Hopper’s Gamble In The South American Sun

Dennis Hopper’s film The Last Movie is a film very much concerned with the medium in which it exists, and as both a narrative allegory and a technical deconstruction of the film process, it analyzes the very ramifications of the film industry.    The narrative tells the story of Kansas, a Hollywood stunt double that stays behind in a Mexican village after wrapping a western shoot with Sam Fuller.  Kansas sets forth shortly there after in search of a local treasure.  While Kansas embarks on his quest, the Mexican villagers begin to make a mock-film of their own with wooden cameras.  It is the belief of the villagers that the camera grants immortality, as they replace the Hollywood cap guns with legitimate firearms.  Eventually, they find the “Hollywood star” Kansas and place him in their film as a sacrificial Christ figure.

The Last Movie is a film of diagetic sounds, but it is these sounds that are manipulated to distort the reality of Hopper’s film and inform the audience of the films technicalities, almost as a feat of engineering.  Sounds local to one scene will carry over into the next one, dissipating as the new scene is played out.  This is especially the case in the opening transition from film set to the film being shot by Fuller.  At the conclusion of Fuller’s footage, which we’re invited to watch as if it were the narrative of the Kansas character, Kris Kristofferson begins to dominate the soundtrack, as Kansas rides the mountainside.  As the Kansas riding sequence wraps, it’s revealed that Kristofferson was seated near by, and that the expectation of a Hollywood soundtrack was just a ruse.

Hopper’s constructions with sound as mentioned above, are to the same purpose as his visual editing style, which is to challenge how an audience perceives and understands a film.  This ploy exceeds the simple “scene missing” title cards, much sound appears distorted because of it’s misplacement from original context.  The sounds misplaced are often similar the documentary style sounds recorded for his previous film Easy Rider, most significantly during the New Orleans sequence.  But it is in The Last Movie that Hopper truly finds a purpose for his “guerilla” style sound recording.  It is arguable that the best way to distort through sound textual displacement is to use rough documentary sound.  Documentary recording does not specifically focus on a character or action, but rather an entire event, at least as far as this definition is concerned.  Through both the opening and closing sequences a fiesta remains the most audible “image” so too speak, but Hopper gives us a juxtaposition of images with no source for the sound.  Hopper throws his audience happily into disorientation and confusion, as they try to get their bearings, but can only empathize with the movie making hell Kansas has entered.  Hopper will also deploy sound to distance his audience, letting technical sounds through in the sound track, editing glitches and camera hum.  After all, Hopper isn’t interested in any strong narrative construction, but rather in the construction of film itself.

The music in Hopper’s deconstruction is essential, often juxtaposing the Hollywood norm with the psychedelic bizarre.  A scene of Fuller’s where a man is shot on a roof and falls down features the sound local to a previous shot of an old woman hammering a stone wall.  This is overlaid with Kansas talking to his female companion, but the hammering, at the shot change, becomes the transition to music, that plays to link a series of shots of Kansas driving into a small Mexican town.  The music stops only when Hopper cuts to the interior of Kansas’ car for a dialogue exchange.  The entire film is composed of sequences with this sound track design.  The odd thing is that Hopper’s use of pop songs is exactly that of big Hollywood pictures his film is rebelling against, while often he’ll use diageticly recorded music to disorient his audience during pivotal scenes concerning the villagers decent into movie making madness.

The Last Movie’s dialogue is sparse, but in sync with the sequences for which it was recorded when the narrative of Kansas needs perpetuating.  Though, as mentioned before, Hopper will overlay indiscernible dialogue over shots with which there is total contrast.  This is especially true at the climax of the film, when Kansas is being escorted to his doom.  The dialogue is structured to better reflect the atmosphere of the scene then it was in its predecessor, the cemetery sequence in Easy Rider.  It must be reiterated however, that The Last Movie may use many of the same sound track ploys as Hopper’s first feature Easy Rider, but The Last Movie uses those ploys in constructive commentary, while Easy Rider used those techniques for the highly superficial reason of depicting the psychedelic acid trip so heavily associated with the American Underground films of the late 60’s.

All things considered, Dennis Hopper’s lofty analysis of film in his epic movie within a movie, the audience’s escapist expectations are annihilated in Hopper’s success as film art’s critical author.  He constructs The Last Movie very well, depicting the plot only where the plot serves to keep the audience engaged so as to participate in Hopper’s deconstruction of the medium with which all Americans are familiar to a point of accepted nuance and cliché.  The tools Hopper has at his disposal and how he uses them raise the question whether or not they are used to their full potential.  Certainly his editing of the film itself seems right on the money when considering his intentions as an artist, but the sound track itself raises some speculation.  Despite the reputation with which he uses distorting techniques in sound editing to pictures, the soundtrack itself is somewhat incoherent and jumbled.  The inconsistencies run rampant, the devices Hopper uses are not always with the same intentions and are there for disorienting, unintentionally.  The ploys he uses to disassociate his audience from his film he also uses seriously to move from one scene to the next intentionally, as opposed to the tongue in cheek transition for transition’s sake.  Though one may argue he is presenting both sides of the coin and allowing juxtaposition, it is also evident in the screenplay and execution of many of the scenes that Hopper is a naïve film maker, who despite his lofty high brow intentions lacks the sophistication to consistently manipulate his sound track to his needs the way he does his images.

All that said, The Last Movie is still by and by the greatest American film about film, both the narrative and technical sense, ever made, at least in the opinion of this critic.  In opposition to an earlier comment, so as not to lampoon Dennis Hopper or his film, it seems that his naïveté as a film maker has allowed for the greatest innovations in his work, that have brought both the film art world of the 1960s and studio run Hollywood together.  It is for this that audiences are eternally grateful.

-Robert Curry

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