Saturday, February 12, 2011

Easy Rider: This soundscape isn't just easy listening

Dir. Dennis Hopper

Arguably, Easy Rider is best known for its final scene (ok that and its soundtrack, Lazlo Kovak’s vignettes of America and Peter Fonda’s jaw line). Despite this, I am always drawn to its opening. The first five minutes act as a prologue, having a different feel from the rest of the movie which is largely achieved by the use of sound.

Easy Rider is the story of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy’s (Dennis Hopper) journey across America (both physically and metaphysically). Their end goal is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but as the saying goes, it's not the destination, it's the journey.

The film opens with the most iconic aspect of motorcycle culture – sound: a shot of a junkyard as an off-screen rumbling grows louder until Wyatt and Billy ride into the frame. This use of off-screen sound amplifies the mythology of the film, ultimately framing the rest of the narrative. As there is no immediate visual association to the noise of the bikes the sound is not connected with any one thing, rather it indexes broader concepts: adventure, counter-culture, crime. So before we set eyes on Wyatt and Billy we understand they are meant to represent something larger than their characters.

But it’s the meeting with Connection (Phil Spector) that sets these opening minutes apart. The drug sale goes down on an airport runway, thus there is no dialogue as the scene is saturated with the diegetic sound of jets (it’s worth noting that all the planes are landing, marking the end of journeys just as Wyatt and Billy are about to begin theirs). However, as soon as Wyatt finishes counting the money the camera cuts to him exiting the car and Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” drowns out the jets. This first use of non-diegetic sound clearly marks a shift in the film and the beginning of Wyatt and Billy’s journey. But as the Bard said, "What's past is prologue" and the themes set by the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound sustains itself to the film's end.


James McNally said...

I see you're getting down to business now with your literal (and liberal) use of "diegetic" and "non-diegetic." Are you going to make sound design more of a recurring theme now?

Also, got the blu-ray BBS box for Christmas, so I really have no excuse for not having seen Easy Rider yet.

Kiva said...

I think I shall. Had that same question from a few people so I'll try it out for a bit.