“All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be…” – The Ballad of Easy Rider.
I was recently saddened to wake to the news that Peter Fonda had died. At my age it has become a regular occurrence, almost daily, to hear about a dear friend, acquaintance, associate, or a boyhood hero checking out of this world.
When I lived in Los Angeles for nine years I was very fortunate to have met a large number of actors, musicians and directors that’d inspired me during my formative years. Some of them became friends, others I’d see around here or there and we’d give a nod and a smile. They were mostly nice people dealing with their own pressures, families, problems and all those things we too juggle. Just on a much bigger scale. The few I encountered that were mean or monsters were the pretenders. The ones who’d seized a spotlight or some power through bluff, marketing or manipulation.
The bigger the talent, the nicer the person is what I found. Mostly.
Which brings me back to Peter Fonda. I only met him once. It was in one of my favourite books stores, Book Soup, on Sunset Boulevard, and I was browsing the latest releases when Peter came in with some people and they began setting up a table for him to do some book signings for his autobiography, “Don’t Tell Dad.” The title referring to his father, the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who was described by his children as being strict, uncommunicative, and unaffectionate. He never told them, ever, that he loved them. One of those closed men from an era when it was deemed unmanly to show your feelings. Perhaps this explains why both Peter and his sister Jane became rebels. Pushing the boundaries, striving to achieve and seeking approval from others. Running wild in Hollywood.
Peter had nothing in common with his father other than looks. I chatted with him that day and he was a genuinely nice, kind, loving individual. Before the crowd arrived he even signed a complimentary copy of his book for me. He was a hippie, spiritually, until the end.
Carving out a film career had been difficult for Peter. When he started out he had to stand in the very large overpowering shadow of his father. Remembered not for his work, but for being Henry Fonda’s son. Then later, he would be referred to as Jane Fonda’s brother. It must’ve been a creatively lonely and humbling existence for him. In fact, in most of his early films he looks stilted and uncomfortable, devoid of any identity of his own.If the trick to great acting is total relaxation, he was a long way from it.
Not making much of an impression in movies such as “Tammy and the Doctor” “The Young Lovers” and other forgettable fluffy fare, the offers dried up as he sat on the sidelines watching his father continue to shine in major movies, and his sisterJane soar in one film after another. It must’ve hurt Peter to have been thought of as the “loser” of the family, but perhaps those forces also shaped him as the gentle, unassuming, empathetic, kind man he became. He knew, in his own way, what it was like to suffer. To be ignored. Or dismissed.
Like many outsiders of the big slick Hollywood machine, Peter stumbled into the conveyor-belt Roger Corman “B” grade movie productions churned out for drive-in market. These exploitation films had budgets less than what real movies spent on catering. Some of them were shot in two days! And those that worked on them, usually had two or more jobs to perform. But Peter joined an illustrious company of other young, eager outsiders who couldn’t get a break in mainstream movies either. People like Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Dern, etc.
The brilliant thing about the Corman movies was that you learnt on the job, from experience, seeing yourself on the big screen and seeing what worked and what didn’t. You can now observe in these mostly crappy movies how Fonda and Nicholson go from stilted, self-conscious actors to guys whobecome so comfortable in front of a camera, their true self shines through and magic is born. We see this in Fonda’s performances in “The Wild Angels,” and the LSD fuelled “The Trip.”
And so it was, with a small budget film called “Easy Rider” (directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter, who also co-wrote the script and co-produced it) that Peter Fonda became a huge international star in his own right, and a cultural icon to a whole generation of baby boomers. His character Captain America oozed quiet confidence and the cool factor in abundance. The way he moved, how he dressed, the manner in which he spoke, had us boys all trying to emulate him. He became our martyred hero who, like us, was so lost, confused and despairing about the world, that we dropped out of the ranks of what was expected of us.
One of the last lines his character utters in the film, just before his date with destiny is, “We blew it.” He doesn’t elaborate. It is a beautiful, sad, famously enigmatic line that in a way is a eulogy to a lost generation.
Although Peter went on and starred in many movies and won Golden Globe awards and nominations for Oscars, it is his character in “Easy Rider” that still haunts us. That cool, disenchanted, silent-type loner, searching for the meaning of life on the coolest looking motorcycle we ever saw.
The advertising by-line to the movie “Two men went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere,” best sums it up.
Peter screened the final cut of the movie to Bob Dylan hoping that the famous troubadour would give permission for his recordings to be used for the movie’s soundtrack. But Dylan was so angered by the movie’s tragic ending, he said he’d only give his songs to the movie if the final scene was reshot and the bikers won. But Peter explained that the two leading characters had to be martyred. That’s what happened at that time, at that place, in America. Young people couldn’t beat the system.
So Bob took a piece of paper and scribbled these lines on it, “The river flows to the sea. Wherever that river flows that’s where I want to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town…” He handed it to Peter and said, “Give it to Roger McGuinn to finish. He’ll know what to do with it.”
And do he did. Roger added the lines, “All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be.” And “The Ballad of Easy Rider” was born. Dylan declined a credit as he’d given the lyrics to Peter, and the film, as a gift.
Peter Fonda was born to be wild. He is now free from the chains and restrictions of this earthly world. Free to ride the wind. To be a part of that beautiful dawn. To be as still and wise as the trees. And to flow with that river to the sea.
Down here on this barren battleground
We have been issued no orders
We don’t even know who we are fighting anymore
Yesterday the fog was so thick
We mistakenly shot our own leader
And laid him to rest ‘neath a tree
Perhaps we should withdraw
Which is not a surrender
We mustn’t surrender
For there is too much to lose
But we’ve forgotten what
Send word back
That we have not thrown down our weapons
But we need back up
It seems we have gone weeks without sleep
As we sit in the dark every night
Waiting for the enemy to attack
But they never come
This is a very sophisticated strategy
That we have not been briefed on
For our leader is dead
And his family have not received word
For they will only grieve
And too many tears have been shed
Too many hearts broken
Too many roads taken
Too many widows haunting us
In the mists of dawn
But we are holding our position
And ready for action
Eager to do him proud
To fight to the last man
We have burnt our white flags
So we wouldn’t be tempted
Our enemy has a lot to answer for
We just haven’t been informed of what
But we’ve been told to hate them
I wonder if they’re scared like us?
I wonder if they sleep?
I wonder if they just want to go home
Like we do?
I wonder if they’re still there?
Perhaps the war is over
I wonder who won?
It started out like a normal day for the man of the house. He had breakfast with his wife. She was no warmer or cooler towards him than she had been for a long time. He read the morning paper, donned coat, picked up his briefcase and left for the office.
She reminded him that there was no office anymore. He had to acknowledge that all that is now part of “the past”. Putting aside momentary chagrin at the loss of anticipated freedom he feels safe. There will be no more journeys into the outside world.
He and his wife relapse into a conversational sortie we know they have ventured into often before, their discourse, though completely Australian, throws up the cliches and truisms of everybody wisdom and in almost Pinteresque way introduces echoes of Oscar Wilde’s sublime parable “The Happy Prince”.
A telephone rings but nobody answers. It has no dial – like the clock face in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”
There is an unexpected knock at the door and a man with failure written all over him seeks admission. He has about him the air of a failed vaudevillian/cabaret performer. Like T. S. Eliot’s narrator he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker…but…”I am not Prince Hamlet…”
The dialogue is cryptic, enigmatic, redolent with oblique references to poems, books and cultural assumptions, skirting banality while continuing the Pinteresque reference to the daily metaphors which have been the cliches while still retaining their nugget of “the truth” and providing many moments of genuine “comedie noir”.
Another visitor bursts in, this time no stranger. Stinky Radford is an actor, lover, a forceful extrovert character, beloved by both Man and Wife. Asked about his life, he bravely lies while we see that he too is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be.
While the husband muses upon the remembrance of the past, Stinky makes love to his wife, who was once his wife too. Then, girding up his loins, he leaves to…try again?…to solve the riddle?…face the music?
By the time the audience have accepted the essentially metaphoric nature of this work of cinema: the room is none other than the stage on which Sophocles presented his vast and mighty tragedies, or Aristophanes his satires: the same stage which Shakespeare saw as emblematic of the world, “on which stars in secret influence comment”.
Another visitor – a youth, streetfighter, violent, working-class poet and thug – shades of Jean Cocteau here – bursts in and now we are given our first inkling of the exact nature of the metaphor we have been watching. Despite his bravado and overt displays of machismo, he is terrified by the wife’s advances. We are justified at this point feeling that perhaps all of the male characters are aspects of the husband’s psyche and that we are witnessing a revelation of Everyman/Everywoman in a decidedly contemporary encapsulation.
A plain-clothed detective arrives. Perhaps he is in pursuit of the streetkid but doesn’t reveal his quest, as he attempts to interview each of the people present. But the more he strives to get to the bottom of things, the lower the foundation of his beliefs and view of the world descend.
The wife reminisces volubly about a lover, a lawyer with an earring in one ear.
Stinky Radford returns, having failed to discover anything. The streetkid wants to go back but Stinky assured him “there’s nothing out there”.
The husband has already asserted “we are kindred spirits,” and “this is the room of the lost”.
Finally, Music and Light and mysterious opening of a door heralds the moment when Man and Wife must Face the Music in an upper room (the Upper Room?). He is the Happy Prince, denuded now of all his finery, and she, the Swallow who will not leave him. They are translated into Light.
Immediately they are gone, another figure bursts through the front door, demanding explication. He is obviously the Lawyer who has been the wife’s lover, and in the manner of lawyers he threatens to sue everyone until “you’ll wish you were dead!”.
As his four auditors laugh and laugh we now know exactly where we are and the form of the film, which has been hovering at the corner of our consciousness now snaps into place – and everything makes sense.
“The Final Stage” is, at its deepest level a work of art covering in an original and ground-breaking way the same philosophic and metaphorical terrain covered by Jean Paul Sartre in “No Exit”. It is also a funny, sad, poignant, piquant, witty and disturbing story which amuses us while it reminds us of the – dare we say? – eternal verities of Life and Death.
Because of the way “the story” unfolds – similarly to the creative method employed by Peter Carey in his best short stories – the film is decidedly out of the ordinary – its unusualness and the charm and variety of the performances, induce us willingly to suspend our disbelief. Those viewers familiar with poetry, the theatre, and great literature will find echoes of those other forms and discovery of such connections gives the film’s delightful tension. Theatre-goers, one hopes, will appreciate more fully the slightly theatrical edge to the dialogue. But everyone should be able to see that “The Final Stage” makes a significant, even historical contribution to our understanding of film form in the deepest sense.
– Adrian Rawlins
Critic &. Poet
Review written for Farrago.
Produced, Written & Directed by Frank Howson starring Adrian Wright, Abigail, Tommy Dysart, Michael Lake, Zachary McKay & Tiriel Mora.
The heavy decrepit bodies of the great and not so, mingled with their offsprings, children too young to realise that this too would be their fate. Pathetic men way past their glory days paraded pretending that they still had it, while bored defeated women looked on knowing they didn’t.
It was another day at the enclosed perfectly temperatured salt baths. The warmth was comforting to the skin and the soul and made old bones and muscles feel rejuvenated. The inhabitants floated safe in this maternal womb away from the business deals that no longer mattered in a world that no longer cared and was on its last legs. Some old guys studied the racing form while younger middle-aged men preferred the stock market. Some gambled with their own money while others ventured with what they had married into, or had inherited. All in all there’d be few winners that day. There were no more lucky numbers to be had, or surprise gold and mineral funds in a world that had been looted, raped and gang banged so many times there was nothing left. Certainly not energy for outrage. Only resentment from natives who had been trampled under foot and squashed by the invaders who destroyed paradise without ever having taken the time to truly look around and realise the greatest wealth was above the ground. But like rats they burrowed lower and lower into darkness desperate for any shiny morsel of opportunity. Never thinking any further ahead than that.
We had destroyed the world without realising that such an abomination also destroyed ourselves. What we project outwards also implodes us. Given time.
I stood in the warm salt water as the floating bodies of the dead and the dying circled me.
From the mansions of sadness
To the bums on the street
From the highways of loneliness
To the halls of defeat
I’ve watched your ascendance
The road I never took
Girl, you’ve come a long way
On a smile and a look
From the poolside of stardom
To the kids on the run
From the mountains of compassion
To the things never done
I’ve watched your progression
With an assassin’s eye
I could have been there too
But my heart doesn’t lie
There are stars in cars on every corner of this town
You’re gonna need a lot of help
When you finally come down
You’re slept with the Caesars
And you’ve dined with the Czars
But none of them told you why
This prison has no bars
From the towers of power
To a broken man’s plea
From the face on the magazine
To the girl you used to be
I’m waiting for some answers
Beneath the falling stars
Wish I could’ve warned you
This prison has no bars
But here we are
Who’d have thought
We’d have come so far?
We danced so long together
Everyone else has disappeared
But all those things that seemed so frightening
Are now no longer feared
They’re just funny
But we dared to love
And now we shine
Like the stars above
Our friends can laugh in wonder
At how we left them far behind
But we got something they only dream of
And rarely get to find
They think it’s funny
How we never expected
To find love again
Taken by surprise we were
Don’t know where, hard to say when
The moon was just a neon
Till I looked into your eyes
Now everything’s for real
Beneath these friendly skies
How the chairs are placed
And the dragons
Have all been faced
Now hold me close forever
And never let me wander lost
We stood alone for far too long, girl
But we have paid the cost…
How quick the evening goes
When the two of us fill it up
How warm our hearts can get
When there’s nothing to interrupt
Ain’t it funny?
But here we are
Who’d have thought
We’d have come so far?
He came with love in his heart for every living thing. His innocence had been untouched and his light force shone so bright that crowds gathered to see him but, more importantly, to feel his warmth. By gazing upon him they were somehow changed. “Was this the Messiah?” they mumbled to each other in hushed tones lest they be deemed blasphemous by some. For some can find darkness in every hope, every wish, every prayer.
And when this man spoke it brought some to their knees, others to tears. It was as if the calmness in his voice could heal every hurt and fear that had weighed them down and they were now somehow lighter.
The taking away of such anguish even brought back sight to the blind. As if all they had needed was to believe in something and were being granted the ability to see the world anew. Men who had walked too many lonely dead end loveless roads and were now crippled, found that they could walk again. And after those first awkward unsure steps they inched closer and closer to him growing more confident and accepted with each one until they were in his arms, and the safety and strength of unconditional love made them sob for the joy of each precious moment. Time that they had, until now, misinterpreted and cursed for their burdens, and wasted, was now rediscovered and rejoiced over. All things were possible again.
In his face they saw no judgement, no impatience, no pity, only love. And his love became contagious among the people and they sang his praises.
He had not come to destroy the Romans, or hand out weapons, or preach hate. He was here to give meaning to our lives. What was the meaning of life? Love. For love opens the door to joy. And its light extinguishes all shadows.
But there were those, the shadow people, who were angered by us learning the meaning of existence and saw that this teaching could undermine their power over us. For they ruled by fear and threats, both of which were rendered insignificant when the masses walked proudly in the sun again unchained from their own mental limitations.
So they arrested this man, this dangerous man, beat him, whipped him, ridiculed him and his suffering, and sentenced him to an agonising death for the crime of telling us to love and forgive each other.
And in his final conscious moments he forgave those who had plotted his death, and the ignorant who had killed him. To this day it remains the greatest triumph of the human spirit.
Perhaps he was drawing evil into the light so that the world could recognise its face?