Easy Rider and the importance of cinematography

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A hippie with Elvis-style sideburns hides a tube of cash inside his motorcycle’s American flag-styled fuel tank. He drives up to his long-haired friend who looks like an old school Western outlaw.

The hippie checks his watch in his hand and throws it on the ground. “Born to be Wild” plays as the two men ride into a seemingly endless desert as their journey begins. This is what precedes the 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider.

Starring Peter Fonda, who also produced the film, and Dennis Hopper and co-starring Jack Nicholson, the film manages to say a lot with very little. Serving as a portal to a far-gone, generally short period of time, there’s no other movie quite like Easy Rider.

While I could talk about the great performances, memorable characters or even the incredible score that follows the film, instead I’d like to talk about how the film looks. 

Somehow, László Kovács was able to capture a beauty in this film about a couple of sweaty motorcycle hippies, and something can be learned from his visual style. 

One essential ingredient for Easy Rider’s success is location. There are many locations in this film and Kovács uses them all to their greatest potential.

As we follow our main characters’ journey, we often see them driving on long highways, surrounded by vast desert landscapes. There is an elegance to the sandy hills that seem to stretch out forever, giving the film a sense of grandeur — despite the simplistic plot.

There’s something very satisfying about seeing men gracefully riding down a lone street, surrounded by beige land that remains completely untouched by man. It gives that dopamine hit that all forms of entertainment rely on, and it keeps you engaged with the film as a whole. 

Getting beautiful shots of something that’s already beautiful, like the southern landscape, is great. However, true talent is shown when one can also find beautiful imagery in uglier scenarios. 

One of the first stops on our motorcyclists’ road trip is a small ramshackle community full of other hippies who set up shop in the middle of the desert. The buildings are meager but Kovács still manages to find engaging ways to shoot the new location. 

The rest of the village is gritty but still manages to feel quaint as a result of the camera movements and the tracking shots. 

There is something to be said about the lighting used throughout the film as almost everything is lit naturally. In the day time, the sun reflects brilliantly off of the Americana motorcycle as it rides along. 

Even when there are indoor scenes, the sun is typically the main light source as it illuminates the scene in a visually appealing way. By night, characters are often seen via the light of a campfire.

There are many scenes like this that evoke a sense of nostalgia for camping and an urge for freedom — which happens to be a major theme of the film. 

It is here that some of the most interesting traits of our characters are explored and some of the most pivotal scenes of the film take place. The camera itself often operates seemingly with a mind of its own. 

Sometimes the camera remains static or naturally tracks the scene. On other occasions, the camera will unexpectedly pan to differing speeds and it’ll crash zoom at a moment’s notice.

There are some scene transitions that are unique to Easy Rider where the images will flash from the current scene to the next back and forth before the next scene actually begins. 

With all of these cinematographic techniques, the film develops a notable style that really makes it stand out from other movies from that era. Easy Rider is truly an anomalous film, aimless in nature but still charming in every way.

I haven’t seen a movie that uses its camera as effectively as Easy Rider in a long time, and I think it serves as a great learning tool for anyone who’s interested in going into cinematography or even photography.

It’s available on Netflix right now and while it’s a wonderful film, it may not be for everybody. I’d say watch the first 10 minutes and if you aren’t too impressed, it might be best to disregard it.

If you are impressed, however, then there’s no need to strap in; just sit back and relax. As the title suggests, you’re in for an easy ride.

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