The Hired Hand (1971)

It’s true that Peter Fonda comes out of a western tradition of sorts, which is merely an indication of his family’s presence in the film industry. Obviously, one of his father’s identifying genres was the western, and he worked with some of the greats from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

Films like My Darling Clementine have become the bar with which to evaluate future generations. Then, Peter’s older sister, Jane, of course, tried her hand with the wildly popular Cat Ballou. It’s not high art, but there’s a great deal to appreciate between her gallivanting around and the drunken histrionics of Lee Marvin.

However, with The Hired Hand, Peter starred and directed a western of a very different breed. There’s a hallucinatory quality to the movie suggesting it’s not too far removed from Monte Hellman’s acid westerns of a few years prior. It’s composed mostly of images swimming in the restless score of Bruce Langhorne.

We already have Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, and it’s obvious the genre is funneled through the vision of the counter-culture that brought us pictures like Easy Rider and even Two-Lane Blacktop. In some of his earliest feature film work, Vilmos Zsigmond provides a casual, unsentimental sense of the landscape fitting the overall canvass developed by both the editing and score.

In their passing dreams, floating just out of reach, the California coast acts as a kind of far-off oasis for the three drifters staked out by a river bed. I couldn’t help thinking of generations before. Peter’s father as Tom Joad headed to California and faced his own brand of disillusionment with the dream packaged for him. Expectations didn’t meet reality.

Peter Fonda is besieged by the discontentment and malaise of his generation, but if we recall The Grapes of Wrath maybe this youthful sense of Sehnsucht, while morphing and evolving, is not totally lost or forgotten. It’s only reimagined in new forms and under new banners.

After days without bathing and nights without a warm bed, they roll into a town. But it’s not much better than the backcountry they’ve been frequenting. At any rate, it’s hardly the picture of civilization.

The film remains mostly a sullen affair plagued by death, but not just physical death, the death of joy or adulation in any sort of quality life. It starts grappling with the life of a drifter — the camaraderie of saddle buddies — and the solace of a settled home life. Because Harry Coilings didn’t always live this peripatetic existence. Once he was married. Funny how he never mentioned it before to his companions, but then again, the overwhelming emptiness in his heart has made him crave something different. So he and Arch pay a visit to his former missus.

Warren Oates has gained some welcomed acclaim since his death as a kind of cult favorite, but in The Hired Hand there’s something especially welcomed about him. He’s congenial and faithful, a source of affability in a movie that is mostly lacking in any kind of generosity toward its audience. Fonda gives us nothing. Verna Bloom has nothing to give because her character has learned to insulate herself. And there’s really no one else to offer any kind of condolence.

The film’s barely a meditation on marriage. There’s hardly time to build this into something substantive nor entirely profound, but we do have a sense of this male camaraderie. And suddenly it gives the movie a central question. Fonda must reconcile this relationship, one that has stayed with him for years on the lonely roads, with that of a distant wife who never expected him to show his face again. Whether he totally acknowledges them, they are both of great importance to him.

At first, I mistook the finale — a giant bloody shootout — for a pointless exercise. What good does it do? Very little aside from bludgeoning us with a bleak view of the world. However, it does speak to a man’s vow of friendship. While other elements of this western are irrevocably different from the past, there’s some small amount of stability in such a simple trait as this. Is this stupid courage like the screenwriter Bill Goldman enthused about? Probably.

It’s also a glimmer of something laudable speaking to the exact same listless despondency an entire generation was looking to grapple with from Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces. This alone doesn’t make it a superior western, simply by having a muddied, unadorned sense of the world. But Peter follows in the footsteps of his dad and sister to leave his own impression on a deeply American genre.

3/5 Stars

Easy Rider (1969): An Emblem of The ’60s

EasyRider

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to Easy Rider. It remains a cultural landmark not only of the counterculture of the ’60s, but it also stands tall as one of the Great American Road movies, albeit from a very specific perspective.

It opens with a dope deal. First, picking up the product below the border. Then, with planes taking off overheard — they make their connection with their contact (Phil Spector) — jamming away to the conspicuous “Pusher” by Steppenwolf. In a matter of minutes, our two cult heroes have got it made. They have a pile of cash for their troubles, and they’re ready to take on America.

Fonda’s Captain America is the epitome of disaffected cool — a triumphant symbol of a restless generation sticking it to the man — living on their own time and by their own standards as they see fit. It’s a new paradigm of manhood. But in his own way, he does have a certain idealism. He wouldn’t be taking to the road or living in this manner if he wasn’t driven by something: his own version of the American Dream.

Dennis Hopper’s performance is pervaded by a paranoid chatter, laughing in fits and starts when he’s not taking a drag. For now, they’re as light as a feather cruising down the highways and byways lazily with a steady array of classic tunes availing them with an anthemic backdrop. Take “Born to Be Wild,” “I Wasn’t Born to Follow,” and my personal favorite, “The Weight,” and there’s no looking back as we get to breathe in the fresh air and appreciate this land that was made for you and me. It’s during this invigorating outset one is made to appreciate America’s diverse geography.

Out of these open-air beginnings, Easy Rider becomes tantamount to a cinematic drug trip through flickering images, lens flairs, psychedelic rock, and certainly a copious amount of drugs. It’s composed of vignettes of many shapes and sizes coloring the journey of Captain American and Billy.

They’re thrust up against all sorts of lifestyles. In one moment they stopover in a man’s barn to remedy a busted tire, and the backcountry farmer shares his table with them. He’s contented in life with a Catholic wife and tons of children.

Another moment they pick up a hitchhiker who leads them to a rural commune bustling with kiddos and bleating livestock. The folks there are looking to subsist off the land, even as they share and share alike — holding carnivalesque stage performances for evening entertainment. It’s yet another form of the good life — living in solidarity and unity with one another.

However, the boys also butt up against the complete opposite subset of society. By this, I mean yokums suspicious of long-haired dudes they don’t understand in the slightest. They might as well be from the planet Uranus. Cutting a path to the Mardi Gras festivities, the boys wind up imprisoned for parading without a permit thanks to “weirdo hicks.”

Their jail bunkmate, George (Jack Nicholson in one of his early triumphs) is a rich-kid southern boy who nevertheless extends the olive branch. They come to appreciate one another. He’s as fed up with the scissor-happy locals beautifying America and subsequently making everyone look like Yul Brynner, a bald-pated Russian, I might add.

Furthermore, they partake in campfire chit-chat babbling about satellites and UFOs while getting totally stoned out of their brains. It feels like the beginner’s guide to writing such dialogue — mostly informed by ad-libs and circuitous digressions.

A roadside cafe becomes another microcosm of small-town America, and they stir up quite the maelstrom of gossip. If there’s anything close to empathy for the two bikers, it’s garnered in scenes like these because we understand what it is to be considered a social pariah on what feels like little fault of their own.

George is perceptive when he wants to be and also an affable companion on the road with his dorky football helmet. I’ve rarely appreciated Nicholson more. But he also has no illusions about how guys like Captain America and Bobby fit into the social order.

He sees that people are scared of what they represent: freedom. Because talking about freedom and being free are two different things. As an esoteric concept, individual freedom is nice to talk about even comfortable, but what about seeing an individual free — totally uninhibited and living by their own cadence. It’s true even the soothsayers are eventually silenced.

They make it out to a choice brothel with “prime rib” in memoriam to a dear departed friend, though it quickly turns into a night on the town for Mardi Gras. If we can say it, these are the most spontaneous sequences of the movie. Everything else feels sincere in its attempts at truth and authenticity, but it’s in this footage during the real Mardi Gras where everything starts to meld together. They wander around goofing off and making out with their new companions (Karen Black & Toni Basil).

Of course, this “reality” culminates in the infamous acid trip sprawled out in a cemetery. A solemn girl recites The Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer as they lose themselves totally to the psychedelics. It feels like an act of desecration but also an unveiling of all their fears and anxieties. Fonda clutches a statue and goes to pieces dialoguing with his long-deceased mother.

The soundtrack may only sound like audio atmosphere in the beginning but more and more it overtly informs the beats of the story. As they rebound and make their way forward, Bob Dylan’s “Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding” becomes another uncanny expression of both their private and public angst. They all feel in a state of unceasing paranoid helplessness.

At its most compelling, the picture is like this perplexing tableau of performance art, indie slap-dash filmmaking, and docudrama. The production was notorious — Fonda and Hopper as director and producer respectively were at each other’s throats even as they remained the driving forces behind the film from its conception. And far from just portraying Hippies being brutalized by podunk America, it has the ring of truth.

Formalistically it’s informed by jump-cut-infused, schizophrenic pacing. One can only imagine what it might have felt like in the 3-hour monolith Hopper originally had cut. In its theatrical form, it feels more impressionistic and light leaving us stunned more than we are stultified because it never totally loses its resonance.

It runs parallel to Bonnie and Clyde — the sense of these outlaw heroes being decimated by the establishment — although in Easy Rider the retribution seems even more needlessly violent and unelicited. George’s caution never seemed more prescient. People are scared of seeing other people acting free.

But also thematically, Easy Rider fits with The Graduate and any other movies capturing the generational shift with youth breaking out of the shackles of the past, looking to exert and define their own road ahead. It just so happens the road ahead can be daunting even unnerving when the American Dream seems to have gone totally awry.

Easy Rider is another lodestone in the cultural conversation. You can hardly begin to grapple with the moment without bumping up against it, and the movie suggests so much in its many facets, through its decisions — its sense of truth and freedom — but also by what it doesn’t say. It makes the world out to be galvanizing and terrifying all at the same time. Far from just being about the corrosive nature of mind-altering drugs, sometimes humanity can be equally merciless. Take your pick. These dudes couldn’t win.

4/5 Stars

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

310_to_Yuma_(2007_film)I must preface this by saying I still have yet to see the original film starring Glen Ford and Van Heflin, but I must say I was just as intrigued by the pairing of Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Bale plays against type as a one-legged war vet and rancher trying to make a living for his family.

Then there’s Crowe who takes a turn as notorious outlaw Ben Wade who has committed his fair share of crimes and bank jobs with his gang. It would appear they have very little in common, that is until Wade is captured by some local authorities and Dan Evans signs on to help take him to the train station since he’s in desperate need of money. So begins the dangerous undertaking, with Wade’s men looking for blood, Apaches waiting for them, and numerous other pitfalls. They are mistaken if Wade is going down without a fight, but he slowly bides his time getting under their skin.  Their plan to set a decoy also buys them little time after the bandits interrogate the stand in and let him burn.

Second in command Charlie Prince is not going to stop until he gets his boss back, and he proves that he will use any measures he deems necessary. Evans and the rest are held up in a town on the second story waiting for their assailants, but the odds get bad real quick. On a matter of principle, Evans decides to finish what he started while telling his son to leave the premises. The finale begins as Evans and Wade head to the train station with a barrage of bullets aimed in their direction. The old reliable 3:10 to Yuma is late, but in one final moment Wade willingly gets aboard the train probably knowing full well that he can escape a third time. There stands Dan Evans a man who did something extraordinary and will get the money he so desperately needs. But Wade and young William watch as Dan gets riddled with bullets from behind. But Wade and William are far from done.

Since the western is all but a dead genre nowadays, it’s always wonderful when a modern film is able to do justice to the lineage, and even as a remake this version can certainly stand alone. It fills a gritty, grimy, sweaty reality that in some instances feels a lot more realistic than early Hollywood westerns. In other words, it’s not bad, just different and aside from Bale and Crowe, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, and Alan Tudyk all are memorable. However, I lost Fonda under all that beard. Was that really him?

4/5 Stars

Easy Rider (1969)

d395a-easyriderStarring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, this road film follows the two young men traveling across country from L.A. after a drug deal. Along the way they meet a Hippie colony, experimenting with drugs, and simply live life as they please. Much of the movie comprises of the many pit stops they take as they make their way to Mardi Gras. Some people welcome them, and still others are hostile, especially in the South. This film does a wonderful job of portraying the counter culture generation and the experiences they had. In some ways it seems that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are not really acting, but partially embodying the existence that they are already used to. One of the highlights in the film would be Jack Nicholson’s odd ball, hick lawyer who crosses paths with the two hippie bikers in a Southern jail. A stellar soundtrack including such 1960s groups like the Byrds and the Band take potentially boring biking sequences and make them some of the best moments of the film. They also often express the mindset of the generation including anthems such as “Born to Be Wild” and “I Wasn’t Born to Follow.” Although it is not the greatest movie, it holds historical importance in order to help us remember this past generation.

4/5 Stars