The Screaming Metaphysical Blues: Dennis Hopper The American Dreamer

Very few films so unashamedly depict the ugly truth of its subject, and even fewer films illustrate so well the causes behind the fall of the “New Hollywood” as The American Dreamer.  In 1970, L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller turned their cameras to a bunker in Taos Texas to capture Dennis Hopper in post-production of his ill-fated follow up to 1969s Easy Rider.  In Taos, Hopper runs amok.  While simultaneously cutting The Last Movie he is also assembling his photographs for exhibition, and writing and acting in sketches for The American Dreamer.  This is where it gets a little confusing, so perhaps it’s better to start at the beginning.

Dennis Hopper shot The Last Movie in Peru on a budget of one million dollars courtesy of Universal Pictures.  Universal was hoping that Hopper would provide them with a commercially viable art house film similar to Easy Rider.  But Hopper had something else in mind.  Hopper wanted his film to be about the production of big studio pictures, and tell the story of the westernization of Peru, but by implementing reflexive tactics like those Godard had been using since 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her.  However, Hopper’s film is a bit too lofty and a bit too muddled for mainstream consumption, and certainly for the studio.  Universal had, however, promised him final cut of The Last Movie.  Fearing that the stories of the film’s troubled production in Peru would cause executives to seize the film, Hopper fled to Taos Texas with all the prints and began editing in seclusion.  Little by little, time passed, and Hopper had become almost six months late for submitting the film.

This is where L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller come in.  Hopper invited them to document his bohemian methods of film production that he believed to be the way of the future.  But Hopper also had some ideas about scenes, totally scripted, to be shot for the film so that he may expound further on philosophical issues, the state of American Cinema, and a strange sort of performance art (Hopper, in one such sketch, removes his clothes in the middle of the street and walks two blocks naked in a Texas suburb).

For Hopper’s purposes, the pairing of Carson and Schiller seems ideal.  Schiller had become famous as the photographer/journalist who not only took the last nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe, but who also owned the rights to Lenny Bruce’s family’s life stories.  Carson, on the other hand, had been working the New York underground film scene, and had starred in the classic David Holzman’s Diary.  By bringing the two together, Hopper felt he could equally showcase his staged moments of “inspired genius” while seamlessly blending them with documentary footage of him hard at work or hard at play.

The result stands as a testament to the freedom director’s once enjoyed in the Hollywood studio system at the dawn of the seventies, and as to why it lasted so briefly.  In the film, when Hopper isn’t waxing philosophically about how he’s a lesbian, he’s shooting machine guns at cacti, smoking pot in the editing room, and finally enjoying a massive orgy.  The blending of the real and unreal images, the actual and the factual does work.  It becomes hard to separate the two when both are so fantastically out of this world.  The cohesive and constant truth about Dennis Hopper the man and artist that runs through the film can be found in his dialogue.

From what Hopper has to say it’s clear that he’s paranoid.  He has a fear that if The Last Movie should fail, he’ll suffer Orson Welles’ fate in American Cinema that his acting will be relegated to B-pictures or European films, and his directing would be largely ignored.  All of Hopper’s crazy musings are prophetic of not only his career for the following decade and a half, but even in regard to his personal life.  In this way, looking back from the comfort of 2012, there is something horribly tragic about The American Dreamer.

As a film, The American Dreamer appeals more to morbid curiosity than any film I can think of.  Dennis Hopper is destroying himself, his career and the people that compose his entourage.  He is ignorant, decadent, and an egomaniac.  Though The Last Movie in and of itself is today considered quite good, at the moment The American Dreamer was made, the studio had already ensured that the film would fail.   Considering the film’s title and what is contained there in, it all seems a little too fitting.

-Robert Curry

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