Maybe I misunderstood Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here when I called it an over-privileged aping of Andy Kaufman and Borat. (See my The Film Talk review here.) As I watched the 1971 documentary The American Dreamer — about Dennis Hopper and the making of his ill-fated The Last Movie – I had an epiphany. Phoenix was aping 1971 Dennis Hopper. It’s all there. The scraggly beard, the idiosyncratic OCD beard-stroking, the lashing out, the fawning groupies, and the pretentious droplets of wisdom espoused to anyone who will listen (in fame’s bubble, apparently everyone).
I saw The American Dreamer double-featured with The Last Movie last week at the Belcourt. Harmony Korine and the critic Jim Ridley were in the audience. And, oh boy, what a ball we had! I don’t mean the films were particularly good — The Last Movie was a jumbled mess and The American Dreamer’s only inspiration was its subject matter. Rather, the rarely-screened films were beautiful artifacts of a time gone by, profiles in excessiveness, and a two-sided morality tale on what happens when no one ever tells you no.
Hopper made The Last Movie right after his breakout hit Easy Rider. Universal Pictures had no idea about this crazy new “youth market,” but they figured Hopper did. They gave him carte blanche and a million dollars to make his epic. Complete artistic and financial freedom can actually be a recipe for doom, even for a director of extraordinary talent like Henri-Georges Clouzot. (By any means necessary, see the haunting documentary Inferno about Clouzot’s abandoned epic L’enfer.) For Hopper, a former child actor with little directing experience, carte blanch was a death sentence. The Last Movie is a sprawling, disjointed, misogynistic, muddled, excessive, and belabored mess. (Good soundtrack though.) I got the sense that Hopper adored Alejandro Jodorowski’s El Topo and wanted to make a film like it. And indeed, it turns out the two were friends and that Jodorowski goaded Hopper into a non-linear re-cutting. While that may have been an innovative choice for the time, it just makes the movie even more befuddling. The Last Movie is indeed a “passionate personal vision” as a friend of mine quipped in the film’s defense, but passion isn’t enough. The ideas, metaphors, and “scathing critiques of the Hollywood system” have to actually make sense onscreen and not just in the director’s head (which is another reason why I find the Hopper double-feature and I’m Still Here so similar).
L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller‘s The American Dreamer is an all-access profile of Dennis Hopper during The Last Movie‘s post-production. Did you find it hard to swallow that Joaquin Phoenix would snort cocaine and solicit prostitutes while being recorded? Wait till you see what Hopper does! On-camera, he boozes, drugs, womanizes, and engages in at least one bathtub menage au trois. It is a sad record of an artist shielded from all criticism by success and fame. Playboy bunnies find eloquence in his pretentious babblings. He casually tells the directors his fantasy would be “three woman and hot springs,” and they magically produce a dozen fawning females in the strangest sexual powwow ever recorded. Dennis Hopper loves to hear himself talk, and his audience of adoring women are pure uncut heroin. I sat in awe of the words escaping his mouth; but I couldn’t turn away, similar to how I’ve watched the Christine O’Donnell 1st Amendment clip about a dozen times.
At this point you probably think I’ve got something in for Dennis Hopper. That’s not the case at all. He was one of the best actors of his generation and his 1980 film Out of the Blue is one of my favorite movies. An artist’s personal life matters little to me when it doesn’t reach the screen. But The Last Movie and American Dreamer ARE Dennis Hopper embodied — and sadly, at a time in his life when he was addicted to drugs, alcohol, women, and himself. Watching them is like watching Tom Cruise’s Epic Scientology Masterpiece ™ followed by the million dollar making-of.
Tony Youngblood is the current Foursquare Mayor of the Belcourt Theatre, a film and music snob, and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.