Dennis Hopper: Cursed by Kurtz

Genius is all too frequently a curse more than a blessing, and more so in the arts than any other sphere- society treats it ruthlessly as it does not understand it but, if anything, its owner is typically crueler, as he is similarly afflicted. Nor does he (usually) know what best use to make of such gifts. In 1979, one such genius- the late Dennis Hopper- enjoyed the second of three Lazarus-like career resurrections, in his brief but memorable performance as a photographer in Apocalypse Now, outside the lair of the demented one time genius and visionary turned lunatic, Colonel Kurtz played by the mesmeric Marlon Brando. Coppola€™s lyrical Vietnam War epic, based on the classic novella, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, presents an eerie parallel with the event that buried the prospect of Hopper as the wildly significant film-making auteur he once threatened to be. Hopper was riding high on the wave of his previous spectacular comeback, as the director and co-writer of the iconic counter-culture film Easy Rider, and imbued with a sense of artistic purpose and vindication, he set about making- with unprecedented autonomy- the film he hoped would herald a new dawn in Hollywood cinema and which, instead, eviscerated all future ambitions he held to being among the leading voices in American cinematic art. As a consequence of the resounding commercial- as well as critical- success of Easy Rider, Hopper was given the opportunity to realise a vision that had been brooding like a caged animal in the dark recesses of his mind for years. Prior to his first hiatus from Hollywood- this time, expressly as an actor- the Strasbourg mentored and notoriously wilful young artist had been working on a the set of a Western in South America which has been erected expressly for the purpose of the film, and which enraptured the native tribes who were curious, but bewildered by the film-making process. The young actor, whose eyes had been opened to the possibilities of the craft by James Dean-with whom he worked early in his career- was said to have paused and questioned how the primitive native culture was to return to its original state one they had departed. It was from this question that The Last Movie begun its decade long gestation. The Last Movie existed as a testament to the economic dangers of allowing artists- irrespective of talent- to ply their trade without the traditional, or even cursory, levels of oversight; a testament that was, broadly speaking, heeded until the notorious example of Michael Cimino€™s Heaven€™s Gate, which is best known for its role in destroying the reputation of United Artists. Due to the overwhelming acclaim and wealth that had been accumulated by Universal through Easy Rider (by the time Hopper began shooting The Last Movie in Peru, his previous film had made nearly $50 million), they allowed Hopper complete creative control over the filming, editing and (original) budget of $875,000. The only proviso was that Hopper was not to overspend which, ultimately he didn€™t. In spite of the dividends Hopper may have previously accrued, it seems remarkable folly, in retrospect, that he was awarded such unprecedented freedom. Hopper was already notorious in Hollywood for profoundly stubborn and erratic behaviour. Although improvisational acted scenes and shoots that characterised Easy Rider€™s hazy, drug infused aesthetic drew considerable plaudits, they were lucky to have taken place at all due to all manner of arguments and antipathy between various sections of the cast and crew, but more than anything between the (sometimes) violently temperamental Hopper, and each of these groups, particularly his co-star, Peter Fonda, who was so offended by the man and his methods that he sought to have production ceased. The consequence, on-set, of such a tempestuous but brilliant person governing a budget and a cast of such scale on location in Peru under the influence of a cocktail of potent but cheap drugs and alcohol was predictable. The most detailed and remarkable account of the on-set conditions came from the late award winning reporter from LIFE magazine, Brad Darrach, who lived for a time with the crew and attempted to pierce a shell of surrealistic political diatribes, philosophical flights of fancy and furious metaphors that Dennis Hopper constructed to keep his surgical analysis at arm€™s length. The picture Darrach paints is one of a hedonistic circus of drug fuelled egos- a chaos barely contained by Hopper€™s disturbed but brilliant vision and improvisation. What his report also underlies, however, is the sincerity of the man€™s countercultural vision- a belief in the ability of artists to wrest control of movie making from artless producers and studios- to produce a truly original vision, all of which was tempered by instinctive technical prowess and directorial innovation of the man. Where Easy Rider has noted for its improvised departures from the script, The Last Movie was almost entirely improvised, with Hopper directing and starring in daring shots that would have terrified infinitely more experienced film makers. Hopper, starring as a mid-western farmhand who believes he can exploit a primitive foreign culture to live out the American dream, is hypnotic in his depiction of the characters humanity, folly and decline. Thus the consequence of these ingredients is a deeply flawed but utterly compelling work, politically and aesthetically a million miles in advance of the celebrated Easy Rider. And, in spite of Darrach€™s interviews with Hopper suggesting a brilliant mind disturbed by depression and drug addiction- including a series of diatribes that fell somewhere between Sartre and Charlie Sheen- it was not the film€™s challenging philosophy and raw dramaturgy that were to be The Last Movie€™s undoing, it was its editing. Subsequent to filming- which, in spite of the potentially derailing factors, finished in a timely fashion and around budget- Hopper completed a rough cut of the film containing a reasonably conventional linear narrative, and began to solicit the views of several friends and artists for their opinion, among whom was the rapturous avant-garde cinematic poet, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky- most famous for the surreal €œWestern,€ El Topo, mocked the banality and familiarity of the film€™s structure, upon which Hopper announced to Universal he would require a full year to re-think and re-edit the film€™s rushes before producing the often uneven, but equally exhilarating final cut that is most commonly known today. Universal pictures and, in particular, company President Lew Wasserman were horrified with the results and many people within the company lobbied Hopper vigorously to return to something approaching the film€™s original edit. During these off-screen political wrangles, The Last Movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it won the grand prize for best film. In Europe, such experimentalism and subversive content was far more readily accepted, and its dark heart was warmly embraced by Hopper€™s fellow artists whereas, more typically, it was met with confusion and often antipathy by less cultured American film critics, more familiar with formulaic studio fair. Although very brief runs of the film occurred in both Hollywood and New York, causing a reasonable stir, Hopper€™s battles with Universal were ongoing. Wasserman, a studio giant for many decades, was unwilling to be defied and ordered Hopper to perform the re-edit. Hopper, as intransigent and unrelenting as ever, refused , and the occasional arthouse run and pirated copy aside, one of cinema€™s most daring novelties was all but buried, along- once again- with Dennis Hopper€™s career. It is somewhat ironic that while it is conventional wisdom that Hopper€™s pure artistic vision led to the film€™s demise when, in reality, it was a punitive act of egotism from one of Hollywood€™s dictatorial studio-heads that ensured its failure. Hopper€™s cult following and popularity in Europe alone would probably have ensure that Universal made back their relatively modest outlay; such was Wasserman€™s power and wrath, however, he was able to write off this loss to hold up Hopper as an example of the primacy of studio wealth. Hopper would never again be able to approach the heights of The Last Movie or Easy Rider, and although after a decade or more he was allowed to direct to a somewhat indifferent standard, he did not approach the fevered state of creativity that caused one former girlfriend to liken his artistic sensibility to Rimbaud. Subsequent to his third and final comeback precipitated by his role as the fiendish deviant antagonist in David Lynch€™s Blue Velvet, Hopper enjoyed a more sanguine €œelder statesman€ persona in the public eye, a far cry from the speeches, brawls and orgies that characterised his time directing- and editing- The Last Movie, but still proud of the film he made efforts to ensure the film was finally seen by a broader audience. Hopper is said to have told his friend Hugh Hefner he had acquired the US distribution rights to the movie in 2006, but no release was ever forthcoming and since his demise, no further news has been issued by NBCUniversal, despite a clamour for a belated DVD release in many of Hopper€™s obituaries and retrospectives. When NBCUniversal UK were approached regarding the current status of the film€™s distribution rights they declined to comment on more than one occasion, so it seems- for now at least- The Last Movie€™s distant notoriety. A lively pirate market exists for the film of course, and it seems that this is the only way Hopper€™s flawed masterpiece- and that€™s exactly what it is- will see the light of day. But if Hopper were to be watching over you as your finger hovered guiltily over the download button, he would doubtless implore you enthusiastically to stick it to the man, just as he did. It may have been, in most respects, his Last Movie, but through his defiance he achieved a seldom emulated brilliance. Meanwhile it appears The Last Movie has been on youtube in it's entirety since June 2010; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_06_lpUQpdA
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