youth culture or (smugly) hip culture or (incompletely) pop culture or (longingly) the cultural revolution are going through big changes. For choices have to be made now; they can no longer be left to a dubious mañana. After hearing Nixon’s speech—“North Vietnam cannot defeat us; we can only defeat ourselves”—who can doubt that America as we have known it could completely disappear between one day and the next? Or maybe it already has, and what we are feeling now is phantom pain from an amputated limb. In this crisis our confusions and ambivalences about this country, our country, no matter how securely they seem to have occupied it, become more than intellectual gossip. Our lives may literally depend on how we resolve them.

The current generation of bohemians and radicals hasn’t decided whether to love or hate America. On a superficial level, the dominant theme has been hate—for the wealth and greed and racism and complacency, the destruction of the land, the bullshit rhetoric of democracy, and the average American’s rejection of aristocratic European standards of the good life in favor of a romance with mass-produced consumer goods. But love is there too, perhaps all the more influential for being largely unadmitted. There is the old left strain of love for the “real” America, the Woody Guthrie-Pete Seeger America of workers-farmers-hoboes, the open road, this-land-is-your-land. And there is the newer pop strain, the consciousness—initiated by Andy Warhol and his cohorts, popularized by the Beatles and their cohorts, evangelized by Tom Wolfe, and made respectable in the bohemian ghettos by Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey—that there is something magical and vital as well as crass about America’s commodity culture, that the romance with consumer goods makes perfect sense if the consumer goods are motorcycles and stereo sets and far-out clothes and Spider Man comics and dope. How can anyone claim to hate America, deep down, and be a rock fan? Rock is America—the black experience, the white experience, technology, commercialism, rebellion, populism, the Hell’s Angels, the horror of old age—as seen by its urban adolescents.

At this point, hate and love seem to be merging into a sense of cosmic failure, a pervasive feeling that everything is disintegrating, including the counter-culture itself, and that we really have nowhere to go. The current exodus of young people to the country, while a healthy expression of people’s survival instincts, is in a way an admission of failure, a retreat rather than a breakthrough. The back-to-the-land movement, insofar as it represents a serious attempt by both communes and conventional families to make a living at farming, with all the hardships that involves, is just a replay of that part of the American dream that dies the hardest. There is an obvious contradiction between the consciousness of the dissident culture, which is based on an apprehension of what it means to be human once simple survival is no longer a problem, and small-scale farming, an activity that requires almost total commitment to simple survival.

If enough people, with enough social support to make judicious, cooperative use of technology and create new forms of social organization that were more than isolated experiments, were to get involved in farming, a new synthesis might be created. But so long as the return to rural life remains an individual revolt—and in the whole society a commune is a unit only slightly less parochial than a family—with no support and no guidance except for history, it would be surprising if anachronistic patterns did not assert themselves, especially since the decision to farm is so often made out of the erroneous conviction that machines and cities are causing all our problems. The new farming communities tend, for instance, to be conspicuously male supremacist, partly because of the practical problems in dividing the work (technology makes women’s lesser muscular capacity irrelevant) and partly because the American farming myth is very much a scenario for the dominant male—the woman stays in the background and bakes bread while her male chops down trees. It is as if we are all trapped in a maze; some of us who have gotten bored or horrified with the official route through the maze have found all sorts of creative ways to cut corners and wander through back alleys, but we are now ending up in pretty much the same places. It’s the maze itself that needs to be opened up, rearranged, or simply destroyed.

Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test asked the pertinent questions—Is it possible to reinterpret and salvage the American trip by painting the bus with Day-glo? Is there an underground exit from the maze?—at a time when most of us were not yet especially concerned. Now two enormously popular movies, Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant, have attempted to deal with the same theme in very different ways. Neither film is definitive, and neither goes nearly as deep as Wolfe’s book—but both hit pretty close.

Easy Rider is the better and more important of the two movies. When I first saw it, at a press screening in New York, I didn’t understand why it moved me so deeply. Certainly much of it was enjoyable, even memorable. Dennis Hopper, playing Peter Fonda’s egotistical, slightly paranoid friend, gave a thoroughly convincing performance, the only realistic portrayal of a head I’ve seen on film. Jack Nicholson was brilliant as the good-hearted, fucked-up juicer lawyer who joins the travelers and trades a slow death in a small southern town for a fast one on the road. The rock sound track was great, especially for anyone who loves the Byrds and Steppenwolf as much as I do. The dope-smoking scenes were beautifully real. Most movies that acknowledge the existence of grass (Alice’s Restaurant included) tend to treat it with oppressive reverence; in Easy Rider, as in life, stoned people were, for one thing, very funny and, for another, very happy.

Just because of their lack of tendentiousness the scenes were a significant commentary—when Nicholson, turned on for the first time, went into a long, fantastic rap about extraterrestrial beings, it became poignantly clear that people who condemn marijuana as an “escape from reality” are into the same fallacy as those who think children should be reading about coal trucks instead of fairies. Finally, who could resist all those juicy shots of the road and motorcycles?

But in fact, what was Easy Rider but another superromantic account of individual rebellion against the straight world, depicted as every northern liberal’s fantasy of the implacable south? There was Peter Fonda, the super-handsome, supercool hero with the symbolic names (Billy, and in case we didn’t get it, Captain America, and in case we didn’t get that, his sidekick’s name is Wyatt), looking sexy and inscrutable. There was all that super-pastorality: as a friend pointed out, the road from Los Angeles to New Orleans displayed not a single bill-board. (True, the filmmakers would have had to pay to photograph bill-boards, but it says something that they didn’t think it was worth the money.) The commune scenes—all those wholesome-looking people with gleaming white teeth, the women in the kitchen, of course, making like good pioneer wives—and a nude swimming scene, the ultimate in idyllic purity, and a sophomoric acid sequence in a cemetery. The heroes throwing away their watches, and Fonda letting out profundities like “I’m hip about time.” And the ending—oh, wow!—sheer shock-melodrama.

Yet that ending really shook me. Though I saw the shotgun blast and the flames, I couldn’t quite believe it; it was too final. My mind kept coming back to it. Then I saw Easy Rider again, shortly after I had made my own move away from the big city. Colorado Springs, where I had gone to live, to do political organizing and hassle out my own response to the American condition, 1969, is an ultra-conservative Army town in the shadow of the Rockies that comes close to embodying the extremes of natural beauty and social horror that provide the setting for Easy Rider. And from that vantage, I saw why the movie affected me the way it did: beyond the melodrama of groovy kids vs. rednecks is an emotion that more and more of us, young and old alike, are experiencing, the overpowering sense of loss, the anguish of What went wrong? We blew it—how?

Easy Rider is about the failure of America on all levels, hip and straight. Billy and Wyatt on their bikes, riding free down the open road, are living another version of the rugged individualist frontier fantasy, and the big dope deal that made them financially independent is just Hip Capitalism. It won’t work, and by the end of the movie Billy knows it. The key line of the film is his admission, “We blew it!” I have no idea if the allusion is intentional, but The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ends with the same line. There it refers to the failure of Ken Kesey’s particular frontier fantasy. Kesey envisioned a psychedelic frontier that went beyond drugs, but he couldn’t bring it off. “We blew it!”…. Somehow we have to face it that the pioneer thing is over, that we have to create some new myths—or better yet, move aside and let somebody else have a chance to create them; now there would be a real cultural revolution. As for the violent ending, it could hardly be more appropriate. Isn’t that exactly where America is heading, to some abrupt, apocalyptic explosion—even if the explosion occurs only in our heads?

Of course there is another possibility—that we will simply withdraw, that resignation will set in. That seems to be the alternative suggested in Alice’s Restaurant, which in spite of the clowning of Arlo Guthrie is one of the more depressing movies I’ve seen lately, so much more so than Easy Rider, because confusion and passivity are more demoralizing than violence. Alice’s Restaurant concentrates almost entirely on decay from within. Although much of the “plot,” such as it is, pits Guthrie against the outside world—he is thrown out of a couple of schools, hassled by the cops and by people who don’t like long hair, put through the whole jail-courtroom ritual for dumping garbage in the wrong place, and finally almost drafted—the villains are not taken seriously. Conflict with authority is still a game—Officer Obie is a comic figure, jail a lark, Whitehall Street an exercise in absurdity, and the worst thing that happens to Arlo is that he is pushed through a plate glass window by some toughs (this could have been pretty serious, but Hollywood being what it is, he gets up and walks away). The really important conflicts are between Arlo and his supposed friends.

It is hard to tell how much of the pessimism in Alice’s Restaurant is deliberate and how much is simply betrayed. Unlike Easy Rider, which has a kind of mythic simplicity and is most striking as a parable, Alice’s Restaurant is disjointed, episodic, and ambivalent in its relation to reality. Some of the incidents in the movie really happened, others are invented; some of the actors play themselves, others (notably Alice and Ray Brock) do not. There is plenty of room for free-floating, semi-documentary revelation, much of which is provided by Guthrie himself. Arlo is this year’s Dustin Hoffman, the man of 1000 grimaces, the awkward, scrawny, waif-like anti-hero. I know he is supposed to be heart-tuggingly appealing and all, and in a way he is, but I would be much more receptive if he weren’t so conceited about it. Although in most respects he is the antithesis of Peter Fonda, he has the same unshakable cool, sense of his own rectitude, and basic detachment from other people. In fact, if Guthrie proves anything in two hours on the screen, it is that the alleged love generation has severe hangups over personal relationships, particularly sexual ones.

One of the major flaws of the counter-culture is that for all of its concern with the dispossessed, it is as oppressive as the surrounding society toward the female half of the race. It treats women as “chicks”—nubile decorations—or mothers or goddesses or bitches, rarely as human beings. Some heroes of the cultural revolution—recently jailed Michigan activist John Sinclair is a classic example—equate rebellion with assertion of their maleness, become obnoxiously aggressive, arrogant, and violent, and espouse a version of Utopia in which women are reduced to faceless instruments of their sexual fantasies. Others, more cleverly, consider themselves “liberated” from the strictures of the traditional male role—the obligation to support women financially and protect them physically, to be strong, competitive, and ambitious, to suppress their emotions and their personal vanity—and imitate women in the manner of whites imitating blacks, while nonetheless insisting that women serve them and defer to them.

Usually this second pattern goes along with a hypocritical idealization of women: “Chicks really know where it’s at, man!” (said fondly, as he smells dinner chick is cooking). Easy Rider is an almost embarrassing commentary on the hip male’s contempt for women. As in most Westerns, the world of our two existential cowboys is almost exclusively male: thus the issue of sex does not have to be confronted. The women who enter their domain are strictly two-dimensional figures. Women who show any sexual interest in them—one of the communards, a group of giggling teen-age girls—are portrayed as ridiculous. When they stop at a New Orleans whorehouse as a tribute to their dead friend, the lawyer, who had recommended it, only Wyatt, the more frivolous of the two characters, is at all eager to sleep with a woman; Captain America is far above such concerns.

In Alice’s Restaurant, in contrast, sex is a central theme. But Guthrie’s attitude toward women is not much different from Fonda’s. Female sexual aggressiveness, for instance, is regarded as either a peculiarity of eccentrics or the product of an abnormal state of mind. For some reason unclear to me, women are constantly trying to seduce Arlo and being turned down. After rejecting a pathetic groupie (“I want to, you know, with you, because you’re probably going to be an album”), a hard-faced older woman, a friend of his father’s, who owns a folk-singing joint, and even Alice (he is a little nicer to her than to the others—she only did it because she was upset), he settles on a girl whose only definable characteristic seems to be that she waited demurely for him to choose her. To be fair, Alice’s Restaurant does not ignore the sexual problem; Alice is sympathetically followed as she is pushed closer and closer to a breakdown by the insensitivity of men who take both her love and her hard work for granted. But of course the crisis is glossed over; not only does Alice go back to Ray (the real Alice recently got a divorce), she goes back because he needs her to cook Thanks-giving dinner for all their friends!

Another subject barely touched on in Easy Rider that Alice’s Restaurant explores at length is the meaning of family and home and the possibilities of redefining them. Again the tone is basically negative. Although older people are not lumped together as the enemy—Arlo’s deep love for Woody and compassion for his mother are apparent and touching—home is a place to get away from. Arlo is only comfortable on the road or alone in his apartment in New York. And though he loves Alice and Ray too, he feels no more at ease in the church they have set up as headquarters for the communal family they desperately want to establish. He is forever commuting back and forth from the city. When he’s gone, he misses the church, but when he’s there he feels suffocated and restless. Alice nags him to stay, luring him with chicken soup, and he makes excuses and leaves.

Ray Brock is the pivotal character and the most interesting. Halfway between Arlo’s generation and Woody’s, he craves tradition, stability, and community and can’t find or create them, except for the moment in a huge Thanksgiving dinner or the mock church wedding with which he and Alice celebrate their reunion. In the last scene he is caught up in the back-to-the-land dream. He talks enthusiastically of selling the church and buying enough acreage so that people can be together without being on each other’s necks. “I bet they wouldn’t all drift off if we had land,” he muses. But he has lost his audience. Arlo is bored and a little sad, getting ready to drive away. Yeah, Ray, see you later. Meanwhile, back on the road, see what happens. And maybe if he’s lucky, he won’t get his father’s fatal hereditary disease after all….

The church family’s most spectacular failure is its inability to prevent a speed freak named Shelly from cracking up and finally killing himself with an overdose. Ray beats him up, Alice falls in love with him, and the kids try to make him feel at home. They are about as effective as a middle-class family from Scarsdale, and he flees. But mostly the mistakes are less dramatic, just a matter of the beautiful people being very much like ordinary people. In a moment of anger, Ray, who has an autocratic streak, tries to silence disagreement by invoking private property: this is my church you’re in.

Neither Easy Rider nor Alice’s Restaurant ever considers a political solution to the social chaos. The most Guthrie can conceive of is individual resistance; he wonders at one point whether he would have the courage to refuse induction. Fonda and Hopper never think politically at all. The temptation is to credit the media with a sinister plot to give the impression that there is no alternative to individualism, but that is a convenient copout. In private life Guthrie, Fonda, and Hopper are all more or less apolitical and the movies reflect their personalities. Furthermore I’m not at all sure that their attitude is not shared by the majority of adherents to the hip life style. It may be that those of us who still have some faith in collective action are simply indulging an insane optimism. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that if we want to survive the Seventies we should learn to draw strength from something more solid than a culture that in a few years may be just a memory: “Remember hair down to your shoulders? Remember Janis Joplin? Remember Grass, man? Wow, those years were really, uh, far out!”

Letters

Exchange on Women’s Liberation & the Movies February 26, 1970

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