Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie" at Northwest Film Forum: Aug 17 - 23

Legendarily difficult to procure, and often referred to in terms that paint it as a disastrous pileup of drugs, unbridled hubris, the complexity of foreign locations, unlimited major studio funding, and an increasingly ambitious editing process, Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie", has retained a status as one of the great, unseen films of its decade. The singular vision of an outsider artist who J. Hoberman succinctly refers to in his, "Dennis Hopper, Lone Horseman of the Apocalypse", “As an actor-director-lone horseman of the apocalypse, Hopper’s career suggests some druggy Dylan ballad with Marcel Duchamp and James Dean riding their motorcycles up Boot Hill to steal the carnations off John Wayne’s grave". Enabled by the massive cultural and financial success of "Easy Rider", Universal Studios selected Hopper as one of five American directors to whom they offered a one million dollar budget and the stipulation of little or no studio oversight. Working from a script which Hopper had developed in the 1960s, the freedom and financial backing offered by Universal allowed the production to be taken to a more desirably remote location in Cuzco, Peru. Assembling a wide reaching cast of actors and musicians, many of whom personal friends of Hopper, including singer Kris Kristofferson, director Samuel Fuller, Peter Fonda, Henry Jaglom and Michelle Phillips, Hopper spent much of 1970 shooting the film under the working title "Chinchero" with cinematographer László Kovács. Having produced what is said to be tens of hours of footage, Hopper then holed up in his home editing studio in Taos, New Mexico, working on assembling the massive body of footage into a coherent cut. Testament to the concoction of unbridled freedom, financial independence and alcohol and drug abuse in Hopper's life at the time, Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson's "American Dreamer", is a troubling window into the year of the production. It is rumored that an initial, more linear, and conventional narrative cut of the film came of this period, but was rejected by Hopper following conversations with Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Chilean director and author urged Hopper to more forcefully assert the meta-narrative underpinnings of the film's premise. From this came the crafting of a more disjointed, experimentally-inclined cut which Hopper completed in the spring of 1971. Choosing to foreground the challenge to the viewer's understanding of cinematic storytelling, Hopper assembled a more arcing non-chronological structure. In this, the remaining narrative passages are often disrupted by an an array of filmmaking devices such as rough jump-edits, production sequences, and "scene missing" cards.

Critically divisive at the time of its limited release in the 1970s, Roger Ebert's scathing review, and The New York Times' "A Gigantic Ego Trip for Dennis Hopper?" are representative of its general reception. A reassessment with time and distance turns a different lens on the film's perceived incoherence and use of avant-garde devices that so vexed in 1971. A new contextual consideration and fascination with the "The Last Movie" has been found, following the restoration by the recently launched Arbelos Films. The premier of the new restoration at New York's The Metrograph, and its first larger run of theatrical screenings at arthouse theaters like Northwest Film Forum have garnered notable press, like that seen in the Village Voice' "Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” Is as Essential as Cinema Gets", and "Dennis Hopper’s Misunderstood Masterpiece Deserves a Second Chance and Now, It’s Getting One". Still maligned at the time of his death, and thought to be lost to time and the complexities of it's production, Film Comment's "Fade Out on Dennis Hopper" posits "The Last Movie", as the masterpiece of this American artist and adventurer, who Manohla Dargis called, "A Madman, Perhaps; Survivor, Definitely". This singular work is best represented in this excerpt from the Museum of the Moving Image's symposium overview by Andrew Tracy; "However, while the programmatic content of "The Last Movie" stays safely within the bounds of permissible dissent, its chaotic form, the wild flurry of sounds and images, reveals - after repeated viewings - a truly striking focus and discipline. It’s hard to know how the film was originally envisioned - legend has it that Hopper tore apart a coherent narrative version after an upbraiding by Alejandro Jodorowsky - but it’s possible that Hopper, boozed, bedraggled, and bedrugged as he was, began to perceive while shooting and editing his welter of footage the paradox into which he had fallen. After all, his broadside against the American legacy of greed and violence had the backing of a major American corporation, was being made by a group of hedonistic, absurdly overprivileged tourists in the Third World, and turned on the hackneyed and narcissistic symbolism of Hopper’s stuntman as Christ figure, the American naïf dying for the world’s sins. Myth again, and forever. The apocalyptic promise of Hopper’s title shuffled back into the cycle of consumption, ritual violence made routine."