As promised, our first proper blog since the re-boot is another installment of Insomnia’s ongoing, online film program The Sleepless Film Festival. With this episode, we are looking back on the carreer of the late, great Dennis Hopper. While we can’t resist re-visiting highlights from the maverick’s career, we are primarily cranking out these letters in the ether to shine a spotlight on a lesser known period that may, in fact, represent Hopper’s creative peak as a director. Here’s a hint, I’m not talking about Easy Rider.
Hopper was an honest-to-goodness Hollywood legend who was acting on television by the time he was 18. He was quickly snatched up to work on the big screen with James Dean, making two good turns playing supporting roles in both Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. It was under Dean’s advice that Hopper moved to New York to study Method Acting with Lee Strasburg at the Actors Studio. Hopper’s early acting career created such an aura of myth that it was often rumored that the actor had an uncredited role in Nick Ray’s classic Johnny Guitar, but Hopper denied the claim. Hopper went on to perform alongside Marlon Brando, John Wayne and Paul Newman appearing in more than 150 films. Frustrated with a performing career that was damaged early on by the actor’s stubborn artistry, Hopper – who was already an accomplished photographer – developed a passion for working behind the camera as a director. While he was acting with John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder, Hopper imagined what life would be like for the Mexican set hands – who regularly rode horses and carried guns – after the film wrapped and they continued to live among the Old West sets that had been created for the film. He intended to make a kind of meta-film starring this cast of non-extras in this strange environment, but the project was eventually put off for Easy Rider.
The legend of Easy Rider is well-known and might be getting a Sleepless’ installment of its own that could feature a documentary about the making of the film. For our present purposes, the movie’s smash success and wide-spread influence establish Hopper as the most important young director in Hollywood – if not the world. When Hollywood came calling expecting a slam-dunk follow-up from the new golden-boy Hopper had other things in mind. Revisiting the idea for his original film, he returned to Mexico – eventually to Peru – to make what would eventually become The Last Movie.
Here’s what the excellent Cinema of the World site has to say about the film: THE LAST MOVIE 1971 was his follow-up to the hugely successful RIDER, but it’s core was much more elusive and abstract, dealing with the nature of film reality and reality itself. The editing was loose, the story half told. Hopper shot tons of footage in Peru and brought it back to his home in Taos, New Mexico. He seemed lost in this editing process and the studio was getting upset. For a while Alexandro Jodorowsky, who’s EL TOPO 1971 Hopper greatly admired, assisted in the editing. After shooting 48 hours of film, Hopper lived in a kind of hedonistic exile, spending nearly 18 months to edit together a final cut. The movie went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. The Last Movie was picked for this top prize by a judges panel that included Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Expecting to return to hero’s welcome in the states Hopper was greeted with a miserable New York run for his film that lead to the cancelling of the movie’s U.S. distribution. The Last Movie disappeared along with Hoppers hopes to continue his career as a director; for a while anyway. The Last Movie essentially flips movie-making on it’s head. When directing a film like Easy Rider, Hopper was mired in real world logistics involving budgets, equipment, cast and crew – all in service to a fantasy. In The Last Picture, Hopper gives us a world in which the cameras and the lights are all made of bamboo, but the drama and violence that takes place before them is very real indeed. Again, Cinema of the World: Movie-made violence, its limits and implications, is the explicit subject of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider follow-up The Last Movie (1971), which chronicles the departure of a movie company from a small Peruvian town, leaving behind a stuntman, Kansas (Hopper), and the fascinated locals, who fashion their own cameras, lights and booms out of bamboo and start making their own “film”, but with real blood and real violence in place of movie fakery, and a sacrificial victim in the hapless Kansas. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, hosted by my YouTube Channel: Joe Nolan’s Imagicon:
The Last Movie is best savored with a digestif. In this case, a second cup of exacerbating irrationality; the old hair of the dog. One of the things that makes the long, strange saga of The Last Movie even longer and stranger is that the whole rambling scramble of the making of the film was also filmed. Just so we’re clear, Hopper filmed a film about filming a film. He was in turn being filmed while assembling that film of that same film of the filming of a film.
During the nearly two years that found Hopper in a self-imposed editing exile on his New Mexico ranch, he was also busy attending to other matters. He was shooting guns, arranging photography exhibits, drinking, taking group baths, doing drugs, growing a beard, wandering in the desert, getting married to Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas for a grand total of eight days, smoking weed, getting laid and waxing philosophical about the how the presence of the camera automatically turned him into an “actor” every time it pointed his way. The American Dreamer is a loopy, chaotic, poetic ramble through the building of an unforgettable film and a bizarre documenting of the unraveling of a cultural hero. ‘Dreamer was co-directed by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson. Schiller – like Hopper – was a skilled photographer who went on to write and publish books as well as produce and direct film and television. He published Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and also produced and directed the made-for-TV film of the novel. Mailer wrote a biography of Marilyn Monroe for Schiller that featured photos by well known photographers.