The Last Movie: Dennis Hopper's Curiously Frustrating Experiment
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The Last Movie: Dennis Hopper’s Curiously Frustrating Experiment

Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, 1971. Photo courtesy Arbelos

Dennis Hopper’s rebellious, much-mythologized masterpiece The Last Movie (1971) was widely misunderstood and nearly forgotten until its 2018 digital restoration from the original 35mm negative.The Last Movie was over budget, experimentally edited, and written off by the studios, but it further established Hopper as a cult icon and maverick. Seen today, the film’s self-reflexive critique on the destructive nature of American movies is nakedly revealing. In advance of its July 31 and August 2 screenings as part of the Lost Films and Restorations series, Walker projectionist Justin Ayd and his wife Jennifer expand on the making of The Last Movie and the larger-than-life personality of its creator.

After the success and critical acclaim of his directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969), it came as no surprise that then-33-year-old Dennis Hopper would focus his attention on an audaciously impossible search for the “real” America, this time examining the destructive nature of Hollywood, in his second film The Last Movie. Easy Rider, which followed the journey of two hippie bikers from Los Angeles to New Orleans during a turbulent yet hopeful time in America, was the third highest grossing film in 1969, behind Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With a budget of only $360,000, it took in $41 million domestically for Columbia Pictures and $19 million internationally. As American New Wave (or “New Hollywood”) arose in the mid-’60s with films like Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Faces, and Easy Rider, Universal Pictures developed a youth division, hoping to cash in on box office success with minimal investment. With a budget of $850,000 and an overall vote of confidence from Universal, Hopper received what every young director working with a studio desires: complete artistic control. But this freedom did not come without complications.

From the onset, the Last Movie viewer is immersed in the film without explanation as a Peruvian priest leads a procession of followers from a church through a village in the Andes Mountains as locals watch and an injured, disoriented Kansas (Hopper) observes from a healthy distance. Throughout this procession, locals are revealed to be making their own “film” on an abandoned back lot filled with the facades of a Hollywood Western town, having manufactured lighting equipment, microphones, and film cameras out of bamboo. One man has taken on the role of the “director,” imitating Sam (Samuel Fuller), the director from the Western within the film, down to wearing a Civil War cavalry hat and smoking a cigar. The film follows Kansas, a seemingly humble, down-on-his-luck stuntman and horse wrangler who stays behind after the Western he worked on wraps production in the nearby mountains. Kansas is intrigued by the peculiar way in which the locals respond to the filming that took place. They aren’t familiar with movies or the movie making process—to them, a blank discharged from a gun meant someone was possibly injured or, more likely, dead. Kansas falls for Maria, a local sex worker, and the two seem to live out a carefree, cinematic love story as they ride horses through the mountains and make love under a waterfall. They fantasize about ways to gentrify the untouched beauty of Peru—by building hotels or swimming pools—in order to turn a profit. Kansas’s relaxed behavior is short-lived, as he began to juggle two competing forces upon meeting up with Neville, an old friend who claims to operate a goldmine: American capitalist versus rugged, salt-of-the-earth cowboy.

Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, 1971. Photo courtesy Arbelos

Sam Fuller, politically outspoken and eccentric, was often regarded as a bold voice in Old Hollywood, which may have affected Hopper’s decision to cast him in the role of Sam the director. One may think Sam is a portrait of Hopper himself—a powerful, surefire anchor behind a Western filming on foreign soil—but in reality, it was far from the truth. The Last Movie was plagued with problems, the least of which was harassment from the locals, who called Hopper and his team fascists and pigs. Hopper, who already had a reputation as a paranoid, self-destructive bad boy and challenger of the status quo, was known for engaging in fights on sets due to his refusal to take direction (which led to him being blacklisted for eight years), and his impulsive behavior made an appearance as production on The Last Movie got underway.

The paramount issue came from Hopper’s own decision to throw away not only the carefully prepared shooting schedule but the screenplay as well. Hopper originally co-wrote The Last Movie with Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of 1954’s Rebel Without a Cause, which featured Hopper in one of his very first roles. But as filming began he declared he didn’t need a script, wanting to take a more instinctual, improvisational approach, stating, “I’m like Fellini, all the new ideas come to me. I’m a genius. I’m a genius and I can do anything.” He had a similar outburst on the set of Easy Rider, comparing his struggles to those of Orson Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, wherein the studio removed upwards of 50 minutes of material to give the film a happy ending.

Additionally, animosity broke out between a Peruvian archbishop and the actor playing the film’s priest. In 1969, the Pope sent Hopper a scathing letter that declared him a persona non grata for the “distasteful and insulting imagery” in Easy Rider and banned Hopper from the church (despite him not being Catholic). Hopper hoped the archbishop was unaware of the Pope’s letter when he summoned Hopper with the intent of shutting down production over poor working and living conditions and particular sequences that “violated church doctrine.” However, as the meeting began, the two bonded over the archbishop’s confession that he once wanted to be in show business (as a stand-up comedian, no less). Whether it was genuine connection or Tinseltown charm, Hopper convinced him to allow production to continue.

Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, 1971. Photo courtesy Arbelos

In the days that followed, Hopper’s wild and abrasive behavior continued, and many lost confidence in his free form, improvisational approach. At his core, Hopper knew what he was trying to convey: American culture had a profoundly strange (and often negative) effect around the world, especially at that moment in time, following the peak of the Vietnam War. The Last Movie illuminates the personal facades we put on and the confusion between fantasy and reality that arise because of these facades. This becomes abundantly clear as the film unfolds. Hopper, like the ever-changing definition of the American Dream, was burdened with too many influences and ideas for this film; he was pulled in multiple directions by competing artistic forces, including those that didn’t align with the film’s original screenplay. He found inspiration in the abstractness of Jackson Pollack’s paintings and experimental multidisciplinary filmmaker Bruce Conner, whose influence can be felt most strongly in the final twenty minutes of The Last Movie. French New Wave’s Jean-Luc Godard was another muse, and Hopper often cited his now-famous (if not somewhat overused) declaration, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

This abstract and, at times, surrealist mindset carried over into the editing process as Hopper set up shop in New Mexico and tried to craft the story out of 40 hours worth of film. Directors Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) offered to help him make sense of his narrative. But as Hopper withdrew further into his own drug- and alcohol-addled mind, he threw out their suggestions. Hopper insisted the film needed to exceed expectations, which it couldn’t do by being some standard, chronological fare. According to sound effects editor Jim Nelson, the original film that followed a linear chronology was a damn good movie. But, 16 months after editing began, the film as we now know it was complete.

Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, 1971. Photo courtesy Arbelos

We have to wonder about the effect had the film played out linearly: would the audience understand more of what drives Kansas as we see him navigating a foreign land, aching to be on top of the world, or would the story lose its mystique? My money is on the latter. Without the chaotic and unnerving editing choices, the film wouldn’t be nearly as intriguingly exasperating. The Last Movie is a gloriously frustrating experiment; it doesn’t feel complete upon its conclusion but stays with you long after viewing it. The film won Best Feature at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, but it left critics and audiences confused, and they absolutely panned the film. This was used to its advantage. Universal took the incomprehensible nature of the film and made it part of their marketing strategy: “The Most Controversial Film of the Year” was plastered in large print across the top of the poster.

Was Hopper a madman or a genius? He was a larger than life figure and an exceedingly expressive person. He became an artist because he couldn’t help but share the conflicts that broiled inside him, something that became more and more evident as his career progressed with films like The American Friend (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Blue Velvet (1986). Screenwriter and actress Tod Davies, who worked with Hopper on Catchfire, once said, “The movies killed Dennis. But the movies kept him alive, too. He loved the movies. He was a star, and he wanted to be a star, but he gave up a lot of human values to be a star, which you have to do. And I think The Last Movie is about that too.”

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