Head of Hopper

Pub date October 17, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

CULT MOVIE Movie history is full of figures who could do no wrong one minute, then blew it — never trusted to do right again — the next. This year alone something like this happened to the richly deserving M. Night Shyamalan, and it might soon be happening to Darren Aronofsky, whose sci-fi soap opera The Fountain is arguably the most daft hijacking of major-studio cash in 35 years — since Dennis Hopper morphed from princeling to pariah via something called (with masochistic foreboding) The Last Movie.
An eccentric journeyman actor onscreen since 1955, Hopper was way past 30 when he codirected Easy Rider with Peter Fonda. Any studio would have supplied him any sum to get the follow-up. Universal gave him half a mil for The Last Movie, and he stayed on schedule and on budget throughout shooting in a far-flung Peruvian Andes village.
Then the aging boy wonder returned home to edit — for 18 druggy, hazy months, as executives freaked and anticipation rose to a tottering peak. A documentary chronicling that period, The American Dreamer, shows Hopper in extremis — doffing clothes (“symbolically,” he says) to run around suburban Los Alamos; cohabiting with a harem of hippie goddess freeloaders; comparing himself to Orson Welles, then exhaling, “I’d like to go about a month with three chicks in a hot tub.”
Upon release, The Last Movie — which screens in a new, Hopper-funded 35mm print this weekend — looked like the nail in the coffin of acid casualty cinema. The film was a mess, a freak show, an indulgence par excellence — with an incoherent quasinarrative that had Hopper as a stuntman on a western who stays on during postproduction to reenact the mythic pulp action with villagers who can’t or won’t separate the phony spectacle they’ve hosted from more spiritual yet violent reality.
“I only hope that after this game is over, morality can begin again,” prays (in vain) the local priest, played by spaghetti western icon Tomas Milian. But morality has left the building. The Last Movie isn’t the balm for stoner egos that Easy Rider offered. It incriminates everybody — colonialists, swingers, industry suits, the greedy (like our hero’s covetous Indio girlfriend), and filmmaking itself. Periodic “scene missing” titles help make this a deconstructive metamovie well ahead of its time. It’s an antiaudience picture, now more breathtaking than ever in sheer gall.
Who could make such a movie now? Might stars align again to permit such major-studio strangeness? Hard to imagine: The Fountain is nutty and navel-gazing but sentimental in a way Hopper’s auto-excoriating wack-off abhors. All those lysergically and vaginally oversatiated months spent editing The Last Movie make it a stand as memorably bold — if ruinous — as Custer’s.
Hopper is 71 now, but The Last Movie will always be a boy-man’s definitive up-yours against pricks in suit and tie. It’s a lyrical abstract as yet unchallenged for discombobulation by any film made under a major studio’s umbrella. It remains a startling finger driven straight up the Universal. (Dennis Harvey)
Fri/20–Sat/21, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, screening room, SF
(415) 978-2787