Friday, September 24, 2010

Last of the Freedom Riders

The Wild One is Free : Marlon Brando in front of his Triumph.In this 1953 film classic, Brando portrayed Johnny Strabler, the iconic anti-hero,alienated from respectable society.

In  the 1953 movie, The Wild One, an outlaw motorcycle gang takes over and somewhat terrorize a small town in Southern California. It was the first film to look at biker culture in America. The movie has become a cult classic on outlaw motorcyclists, or bikers. 

It also established Marlon Brando, who played the gang leader (Johnny Strabler) as the iconic anti-hero, which eventually become more predominant in American films after Second World War.

Fast forward 15 years later, and another cult classic was introduced to the public, Easy Rider, a 1969 American film about two bikers who travel through the American Southwest and the South with the aim of achieving freedom. (American Film Institute ranked Easy Rider among the top 100 films of all time, coming in at 84.)

There is something about bikers, particularly those on a Harley-Davidson, that either instills fear or envy in onlookers riding in their cars or strolling on the sidewalks of  America. The reaction might speak of how one views freedom. The biker has become one of the few and lasting iconic symbols of freedom in America.

Both films cited above speak about alienation from middle-class traditional culture and the values it espouses. The first film coincided with the increasing popularity of the beat generation, made famous by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighborhood surrounding Columbia University just after the end of World War Two.

The beat generation gave way to the beatniks and then the hippies, who became a vocal protest movement for change in the 1960s and early '70s, particularly against America's ill-fated involvement in the Vietnam War. Equally important, the hippies questioned the values advocated in the post-war boom and, among other things, the subsequent increase in consumer culture.

While the beats and hippies eventually lost their way and their influence in the 1980s, their influence is ever-present in each generation that questions the status quo. The mainstream culture and the elites detest these movements for a number of reasons, least of which is that people who don't subscribe to the benefits of consumer society and conspicuous consumption don't make good consumers.

It's bad for business if people buy only things they need.

To be sure, society has changed greatly since the beats and hippies were popular. Yet some things remain. That sense of alienation is still present in America today. The society might have changed in a cosmetic way, quickened by technological advancements, but the problems remain the same. 

The society is consumer-driven, and those without are looking at those within. The poor, the working poor and the struggling middle-class read and hear the stories of the moneyed class and its sense of entitlement, displays of arrogance and high-handedness, even in the face of irrefutable evidence, even when facing the People's Representatives, the U.S. Congress.

Wall Street received $10-trillion of U.S. taxpayers money, and yet they are unhappy. (See a recent article in the Huffington Post by Les Leopold, Poverty Rises as Wall Street Billionaires Whine) To the average citizen, it might appear as if money buys impunity. It's small wonder that the average person struggling to get by is feeling somewhat alienated. How can the average person relate to the super-wealthy, to the values they hold, and to the way they operate.

Freedom is Hard to Gain: A couple enjoy a tender moment at a traffic light in Chinatown, Manhattan, NYC.
Photo Credit: Sheldon Levy, 2010,
Such alienation, common among the young, the middle-aged and the disappointed elderly, is not often discussed or reported by the mainstream media, since their interests generally lie elsewhere. The alienation is present, and the mass culture knows about it, as it is natural for people to cry out about justice. Yet, it's palpable, and if your senses are operating and alive, you will not only feel it, but become saddened by it. 

Which greatly explains the desire to get away from the political circus, seeing that politics today hardly represents the interests of the average person. Such also speaks of the need that motorcyclists have, to feel the wind in their face, an action that speaks of  individual freedom. Freedom is not achieved once and then forgotten. Each generation has to fight to achieve it,  says Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader of the 1960s: "As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free."

Let's keep up the good fight.