In Easy Rider, director Dennis Hopper pulled away somewhat from the influences of plays, novels, and screenplays that often inform conventional cinema by embracing a formalism that echoed music. In the film, scenes of the restless heroes cruising the open western road recur in a fashion that resembles the chorus of a pop song—an association that’s intensified by the iconic use of music by the Band and Steppenwolf, among others. In the spirit of psychedelic music, the film even has an atonal freak-out that suggests the breaking down of artistic barriers: the sequence, set in New Orleans, in which Hopper and Peter Fonda’s characters trip and confront the doom that’s looming over the counterculture. This scene blends fiction and documentary to suggest a fissure between reality and fiction and sanity and insanity. It’s a moment that people who celebrate Easy Rider as a baby boomer totem might forget, and it anticipates Hopper’s unjustly maligned The Last Movie.
With The Last Movie, Hopper fulfills the promise of Easy Rider, detonating and embracing American genre myths, fashioning a visionary personal cinema that blends improvisation, documentary, and traditionally scripted fictional forms. But this probably wasn’t the promise that most of Easy Rider‘s fans wanted kept. The sentimentality of Easy Rider, which is laced with downer bromides that allow the film to look tougher than it is, implicitly flatters audiences—allowing us to feel as if we’re outlaws for watching a movie. (Easy Rider‘s way of soothing an audience was sporadically satirized in the amusing 1989 film Flashback, featuring Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland.) On the other hand, The Last Movie is weirder and self-lacerating, purposefully falling apart to reveal cinema to be a parasitical illusion. Or is this criticism an egghead’s way of proffering a different illusion so that one may have their genre cake along with their humanist righteousness and formalist sophistication? There’s no ultimate answer here, as Hopper is a renegade who’s also deeply in love with the violent, patriotic traditions that the American western often represents, even when the genre is operating in a countercultural mode.
Like the recently released The Other Side of the Wind, The Last Movie concerns the worlds within worlds that coexist within a film production, and, by extension, within all of life. Kansas (Hopper) is a stuntman shooting a western in Peru, and while the western is being directed by Samuel Fuller (playing himself), the footage we see bears a closer aesthetic resemblance to a Sam Peckinpah film. Yet distinctions between The Last Movie and the faux Fuller production immediately grow murky. Hopper shows a film being shot, but the sequences themselves have clearly been through post-production. We don’t see realistically unformed shooting, but set pieces complete with slow motion and crackerjack editing. Hopper’s action scenes are beautiful, worthy of Fuller and Peckinpah, though he also holds such gorgeous violence in contempt, likening it to social pollution. Hopper’s double vision isn’t hypocritical but honest: Cinematic violence, a macho version of dance, is ecstatically stimulating when executed by an artist or even a competent journeyperson.
The Last Movie rhymes the shooting of the western with the religion of a small Peruvian town. The local priest (Tomas Milian) is losing his followers’ attentions to the Hollywood production, which captivates them with simulated violence that they take to be real. When Fuller and his crew leave, the villagers fashion cameras and other production equipment out of bamboo, reversing the traditional equation of filmmaking. In the case of the Peruvian film, which is more of a happening, the violence is real and the means of recording it are fake. Kansas, who’s losing his mind on booze, becomes swept up in the Peruvian “film,” becoming a potential fake martyr, though he can’t tell if the villagers actually mean to kill him. The Last Movie is a Christ allegory, as Easy Rider essentially was, though the former is more devoted than the latter to interrogating the insidiousness of such mythologies. Kansas is understood to be another talented dick-waving alcoholic with a Christ or—even more apropos—a James Dean fixation. To intentionally die young is to cop out, which is why The Last Movie pointedly has no ending, leaving Kansas stuck in a temporal loop composed of genre tropes and abstract flourishes.
Hopper doesn’t allow this thematic heavy-lifting to kill the immediacy of any given moment, as he weaves a rich tapestry of spontaneous moods, tones, textures, and events, expanding on the lurid jazziness of Easy Rider‘s most evocative moments. The Last Movie is a film that one can wander in and out of, and in memory it somehow feels both vague and crystal clear. The Peru of this film has a mythological, feral quality, especially when Kansas and his local girlfriend (Stella Garcia) are up in their remote shack in the Andes. And the American parties held by the film crew and rich travelers are also staged with a demoralizing sense of exhilaration, exhaustion, and repetition.
Early in The Last Movie, Kansas stands in the corner of a house, cordoned off from his fellow revelers, and the camera tracks him as he moves through a hallway to a porch outside, his face becoming engulfed in darkness. This image of profound despair arises casually, with disconcertingly fluid ease, and such scenes continue to bob up and down in and out of the film’s miasma of fact, fiction, politics, expressionism, and atmospheric journalism. Finally, we can’t tell if Hopper is diagnosing America’s madness or his own. Either way, he taps into a rich reservoir of social and artistic contradictions, fashioning an ironically glorious ode to futility.
Before watching this Arbelos disc, I most recently saw The Last Movie in the Library of Congress archives, and the print was murky and hazy, suggesting that the film had been shot through a muddy filter. Quite a bit of grit and grime has been removed from this transfer, allowing the film's colors to resound with a newfound vibrancy. The Last Movie is now conventionally beautiful, which offers a piercing counterpoint to Hopper's formalist experimentation. (The famous "scene missing" cards, for instance, are now even more jarring than they once were, because one is less prepared for them.) The film's landscapes boast breathtaking new details, with equally sharp foregrounds and backgrounds, and facial textures are viscerally intimate. The soundtrack is also extraordinary, with crackling gun fights and explosions, subtly balanced supporting diegetic effects, and rich renderings of classic songs such as Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee."
Alex Cox's "Scene Missing" offers unflinching oral recollections on the making of The Last Movie. In the 50-minute documentary, Dennis Hopper is portrayed as a sensitive artist and as an egotistical lunatic who largely ignored Stewart Stern's script because he was convinced that he was the next Fellini and could therefore pull a masterpiece out of his ass—a conviction that, given the film that resulted, isn't as unreasonable as it might've sounded 50 years ago. Cox talks with a variety of collaborators, who're openly split on what The Last Movie became. According to some, the film was once a "nice little movie" that the drug- and booze-addled Hopper chronologically scrambled after pressure from his more eccentric hangers-on. With 48 hours of filmed footage to work from, Hopper apparently got lost in his work, though Cox and filmmaker and co-star Henry Jaglom clearly, and correctly, see the film as a masterpiece.
A 30-minute documentary from 1987, "Some King of Genius" is a singular conversation with Hopper, who was enjoying a resurgence after years in movie jail in the wake of The Last Movie's abysmal reviews. Hopper offers a priceless recollection of working with Henry Hathaway on films like True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder, while disconcertingly embracing 1980s-era conservatism as a necessary social change. (He appears to be consciously sending a message to studio execs that he's sober, pragmatic, and willing to play ball.)
Meanwhile, another new documentary, "Postcard from Peru," investigates how The Last Movie production felt from the vantage point of the community that got enmeshed in Hopper's fever dream. One person memorably, and chillingly, observes "it was as if the United States had conquered us, like the Spanish did." Such sentiments underscore the irony of Hopper's vision, which actively perpetuated the very exploitation that it was deconstructing. This terrific, unsentimental, and rigorous package is rounded out by two trailers, a 2007 introduction by Hopper, a demo on the new restoration, and a 32-page booklet featuring new essays by Julie Adams, Jessica Hundley, and Mike Plante, as well as a 1971 Evergreen Review report on the set of the film by L.M. Kit Carson.
Arbelos offers a landmark restoration of a raw, self-devouring work of auto-critical cinema that was decades ahead of its time.