Friday, July 24, 2009

Roots of Easy Rider: The Wild Angels (1966)

While not part of the genre in any way beyond featuring motorcycles, Easy Rider probably couldn’t have happened without the rise of the biker movie in the 1966. Each of its stars played a role in that rise, too, none more centrally than Peter Fonda. Released in 1966, The Wild Angels rode a wave of new interest in bike gangs in general and the Hell’s Angels in particular.

This included Hunter S. Thompson’s breakthrough book Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Biker Gangs published that year. Living amidst the Angels of Oakland, Thompson witnessed first hand their passion to find a life not bound by the rules of square America and the violent rites the considered core to that passion. The Wild Angels captures a lot of that ambiguity, deriving vicarious thrills from its anti-heroes’ flaunting of convention without endorsing it. Directed by Roger Corman, it fits nicely into Corman’s lifelong habit of exploiting a going countercultural trend, reveling in it for a while, then casting a jaundiced eye at its shortcomings.

Fonda stars as Heavenly Blues, leader of the Wild Angels. With his pal Loser (Bruce Dern) and other bikers, he roams the California highways, sporting Nazi regalia and generally shocking the squares. In the great opening scene, a kid on a tricycle breaks loose from his Venice, CA home and almost crosses the path of Fonda on his bike as his mother races to stop him. Calamity averted, Corman lets the moment be for a second: Fonda’s everything parents are scared their kids will become. But he’s also an appealing symbol of what kind of life you could live if you reject everything parents or any other sort of authority.

It’s not a lifestyle made to last. Cut to the end: Dern’s dead. His girlfriend (Diane Ladd) because common sexual property. Fonda rejects to pleas of his girlfriend Mike (Nancy Sinatra) to settle down. But he’s miserable. The most memorable sequence—and there are a lot of unmemorable sequences—comes at the end when Fonda engages in a debate with a small-town minister coerced into putting Dern to rest:

This prompts an orgy of vandalism and bad behavior as the gang trashes the church and drags Dern’s body out for the party, a sequence that still feels creepily transgressive. It feels like he’s trying to push his biker rebellion as far as it can go, and in the end it’s not enough. Putting Dern in the ground, Fonda refuses to flee as police sirens blare in the background. His last line: “There’s nowhere to go.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009