The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971)

by Douglas Buck December 19, 2018 5 minutes (1097 words) DCP Cinémathèque québécoise

A film shoot in Peru goes wrong as a local acting as a stuntman gets killed and the unit wrangler Kansas (Hopper) decides to quit filmmaking and settle down in Peru with the local prostitute… only to discover he has to intercede and stop the townspeople from killing each other as they try and re-enact scenes from the film, not quite understanding the idea of ‘movie magic’.

A late addition to the Cinémathèque schedule, this new restoration of the legendary film (or perhaps notorious is the better way to put it – for the indulgent insanity of its production mainly due to the hubris of its driving creative force, director/star Hopper, who was at the height of his drug-fueled egomania, ultimately creating a film deemed unreleasable by the studios, providing the first ominous sign of how the exceedingly out-of-control 70’s auteurs would allow the studios to grab control of the movies back from them) that basically destroyed Hopper’s career for over a decade, with no studio willing to go near him as he swirled further into self-destructive — and violent, as he was known to have beaten up at least a couple of his eventual five wives – behaviour, reveals the follow up to his 1969 massively-influential and successful Easy Rider (the film whose success, ironically, could be argued to have single-handedly ushered in the 70’s era of Hollywood auteur cinema in the first place) to be nowhere near as bad as many had claimed it to be (including being on The Fifty Worst Films of All Time List — though the fact that that list was partially compiled by low-brow mainstream film critic and clueless political commentator Michael Medved should have provided an indication into the uselessness of the list).

The cinematography by the great László Kovács is stunning (heightened immeasurably by the high-def restoration), there’s a genuine gritty – and alcohol-fueled — milieu created of a world of white man conmen and local shady characters enabling each other, and the overriding theme – circling primarily around the destructive nature of corporate capitalist invasions into indigenous populations – is a worthy one. Yet, it’s undeniably – and certainly not surprisingly – a mess. Hopper, while not yet the on-screen train wreck he’d become by the end of the decade (just watch his shaggy-dog, rambling performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s equally indulgent – yet entirely brilliant – 1979 Apocalypse Now for the evidence), is all over the place as the lead; by turns stoic and quiet, then entirely maniacal — with his familiar laugh, the one that always breaks character to hint at his personal mania — for the next, depending, it seems, on whatever he was feeling at any particular moment. And while it’s always nice to see how celebrity actors of that time period had little to no problem (unlike most of today’s image-conscious lot) playing deeply flawed — to the point of irredeemable – characters, Hopper’s indulgence in having his character constantly humiliate his prostitute wife who quietly endures his open drunken dalliances with with other women (well, when she does fight back he beats her) starts to feel a bit too much like celebration than condemnation.

Hopper also riffs too closely on Easy Rider at points, where it feels less like organic building on ideas then lack of finding anything new, including, to name a few, entirely duplicating the hallucinatory aesthetic of the LSD sequence from the first film (perhaps the best sequence in “Rider”), including using the same repeating industrial ‘ka-chunk ka-chunk’ sound (a sound, while working brilliantly the first time, comes across as a jaw-dropping rip-off in this film), as well as re-creating Easy Rider‘s campfire scene with its amusing pot-fueled dialogue, entirely unnecessary here, between Hopper and his shady huckster friend Neville (Don Gordon), as they head out into the wilderness on Neville’s latest (guaranteed to fail) scheme to uncover a gold mine.

The temporally experimental editing — with scenes entirely playing out over each other, and the sudden jagged time cuts — riffs even further on Easy Rider, but in this case feels like further experimentation, a satisfying forward movement. The eclectic mix of actors such as Gordon (a personal favorite character actor of mine, from his early effective appearances on the original The Twilight Zone, to getting a burning hot iron in the face in the third trashy Omen film The Final Conflict who in this film surprisingly – at least to me anyway, as I’ve never seen him like this – appears at times as crazed as Hopper), Spaghetti Western/Italian crime politziotteschi icon Tomas Milian as the local priest horrified by the corruption that the movie’s production brings to their innocent village, maverick independent filmmaker Samuel Fuller as the film-within-the-film’s director, and the Black Lagoon creature’s object of dirty desire Julie Adams as the bored millionaire’s wife looking for a night of lecherous excitement with Kansas, is certainly another of the film’s pleasures.

Tomas Milian

It’s odd, though, having recognizable performers like Kris Kristofferson and Peter Fonda show up for the briefest of moments (with them barely even facing the camera as they sing a song together at the film’s wrap party), speaking I guess to the hours and hours of undisciplined shooting that Hopper did in his frenzied belief that his genius would eventually show through if he just kept shooting… most of which ended up on the cutting room floor.

Many of the absurdist ideas in the film, such as the townspeople re-creating the camera equipment out of bamboo and playing out the scenes for real, are conceptually brilliant (and play wonderfully off the main themes), but the real problem is that the erratic Hopper doesn’t have the capabilities to achieve the transcendent cinematic vision he aspires to (and likely, in his mania, believed he was achieving). Even if coherent (with the film itself providing all the evidence you need that he wasn’t), Hopper was not a surrealist master like a Jodorowsky, who likely would have achieved a masterpiece with this material. Instead, Hopper creates something that, while immensely watchable and interesting, is a mess of a failure; a delusional reach by a hubris-filled filmmaker certain of his genius who had no idea how out of his league he was.

As indulgent as it all is, however (with an ending that feels more like an arbitrary fizzle out, than a real conclusion), it’s certainly far from boring. Kinda makes me wanna see the legendary hours longer cut that Hopper was said to have original submitted to the outraged studio execs.

The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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