Thursday, December 6, 2018

Retro Review: THE LAST MOVIE (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Dennis Hopper. Written by Stewart Stern. Cast: Dennis Hopper, Julie Adams, Daniel Ades, Stella Garcia, Don Gordon, Tomas Milian, John Alderman, Michael Anderson, Jr., Donna Baccala, Toni Basil, Rod Cameron, Severn Darden, Roy Engel, Warren Finnerty, Peter Fonda, Fritz Ford, Samuel Fuller, Henry Jaglom, Clint Kimbrough, Kris Kristofferson, John Phillip Law, Ted Markland, Sylvia Miles, Jim Mitchum, Michelle Phillips, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Chuck Bail, Tom Baker, Michael Greene, Toni Stern. (R, 108 mins)

The kind of film that can only result from everyone involved tripping balls, 1971's THE LAST MOVIE almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Dennis Hopper, completely quashing the momentum he had going from 1969's landmark EASY RIDER and effectively killing his career for the better part of the next decade and a half. Sure, there were high points during that time--Wim Wenders' THE AMERICAN FRIEND in 1977, Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW in 1979, and OUT OF THE BLUE in 1980, a low-budget film Hopper was co-starring in and took over directing early in production--but THE LAST MOVIE began a downward personal and professional spiral for Hopper, who would continue to be mired in alcoholism and substance abuse and would soon be working almost exclusively in low-budget European productions after being deemed an unemployable pariah in Hollywood. Hopper would occasionally find work in a bonkers cult movie like the 1976 Australian adventure saga MAD DOG MORGAN, or he'd temporarily behave himself enough to get a respectable gig like Coppola's RUMBLE FISH or Sam Peckinpah's final film THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (both 1983), but much of his work from these lost years (BLOODBATH, REBORN, LET IT ROCK) has fallen into obscurity or was never even released in the US. He hit bottom when he was fired from the trashy 1984 West German/Mexican-produced fashion models-in-prison potboiler JUNGLE WARRIORS when, coked out of his mind in Mexico, he wandered naked into a village 20 miles from the set, ranting about people trying to kill him, and was promptly put by the producers on a flight back to Los Angeles, where he had to be restrained after freaking out and trying to open the plane's emergency exit. It was his meltdown on JUNGLE WARRIORS that finally served as a wake-up call to Hopper to get his shit together and get clean and sober, and within a couple of years, he was the Comeback Kid with the likes of BLUE VELVET and HOOSIERS, finally exorcising his demons and shaking the career self-immolation that began 15 years earlier with THE LAST MOVIE.

EASY RIDER was part of the post-BONNIE AND CLYDE "New Hollywood" movement, and Hopper found himself in the bizarre position of being both a counterculture hero and an unlikely toast of the town. As a result of the film's success, studios began giving the green light to artistic, auteur-driven projects to capture the youth market. Paramount backed Haskell Wexler's politically-charged, X-rated MEDIUM COOL and MGM brought trailblazing Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni to America for ZABRISKIE POINT, but Universal went all-in, giving a handful of notable independent filmmakers carte blanche to make whatever they wanted to make with no studio interference, most notably Monte Hellman with TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and John Cassavetes with MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ. THE LAST MOVIE was part of this push by Universal, and the primary reason why the studio's enthusiasm for the avant-garde indie craze ended almost immediately after it began. Hopper spent almost all of 1970 on location in Peru going over budget on THE LAST MOVIE, a project he conceived with screenwriter Stewart Stern, best known for scripting 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, which was also Hopper's film debut. He brought an entourage of friends from the movie and music industry with him and shot over 40 hours of footage that he spent nearly a year in holed up in his New Mexico home trying to corral into a releasable, two-hour film. He even scrapped an initial, relatively mainstream-ish cut completely when he showed it to EL TOPO director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who derisively mocked it and advised Hopper to rearrange the story in a non-linear and more experimental fashion. THE LAST MOVIE found significant acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, where Hopper took home the Critics Prize, but Universal execs were much less impressed, especially since his final cut was several months overdue (they wanted it by the end of 1970 and he kept working until April 1971), and the end result was impenetrable and unsellable. It ended up opening in the fall of 1971 to largely blistering reviews from American critics, and it was soon yanked from distribution, never coming close to the zeitgeist-capturing success of EASY RIDER. Without Hopper's involvement, THE LAST MOVIE was re-released on the drive-in circuit a few years later in a shortened, recut version rechristened CHINCHERO (which was actually Hopper's original title), but beyond that, it was extremely difficult to see for many years, even with a 1989 VHS release from the exploitation outfit United American Video, likely to capitalize on Hopper's major career resurgence in the late '80s and into the 1990s.

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)
Its relative obscurity did much to bolster its reputation as a "lost" classic, and Hopper would frequently do Q&As at screenings once he reacquired the rights to the film in 2006. But Hopper died in 2010, before he was ever able to oversee a DVD/Blu-ray release, though thanks to others, THE LAST MOVIE finally made the restoration rounds in 2017 and 2018. It's now out on Blu-ray and is widely accessible again after 47 years (because physical media is dead), but minus L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller's THE AMERICAN DREAMER, a 1971 documentary chronicling the making and editing of THE LAST MOVIE and serving as its own BURDEN OF DREAMS and HEARTS OF DARKNESS. When something is out of circulation as long as THE LAST MOVIE has been, there's always a tendency among cineastes to mythologize it, as if its long absence is a sign of neglect or unacknowledged greatness. It's interesting that its Blu-ray debut has virtually coincided with the Netflix release of Orson Welles' THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (in which a LAST MOVIE-era Hopper has a small role), another much-ballyhooed film whose legend stems primarily from it being unfinished and unseen for over 40 years. Like WIND, THE LAST MOVIE is now a curio at best, a disjointed, largely improvised, self-indulgent misfire in which Hopper doesn't capitalize on EASY RIDER as much as he buys into the hype surrounding him.

The nominal plot has Hopper, looking a lot like he would as a pre-Matt Damon incarnation of Tom Ripley six years later in THE AMERICAN FRIEND, as Kansas, a disillusioned stuntman and horse wrangler working on a Hollywood western being shot in a small Peruvian village outside of Chinchero. It appears to be a formulaic bit of moviemaking, with an old-school, cigar-chomping director (Samuel Fuller), and starring an aging, John Wayne-esque cowboy actor (Rod Cameron) as Pat Garrett and a young up-and-comer (Dean Stockwell) as Billy the Kid. Once shooting wraps (other cast members in the film-within-a-film include familiar faces and Hopper buddies like Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, Kris Kristofferson, Henry Jaglom, Severn Darden, and Russ Tamblyn), and the cast and crew head back to Hollywood, Kansas stays behind and shacks up with Chinchero local Maria (Stella Garcia) and is in no hurry to return home. His idyllic getaway, where he spends his days lounging about and having waterfall sex with Maria, is interrupted by the village priest (Tomas Milian), who informs him that the locals, led by "director" Thomas (Daniel Ades), are re-enacting the production of the movie and imitating what they witnessed--even constructing film "equipment" like cameras and cranes out of wood and sticks--and are so taken with their Hollywood experience that they can no longer differentiate fantasy from reality. Kansas also gets involved in role-playing sex games with Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams), the horny socialite wife of an Peru-based American businessman (Roy Engel), and goes off on a hunt for gold with skeezy American expat Neville Robey (Don Gordon). That's before he's coerced back on the still-standing movie set by Thomas and the villagers and forced to re-enact his stunt work all over again in what seems to be shaping up as a proto-WICKER MAN but, like the rest of THE LAST MOVIE, goes nowhere.

There's some shallow statements about the artifice of cinema and the way Hollywood cynicism poisons a heretofore peaceful village populated by largely isolated people--note the way they production just packs up and leaves, leaving its large set of old-west building facades behind for the locals to deal with--but it's all much too muddled and meandering. It's beautifully shot by the great Laszlo Kovacs, Hopper gets a surprising performance out of Adams (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON), and the themes he explores have some merit, but THE LAST MOVIE is awfully pretentious and full of itself, from the random intentional placement of "Scene Missing" cards, to the credit "A Film by Dennis Hopper" appearing 11 minutes in and followed a full 15 (!) minutes later by the title card, to Hopper paying homage to himself with a climactic restaging of the EASY RIDER campfire scene with Kansas and Neville. As the film grows increasingly abstract in its off-the-rails last half hour, Hopper simply loses the thread and gets lost up his own ass, as a long sequence with a drunk Kansas in a bar brawl is interrupted by cutaways to Hopper in a makeup chair stating "I never jerked off a horse before, ya know?" and another shot of Hopper lying down and a close-up of a lactating breast squirting milk into his face. Its chaos continues as Hopper breaks the fourth wall by smiling at the camera near the end as a LAST MOVIE clapboard is left in the shot. I suppose it's something do to about the blurring of film vs. life or illusion vs. reality, but the whole meta deconstruction/destruction of cinema thing was done much more succinctly with the unforgettable last shot of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (also of note is that both films feature Kris Kristofferson's own version of his oft-recorded "Me and Bobby McGee"). THE LAST MOVIE is an insufferable mess, though it does have historical value as a document of its era and perhaps as "New Hollywood" taking a wrong turn prior to the age of the blockbuster ushered in by JAWS in 1975. It's certainly required viewing for fans of Dennis Hopper, but mileage may vary. It's either a hellraising artist's ultimate masterpiece and a defiant "Fuck you!" to the industry or a textbook example of the dangers of being handed too much money and too much freedom when your ego's running amok and you're high AF. In the years after he was in rehab, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler often quipped that in their hedonistic heyday, the band "probably snorted up all of Peru." Well, yeah, perhaps...or at least whatever was left after Dennis Hopper and his cast and crew were finished with THE LAST MOVIE.

1 comment:

  1. The attempts by film historians to paint this as a "lost masterpiece" in the wake of HEAVEN'S GATE getting a reappraisal are definitive proof that people just as pretentious as Hopper will clutch onto any movie of a certain vintage and defend it as "art" as long as the mainstream hasn't said so.