Friday, October 5, 2018

The Last Movie

Director Dennis Hopper on the set

Hopper with cameraman László Kovács

Hopper on the set with Sam Fuller (with cigar)

Dennis Hopper and wife Daria Halprin at the Jack Tar Hotel, San Francisco

Hopper wth Jack Nicholson and Michelle Phillips. Phillips and Hopper were married briefly (all of eight days), and she appears in The Last Movie. She also dated Jack Nicholson, among other stars of that time.

THE LAST MOVIE               B-                   
USA  (108 mi)  1971  d:  Dennis Hopper

Very representative of the times (Nixon was in office), written, directed, edited, and starring Dennis Hopper (sensationally covered by the press), though not, however, the long lost masterpiece that many might have been hoping for.  While it’s certainly outside the Hollywood mainstream, nearly indecipherable in terms of content, showing prominent use of experimental or abstract techniques, yet there’s plenty of ugliness to this film, not the least of which is a blatant mistreatment of women, including several scenes of Hopper slapping women to the ground, which does not go unnoticed, as this kind of abusive mistreatment of women actually followed Hopper throughout his life and is not simply overlooked today as it was in the era when it was made.  Unfortunately, this is part of his long-lasting legacy (along with being a model of self-destruction), as it can’t be eradicated or easily removed from his artistic footprint, though to his credit, it’s rare for American directors to explore the effects of emotional violence, where his deplorable onscreen persona is more representative of the deranged psycho maniac that began to define Hopper’s acting choices later in his career, playing roles completely outside of and alienated from society’s mainstream.  While this became his specialty, he’s already fulfilling that role to some degree in this film, something of a follow-up to Easy Rider (1969), where the financial rewards from that film were so ridiculously excessive that Hopper’s descent into alcohol and drug abuse lasted well over a decade, typically consuming half a gallon of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine daily, eventually shooting up speedballs (coke and heroin mixed), the lethal combination that killed John Belushi, almost always accompanied by an assortment of loaded guns he constantly waved around, chronicled in the rarely seen documentary The American Dreamer (1971), with Hopper obsessing over the film’s editing while in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction.  The film, however, is the initial descent into a metaphorical madness, given a million dollars and total artistic control by Universal Studios (which was cynically attempting to exploit the youth market), he set out for the unexplored realms of Peru, bringing along friends and coworkers, making something of a Billy the Kid home movie cowboy western starring Hopper himself (clean-shaven and with a new haircut) as an extra named Kansas in a film being made by an assertive cigar-chomping director, Sam Fuller, which features plenty of outlaws and bandits confronted by a fierce lawman, becoming a shoot-out spectacle of grandiose spills and pratfalls, almost ballet-like in its extended choreography, but an actor is accidentally killed on the set.  While no local Indians are included in Fuller’s film, they are a surrounding presence, like a Greek chorus, silently watching with interest.  Once the shooting’s finished, Hopper sticks around for a while, enjoying the majestic beauty of the mountainous landscape with a beautiful Indian girl from the local whorehouse, Maria (Stella Garcia), thinking he’s found paradise, but all is not as it seems, where his dream gets lost in a haze of alcohol and discontent, reeling from one disappointment to the next, lost in a seemingly mythical universe created by the Hollywood movie industry. 

The initial cut of a more conventional western was never released, though viewed and disparaged by his friend, fellow director Alejando Jodorowsky, urging him to re-edit the film with a more disjointed narrative that showed more cinematic ingenuity, which he apparently did.  When completed, the film was initially screened at the Venice Film Festival in a non-competitive year, with every entered film winning an award, but the studio was devastated at the results, finding a completely non-commercial film that was vilified by critics, quickly pulled from the theaters after a short run, and then remained something of an enigma for decades, something only spoken about but never seen, remaining in hibernation until a recent restoration was released nearly 50 years later.  Interestingly, the inspiration behind the film came from Hopper’s experience working on a John Wayne western directed by Henry Hathaway, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965), which was shot on location in Durango, Mexico, with Hopper wondering about the effect of the movie crew’s intrusion into the lives of the indigenous population, “I thought, my God, what’s going to happen when the movie leaves and the natives are left living in these Western sets?”  A few years later shooting in the small village of Chincheros located high in the Peruvian Andes (a region known at the time as the world capital of cocaine trafficking), a cadre of friends along with a boatload of cocaine were about to find out, as this becomes the central premise of the film.  The task at hand was having to manage seven tons of equipment that had to be sent to the top of an 11,000 foot mountain, some delivered by cargo plane, while having to negotiate with a military dictatorship that took a curious interest in watching a band of misfit American artists turn a remote mountain village into a drug infested, open-air brothel, all in the pretense of making a film about the adverse effects of colonialism.  Curiously, the movie runs for a full half-hour before the credits appear, “A Film By Dennis Hopper,” and then another fifteen minutes go by before the actual title appears.  This disorienting technique along with ignoring the script happens throughout, including magnificent mountain vistas shot by László Kovács, frequent flashbacks (jarring instantaneous images), flashes of “Segment Missing” onscreen, along with the use of overlapping dialogue and a strangely off-putting sound design.  These inventive techniques, however, are not particularly indicative of a thoughtful or inventive film, feeling clumsy throughout, narratively slight, not even well acted, as no performances stand out, especially the leads.  Instead it seems to survive on male bluster and raw bravado, more like Peckinpah than anything else, given a brush of the avant garde, feeling crude and strangely unfinished.  This is in stark contrast with Peter Fonda’s acid western with Warren Oates released the same year, The Hired Hand (1971), which is a gorgeous cinematic offering, artfully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, creating dazzling imagery, where Fonda and Verna Bloom are simply brilliant together, often in wordless sequences.  It’s not mere coincidence that Fonda and Hopper were both obsessed and influenced by a fatalistic, existential element from the Gospel of Thomas (The Gospel of Thomas Collection - Translations and Resources) while making their respective films, though each responded quite differently.  To be fair, Fonda’s film is nearly as obscure and was equally dismissed by the critics, but it’s way ahead of its time, where acting and extreme artistic visualization take precedence over plot or narrative, actually foreshadowing the poetic work of Terrence Malick.

The opening sequences reveal a kind of rag-tag collective surrounding the film, given a documentary look as we peer into the makings of a film-within-a-film, with Fuller embracing a somewhat dictatorial style, shouting orders, giving directions, where all the people coming up and speaking to him after each shot feels more like concerted mayhem, a brief insight into the anxious hysteria surrounding filmmaking, where multiple things are continually happening simultaneously, where it’s hard to sense any order.  The refrains of a young Kris Kristofferson (an actor in the film) singing “Me and Bobby McGee” with Rita Coolidge (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON & RITA COOLIDGE - Me And Bobby McGee ... YouTube, 3:16) weave in and out of this opening section along with glimpses of the countryside, with Kansas riding his horse through the open terrain, eventually stumbling onto the movie set in town, getting scolded by the director for interrupting a scene, then falling in line and performing his duties until it’s a wrap, where they all get together for a rambunctious party afterwards (which is basically a collection of Hopper’s friends), featuring plenty of singing, including Michelle Phillips (who was married to Hopper afterwards, an LSD-laced misadventure that lasted all of eight days).  One of the more memorable sequences is a long tracking shot that reveals different singers in every room, each with a distinct character, with Kansas slowly wandering through the rooms, with the camera probing both inside and out, all feeling jumbled together, like a layered effect, each representing a different mindset or state of consciousness, where he breaks down in tears afterwards.  By morning they’ve all vanished, leaving him in the arms of Maria, riding out into the countryside, blending into an Edenesque natural world, seen getting naked and making love under a remote mountain waterfall, made all the more humorous as a band of young children march past on an overhead road led by the priest (Tomas Milian), who continually glances at the carnal scene as they walk by.  While the shot has all the elements of an exotic fantasy, especially as it’s used to enhance interest in Western audiences, it also holds a different meaning, symbolic of the white rape of the indigenous culture, bringing to mind a dictum of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, from an interview in 1970, “A movie is not reality, it is only a reflection.  Bourgeois filmmakers focus on the reflection of reality.  We are concerned with the reality of that reflection.”  This becomes more evident as their relationship evolves, as Maria becomes more and more interested in consumer culture, wanting to be showered with Western gifts, treated like a “white” girlfriend, claiming she must have regular beauty treatments, have a General Electric refrigerator, a fur coat, and even a swimming pool, where she can then put all these expensive items on display in front of her own people, like recognizable signs of success.  The most obvious example is a white mink shawl belonging to Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams), an extravagantly wealthy wife of a millionaire American industrialist in town, repeatedly nagging him until he goes through the depths of raunchy depravity to get it for her, reversing roles, where he becomes the humiliated and sexually demeaned prostitute for a mindlessly sex-crazed American wife.

Like Maria, the local Indian village is equally corrupted by the influence of the movie, bringing chaotic violence and madness to the land, replicating their actions with handmade items resembling fake set construction and a wooden movie camera, with a local leader barking out the orders, while the townspeople play along, getting into fisticuffs, but for real, as they don’t buy into the idea that it’s fake, so people actually get hurt.  When the priest tries to intervene, offering a return to existing order, they ignore him, caught up in this wild new idea that allows them to play out their own indigenous fantasies of mimicking Hollywood.  But in projecting this new world, all moral order disappears, with villagers actually shooting and killing their neighbors (invoking a blood sacrifice).  The priest brings in Kansas to educate villagers about making movies, but he is ignored as well, suggesting cinema is not an educating mechanism, and instead he is thrown into the role of the actor chosen to die, where he grows fearful they may mistakenly kill him for real, ironically becoming the Fay Wray sacrificial figure from King Kong (1933).  Hollywood exports the sex and violence in movies almost exclusively for commerce, with little thought about the inevitable consequences.  The cultural insensitivity of this film is glaring, where the poisonous influence is immediate and crudely visceral, leaving a terrible stain of violent excess and moral decay that includes excessive drinking and Western debauchery, as Kansas spends nearly all of his time in raunchy bordellos and saloons, with a perpetual bottle in his hand, getting drunk, chasing other women, and then treating Maria like crap, thinking only of himself.  This myopic view symbolizes the senseless repetition of similar films coming out of Hollywood, refusing to develop a social conscience, instead it’s all about the bottom line, beholden to the almighty dollar.  Yet it’s clear society is influenced by what happens onscreen, creating stereotypes and myths that last for decades, like the mythological macho bravado of John Wayne as the virile cowboy on the range, while continually stereotyping Indians as savages, who get little if any character development, never perceived as “human” when for over a century they have been projected as “subhuman.”  Hollywood also provides fairy tale endings, like the handsome prince that always saves the young princess, which is little more than a fantasy, yet it becomes an intrinsic aspect of every young woman’s dreams, wondering why they never meet anyone as handsome or charming as the Hollywood elite, like Bogart, Clark Gable, or Errol Flynn, as their glamorous image becomes an impossible to replicate aspect of young girls growing up who are sure to be disappointed, yet the industry bears no responsibility whatsoever and rarely engages in a meaningful discussion with the audience, instead it’s a one-way conversation.  In that vein, Hopper insists upon providing no happy ending, making a film that is deliberately told out of order, accentuating the flaws and imperfections of cinema, turning his film into an abstract expression of grim futility, directly challenging the Hollywood notion of cinematic illusion and the idea of success, featuring the John Buck Wilkin song “Only When It Rains,”  The Final 'Only When It Rains' Segment of Dennis Hopper's 'The Last ...  YouTube (4:30).  At heart, this is a subversive take on the Hollywood dream, but the sloppy execution is a bawdy tale of drug and alcohol-fueled excess, perhaps not the right canvas to deliver this message.  

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