The path: Captain America: Winter Solider—> Ghost World—> The Chumscrubber—> Passenger Side—> Easy Rider: The Ride Back
With You Might Also Like, I don’t set out to write about bad movies or strange movies, so much as movies that shouldn’t exist, that can’t exist, yet do. I’m looking for films that exist in defiance of God’s will, basic common sense, and seemingly immutable universal law. I scour streaming services for films whose mere existence is enough to inspire cries of “How?” and “No!” and “Why, God, why?”
That’s just what I found with 2013’s Easy Rider: The Ride Back, a film Netflix suggested for fans of Captain America: The Winter Solider, via a route that included the Scarlett Johansson classic Ghost World, the little-loved suburban angst-fest The Chumscrubber, and finally a grimy independent film called Passenger Side. That’s right: Dustin Rikert, the director-producer of four films in 2013, including A Country Christmas, made a sequel to Easy Rider, one co-written, produced, financed, and starring sixtysomething newcomer Phil Pitzer.
Who is Phil Pitzer, and why is he starring in an Easy Rider sequel? According to Easy Rider: The Ride Back’s official website, “Over the last six years, Philip Pitzer has become involved in motion-picture development focusing exclusively on the ‘Easy Rider’ franchise. Mr. Pitzer has co-authored two scripts, ‘Easy Rider: The Ride Back’ and ‘Easy Rider: The Search Continues.’”
So there you have it: Phil Pitzer has devoted the last six years of his motion-picture-development expertise exclusively to pushing the “Easy Rider franchise” forward. I’m sure the Citizen Kane and Casablanca people were all, “Hey, Phil Pitzer, come continue our sagas as well!” But Pitzer was exclusively committed to making Easy Rider sequels.
But Pitzer’s longstanding commitment to the Easy Rider franchise isn’t his only connection to show business. His bio notes that his “exploits” were “chronicled in two books, Laughing On the Outside, Crying On The Inside, the biography of Judy Carne, as well as Diary Of A Life Interrupted, relating to the life of Nichole [sic.] Brown Simpson.” Pitzer didn’t write these tell-alls. They are not his memoirs. He is merely a character in them, in his primary occupation as a lawyer. So the “exploits” chronicled in, say, Laughing On The Outside, Crying On The Inside (which I am now kicking myself for not using as the title for my own memoir) are generally of the “Carne’s attorney, Phil Pitzer, told the press” variety.
According to this article in the Springfield News-Sun, the road to Easy Rider: The Ride Back began with Pitzer learning that the sequel/remake rights to Easy Rider were up for grabs, then suing Easy Rider producers Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider to, in the article’s words, “stop them from claiming they still owned the rights.”
“The last thing the Hollywood establishment wants is for someone like me to do well in their backyard,” Pitzer said, though he was willing to concede,“This movie may not be appreciated immediately.” Years later, in an interview with CannabiNews, Pitzer boasted that while it’s a challenge following up a classic when you’re a complete amateur with no discernible artistic talent, in his opinion, “We nailed it!”
Pitzer cuts an unmistakably Tommy Wiseau-like figure because both men became “movie stars” solely by virtue of their willingness to spend their personal fortunes on insane vanity projects that no one would possibly cast them for if they weren’t also producing, writing, and paying the bills. Pitzer’s claims to being a movie star are even sketchier than Wiseau’s, since he got the gig partially due to his fortune, and partially due to a legal challenge against the people with a much stronger artistic, if not legal, right to make the Easy Rider sequel no one wants.
Easy Rider: The Ride Back suggests what The Room might be like if Wiseau decided he wasn’t just going to make a tribute to A Streetcar Named Desire, but rather a sequel to A Streetcar Named Desire that casts himself as Stanley Kowalski’s cooler brother Johnny, and litters the screenplay with nods to previous adventures. This alternate-universe version of The Room would be folded into the Streetcar Named Desire franchise (good news, everyone, every classic movie is now officially a franchise waiting to happen! Phil Pitzer tells us so!), and would find Johnny Kowalski clumsily referencing his brother’s earlier adventures in dialogue like, “Oh man, when Stanley, who worshipped me growing up, lived in New Orleans, he used to yell at his wife Stella really loud, like, ‘Stella,’ all memorable-like. Stanley also knew this one woman, Blanche Du Bois, I think her name was, and he told me that she once said, ‘I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” you know, ’cause she was living in a world of memories and dreams and relying on her fading beauty to fight off madness as she aged out of her years of peak desirability. That always stuck in my mind for some reason. But enough about that. What are we gonna have for dinner?”
Easy Rider: The Ride Back opens by referencing the events of the earlier film with only slightly more artfulness. Pitzer’s Morgan Williams drones in his gently narcotizing monotone, barely audible over the assaultively wimpy acoustic guitar that dominates the score, “My name is Morgan Williams. I had a brother Wyatt. He had this nickname: Captain America. The day after Mardi Gras, 1969, Wyatt and his best friend, Billy, were riding their bikes, heading for Florida. The sky was crystal blue, just like 9/11.” The airplane roar of a gunshot then punctuates the soundtrack, as a man on a motorcycle is blasted by a redneck. The narration stiffly continues, “Wyatt died that day, a victim of hatred and prejudice, at the hands of those whose greatest fear is freedom, whether in the form of a nation or a single individual.”
If Pitzer were working for responsible professionals, the sort of folks who should be in charge of a sequel to Easy Rider, they would probably have asked him to pull the 9/11 reference for the sake of decency, and also because it has nothing to do with the rest of the film. It’s as random a dead-end as The Room’s casually offered cancer diagnosis. September 11 doesn’t figure in the plot of Easy Rider: The Ride Back. It’s just the kind of capital-T Tragedy an amateur might stick in a movie in a grotesquely misguided bid for social relevance. Pitzer might as well have said, “Wyatt was wearing a shirt that day, just like Kurt Cobain was when he killed himself, and earlier he had combed his hair, just like President Kennedy did on the day he was assassinated.”
Pitzer is blessed and cursed with Wiseau’s anti-charisma. He’s magnetic in his absence of magnetism, a strange-looking man on the wrong side of 60 who looks like a cross between a blurry Peter Fonda and a slender leather recliner, and rocks a cross between a mullet and a Prince Valiant that looks ridiculous, except when it’s blowing in the wind. As Morgan Williams, Captain America’s cooler brother, Pitzer favors sleeveless T-shirts, bandannas, and leather pants, as befits a man who’s spent the previous four decades selling weed, designing awesome jewelry, and having sex with beautiful naked women young enough to be his granddaughters. You or I might deem this small-time pot dealer/leather-pants enthusiast/stunted senior-child a bit of a loser, but the film sees him as an exemplar of freedom, who’s living the dream of sparking doobies, riding hogs, and dressing like a cool guy several decades his junior.
In other words, Pitzer is living the countercultural fantasies of a retired Ohio lawyer. Part of that dream entails making a movie about Easy Rider that goes deeper into the history and mythology of Captain America’s family than even the most dedicated fan-fiction scribe would want to go. After that opening narration, the film introduces Morgan’s sister Shane (B-movie fixture Shereee J. Wilson, who also helped produce), who stops by Morgan’s “island off the coast of Mexico” to encourage her troublemaking senior citizen of a brother to reconcile with their cantankerous dad before he dies. (Morgan’s luxurious estate is essentially a miniature Planet Hollywood devoted exclusively to Captain America memorabilia, with the ultimate trophy being the iconic American-flag jacket we are informed Morgan made specifically for his beloved brother, Captain America. )
Morgan then starts artlessly expectorating exposition about a Williams family we are sadistically expected to care about, letting us know that he and his brother Virgil weren’t too close growing up, as Virgil was “too much the boy scout,” but that Wyatt was his idol, and after Wyatt’s murder—you know, the one that was totally at the end of Easy Rider!—“Virgil and I got majorly tight.”
The film keeps throwing out new characters in the Easy Rider saga—Brother Virgil (Chris Engen), sister Shane, family friend Wes Coast (Jeff Fahey), father Old Hickcock “Wild Bill” Williams (Newell Alexander). It hurtles audiences back in time for an endless series of flashbacks chronicling the history of the Williams family, from its heroic service in World War II on through today. Wild Bill never forgave Morgan for burning his draft card, and Virgil came back from the war a little touched in the head, although his mental illness might be attributable to the night his girl was gang-raped by a group of bikers, a regrettable fixture of the biker subgenre Pitzer unfortunately saw fit to honor. Morgan and his old man fell out because, in Morgan’s words, his father “didn’t like the way I expressed my freedom back then.” (When he says that line, he sounds for all the world like a spoiled teenager, not an old man a mere breath away from the sweet, rocking release of death.) Nevertheless, Morgan joins forces with his old buddy Wes Coast for an epic ride to visit his father, which doubles as a tribute to Wyatt. As Morgan explains to Wes, “I’m also kind of making this ride in honor of Wyatt. Wearing his shit, riding his bike.”
Military service figures prominently in Easy Rider: The Ride Back, possibly because Pitzer is a former officer; his bio on the film’s website says he “rose to the rank of Captain in the field of military intelligence.” The moment Pitzer acquired the rights to Easy Rider, the film stopped being about Captain America, Peter Fonda, or Easy Rider and became about Phil Pitzer, who remade one of pop culture’s beloved touchstones entirely in his image. And if Phil Pitzer says the Easy Rider franchise should have a strong pro-military message, then Easy Rider: The Ride Back is going to have a strong, seemingly incongruous pro-military message. Morgan, whom everyone seems to regard as a prophet, conclusively ends a conversation about the morality of war with the assertion, “You can attack the war, man, but never the warrior.”
Easy Rider: The Ride Back is morbidly fascinating in part because it’s so nakedly personal. It offers an unfortunate x-ray of its creator’s soul that says nothing about our country, the ’60s, or Easy Rider, and everything about Pitzer: his great respect for our nation’s military tradition, his affection for baseball and the shining example set by Jackie Robinson (whose story figures prominently in the narrative), and his fuzzy social concerns about the environment and stamping out hunger. Pitzer even saw fit to make his own hometown, Springfield, Ohio, the hometown of the Williams family. Why shouldn’t he? The moment he slipped on that leather jacket and hopped onboard that pristine replica of Peter Fonda’s original bike, he became Captain America, in his mind, if no one else’s.
Morgan makes the titular ride back alongside family friend Wes Coast, whom Fahey plays as a rambling, shambling, over-the-top burlesque of Dennis Hopper’s Billy The Kid from the original. Wes is the kind of madman who hollers every line, and punctuates it with a good-time cackle. He’s a rampaging id perpetually on the prowl for women, weed, and whiskey. But when Wes and Morgan visit an old rival-turned-friend who’s traded in the high life for a more spiritually satisfying existence feeding the homeless, Morgan gives this good samaritan all the drug money he has. Because Morgan isn’t the kind of super-cool sixtysomething who wears leather pants and wife-beaters and smokes marijuana: Morgan also cares about humanity. He’s not just cooler than the Fonz and Peter Fonda combined, he’s also a consummate humanitarian.
In a moment that encapsulates the surreally misguided nature of this project, Morgan takes some time off from his epic ride back to survey the devastation of the Salton Sea. Displaying the complete dearth of conviction with which he delivers every clumsily written line, Pitzer reflects, “We’ve really blown it, man. We’ve got to take better care of our planet.” In Easy Rider, when Captain America tells Billy The Kid “We blew it” at their ostensible moment of triumph, it registers as a profoundly powerful cry of despair and confusion from a counterculture that was much better at delineating what it was against than what it was for. When Morgan echoes that classic line, he’s reducing it to an insultingly literal plea for better stewardship of the environment.
It’s a testament to Pitzer’s astonishing chutzpah and sense of entitlement that the film ends on a purposefully cryptic, unsatisfying note designed to set up another movie, one meant to finally, conclusively close out the legendary Easy Rider trilogy. The film ends with Morgan reconciling with his father, who only wants a “ride home” for his birthday, causing Morgan to reflect, “I never thought I’d see my father again, let alone smilin’ and havin’ a good time. I owe Shane for that gift. It should be one hell of a party. The only thing missing is mom and Wyatt. And Virgil should be here any time now. Wes says he’s bringing a surprise that’s going to blow everybody’s mind. And if there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s fuckin’ surprises.”
I simply cannot wait for the next movie, so I’m going to write my own fan fiction about Wes Coast’s big surprise. It would be appropriate, since that’s what Easy Rider: The Ride Back resembles most: fan fiction, inexplicably rendered official and legitimate by a fluke of the legal system. It’s a glitch in the matrix, a tribute video that got out of hand. I think the only way to salvage the Easy Rider franchise is to go more narcissistic and self-indulgent, not less.
And so I’m currently looking into purchasing the sequel/remake rights to Easy Rider: The Ride Back. Oh sure, I’m a doughy 37-year-old with no experience in movies or entertainment law, but Easy Rider: The Ride Back illustrates that it’s never too late. And like Pitzer, I have a strong idea of where the Easy Rider franchise should go. In my telling, Wes Coast’s big surprise is that he has a brother named Johnny whom no one knows about, to be played by Tommy Wiseau. Together, these three weird old men will travel the country on pimped-out choppers, flying the flag for freedom and letting people know you can be whoever you want to be, and do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re the one paying all the bills.