Remembering 'Easy Rider' and 'The Last Movie'
CinemaTexas program notes
The following program notes were originally printed in conjunction with screenings put on by CinemaTexas, a graduate-student-run film society that was part of the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin from the early Seventies to the mid-Eighties. An archive of CinemaTexas program notes can be found at www.cinematexasnotes.com.
Vol. 18, No. 1
January 14, 1980
EASY RIDER (1969)
Directed by Dennis Hopper. Produced by Peter Fonda. Written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern. Director of photography: László Kovács. Film editor: Donn Cambern. Assistant editor: Stanley Siegel. Consultant: Henry Jaglom. Music editing: Synchrofilm, Inc. Re-recording: Producer's Sound Service, Inc. Sound: Ryder Sound Service, Inc. Titles: Cinefx. Color processing: Consolidated Film Industries. Art director: Jerry Kay. Assistant cameraman: Peter Heiser Jr. Sound mixer: Le Roy Robbins. Script supervisor: Joyce King. Location manager: Tony Vorno. Sound effects: Edit-Rite, Inc. Gaffer: Richmond Aguilar. Key grip: Thomas Ramsey. Transportation: Lee Pierpont. Post production: Marilyn Schlossberg. Second assistant director: Len Marsal. Prop master: Robert O'Neil. Makeup: Virgil Frye. Special effects: Steve Karkus. Still man: Peter Sorel. Electrician: Foster Denker. Best boy: Mel Maxwell. Sound boom: James Contrares. Generator: Guy Badger. Stunt gaffer: Tex Hall. Production manager: Paul Lewis. Associate producer: William L. Hayward. Executive producer: Bert Schneider. Raybert Productions, Inc. A Columbia Pictures Release. Songs: "The Pusher" by Hoyt Axton, performed by Steppenwolf; "Born To Be Wild" by Mars Bonfire, performed by Steppenwolf; "I Wasn't Born To Follow" by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, performed by The Byrds; "The Weight" by Jaime Robbie Robertson, performed by The Band; "If You Want to Be a Bird" by Antonia Duren, performed by The Holy Modal Rounders; "Don't Bogart Me" by Elliot Ingber and Larry Wagner, performed by Fraternity of Man; "If Six Was Nine" by Jimi Hendrix, performed by The Jimi Hendrix Experience; "Let's Turkey Trot" by Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller, performed by Little Eva; "Kyrie Eleison" by David Axelrod, performed by The Electric Prunes; "Flash, Bam, Pow" by Mike Bloomfield, performed by The Electric Flag; "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" by Bob Dylan, performed by Roger McGuinn; "Ballad of Easy Rider" written and performed by Roger McGuinn. CAST: (in order of appearance): Peter Fonda (Wyatt/Captain America), Dennis Hopper (Billy), Antonio Mendoza (Jesus), Phil Spector (The Connection), Mac Mashourian (Bodyguard), Warren Finnerty (Rancher), Tita Colorado (Rancher's Wife), Luke Askew (Stranger On Highway); Commune: Luana Anders (Lisa), Sabrina Scharf (Sarah), Sandy Wyeth (Joanne), Robert Walker (Jack), Robert Ball (Mime #1), Carmen Phillips (Mime #2), Ellie Walker (Mime #3), Michael Pataki (Mime #4); Jail: Jack Nicholson (George Hanson), George Fowler Jr. (Guard), Keith Green (Sheriff); Café: Hayward Robillard (Cat Man), Arnold Hesse Jr. (Deputy), Buddy Causey Jr. (Customer #1), Duffy Lafont (Customer #2), Blase M. Dawson (Customer #3), Paul Guedry Jr. (Customer #4), Suzie Ramagos (Girl #1), Elida Ann Herbert (Girl #2), Rose LeBlanc (Girl #3), Mary Kaye Hebert (Girl #4), Cynthia Grezaffi (Girl #5), Colette Purpera (Girl #6); House of Blue Lights: Toni Basil (Mary), Karen Black (Karen), Lea Marmer (Madame), Cathé Cozzi (Dancing girl), Thea Salerno (Hooker #1), Anne McClain (Hooker #2), Beatriz Monteil (Hooker #3), Marcia Bowman (Hooker #4), David C. Billodeau and Johnny David (Men in pickup truck).
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island.
– Woody Guthrie
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop
Children what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down.
– Stephen Stills
I Hear America Singing
– Walt Whitman
EASY RIDER ... is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it. How else are we to approach a movie that advertises itself: "A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere"? Right away you know that something superior is up, that somebody is making a statement, and you can bet your boots (cowboy, black leather) that it's going to put down the whole rotten scene. What scene? Whose? Why? Man, I can't tell you if you don't know. What I mean to say is, if you don't groove, you don't groove. You might as well split.
– Vincent Canby,
The New York Times
July 15, 1969.
EASY RIDER, a sparsely written cross-country movie with a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on extravagant motorcycles, is marred by draggy, romantic material: chunks of time spent on glinting handlebars, hippies solemnly sprinkling the earth with seeds at sundown, ghastly Bachrach portraiture.
– Manny Farber,
in Negative Space.
The landmark movie of 1969 was EASY RIDER, a film about two heroin dealers who take profits from their last sale and motorcycle across America, looking for meaning to their lives, to a background sound track of contemporary rock music .... The film, though open to other interpretations, captured the imagination of young audiences who identified the cyclers' rootlessness and alienation from American society with their own. Costing $400,000 to produce, the film earned more than twenty-five times that amount [between 40 to 60 million dollars worldwide] and propelled its principals – Dennis Hopper, the director and co-star, with Peter Fonda; Jack Nicholson, whose supporting role as an alcoholic southern lawyer turned him into a major box-office attraction; and Bert Schneider, whose BBS Productions financed the film – into a vanguard who appeared to be taking over Hollywood for the young generation.
– Robert Sklar,
And you better start swimming
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
– Bob Dylan
Stranger: You know, this could be the right place. The time's running out.
Wyatt: Yeah, I'm hip about time. But I just gotta go.
– EASY RIDER
The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever the river goes
That's where I want to be
Flow, river flow.
– Roger McGuinn, "Ballad of Easy Rider."
The American journey of cleansing, growth and discovery has traditionally involved movement westward: the days of the pioneers, the first illegal (according to the British) journeys over the Appalachian Mountains, the Louisiana Purchase, manifest destiny, the war with Mexico and so on. The United States steadily, inevitably expanded from the Atlantic coast towards the Pacific. When Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier dead in 1893, it was the Western frontier he was talking about, and he felt that this cessation of territorial accumulation would profoundly affect this country. In the late 1950s, when Dean Moriarty bebopped across the country, hugging the road, loving jazz and celebrating a life very different from the bourgeois ideal dream, it was mostly his movements westward that were detailed. There he was, driving all night, talking all night, a jazz vision heading for California, a beat poem personified that somehow got to the heart of the American dream. In the early Sixties, Kennedy's governmental image was "The New Frontier" at the same time an ambitious program was tackling the "frontier" of space. These campaigns both evoked the memory of Americans/America settling the West and of that westward movement which had driven the nation so long, so far, and so purely (according to the history books when I was in school, anyway).
The mid-to-late Sixties saw numerous and deep changes affecting this country. Not only did the war in Vietnam split the country, but it gave the political left new life to tackle the numerous injustices that it perceived in American society and to demand basic changes in the structure of the country. The nature of American journey changed. In the mid-Sixties, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters traveled east from California on a mission with a combined purpose of fun and exorcism. This was the voyage back into the womb of the country. By the late Sixties, American radicals were printing their own small newspapers and magazines and announcing that they were communicating from and operating in "the heart of the beast." To certain parts of the American left, the country itself had become the enemy and it's metaphorical and mythological foundations and visions (including the movement West and demand for new territory) were considered corrupt.
Central to a consideration of the cultural richness of EASY RIDER as a document of those times is the overstatement involved in the above position. There were numerous legitimate concerns – acts of oppression and restriction by the state, the power of the military-industrial complex, the class system that dominated the country, the Imperialist aggression in Vietnam, and so on. Yet all those aside, the casting of the United States as the ultimate demonic villain of the time addressed more directly the left's own sense of theatrics than it did the many existing injustices, how they had come about, and the potential for alleviating them. The exaggeration was almost a traditional Hollywood/pulp fiction version of good guys vs. bad guys/the white hats vs. the black hats. The heroic archetype of the left wasn't John Wayne but Che Guevara, but the new script, however, and its relevance (or non-relevance) to day-to-day life wasn't that different. By going to these romantic narrative extremes, not only were the subtleties of living in the U.S.A. lost, but all consideration of mainstream America as a community of people was abandoned. Instead it was inhabited by self-serving, soulless androids and stereotypes locked in armed combat with the counterculture composed of individuals who, "all they wanted was to be free."
George: You know – this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it. ... Oh, they're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to them. ... What you represent to them is freedom. ... But talking about it [freedom] and being it – that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. 'Course don't ever tell anybody – that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah – they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom – but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em. ... It makes 'em dangerous.
– EASY RIDER
EASY RIDER is a cinematic narrative embodiment of George's vision of the United States. The story is of a journey backward, to the east and south across and down through the country, into the very redneck heart of the beast. Leaving behind the "dream" (i.e., California – the West) of the previous generation, Wyatt and Billy move to fulfill a new and ill-defined dream. There is no real goal this time, only movement itself. What Wyatt and Billy discover in this new approach to "myth America" is a frequently hostile landscape and a vision of hell. What is important here is that, despite all their claims to the contrary and despite their feigned innocence and naivete, this is the America that Wyatt and Billy expected to find. These men are obviously in their thirties, and to be as ignorant about life in America in 1969 as they seem to be, one would have to be an idiot. People were screamed at and abused for wearing long hair not only in rural areas during the Sixties but in cities as well. Wyatt and Billy move through the landscape well aware that they are outsiders. This is not to justify the reactions they run into but to examine their own motivation for their quest.
The story itself is almost a traditional morality tale in classic tragedy's clothes. Wyatt and Billy deal cocaine to get enough money to achieve their dream, but since cocaine is corrupt (and they, themselves, are aware of this) they have doomed themselves. Wyatt emanates a fatalistic air throughout the movie. This is a voyage of desperation, of suicide rather than discovery. The easy agony and angst of existence in a cruel, hostile environment resembles The Sorrows of Young Werther, updated and adjusted to the Sixties American counterculture, with love reincarnated as politics.
The film becomes most interesting as a cultural document of America at the turn of the decade. The first burst of New Left/counterculture enthusiasm had died. On Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco they had buried the hippie. It was a time of change, of transition. The government had declared a sizeable segment of the population as "the enemy" and no one was sure how to respond. EASY RIDER contains the most romanticized and self-mythologizing, self-martyring solution.
It thus becomes interesting to examine this film on a number of levels: the story it is telling and its approach to that story; the portrait of America it actively presents and the portrait that seeps through the cracks (the subtext). A certain school of film criticism argues against the "intentionalist fallacy." By this they are arguing against judging a work by what the writer supposes the creator of the piece intended. They feel the text has its own integrity and should be judged independent of its source. The logic of that argument is not only strong but often helps one from falling into meandering paths of speculation that in no real way help to understand either the film or its relationship to the society. In the case of EASY RIDER, by trying to determine what Fonda, Hopper and Southern were trying to do we can add another layer to the text. The reverberations between how the authors conceived this picture, how the audience of the time received it and the very contradictions and hostile messages it now seems to contain creates a motherlode of information about earlier political and social attitudes.
EASY RIDER seems to have been executed as a romantic tragedy that in retrospect looks like self-serving glorification. Middle Americans in the late Sixties were hostile to the left and the counterculture but they also viewed themselves as an embattled, threatened minority. This was especially true in the white South, which saw its lifestyle and traditions being attacked and destroyed. This does not justify any of the numerous acts of violence and ignorance that were occurring in America, circa 1969; it is simply to say that this movie presents a view of America as shallow, naive and one-dimensional as that espoused by the groups and subcultures vilified within the film.
These notes serve as an introduction to the richness of ideologies contained in this film. It should be noted that when EASY RIDER appeared it was a rallying point and a welcome narrative support to a movement that also felt itself threatened and attacked on all sides, a movement that was humanist and concerned. These notes should not appear as a too-facile attack on Sixties and early-Seventies political movements, because the rightness of many of their arguments has become increasingly self-evident. Instead let it be a discussion of the danger of extremes and of forgetting the words of Jean Renoir about why people do things: "The terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons."
To forestall accusations of excessive self-righteousness in the above, the author proudly proclaims himself a veteran of the New Left who was as involved and supportive of its errors and extremes as of its compassion and glory. To paraphrase Boy Dylan, we were so much younger then, we're older than that now.
– Louis Black
Vol. 13, No. 4
December 8, 1977
THE LAST MOVIE (1971)
Directed by Dennis Hopper. Produced by Paul Stern. Screenplay: Stewart Stern. Story: Dennis Hopper, Stewart Stern. Executive Producer: Michael Gruskoff. Director of Photography: László Kovács. Art Director: Leon Erickson. Stunt Coordinator: Charles Ball. Associate Producer: David Hopper. Music: Kris Kristofferson, John Buck Wilkin, Chabuca Granda, Severn Darden, the villagers of Chinchero, Peru. Post-Production Associates: Todd Colombo, Rol Murrow, David Hopper. An Alta-Light Production. Filmed in Peru. Editors: David Berlatski, Antranig Mahakian. Production Assistants: Meryl Seliner, Diana Schwab. Set Decorations: Peter Cornberg. Peruvian Coordinator: Daniel Camino. Special Effects: Milton Rice. Makeup: Ted Cooley. Wardrobe: Gerald Alpert. Sound Mixer: Le Roy Robbins. Script Supervisor: Joyce King. Assistant Director: Vincent Cresciman. Sound Effects: Edit-Rite, Inc. Sound Re-recording: Producers Sound Service. Opticals and Titles: VanDer Veer Photo Effects. Color by Technicolor. Released by Universal. Running Time: 108 minutes. (Distributor of tonight's print: Universal 16; 810 S. St. Paul St.; Dallas, TX 75201.) CAST: Dennis Hopper (Kansas), Stella Garcia (Maria), Julie Adams (Mrs. Anderson), Tomas Milian (Priest), Don Gordon (Neville Robey), Roy Engel (Mr. Anderson), Donna Baccala (Miss Anderson), Samuel Fuller (Director), Poupee Bocar (Nightclub Singer), Sylvia Miles (Script Clerk), Daniel Ades (Tomas Mercado), John Alderman (Jonathon), Michael Anderson Jr. (Mayor's son), Richmond Aguilar (Gaffer), Tom Baker (Member of Billy's Gang), Toni Basil (Rose), Anna Lynn Brown (Dance Hall Girl), Rod Cameron (Pat Garrett), Bernard Casselman (Doctor), James Contreras (Boom Man), Eddie Donno (Stuntman), Severn Darden (Mayor), Lou Donelan (Prop Man), Warren Finnerty (Banker), Peter Fonda (Young Sheriff), Fritz Ford (Citizen), Michael Greene (Hired Gun), Samya Greene (Baby), William Gray (Member of Billy's Gang), Al Hopson (Sheriff), Bud Hassink (Member of Billy's Gang), George Hill (Key Grip), Henry Jaglom (Minister's Son), Gray Johnson (Stunt Man), Clint Kimbrough (Minister), Kris Kristofferson (Minstrel Wrangler), John Phillip Law (Little Brother), Ted Marklund (Big Brother), Victor Maymudes (Member of Billy's Gang), Cynthia McAdams (Dance Hall Girl), Jim Mitchum (Art), Al Monroe (Citizen), Jorge Montoro (Jorge), Owen Orr (Hired Gun), Michelle Phillips (Banker's daughter), Robert Rothwell (Citizen), Richard Rust (Cisco), John Stevens (Cameraman), Toni Stern (Dance Hall Girl), Dennis Stock (Still Man), Dean Stockwell (Billy), Russ Tamblyn (Member of Billy's Gang), Alan Warnick (Assistant Director), John Buck Wilkin (Minstrel Wrangler).
... At 34, [Dennis Hopper] is known in Hollywood as a sullen renegade who talks revolution, settles arguments with karate, goes to bed with groups and has taken trips on everything you can swallow or shoot.
On the other hand, in the salons and galleries of Los Angeles and New York he is recognized as a talented poet, painter, sculptor, photographer and as a leading collector of pop art. He is also, after eight years on the movie industry's blacklists, the hottest director in Hollywood. EASY RIDER, which cost only $370,000, is rapidly approaching a projected $50 million gross. In the process it has polarized a new film audience of under-30s, generated a new school of talented young directors such as Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Rush and Melvin Van Peebles, and established the style of a New Hollywood in which producers wear love beads instead of diamond stick pins and blow grass when they used to chew Coronas. Yet to Dennis Hopper, EASY RIDER was just a childish toddle in the direction he intends his movies to take. "My next picture," he has promised his friends, "is really going to be heavy, man."
To make it, he solicited $850,000 from Universal, the studio that not so long ago gave us TAMMY AND THE DOCTOR and MA AND PA KETTLE AT WAIKIKI. Then he hired a cast that included some of the most conspicuous individualists in Hollywood, among them Peter Fonda, Dean Stockwell, Jim Mitchum, Russ Tamblyn, John Phillip Law and Michele Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. He hired Dennis Hopper as the movie's leading man, and he invited everybody to a location 14,000 feet above sea level in the backlands of Peru, a country where all the major drugs – cocaine, speed, heroin, hallucinogens – are restricted but can in fact be purchased over the counter without a prescription. "Get all those cats together down there," said one Hollywood reporter, "and you'll have the wildest scene in the history of the movies."
– Brad Darrach
June 19, 1970.
The curious problem with [THE LAST MOVIE] is that it is unlikely to speak directly or congenially to any particular audience. Its network of religious and literary symbol and its hectically non-linear structure push the film altogether out of bounds for the mass popular audience, while its almost gleeful preoccupation with Pirandellian puzzles of appearance and reality and its studied concept of life imitating art are likely to seem undigested and sophomoric to informed audiences.
– Forster Hirsch,
New York Times,
October 24, 1971.
At dinner the other night I told my friend Steve that he had to see this movie. I told him he would hate it more than any other film he would ever see. He would hate it so completely because it violated every one of his conceptions as to what a movie should be. He might be here in the audience tonight.
I liked it. I'm not quite sure yet how much.
It came like a legend, like a crazy man from the mountains, like a woman little met but much talked of, like a crucial document on our immediate past. It casts a six year shadow. We've heard of it from Life magazine and Rolling Stone and confused reviewers almost everywhere. The word on it was rarely good, but no matter how dull reviewers claimed it was, they always made it sound interesting.
My friend Ed was knocked out of his seat. It worked much better than either he or I had ever imagined it could. This was mostly because the only people who seem to take it completely seriously are the ones who hate it.
Tonight on television I watched HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL, which is a documentary about the Hollywood Ten, HUAC and blacklisting. Somehow what that film was talking about seemed a lot more important than whether this film is good or not. This film seems silly in comparison. It is silly. It is a film that has needed to be made since the birth of movies. Thank God it's done.
Dennis Hopper, after years of knocking around Hollywood and appearing in film after film, was one of the hottest commercial properties (dynamite word for a human being) in 1970, as a result of EASY RIDER. After this film and because of his reputation for drug use and his politics, he was virtually unhireable in this country. The blacklist ain't dead, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, it just smells funny.
Clinton woke up after watching the film and snorted. He told me that he more than hated it, that he was angry. He was tired of filmmakers making films about filmmaking. It seemed to him a self-indulgent, circular activity which resulted in texts that made almost no sense outside of a certain circle of viewers.
I told Clinton that the other night a friend had watched Ken Jacobs' virtually unwatchable, almost staggeringly uninteresting film, TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON. It is a 100-minute experimental film which begins by showing a six-minute 1905 movie and then proceeds to show the movie speeded up, slowed down, speeded up slightly, etc., etc., and ends by showing the original six minutes over again. After the showing there was a discussion and my friend mentioned that she had found the film boring. She was quickly attacked by the other participants and told that if she didn't like the film she didn't understand movies.
Clinton looked at me, waited awhile, smiled as only he can smile, and said, "I may not understand movies, but I sure like them a lot."
Understand movies? How? In some vast theoretical way? The person I know who has read and understood the most cinematic theory almost never goes to the movies. He is home reading books. He might like TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON. I'm not sure he would like THE LAST MOVIE.
Movies are themselves. They are not books or plays, television shows or holograms. To make the claim that we can understand all films by watching one film in the same way we can understand all literature if we understand one sentence is to make a claim that boasts of a cinematic illiteracy almost terrifying in its arrogance and its ignorance.
Movies are entertainment before they are art. You can make movies that ignore this fact, but then your audience is limited to the already convinced, it is limited to an audience that we are told is the most discriminating, most cinematically literate, and most intelligent. They will tell you that about themselves any time you ask. I'm not quite sure if they would like THE LAST MOVIE.
Experimental films can become new cinematic grammatical texts, they can create new forms of narrative, they can show us new thematic approaches, they can redefine cinematic texture. They can also be a lot more interesting to read about (Warhol's early work, Jacob's film) than to watch. They can also be incredibly exciting to see; they can be beautiful and they can be thought provoking. There is just this embarrassing tendency on the part of some writers and some viewers to give them way too much credit, to insist that they are cinema. Jonas Mekas has said, "There is a cinema of Antonioni, of Rivette and of Snow. The idea of one cinema is a fascist idea." Among the many other things it is, THE LAST MOVIE is an answer to the "one cinema" fascists.
It comes on like a hero of a Peckinpah movie, determined, despite everything, to survive. And there it is at the end, bent and bleeding, torn and wounded, but somehow it is still alive, and somehow its sense of humor is still intact.
I'm not sure where to begin with this movie. There is a whole lot I want to say, but I'm not sure that it deserves it. Actually I am sure it does deserve discussion, but I am not sure if I can do it. And if I can, I'm not sure I should. This is the kind of movie people hate film graduate students over. The parts of it that work are so delightfully funny, often in much a moronic way, that to talk about them too long shows me up for a cripple involved in a race with a horse. Almost in spite of itself, this film moves gracefully to exactly where it's going and (to get completely outrageous) to exactly where it is intended to go.
THE LAST MOVIE demands a variety of views. It is not enough of a piece to merit a long coherent essay describing what it is doing because that would be forcing an order where none exists. This file is not coherent or even very cohesive, and to pretend it is becomes lunacy.
To pretend that watching 100 minutes of TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON somehow leads us to understand movies transcends lunacy and approaches the worst kind of elitist bullshit. We are creating signifiers where there is nothing signified. We are deconstructing texts for no apparent reason and with no end in mind. We are binding the feet of film in the same way the feet of literature have already been bound, as if we know what is pretty and meaningful, and if it takes ten million words we will show why this film is it.
DUCK AMUCK, which is a Chuck Jones cartoon being shown before THE LAST MOVIE, does almost all the same things and is funnier.
I'm not sure but I think Daffy Duck might like this movie. It fits his universe.
At the very least this film can be a lot of fun, and if you don't try to understand it, and if you accept the fact that it is a very expensive home movie, and if you can even comprehend that it is one of the least dignified and least serious art films ever made, you just might make it through. I, hopefully, am not sounding too condescending. I'm just not sure what to say or even how to talk about this movie.
At a friend's house one night, we saw THE LAST MOVIE followed by TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. At the end of CHAIN SAW, my friend Pam looked up clutching a pillow, barely able to speak, still shaking with fright, and said that she absolutely hated THE LAST MOVIE.
My friend Marge pointed out that usually when filmmakers went south of the border to make a film it was because labor was cheaper. On this film she said it was undoubtedly because drugs were cheaper. If the film had been shot in Los Angeles the budget would probably have doubled just paying for dope.
In order to discuss this film I feel that I should describe my bathroom habits and my bedroom and what I had for breakfast and what shows I watch on television and who my friends are.
This is being typed on an old grey Smith-Corona portable that was lent to me by my friends.
THE LAST MOVIE is about just that. It is about film and reality. It's along the lines of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. It is a film about itself more than anything else.
When Godard deconstructs his text, when he takes his film apart and reconstructs it as we watch, he is doing it to talk about society and about people's interactions. Hopper is only talking about films and filmmaking. The points being made are about acting and directing and productions. The people are not real, the relationships do not materialize, the society is not looked at.
I read an unpublished manuscript several years ago in which the author was talking about what was going on around him as he wrote. At one point he mentioned that his wife was in the kitchen making meat loaf for dinner. Of course, I believed him, since there was no reason not to and who really cared or even noticed. Several lines later he confessed that he had lied and that she was actually making hamburgers.
Of course, I again believed him, but now I think that his wife really might have been making meat loaf, or she might not have been cooking at all, or she might not have even been at home. The nature of small fictions is fascinating because they lead us to the nature of large fiction. We tend to believe what we read or at least to accept it. We react to film even more strongly because we think we can see exactly what is happening.
THE LAST MOVIE plays with that notion in every way possible. The form of the film matches the context of the story. The Indians become so enamored of the filming that they think the process itself is the movie. The film refers back to itself all the time. It is a film about a group of filmmakers making a film and then it is a film about a group of Indians imitating filmmakers making a film. Beyond this it is at times a film that attempts to fictionalize its own making. We see the party occurring. It is occurring "within" the film, but maybe the party actually occurred and Hopper just went and filmed some of it. It is a film with certain major stars (Fonda and Phillips) gracing, but barely noticeable in, the background. The filming becomes, maybe because of the concept of the film and maybe because of all the drugs, part of the film. There are obviously no clear lines drawn between, behind and in front of the cameras. No lines are drawn between the lives of the actors on screen and off. The film becomes a jumble with numerous layers of filmic reality and layers of filming reality meshed. The story in Life magazine served to introduce the American public into this jumble and make the audience aware that there were none of the conventional lines we have come to expect separating the film from what is going on outside and around it.
Because of its very incompetence, because of Hopper's overwhelming self-indulgence, because the film is almost incoherent at places and badly crafted, it succeeds in a way that LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and most other films that ask these questions and raise these issues never could. What I wonder most about is what the Indians really thought of the filmmakers and the film.
This film is like punk rock in that it is angry and inarticulate, in that it is excessive and does not pay attention to form, in that it is brutal without compassion, in that it is self-indulgent and undisciplined, in that you can pogo to it far easier than you can watch it.
Most importantly, THE LAST MOVIE is not coherent, though there is an overwhelming temptation to try and make it coherent, a temptation for the mind to organize it some way. It is not coherent even though Hopper might want us to believe that in some strange way it is.
The movie, all else aside, is occasionally brilliant. Movies are a religion. Movie-going is devotional and based on faith and the need for catharsis, and movie making is ritualistic and grounded in ceremony. Movie-making is also mythic and movies are magic and they have been studied by their devotees since the early days of Hollywood. Fan magazines, newspaper interviews, films on stars and on filmmaking and on Hollywood have all resulted in young men and women making the pilgrimage to Tinsel Town.
When Uncle Carl Laemmle made a star out of Florence Lawrence by staging a phony suicide, he created one of the first mimetic gods of the modern era (warriors were often mimetic gods) – a god so powerful that it assumes several identities at once and is constantly changing the range of those identities. Sounds like garbage? It probably is. The film talks about this a lot, though I'm not quite sure I know exactly what it is saying.
We always know it is Dennis Hopper and not Kansas and that Hopper is directing the film, that it is Dennis Hopper directing Samuel Fuller directing Dennis Hopper as Kansas. There is no way, given the structure of the film and the information revealed, that any kind of completely fictional narrative could be believed. More than ever believing any of the "story," I think we watch THE LAST MOVIE out of a fascination to try and see what it is going to do and where it is going to take us. We are always aware of the story-telling/movie-making that is going on.
The only time the film becomes as dull and as stupid and as offensive and as insipid as the reviewers have hinted is when it slips into traditional narrative for about thirty minutes, roughly one third of the way into the movie. Hopper seems intent on displaying every sexist attitude one man can have. He almost succeeds.
I am twenty-seven and still alive and still angry and I have not stopped caring and in some bizarre way films like this feed me.
– Louis Black
By mid afternoon the games became more serious. Somebody made a cocaine connection and a number of actors laid in a large supply at bargain prices – $7 for a packet that costs $70 in the States. By 10 p.m. almost 30 members of the company were sniffing coke or had turned on with grass, acid or speed. By midnight, much of the cast had drifted off to bed by twos and threes. At 2 a.m. I was awakened by screams. A young actress had taken LSD and was "having a bummer." At 3 a.m., I heard a rapping on the window beside my bed. A young woman I hadn't met was standing on the a wide ledge that ran along the side of the hotel just below the windowsill. It was raining and her nightgown was drenched. "Do you mind if I come in?" she asked vaguely.
The scenes got wilder as the days went by. One clique threw whipping parties. An actor chained a girl to a porch post and, inspired by the notion that she looked like Joan of Arc, lit a crackling fire at her feet. Another actor swallowed five peyote buds in too rapid succession and almost died.
Dennis and most of his friends had some explanation or other for why they use drugs, but in fact most of them use drugs because the others use drugs. In the New Hollywood it's the hip thing to do. It's also the hip thing not to get addicted, but some of the people I saw in Peru were nibbling god awful close to the hook.
– Brad Darrach,
June 19, 1970.
... Hopper has a very small vocabulary as a filmmaker, and his thoughts here have all of the impact of revelations written down during an acid trip.
– Vincent Canby,
New York Times,
September 30, 1971.
THE LAST MOVIE is a mad attempt to break through conventions and film – not just the Western film, the intellectual film or the mass "with it" film – but all commercial film. ... The attack is at your neighborhood theater – and rather than acknowledge the attack, the public and its spokesmen prefer to say, "But indeed the man is mad." ... Hopper forces the assault, even attacks the film itself. We see black leader, scratches, notice the inserts are missing (clearly they are not), and at one point we hear the camera. For those who think these, and the crudity of the city scenes are simply attempts to cover up flaws, I point to the supreme technical skill, the near-perfection of the sequences of the Fuller movie and the Indian movie. ...
The very title of the film, THE LAST MOVIE, is destructive, the expression of no place to go. If Hopper alienates the viewer, then he has succeeded. He has forced us to question what we see. In a sense it is an act of artistic suicide. No wonder audiences react against it, refuse to acknowledge the attack, and prefer to dismiss Hopper by saying, "I read about him in Life. He was on some drug when he made the film."
– Stuart M. Kaminsky
THE LAST MOVIE is a film composed of a number of interesting, exciting, even dramatic shots; the syntax – the linking and ordering principle – is missing. Of course, there is that center portion of the film which seems to tell some kind of story in a semi-coherent fashion, but maybe that's a mistake – or maybe, that's the real movie and the forty minutes which precede it is a long, drawn-out exposition. It gives us lots of information, but it doesn't takes us anywhere, or perhaps we should say it lets us wander anywhere.
Whether this is the result of Hopper's search for a revolutionary new film form á la Godard or simply the outcome of Hopper's inability to order anything under the influence of mescaline is entirely irrelevant. In the final analysis, such a question can be answered only by conjecture. What we have is a film which challenges us to make some sense (or no sense) of it. Whether seen as an enigmatic work full of mysteries or a pompously pretentious film full of shallow truths, THE LAST MOVIE refuses to reveal itself easily. It is subject to an unlimited number of readings, revealing as many meanings as there are people in the audience to pick them out. I don't know what it means. You don't know what it means. And, most of all, Dennis Hopper doesn't know what it means.
– Ed Lowry
It's called THE LAST MOVIE and it's a story about America and how it's destroying itself. The hero is a stunt man in a lousy Western. When his movie unit goes back to the States, he stays on in Peru to develop a location for other Westerns. He's Mr. Middle America. He dreams of big cars, swimming pools, gorgeous girls. He's so innocent. He doesn't realize he's living out a myth, nailing himself to a cross of gold. But the Indians realize it. They stand for the world as it really is, and they see the lousy Western for what it really was, a tragic legend of greed and violence in which everybody died at the end. So they build a camera out of junk and re-enact the movie as a religious rite. To play the victim in the ceremony, they pick the stunt man. The end is far-out.
– Dennis Hopper
June 19, 1970.
Billy the Kid is one of the most colorful figures in the mythology of the Old West. A deadly, coldblooded killing machine, he reputedly gunned down scores of men ("not counting Indians and Mexicans") in his short lifetime, and would think nothing of murdering defenseless men if he took offense to their idle barroom talk. Eventually, civilization came to the Old West and Billy's reign of terror ended one night when a courageous lawman, Pat Garrett, tracked Billy to his hideout, went in alone, and killed the young desperado in a brief gunfight.
William Bonney is almost as well known in Western legends. After a tough childhood in New York's Bowery, he moved with his mother to Kansas, where at the age of 12 he killed a drunken blacksmith who had insulted his mother. Thus this mild-mannered and shy young boy was forced to live the rest of his life as an outlaw. A friend to the Mexicans and poor Anglos in New Mexico, he made many enemies among the wealthy cattle ranchers who ran the frontier territory. A skilled and cool-headed gunman and rider, he had killed 21 men before he was cut down shortly before his twenty-first birthday – shot twice, in the dark, from ambush, by a former friend now in the employ of the land barons.
William McCarty was a minor historical figure in the "Lincoln County War," a pawn in a socio-political struggle between two rivals factions determined to rule the New Mexican territory. An itinerant ranch hand, McCarty was considered an outlaw once his side lost the war and his enemies ruled the territory. McCarty was eventually hunted down and killed by the Lincoln County Sheriff. In all, he is known to have killed 4 men all of them unarmed.
All the above characters are the same man, of course, in his various mytho-historical reincarnations; THE LAST MOVIE, a film about Billy the Kid, has nothing to do with any of them.
* * *
THE LAST MOVIE is a study of the role of myth and ritual in the modern world. Specifically, it examines the role film has played in propagating the great myth of the century: the American Dream. First Hopper takes us onto the set of a conventional Western about Billy the Kid; we see the deceptions inherent in the medium, both theatrically and commercially. All the action is faked, yet the director repeatedly pleads for more "realism." His vision of realism is summed up in an instruction to his star: "This is the death of Billy the Kid. I want it legitimate and different and better than it's ever been done before." No one notices the contradictions in this statement, because the movie makers are totally immersed in such unreality.
But if a film is an unrealistic replica of reality, reality can become an all too real replica of the filmic world. The Peruvians form their own film company, using fake equipment and techniques, but real action. The townsfolk begin to act out the ritualistic violence they have seen. Hopper tries to show them how to stage a fight scene, informing them that "It's all fake in the movies." But they ignore him, protesting, "But that's not real," and proceed to beat each other up. Hopper is amused at their naivete, but in a real sense they are closer to the essence of movies than he is. In a conventional movie such as the one being shot in THE LAST MOVIE, the script reads "man is beaten up," and the audience sees a man being beaten up. It is a story of a real beating, perceived as a real beating; only the cinematic techniques are fake.
Peru is seen throughout as real in comparison to the superficiality of Hollywood and America. The casual acceptance of death in the society is shocking to Hopper (and to us, the audience), but it is merely an indication of our alienation from basic realities. Yet the film refuses to simplify, to portray the Peruvians as noble savages defending their traditions. "It don't mean we don't like nice things, Gringo," says Hopper's girlfriend. After her first taste of luxury, she is far more ambitious and greedy than he. Clearly progress is coming to Peru as it came to the Old West.
Civilization has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is certainly inevitable. Hopper and his friend continue the advance into the frontier at the end. In EASY RIDER, two years earlier, Hopper portrayed the disastrous consequences of the American frontier turning inward on itself as its Western heroes travelled back East. In THE LAST MOVIE, America has found a new West and, in the frontier spirit, Hopper vows in his last line to "Keep heading West." This colonial spirit is damaging to the natives, but it is difficult to blame Hopper for trying to stay ahead of the frontier.
Of course, throughout the film there is confusion between Hopper the character and Hopper the director. The search for the gold mine, in its similarity to the quest of the Spanish conquistadors, underline the exploitive nature of the director and the character. On another level the gold symbolizes Hopper's search for cinematic excellence and truth. The statement "It's not commercial. You can't make back your investment" applies as well to THE LAST MOVIE, a film which almost ruined Hopper's career, as to the gold mine to which it is referring. The partners' determination and dedication reinforce our admiration for their continued westering, even if the end result is the spread of the kind of American "culture" represented by the broom manufacturer.
As the film progresses, however, the various levels of reality become hopelessly intertwined and it becomes harder to see anything as real, pure, and free from mythic connotations. The actions of the village filmmakers are clearly patterned after cinematic cliches, but another powerful theatrical influence is in evidence – the Church. The film comes to resemble a religious pageant, and Hopper becomes a Christ figure. When Hopper is arrested by the villagers "for stealing our sets," the stage is set for a classic finale – but to which movie? Kansas is accused of interfering with the villagers in their "filming." As a member of the crew of the Billy the Kid movie, he has stolen their town for a set, giving them in return an education in violence. As an American living off Peru, he is guilty of prostituting Peruvian culture. Moreover, Hopper the director may be doubly guilty of these things for making THE LAST MOVIE. Kansas fears for his life at this point, and we are encouraged to ask ourselves, "Will they really kill him?" and thus forced to determine what is meant by "real." Surely Dennis Hopper will not be killed. But will Kansas? Since he is Dennis Hopper, can he, in fact, die? Or is he to play a character who dies – Christ, or Billy the Kid, or Dean, the actor who played Billy the Kid? All of these possibilities are available on the simple plot level, without even considering the symbolic implications. Finally, Hopper is shot and killed, but rises and walks away when the scene is over. Again, the question may be "Who survives?" Hopper shows us several slow motion instant replays, but they serve only to emphasize, not answer, the question.
This last sequence probably symbolizes the story of Christ's death, complete with resurrection. But the story has been totally perverted: the priest is drunk, the atmosphere carnival-like and the hero a questionable character. The new mythology has supplanted the old. Billy the Kid has defeated Christ. But there is little discernable difference between the two systems of illusions. The resurrection is a movie stunt and leads nowhere – Kansas goes West to look for gold that he now knows he cannot find. This quixotic search, inspired by TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, seems every bit as ritualistic and unrealistic as everything else in the film. Ultimately, that's what is so unsettling about THE LAST MOVIE – people's options are limited and predetermined, like movies on Kansas' checkerboard; there's very little room for humanity. Thus the natives have eliminated the only unrealistic link, the equipment and technique, and are left with a pure, real cinema.
– Nick Barbaro