Sunday, October 18, 2009

Buell Is Dead

A surprising announcement from Erik Buell:

I liked Buell's innovations and his motorcycles, with their extra tall seats fascinated me, rugged, tough and low maintenance, they were smart and far beyond the chrome covered toys many Americans seem to prefer. I thought of them as rider's bikes. Oh well. No government bail outs for this deserving company apparently. Socialism for the banks and free markets for everyone else as we roll, Buell-less, into the Brave New World.

Easy Rider

It's a bit over the top I think, to see Easy Rider as redefining culture, whatever that means. The film came out forty years ago and it's young actors have matured into gray and wrinkly old men and because Hollywood likes to capitalize on whatever it can, I guess this must have seemed like a good time to make us all watch this seminal film one more time while Peter Fonda:...and Dennis Hopper are still alive and coherent and able to talk about it:
Hopper is seen here wearing his absurd broad brimmed hat which mysteriously stayed glued to his head throughout this motorcycle road movie. Aside from these two there was also, briefly, a short scene featuring Phil Spector as a drug dealer in an equally absurd hat. This would be the same Spector recently convicted of murdering his wife. Talk about strange trips, man.
In a documentary about the making of the movie, that was included in the rental DVD, Fonda pointed out that Spector got the role because he already had a Rolls Royce and a bodyguard (the man in the black fez seen above) and saved them the bother of hiring extra players and props. This movie may have "changed forever the way America looks at itself" but let's not forget it was made on a shoestring budget of $360,000.

I can see why people in the industry have voted Easy Rider as one of the best movies of all time, the American Film Institute says it's number 84 on the list which suits me. I saw this movie for the first time in an English speaking theater in Rome possibly in the Fall of 1980. I was planning my epic road trip across America on a Vespa 200 and I saw the poster for the movie on the street. I wondered if I should use a Harley instead of a puny Vespa but practicality won out, as it always has in my life. An Italian had made a name for himself traveling to Japan on a Vespa and Roberto Patrignani's trip influenced me a lot more than these two drug addicts...I had a grand time, seen here in Mexico, traveling light and unencumbered by drugs, luggage or an image to keep up. I was 23 and life was a chemical-free trip: The story is simple enough. Two men, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) make a cocaine trade to raise a wad of cash for a trip to visit Mardi Gras in New Orleans. That the action of the film takes just a week is often lost in discussions about the film. There is no hiding the fact that this was a western, two men riding across the deserts of Arizona, on location, and camping out enjoying the stars and philosophical discussion.It's enough to light a fire under the most sedentary among us. The thing about the movie is that it keeps moving, and though that seems like a cliché, too many films, especially road films get encumbered by too much plot. There isn't any exposition in Easy Rider, Billy always calls Fonda's character by his nickname "Captain America" and we know nothing about these guy's past, how they met or what they do for a living. The story, probably because the film went largely unscripted, is sparse and because of that it really works.There's so much trivia surrounding the legend of the making of the film and there are websites in abundance to fill in the stories that it seems rather tedious of me to repeat them here. The story is just a road trip on motorcycles meeting hippies and disaffected bourgeois and mad rednecks as they ride. Along the way they end up in jail, as seen above, where they meet George Hanson, famously played by the third actor selected for the role, another young'un unmistakable as a Southern Good Ol' Boy in Texas:Jack Nicholson's character outlines the message of the movie, the search for freedom from artificial restraints in about two lines. You either get it or you don't and the message is so simple and broad that anyone can subscribe. Of course freedom has it's limits (!) in the land of the free where conformity is an over-arching requirement:The documentary comments of Fonda and Hopper about the café scene are very funny and very poignant at the same time. They recruited locals, they say, to film this confrontation between the freedom lovers and the bourgeois conformists and they insist the emotions played out here were real and again, unscripted. Indeed the famous acid tip in the cemetery in New Orleans apparently got far more attention in the planning and execution stages of the film:I remembered this scene as dragging on and on, but when I saw it most recently, like every section of the trip I found it much shorter and sharper than it had lived on in my memory. The pacing of the film really made it work for me. Less talk, more movement.One of the few new/old facts that came out in this 40th year bonanza of attention was the role played by the African American chopper builder in Los Angeles, called Ben Hardy. I don't think he got much, if any credit at the time but today he has found his place in the lore of the movie, if a little late.It is well known today that there were two of each bike built at the time and the survivors of the movie experience all disappeared even before the movie itself was in theaters. Fonda got the heavily chopped bike as he was a more experienced rider, but nobody denies the bikes, as portrayed, were the next best thing to unrideable over any distance at all. The impossible riding position, lack of suspension, lack of luggage (!), no front brakes(!!), made them icons, not true traveling machines...In 1969, and even 1980 when I first saw the movie, Harley Davidsons, even ones straight from the factory, were neither reliable nor modern. People point out that Harleys haven't changed much over the decades but they have evolved enormously, and whether you want to ride one or not today, a modern Harley is a low maintenance tenacious marvel of ride-ability. That most owners don't chalk up the miles on their machines is their problem, not the problem of the motorcycles which use hydraulic, maintenance free tappets, maintenance free belt drive,and low horsepower, low stress motors capable of holding the speed limit for decades without stopping. If only their owners could. In those days Harelys were leaky, wheezy, inept vibrating machines surviving on cult status alone.And that's what Easy Rider expresses for all of us bourgeois freedom seeking conformists. If you are bottling up a long distance ride I suggest you get it out of your system before you are too old, too tired, too beaten down by the search for freedom. Yeah, I know it's scary, but that's the whole point isn't it?