Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Easy Rider" in Westminster / Philosophy for All

One of the many dismaying things about getting old is that you re-watch films that you saw forty years ago, and realise that you forgot almost all of the film. When I saw Easy Rider (1969) this evening, there were only two scenes I recalled. The rest of it had lost into the oblivion of dying brain cells. My only excuse is that I was a young teenager at the time I first saw it, watching the film on TV while doing my homework.

One of the good things about getting old is that when you watch films that you haven't seen for decades, you suddenly remember where certain quotations or scenes came from, and the context in which they were made. There was one haunting scene in Easy Rider that stuck in my teenage brain and thereafter defined my concept of what a hippy community was (even though I could not recall in which film I had seen it). Bear in mind that I grew up in middle-class Cardiff and never met any hippies in real life. It was the scene where Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) arrive at a community of townies who had escaped the city and were struggling to live off land that was too sandy to cultivate, and too dry to let anything grow. They had been driven there to escape "the city". (Billy asks which city, but never gets an answer: cities are an undifferentiated horror, so it doesn't matter which city.) The community was impoverished and desperately struggling to survive. As I said, this image stayed with me and formed my concept of the alien life form of the hippy: a being driven by the highest principles that can motivate humankind -- the urge to be free, and to strive to survive causing least possible harm -- but immersed in hardness and bitterness. Socrates' musings on 'the good life' inevitably inform one's reaction to this dichotomy between a hard life of intgerity, versus an comfortable and easy ride of corruption and delinquency. Socrates maintained that the former were truly happy, although the latter felt happy. Which always seemed like a very twisted redefinition of the word "happy".

The other scene I remembered from when I watched it forty years ago was the final and tragic scene, which I won't describe in case you haven't seen the film yet. This, in my teenage brain, served to define conventional society's manner dealing with hippies: exterminate them.

The film was followed by a discussion, led by Anja Steinbauer on behalf of Philosophy for All (PFA). I threw in my tuppence-worth, which was to draw attention to the film's opening song, The Pusher, written by Hoyt Axton and performed by Steppenwolf (who also sang "Born to be Wild"). The lyrics are: "You know I've smoked a lot of grass / O' Lord, I've popped a lot of pills / But I never touched nothin' / That my spirit could kill / You know, I've seen a lot of people walkin' 'round / With tombstones in their eyes / But the pusher don't care / Ah, if you live or if you die / God damn, The Pusher ... /You know the dealer, the dealer is a man / With the love grass in his hand / Oh but the pusher is a monster / Good God, he's not a natural man / The dealer for a nickel / Lord, will sell you lots of sweet dreams / Ah, but the pusher ruin your body / Lord, he'll leave your, he'll leave your mind to scream / God damn, The Pusher ... /
Well, now if I were the president of this land /You know, I'd declare total war on The Pusher man /I'd cut him if he stands, and I'd shoot him if he'd run / Yes I'd kill him with my Bible and my razor and my gun /God damn The Pusher ..." (The third verse is omitted in the film, for obvious reasons.) This song plays while Wyatt and Billy sell a bag of cocaine to a pusher. The money they get from the deal lays the foundation for their bid for freedom: they are escaping the city, to live a life of freedom and ease with the nature, maybe retire to Florida, and doing all this on the back of unknown and unnumbered individuals' addiction to the freedom-destroying drug that they had conveyed. This paradox, I suggested, was what Wyatt meant when he said to Billy, "We blew it, man." Wyatt realised that they had become identical to their own hated enemy. They had become part of the inauthentic destructive machine that puts tombstones in people's eyes.

The PFA discussion in the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster circled around for an hour or so, lurching between the strange world of academic philosophy (Robert Nozick's experience machine and all that jazz) and the cosy world of homespun homilies ("You can't experience happiness without knowing unhappiness"). But it made me reflect anew on the film and its ironic message, which subverts hip culture as well as square culture.

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