No film better depicts a changing America than Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road film about a pair of counterculture “long-hairs” who ride their Harley Davidsons across the highways of America in search of true freedom. With a production history as outlandish and drug fueled as the journey depicted in the film itself, Easy Rider roared onto the screens in 1969 and ushered in a radical new era of American filmmaking. Easy Rider was one of the first films to portray the counterculture in all its glory, use a soundtrack consisting entirely of rock and roll hits, and feature rising star Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.
The travels of Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), and George Hanson (Nicholson) take them across the scenic byways of the American South and Southwest, stopping at gas stations, campsites, communes, hot springs, police stations, and diners along the way. When the three stop at a small café after a long day’s journey, they find themselves simultaneously harassed and seduced by the patrons inside. A police officer sitting at a nearby booth declares, “What the hell is this? Trouble makers?” while a group of young women giggle in titillation and discuss which of the men each of them likes best. As the three dirty hippies take their seats, the comments increase in both volume and severity. One man says, “I think we ought to put them in a cage and charge admission to see ‘um,” followed by another who remarks, “They look like a bunch of refugees from a guerilla love-in.” On top of it all, the waitress neglects to serve them any of the refreshing Coca-Cola and delicious handmade pies the sign outside advertises. Eventually, Wyatt, Billy, and George decide it is in their best interest to leave an establishment to which they are so obviously unwelcome. The diner scene might not be the most memorable in Easy Rider, but it perfectly encapsulates the cultural tension boiling between the established order and the longhaired, free-spirited hippie renegades who threatened to throw it over completely. The diner scene was filmed in the town of Morganza, Louisiana, about 50 miles outside the state capital of Baton Rouge. However, the diner, which was once located on Gayden Road, was torn down, leaving only an empty field and staircase behind.
Technically, the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally was filmed at a Jewish deli-Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street in New York City-but for our purposes, we’ll let it count. However, when Harry and Sally first embark on their long road trip from Chicago to New York at the beginning of the film, they stop at an actual diner for a late-night snack. This is where Harry explains to Sally that she could not have possibly had “hot sex” with a man named Sheldon and Sally gives the waitress incredibly detailed instructions for her order of a chef’s salad and apple pie. Though this scene definitely isn’t as memorable as the one at Katz’s, you can’t beat this diner’s pea-green leather booths and sassy waitress in a pink uniform.
Quentin Tarantino immortalized himself as a true auteur from the moment his first film, Reservoir Dogs, opens on a group of men chatting in a diner about the meaning of Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, asserts that the song is about an incredibly vulnerable girl who finally meets a nice fella, while Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself, maintains that it’s “a metaphor for big dicks.” When it comes time to cough up some green for the tip, Mr. Pink, played by Steve Buscemi, refuses on principle, sparking a heated debate about the ethics of not tipping automatically This seminal scene was filmed at Pat and Lorraine’s at 4270 Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is still open today. Later on in the film, Freddy, played by Tim Roth, meets up with L.A.P.D chief Holdaway (Randy Brooks) to discuss his plans to go undercover and infiltrate the crime gang as Mr. Orange. This scene was filmed at Johnie’s Coffee Shop and Restaurant, which is used occasionally for movie shoots but is closed to the public. Cue the world’s tiniest violin. You can catch another glimpse of Johnie’s in movies like Big Lebowski and American History X, also mentioned in this blog. Tarantino would choose to open his second film, Pulp Fiction, in a diner as well, with Tim Roth returning as one-half of the thieving couple nicknamed Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.
When Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) need a secure location to meet for an important conversation, they chose, as Henry says in his narration, a “crowded place both of us knew.” Of course, this just so happens to be a diner. In countless films, diners serve as safe spaces for characters to meet up and discuss sensitive information and hatch various illicit schemes, even if they involve murder. This scene, in which Jimmy first asks Henry to do a hit job, was filmed at the Clinton Diner on Maspeth Avenue in Queens. Earlier in the film, Henry and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) meet in front of the Airline Diner near the ‘Idlewood Airport.” Though the diner, located on Astoria Avenue at 70th in Queens, has since been absorbed by the Jackson Hole chain, it thankfully still retains the classic neon sign and its original pink and chrome interior.
Coffee, cigarettes, and a comfy, casual diner. In 2003, Jim Jarmusch decided to make an entire film out of the combination. Consisting of 17 short, black-and-white vignettes shot over the course of eighteen years, Coffee and Cigarettes is a retro ode to the conversations that unfold among people as they sit together and indulge in some of their favorite addictions. The cast is basically a long list of cool, famous people, including Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina, Jack and Meg White, Cate Blanchet, RZA and GZA from the Wootang Clan, and Bill Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray, but the real scene stealers are Jarmusch’s beautiful shots of steaming mugs of black coffee and slightly rumpled packs of cigarettes. Coffee and Cigarettes definitely isn’t for everyone. It can feel boring, overly talky, and excessively hip, but for any film lover who thinks diners are pure American cinema at its finest, it’s definitely worth a watch, just not if you are trying to kick a caffeine or nicotine habit.
Crazily enough, when Marty hops back in the DeLorean for the Back to the Future sequel, he travels to the year 2015. While the film got some stuff about the future right, such as flat screen TVs, voice activated technology, and a video-chat system akin to Skype, society still has a long way to go before achieving some of its other predictions. The 2015 of 1989 features flying cars, hover boards, the Black & Decker Food Hydrator, and auto-fitting clothing that basically looks like something out of bad ’80s music video. In the fictional 2015, Lou’s Cafe has turned into a retro 1980s diner where patrons ride stationary bikes while eating their meal, watch Michael Jackson interviews on individual television sets, play old arcade style video games (with their hands!), and drink Pepsi’s that rise up out of the counter. If Back to the Future 2 got one thing correct, it is that nostalgia is a powerful and omnipresent force. The desire for the retro will always be “in” and the past will always look better and more romantic than the present, shoulder pads and velour included.