Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie

(After a couple months of inactivity and technological difficulties, The Confidential Report is back with a new review. I apologize for the long absence.)

The final helicopter shot of the burning remains of Wyatt’s motorcycle, after having just taken a shot from a shotgun shell, presents the tragic end to the two rebellious biker’s bizarre odyssey. Its an abrupt conclusion that is a kind of paradox; it’s both out of place yet fitting. When first experiencing Dennis Hopper’s greatly influential and important debut, a viewer (as I was) might be a little perplexed by such a violent and unexpected finale. How could Wyatt and Billy’s, the two film’s two protagonists, journey to find America end like that? On such a somber and sad note, making all that we’ve sit through just about irrelevant. But of course, it’s this abrupt end that best sums up the counter-culture movement that the characters represent; a generation that never truly found what they were looking for. Much like how Hunter S. Thomason recalled his days during the height of counter culture movement of the 60s in his nostalgic”wave speech” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hopper tries to make sense of what it is these people were exactly trying to find during this era and why it was important. But in hindsight, the tragic and sudden end could also be looked at as a sort foreshadowing of Hopper’s own end as a New Hollywood filmmaker.

After the great actor/auteur/artist’s tragic death earlier this month, many obituaries given about the man often labeled him as a “great actor” and “maverick director.” Both are deserving titles for him, but it’s the latter that has often been the harder one of the two to defend. Anytime Hopper as been called a “maverick director,” more times than not, Easy Rider is the only film mentioned and to many critics, film historians, and film enthusiasts,  the only one worth mentioning. In may ways, Easy Rider alone would be enough to solidify Hopper as a maverick director. The film’s importance cant be understated; it (along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde) help bring about the New Hollywood era of the 70s and early 80s in the same way Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless did for the French New Wave or Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl did for the German New Cinema. But it’s often forgotten that Hopper’s directorial career did live past his debut, and while it was one that never matched the height of Easy Rider and had it’s share of forgettable genre films, Hopper was still able to create fascinating features.  The Last Movie, his sophomoric effort, is one of these films.

After the surprise success Easy Rider, Universal Pictures gave Dennis Hopper a budget of one million and final cut for his next production; a film based on a script by Hopper and Devil Without a Cause scribe, Stewart Stern. The project was viewed as one of the most anticipated of the 70s and looked to meet those lofty expectation when winning the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival. But when the film reached New York, the film failed both critically and financially. As a result The Last Movie has had a reputation of being a notorious sophomoric misstep, one drastic enough to halt Hopper’s young directorial career throughout the 70s (the height of New Hollywood).

But after almost 40 years, the film plays less like a obscure piece of American film history but more like an ignored masterpiece that still being overlooked. But this isn’t a surprise since The Last Movie is anything but a conventional Hollywood film, a fact that the audience knows right from the film’s bizarre opening sequence. Beginning first with, what we the audience can only assume to be a parade, watched by a beaten down, confused Hopper (whose face is almost unrecognizable due to unexplained bruises), taking place somewhere south of the border. A hoard of people (all of whom look of of Spanish decent) look to be carrying large items someplace; but one item in particular draws our eyes: a statue of Christ (with a somber facial expression) on his knees , looking very expressive and unreal (almost like a baroque sculpture). In one shot we see the battered Hopper looking at the statue and wonder whether there supposed be a correlation between the two. But as these questions enter the viewers head, Hopper decides to transport us to a whole new scene, one taking place in the old west. What happens next is a violent take-no-prisoners gunfight reminiscent of the opening to Peckinpah’s masterpiece Wild Bunch. Once this the bloodshed ends we are transported again to Denis Hopper, posing heroically on a horse with a white cowboy hat and a denim attire resembling the Marlboro Man (or maybe even Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass). This all takes place in a span of maybe 10 minutes, and it goes without saying that it is an unnerving, confusing, frustrating, but none the less fascinating ten minutes.

This may be the key to Hopper’s great film. All these moments are all from the same story but are deliberately place out of order; even by the film’s end, the viewer might not be able to piece the scenes together in their chronological order. This style of presenting the narrative in non-linear fragments isn’t exactly used as a plot device as in films like Memento or Irreversible, but to create a sort of cinematic stream of consciousness (not unlike the way Stan Brakhage experimented with editing in his films). It’s also reminiscent to William S. Burroughs’ avant garde cut-up technique, used for his post-Naked Lunch books, most notably his Nova Trilogy (interestingly enough, Burroughs, with the help of Antony Balch, did experiment with the technique in film and the results d0 come surprisingly close to moments in The Last Movie).

The plot of the film is however decipherable; it follows Kansas (Hopper), a horse wrangler/stunt coordinator, working on a set of a Billy the Kid western being filmed in an unnamed Peruvian village. Here we see cameos from fellow Easy Rider Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson (who would interestingly enough play Billy the Kid for Peckinpah at the end of the decade), and maverick auteur Sam Fuller playing the director of the film within a film. The actually filming of the western looks like a fusion of making-of  featurette and a Bunuel dream sequence; it may be one of the most ingenious sequences ever directed by Hopper. But during the shooting, an actor is killed performing a stunt (which takes a serious toll on Kansas). This results in Kansas staying in the village and starting a new life with his girlfriend (a native from the Peruvian village). From here the plot of the film goes in bizarre, yet fascinating, directions which involving nothing less than gold mining, a rich businessman’s greedy family, to a fake film production, and even a sacrifice.

Hopper’s film tackles numerous themes and subjects, from self destruction through materialism to the shameless exploration of third world countries. Many of these are shown through the array characters that Kansas meets throughout the film. While Kansas’ character is, unsurprisingly, a free spirited hippie who wants to experience the beauty of his new life and environment, everyone around him seems to want something different. Kansas’ girlfriends seems almost uninterested in Kansas’ philosophy and instead would rather live a life of luxury. Often spitting out lines like, “You know what I want you should buy me? A General Electric refrigerator” or  “Just because we don’t have electricity and water doesn’t mean we don’t like to have nice things Gringo,” her consumer obsessed point of view does nothing but make life even worse for Kansas (one key scene in particular shows Kansas being humiliated by the spoiled rich woman just so he can retrieve the woman’s fur coat for his wife). Other characters include Kansas’ oblivious and greedy friend who lures him into a crackpot gold mining scheme and a wealthy vulgar businessman and his disgusting family. In some parts, The Last Movie plays like an absurdist play, with Hoppers’ Kansas as the prototypical protagonist that always seems to find himself in unfortunate situations.

But while this is happening, Hopper presents us with another storyline, one even stranger and far more profound. As Fuller’s Billy the Kid feature finishes, the film crews leaves the Peruvian village and abandons their Western set. The villagers who witnessed the filming however didn’t realize that what was taking place in front of them was actually fake (it also didn’t help that an actor actually died on set). So once the villagers got a hold of the left over sets they decided to make their own version of the film, building their equipment (cameras, mics, etc) out of straws and having each villager play a part. Of course they’re version take no prisoners, literally. This causes the village’s priest, who is shocked by the carnage taking place, to ask the help of Kansas to intervene and stop them from making the “film.” But Kansas’ attempt is unsuccessful. But as the film progresses, the whole village, including the priest and Kansas’ girlfriend, get involved with the film and capture Kansas to make him play the role of a cowboy that is to be killed (basically meaning that he is to be sacrificed against his own will for the better of their make believe film). But once this storyline reaches it’s climax and we expect to see a Wicker Man style killing, Hopper instead shifts his tone to an almost comic, with scenes looking as if they were behind the scenes footage. Its here where we see Kansas acting out his death multiple times, sometimes preforming it with a smile on his face.

This insane subplot plays perfectly as an allegory for the influence of cinema on the viewers, both negative and positive. While the villagers can’t truly deferential the difference of whats real and whats not, causing them to actually cause a lot of chaos, we also see them all truly enjoying themselves in the process of creating art. It works almost like Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive ( a masterpiece that was released around the same time), when we see the protagonist’s life be altered by watching Frankenstein. This idea is so perfectly during the film’s final scene where we see Kansas and his friend while on an expedition to dig for gold. Kansas asks him whether he has ever actually dug gold before and while his friend says no, tries to counter by mentioning the very many films he has seen on the subject (for example, John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre)

Hopper’s film is not a film for everyone and I know for a fact that my review didn’t do half the justice of truly describing how truly bizarre the film really is. But ironically it’s the film’s chaotic structure, confusing directing, and convoluted plot that repulsed most critics over the years which feels so oddly refreshing today. The Last Movie deserves to be in the category with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Vertigo as one of the few avant garde films released by Hollywood. In comparison to many masterpieces from the New Hollywood era, The Last Movie is by far the most audacious. The film’s complete lack conventionality is what makes the film so fascinating and it’s also something that most Hollywood films don’t even try to attempt anymore. This is what differentiates it from Hopper’s debut. While Easy Rider did achieve success by experimenting with a lot different film making techniques and ways to present it’s narrative, it was always structured in a way that made it easy to follow. To most this made Easy Rider the stronger film, but to some, including myself, it prevented it from achieving it’s fullest potential. The Last Movie is everything Easy Rider was afraid to fully be. There are moments in Easy Rider that are truly hypnotizing and awe inspiring like the many great scenes where Captain America and Wyatt are on their motorcycles traveling on the open road or the beautifully done acid sequence during Mardi Gras, but the film is often weakest when following it’s main plot (except when Jack Nicholson with them of course). But Easy Rider is a masterpiece nonetheless and there’s no reason The Last Movie shouldn’t be just acclaimed. But with more and more film enthusiasts re-evaluating New Hollywood box office failures like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed, I see no reason for Hopper’s masterpiece not to be given a second chance.

(obviously the film has also suffered from it’s lack of availability to those who want to see the film, with the only home video release being an out of print VHS. To make matters worse the film was supposed to be released on DVD but with the tragic passing of Denis Hopper, who owned the rights of the film, it might take a while until we see this masterpiece get the proper home video release it deserves. But for those who haven’t seen this forgotten treasure, the film is on youtube and is separated into 12 parts; below is a link to the first part. I strongly recommend everyone to check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_06_lpUQpdA&feature=PlayList&p=8F17CDAF36B5E735&index=0&playnext=1 )

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