Easy Rider and the American nightmare

Revisiting the New Hollywood classic and its countercultural legacy ahead of the BFI's ‘Dennis Hopper: Icon of Oblivion’

Easy Rider 3

If there's a single film that sums up US counterculture dreams and disillusionment, it has to be 1969 road movie Easy Rider. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper star as Captain America and Billy the Kid – two modern-day outlaws. Flush with cash after a coke deal that frees them from the grind of regular work, they're crossing the wide-open Southwest on high-handled motorbikes toward Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Hopper also penned and directed the film, and the raw energy of his misfit vision helped spark a New Hollywood era of revitalised filmmaking. Made for under half a million dollars, it was the first independent movie to be distributed by a major studio – the start of the true "indie" being co-opted by commercial interests realising they could make a buck. As London's BFI launches a season celebrating late renegade Hopper with a screening of Easy Rider on Wednesday, we consider its legacy in US filmmaking.

Outlaw biker movies were a staple of low-budget exploitation filmmaking in the '60s, and Kenneth Anger had even fetishised the aesthetic in underground homo-erotic classic Scorpio Rising (1964). Rather than making his bikers violent fiends, Hopper's tale plays out with a hippie twist, with the real savagery stemming from local rednecks unwilling to accept the challenge to conformity the bikers so blatantly represent. George (Jack Nicholson), the lawyer and out-and-out drunk they team up with overnight in jail, says: "This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it." He laments that while Americans talk a lot about the value of freedom, they're scared of anyone who actually exhibits it. In its many scenes of open-road riding, the loosely structured, music-driven film captured a sense of that rebellion. Its sequence with Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" has been so quoted and parodied it's now impossible to watch with fresh eyes.

Hopper said of using natural light when filming that God is a great gaffer. Shots of the desert in a purple-streaked sunset turn our attention to the atmospheric quality of the sky and details of nature that an acid trip would also orient one to – sensory experience as an end in itself and defamiliarisation as a source of knowledge that were ideals of this hallucinogen-influenced era. "It's a weird place, man," Fonda observes on a night camped out under the stars, as he notices tiny bugs jumping around. A guy they've picked up on the road points out there are Native Americans buried under them – a heart and experiential history of the US the powers that be would rather cut off access to.

But the film is far from a celebration; this is the counterculture dream shown as it is fading. The feeling that things aren't right peaks for our anti-heroes amongst the ramshackle crypts and biblical statues of St. Louis Cemetery, as they ride out a bad trip on strong LSD with two prostitutes. A female voice recites prayers about crucifixion as the ghosts of their past mix with the mystical tears of New Orleans. Ultimately, they live in a nation unwilling to grant them a place. After sleeping outdoors as even low-rent motels refuse to harbour them in their unkempt get-ups, shotgun-toting hillbillies ensure that their party is unequivocally over. 

And now? A resurgence in nostalgia for the '50s and '60s counterculture – if we can put a recent spate of Beat film adaptations such as On the Road and the BFI's Hopper retrospective down to that – might mean we're missing its thirst for glittering, unbounded experience in today's cynical, ironic landscape. That counter-culture's been co-opted and commodified so much now, after all, that the once gloriously renegade "hipster" has mutated into the ultimate insult of try-hard fashion victim conformity.

Where are the mad and free misfits of US indie today? Spring BreakersHarmony Korine's surreal fever-haze vision might be the most subversive take we have on outlaw dreams of current times. Bored in their history class on protest movements and freedom, a bunch of teenage girls pass notes about their vacation. They fund their getaway, which they idealise as a spiritual quest to find their true selves, through a hold-up, soundtracked by chart-topper Nicki Minaj's "Moment 4 Life". Amid pink-streaked sunsets and a hallucinatory, oneiric mood, the neon bikini-wearing friends glimpse the shady heart of a nation ruled by the dollar and pre-packaged pop sentiments, taking up with a gangster (James Franco) who brags that he is solely about making money. Disillusionment comes on like a bad trip. As Faith (Selena Gomez) says: "This wasn't the dream, it's not supposed to end this way."

The Dennis Hopper: Icon of Oblivion season runs at BFI Southbank throughout July. 

More Arts+Culture