The Film (4/5):
Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie was one of a small slate of movies by foreign and young American directors - these included Two-Lane Blacktop and Milos Forman’s Taking Off - that Universal Pictures greenlit in the wake of the massive success of Hopper’s Easy Rider, hoping to capture some of that movie’s blockbuster success with young audiences. None of the movies were big successes, and The Last Movie, in particular, was a critical and commercial flop. The movie, about a stuntman (played by Hopper) working on a western being shot in Peru, is almost impossible to see today. I watched it years ago on a worn-out VHS tape, and I was struck by the uniqueness of its subject matter - that it’s a studio-funded movie about the corrosive influence of Hollywood and capitalism on indigenous peoples is remarkable - even as I found it incoherent, pretentious and boring. It’s one of those movies that I’m glad exists even as I’m in no hurry to rewatch it, and it represents New Hollywood’s best and worst tendencies.
The American Dreamer, a sort-of documentary that follows Hopper as he edits The Last Movie at his compound in Taos, is a fascinating portrait of both Hopper and that strange, rare moment in American film where a movie like The Last Movie could happen. Co-directed by experimental filmmaker L.M. “Kit” Carson (whose later screenwriting credits include Paris, Texas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and photographer Lawrence Schiller (who would go on to co-write The Executioner’s Song with Norman Mailer and, er, I Want to Tell You with O.J. Simpson), The American Dreamer also features, curiously, a co-writing credit for Hopper himself. It’s clear that the actor was heavily involved in the shaping of his portrait - in fact, the movie itself is pretty open about this - and it’s at its most interesting when it reveals, unintentionally or otherwise, the divide between the poet warrior persona Hopper would like to present and the more flawed, complicated reality of the man.
Anyone checking out the movie hoping to see glimpses of Hopper the notorious wildman won’t be disappointed - marijuana and other substances are practically a co-lead, and a good portion of the movie consists of Hopper cavorting with Playboy Playmates and groupies. Years later, Hopper would tell David Lynch that he was Frank Booth, and while his well-documented volatile temper is understandably absent here, he’s clearly a man of insatiable appetites, consuming not just drugs and booze but also a hodgepodge of cobbled-together philosophical ideas that he shares with varying degrees of clarity. In one scene, he declares that he’s actually a lesbian because “I’d rather give a woman head than fuck her”; in another, he’s firing semiautomatic weapons in the desert in a forced bit of macho posturing. He proudly declares that he’s not interested in reading, he pontificates at length about female sensuality, and he thinks Charles Manson had some pretty interesting ideas. He’s the end of the ‘60s embodied in one person.
It seems that, for the most part, Carson and Schiller are sold on Hopper’s self-created image, though there are hints, here and there, that they’re not entirely uncritical. A late-in-the-movie sequence where Hopper leads a hilariously earnest sit-in with a group of young, mostly nude groupies is allowed to run long enough that its initial salacious entertainment value devolves into complete incoherence. The filmmakers also smartly include moments where the other women in Hopper’s life are clearly skeptical of his proclamations about free love. Most tellingly, compared to all of the partying and philosophizing we see, very little screentime is devoted to the actual process of editing The Last Movie. At one point, Hopper, sitting in the editing room, declares that he finds the process boring; he also remarks that it’s not enjoyable because everything he’s shot is interesting and beautiful, and it’s painful to cut any of it. It’s a very telling remark because, while drugs have played a role in the making of some excellent movies, The American Dreamer reveals The Last Movie to be one of those cases where the filmmaker was too stoned to make any choices.
Despite or, perhaps, because of all this, Hopper emerges as an oddly endearing filmmaker, largely because the movie is pretty open about his self-conscious attempts at controlling how he’s presented. Schiller mentions on a making-of documentary included with the disc that the movie wasn’t conceived as a straight documentary as much as a narrative feature with Dennis Hopper playing the character of Dennis Hopper, the visionary artist railing against the system. There are moments when Carson and Schiller deliberately undercut this narrative by showing Hopper and the filmmakers discussing what he’ll say in the scene they’re about to shoot and how they’ll block it, as well as a few tense moments where Hopper tells his directors that he doesn’t like the way they’re portraying him. It gives the movie an unexpected Brechtian quality that complicates it beyond being its entertainment value unintentionally funny time capsule. What comes through most clearly is that Hopper - who would eventually sober up and do some of his best work as an actor and director - was, at this point, painfully vulnerable and desperate for validation. At one point near the end, he jokes that he likes to bullshit us, but he always admits it; he’s being ironic, but it’s probably the truest thing he says in the whole movie.
Etiquette Pictures, Vinegar Syndrome’s new art-film label, has released The American Dreamer in a 2-disc set that includes a Blu-ray and DVD of the film, which is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The movie was originally distributed almost exclusively on college campuses and has never been available on home video in any format. As the negative has been lost, Etiquette Pictures, along with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, scanned and restored the film from four 16mm prints. The result is, understandably, of variable quality, with print damage often visible throughout the film. Given Vinegar Syndrome’s track record, though, it’s safe to assume that this is the best The American Dreamer could possibly look under the circumstances. That said, the shot-on-16mm movie does look pleasantly grainy throughout, and colors, contrast and black levels are all strong. The DTS-HD MA 1.0 audio, while carrying the sort of hiss and other flaws that are understandable for a shot-on-the-fly ’70s documentary, is crisp and clear throughout; rest assured that we’re not spared a moment of the movie’s soundtrack of painfully earnest folk songs.
The main extra is a 30-minute documentary about the making of both The Last Movie and The American Dreamer, featuring interviews with Schiller (who is frank about the documentary’s deliberate artifice); Hopper’s agent, Michael Gruskoff; producer Paul Lewis; and actress Julie Adams, who appeared in The Last Movie and speaks very positively about what is usually characterized as an out-of-control shoot. A 7-minute short detailing the movie’s restoration is also included, and a booklet included with the set features a terrific essay by Chris Poggiali detailing the complications of The American Dreamer’s unconventional release and the heyday of university screenings in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
The American Dreamer is a fascinating record of its subject and the strange state of American cinema in the early ‘70s, and Etiquette Pictures’ presentation of this long-lost film is outstanding. I sincerely hope they eventually get their hands on The Last Movie itself.