What does a film-maker do when he achieves the kind of stellar success that Dennis Hopper did with EASY RIDER? Unlike Coppola, who opted for a smaller scale project with THE CONVERSATION, Hopper pushed the envelope of challenging audiences even further. He went to South America, wrote and directed a western called THE LAST MOVIE and almost rode his career off a cliff. It’s an extremely hard film to find (and at times understand) but well worth the effort.
In the film, he plays a country-boy stunt co-ordinator, Kansas, on a movie location in Peru who quits the business after a stuntman’s fall from a building goes fatally wrong. He becomes absorbed into the culture’s charming naivete. They imitate the movie world with wicker-work equipment but don’t grasp that it’s not played for real. He is thrown off the set for trying to show the locals how to stage a faked fist-fight when they’re using real punches during a take. Gradually the pace grows more frantic and we are left unsure of exactly what happens to Kansas with ‘The End’ suddenly appearing scratchily on-screen and a cut to the studio logo.
The style of THE LAST MOVIE is deliberately raw and post-modern at times, with jarring editing and other radical techniques such as only introducing an opening credit twelve minutes in and then waiting till the twenty-fifth minute to put up the title card. There are subliminal image flashes and at two points there are cue cards displaying ‘Scene Missing’ as though we are watching a rough cut. A couple of times we deliberately see glimpses of the film reality broken with clear shots of a camera crane. One can’t always be sure that every effect achieved is on purpose.
Apparently fellow director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mockery of Hopper’s original cut caused him to scrap a more conventional narrative and re-edit the film into the released cut. On reflection, although the film is curiously even wilfully alienating, it’s also arguably ahead of its time with stylistic elements (such as that abrupt ending) that foreshadow ‘found-footage’ horror films like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Hopper took £1m of Universal’s money and dared us to accept a non-linear western mind-trip almost as an artistic crusade. Somehow that almost suicidal bravery validates itself in this case whether it succeeds or fails. I’m not sure which is the case here but I’m very glad that the courage not to play safe could be found here; this was a time in Hollywood where men like Dennis Hopper were briefly entrusted to let that be a film-making credo.
Despite winning the Venice Film Festival, THE LAST MOVIE was shelved by Universal after only two days of release. The studio even accused Hopper of having bought the award. The fall-out set him back from being the golden boy co-creator of EASY RIDER to being offered only an acting role in KID BLUE (1973). Subsequently, his frustration descended into alcoholism…
The documentary is a portrait of the artist, rather than a making-of about THE LAST MOVIE so our glimpses are restricted to a few interesting but fleeting moments in post-production. Amidst some interminable but occasionally lively monologues to camera, we see him supervising the film’s editing. ‘It’s so boring’ he mutters good-naturedly. He laboured for eighteen months with a team of three editors to distil the film down from forty eight hours of footage. As an archive piece, THE AMERICAN DREAMER is also a reminder of how loud the old analogue edit bays were before digital came in. Hopper can barely be heard at times. This is not always a disservice as the content of his mini-lectures under the influence of the mind-altering substances are rendered cloudy to say the least. He comes across as alternately very entertaining and also tiresome, like the party guest you avoid who makes progressively less sense the more they talk. Like Bill Murray’s spaced-out playwright in TOOTSIE, Hopper is given to outlandish manifestos: ‘I’d like to make movies on the moon’ and yet is somewhat intolerant of anyone else’s opinion. The film-makers share their subject's inability to hear much of anyone else’s; revealingly, when a young woman attempts to get a work in, Hopper berates her 'You're full of emotion but you don't listen. I listen!'
Clearly, he was genuinely striving to challenge the status quo with his work, but his substance abuse in this era was disastrously derailing his expression. A continual eye (and more) for the ladies also keeps comically side-tracking the serious points he wants to make. He compares his artistic struggle with Orson Welles in their studio-sabotaged mutual need to appeal to an intelligent audience – but when he dismisses the typical crowd as ‘cheerleaders’ he then rhapsodises about those girls: ‘I wish I had more coverage of them’. At one point, he is filmed walking through a housing estate in Los Alamos. His voice-over recounts a need to rattle the suburban mind-set, so as the camera follows him he sheds his clothes and proceeds down the middle of the road butt-naked.
THE AMERICAN DREAMER is a meandering film but a revealing document nonetheless. We get to see his marvellous photographic work which shows us another of his talents, capturing real people in mesmerising poses. This was what led him to become interested in becoming a film director more so than an actor. Unfortunately, the clearest theme depicted is Hopper’s fractured state of mind back then, which his success allowed him to indulge further. This was a long and tortured road-trip that crashes all too visibly on the set of APOCALYPSE NOW in his very real addled character of the photographer (who was simply Hopper going virtually feral in the jungle in preparation). Thankfully, he managed to rescue himself and enjoyed a tremendously healthy and critically-acclaimed second act in his life and career.