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The Last Movie

by Glenn Erickson Nov 10, 2018

Dennis Hopper’s legendary follow-up to Easy Rider ended his Hollywood directing career for at least fifteen years. Barely seen again after brief premiere bookings, it hasn’t built up a reputation as a suppressed masterpiece. So what is it exactly? A new spotless restoration gives a dazzling rebirth to Hopper’s Perú- filmed deconstruction of Hollywood. The astonishing number of notables in the cast list may in itself demand a viewing.


The Last Movie
Blu-ray
Arbelos
1971 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date November 13, 2018 / 39.99
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Stella García, Tomas Milian, Don Gordon, Julie Adams, Donna Baccala, Sylvia Miles, Rod Cameron, Severn Darden, Sam Fuller, Peter Fonda, Henry Jaglom, Michelle Phillips, Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Clint Kimbrough, John Phillip Law, James Mitchum, Richard Rust, Toni Basil, Michael Anderson Jr.
Cinematography: László Kovács
Production design: Leon Ericksen
Film Editors: David Berlatsky, Antranig Mahakian, Dennis Hopper, [Alejandro Jodorowsky]
Original Music: Severn Darden, Chabuca Granda, Kris Kristofferson, John Buck Wilkin
Written by Stewart Stern with Dennis Hopper
Produced by Paul Lewis
Directed by
Dennis Hopper

 

The Last Movie is indeed something of a Hollywood legend, much written about but seldom seen. I have a hazy memory that it played briefly in Westwood, at the Regent Theater where El Topo, Play it As it Lays and Glen and Randa played, to audiences that came out smelling of marijuana.

It was somewhat legendary around UCLA’s film school, but not in a positive way. In 1969 Easy Rider hit the film industry much the way the Stock Market Crash motivated New Yorkers to jump out windows. Established directors and even big stars were suddenly obsolete, while the reins of creative power were handed to young directors with long hair and little experience. Actual film school achievers like Scorsese and De Palma had to scrape their way through the studio mazes, while big pictures were given to slick industry types that could wear buckskins well, talk a hipster line and convince executives that they had what it took to appeal to the youth market. Easy Rider’s director Dennis Hopper had already been around almost twenty years. He began as a James Dean- era actor and was scalded out of most studio work for insubordination resisting the bullying of old-guard director Henry Hathaway. His Rider became mired in the editing room; partners Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson finally took it away from him and brought in Henry Jaglom to supervise a re-edit down to a breezy 94 minutes. The film’s basic message was that America is Evil and we hippie types need to stick together (while we commit drug crimes): Far out!

Hippie values (there actually were hippie values, and they were nice) lasted beyond the Summer of Love, but even as early as 1970 the tie-dyed buckskinned head-banded doper image retained by Dennis Hopper would have placed him among Hollywood poseurs, had he not been the director of the movie that overturned the entire industry. Hopper’s best move for The Last Movie was to lose the hair and play his new hero as a workaday movie horse-rider and stuntman. Hopper was generally a good actor, and he could definitely claim membership in an elite club. We still remembered the legendary entries in his filmography — he was among the teens watching James Dean’s switchblade fight at the Griffith Observatory in Rebel Without a Cause, and James Dean even punched him out in Giant.

 

Executive Ned Tanen at Universal appeased the corporate demand for youth movies by commissioning a number of under-a-million $ pictures, which started well with the Perrys’ profitable Diary of a Mad Housewife and would also include Milos Forman’s Taking Off, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. The ‘youth program’s’ final project American Graffiti might still be the most purely profitable movie ever made by the studio. Hopper offered a movie project he had been cooking up for years with Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause.

Armed with Uni’s cash, Hopper sought a place where his creative juices could run wild. When the Mexican authorities demanded script approval, Hopper took his show to town of Chinchero in the highlands of Perú, many miles up an unreliable dirt road from Cusco (Cuzco). Hopper brought down a core creative team, minus the writer, because his first act was to ignore the script and make up the story as he went along. His key actors were a solid and interesting bunch, but most of the impressive names in the cast list above are just around for a communal filming session and a wrap party scene. Hopper’s title The Last Movie would seem a Contempt– like Godardian snub at the corporate suits that financed his adventure in a place far from Hollywood oversight. The title fits the story but also implies that Hopper knows his film will crash and burn.

The Last Movie succeeded at gilding Hopper’s reputation as a hippie genius that wouldn’t be controlled by anybody. World interest guaranteed that scores of big magazines sent writers to interview the genius of Easy Rider tackling his next show, whether up in the high country of Perú or at Hopper’s ranch in Taos New Mexico, where he proceeded to edit Last Movie for the better part of a liquor and dope-soaked year. Photos showed Hopper in his hippie duds and headband, walking down a dirt road lumberjack style, with a Winchester over his shoulder and his best girl by his side. Reporters covered his claims of a free love lifestyle by noting the undressed women in attendance. Nicholas Ray drifted through, running up a big Universal phone bill while trying to get his next gig going. Hopper was always more comfortable in the art scene than as a film director. He invited the then- obscure filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky into the editing room, where they reportedly proceeded to splinter a more or less straightforward narrative into something more experimental. It was if the director were a painter, inviting special guests to contribute to his latest collage.

The aggregate verdict on The Last Movie is that Hopper edited it to death, adding Godard- like touches but mainly chopping up the continuity to eradicate the narrative, and thereby advance himself as an artist, not a studio employee. Avant-garde artists often cultivate jargon-laden manifestos to describe, and Hopper typically answered critical questions with elliptical, cryptic statements. When pressed, he’d counter with an offhand remark claiming not to take anything seriously.

 

The Last Movie does have a story, even if Hopper refuses to tell it — he tossed Stewart Stern’s script but used it for inspiration for improvised scenes. A film crew has come to Perú to make a western, directed by ‘Sam,’ who is indeed the great maverick director Sam Fuller. Stuntman Kansas (Hopper) works on the set but also carries on with a prostitute from Cusco, María (Stella García). Kansas tells María that he’s brought a lot of horses down, so that he’ll be able to grow rich hiring them out to western productions to follow. The movie being shot is a Billy the Kid story, and most of the big names in the cast are walk-ons not given special lines or even close-ups for proper identification. Director Sam Fuller shines in several scenes; we know when the show has finished filming because he announces it. Dean Stockwell is Billy but has no lines. Severn Darden contributes a lewd song and photo-crashes a lot of shots. Sylvia Miles is present as a script girl and dances at the party. Michelle Phillips is easy to spot and old-time cowboy star Rod Cameron is used well enough as the Pat Garrett character.

Most of the cast were party invitees that became cameo performers only by accident. Kris Kristofferson is seen singing, and Hopper uses his song Me and Bobby McGee several times; I caught Peter Fonda next to Kristofferson only during a long singing take. I caught John Phillip Law and think I might know who Richard Rust plays, but could not for the life of me identify the normally distinctive Russ Tamblyn, James Mitchum, Clint Kimbrough, and Henry Jaglom. A second pass and I might ID Toni Basil. I did spot photographer Peter Sorel — I met him when he took advertising photos for an effects shoot on Close Encounters. Sorel’s photography is the best place to find recognizable images of most of these actor-personalities.

 

Almost all of the star names are seen at the wrap party, milling about and caught in rather nice impromptu shots of party action. When talking about The Last Movie Hopper often mentions his long tracking shot that follows Kansas through four different musical ‘zones’ of his party. He begins to cry, apparently because the show is finished and this groovy happening is going to break up.

The western street looks like something that would later be built for the Universal Studio Tour, and the movie being filmed looks like one of Universal’s Wild West stunt show performances. It’s just a series of gun-downs, with numerous stuntmen tumbling from rooftops. (I believe Dennis Hopper’s demise as a ‘baby Clanton’ in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral was a tumble from on high.) Sam the director barks out orders. Pat Garrett shoots those bad guys not already dead and the company splits.

 

That leaves about an hour of post-filming story to tell. When the Hollywood crew has gone Kansas hangs around the abandoned western set, where the locals commence play-filming their own western using play-equipment made from bamboo (or wicker?). The insulting conceit is that the Peruvian campesinos are so primitive, they believe that the movie shoot was a sacred ritual like the ones they perform on holy days, that still bear aspects of Indian influence. In other words, it’s an early use of the The Gods Must Be Crazy idea, only more racist. This is borne out when Kansas and his buddies use and abuse the locals in various ways. Tomas Milian (The Big Gundown, Traffic) fills a major role as the local priest, who drinks to excess and has more than one ‘stinko’ improvised scene with Kansas. The priest at first disapproves of the ‘pagan’ imitation of filmmaking, and later makes excuses for it.

Kansas goes into Cusco, links up with his gold-hunting vagrant buddy Neville (Don Gordon) and goes whoring. María doesn’t like that much. Kansas and Neville eventually take off for an abortive search for gold, in homage to / imitation of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The subplot amounts to four or five long shots filmed in the high, dry desert, a drunken improvised campfire scene where Kansas talks about the movie, and a scene in which they try to bum a grubstake from some American tourists slumming their way through Cusco.

The most coherent scenes in The Last Movie are about Ugly Americans at large in Cusco. Kansas and Neville pick up the randy Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), who seem perfectly happy to accompany the boys and Mr. Anderson (Roy Engel) to a sleazy strip club. Then they get really potted, and Kansas gets them into a private room for a lesbian sex show. It’s the last scene indeed that we’d ever expect to see Julie Adams in. She’s surprisingly credible as a moneyed lowlife — her Mrs. Anderson clearly wants to bed the expatriate cowboy. This is indeed the star of the classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as we’ve not seen her before or since.

 

Hopper’s actors soon learned that he wasn’t following the script they were given: “If you can’t invent in the moment you’re not an actor.” He stages many scenes in the worst kind of improvisational manner. Looking genuinely drunk, the enthusiastic Don Gordon waxes idiotic repeating the same lines, waiting for Hopper to give him some kind of clue how to react next. When Hopper mumbles some more words indicating a possible direction, Gordon then attacks from that angle. The scenes with Engel, Baccala and Julie Adams’ work out much better. The impressive Adams gives the unpleasant material some credibility and class, even when improvising while two naked women paw each other, practically in her lap. She may not have realized what she was getting into, but she goes the distance for her director.

It goes without saying that Hopper’s idea of Truth on Film comes with a generous coating of slime. Like Oliver Stone in Born on the Fourth of July, the only kind of male truth Hopper can imagine is one where women are being demeaned. Latin women are assumed to be brainless sluts at the core. María only wants a fur coat and doesn’t listen when Kansas says that they can no longer afford to rent a house. The production surely aggravated the rural Peruvians, who in 1970 followed a Catholic conservative mindset, yet would let the big-spending gringos get away with whatever they wanted — orgies, drugs, etc.. To us it’s clear that Hopper went to Perú for the freedom to do and film things that Hollywood and even Mexico wouldn’t allow. I’m reminded here of the easy availability of locally grown coca-related products, that probably further fueled the on-set madness.

 

As Kansas falls into drunken dissolution, his interaction with the ongoing filmmaking ritual becomes more dangerous. Since the locals are too primitive to know the difference between fantasy and reality (!) they use real bullets and people get hurt. Like Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man, Kansas is pulled back into the movie ‘game,’ where he becomes convinced that he’s the fall guy in a communal sacrifice to the movie gods, or some such thing. It’s a student film idea conceived in Ed Wood heaven, but if presented in a clear fashion it would certainly work well enough. We’d have been perfectly happy to see Kansas martyred for the cumulative sins of Gringo-hood.

Well, director Hopper instead re-edited The Last Movie in a free-form kaleidoscopic manner. Big pieces of the film are as fractured as the LSD- laced New Orleans episode in his Easy Rider. A second viewing does indeed show us that scenes from the middle and end are placed, or pre-loaded, up front. By the time Kansas is stumbling around with real bullet wounds, we remember that some of the first scenes in the movie show him stumbling through a cathedral in a bloodied state.

The show can be described as a box of handsome puzzle pieces assembled in a trendy non-linear order. On the level of individual shots Hopper frequently exhibits a good eye for composition. László Kovács’ camerawork is good throughout, so that even random shots frequently hold our interest. The travelog-y nature of the landscape helps as well, as when the Priest becomes disturbed when his hiking youngsters see Kansas and María having sex in a waterfall below their mountain path. And Hopper’s Cuisinart editorial ideas latch on to something quite good when he intercuts a static CU of Hopper on the ground dying, with matching footage after the sun has gone down — it feels like a death scene in temporal 3-D.

But the movie still has two reels to go. Hopper is intact again, Hopper is wounded and suffering again, and nothing new is imparted in fifteen more minutes of semi-random footage. An extra plays with a gun on a rooftop, repeated several times. Some kids play in an attractive silhouette shots. The ethic of cinema deconstruction gets a full workout. The finish is a flurry of random takes of sidebar action and ‘scene missing’ cards, all of which say, ‘Screw you, Universal.’

Formerly a chronically unemployed actor, Dennis Hopper was suddenly confronted with the problem of artistic legitimacy in the age of the auteur: on the basis of one film, the international press elevated him to Fellini/Antonioni status. The Last Movie wants to be a cult item so badly it hurts; when asked about his aims Hopper talked in circles, name-dropping Jean-Luc Godard. “Hey — it’s a movie about Movies. It’s abstract art, a painting.” Or he’d take another tack, with “(It’s…) about America destroying itself.”

The director evidently couldn’t decide whether he wanted to play genius or martyr. Universal decided not to widely distribute Hopper’s film, knowing that general audiences would respond to his artistic statement by demanding their money back. Universal likely argued that the show might have ‘worked’ if re-edited in a conventional manner. Not mentioned in this disc release is the rumor that the movie was re-edited chronologically. Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies book implied that Universal once briefly syndicated a re-edited version of the film, more-or-less following the original Stewart Stern script, called Chinchero. That rumor is unconfirmed. The movie exists as it is, a thing of occasional visual beauty that frustrates most of our attempts to appreciate it.


 

Arbelos’ Blu-ray of The Last Movie is a near-perfect rendering of Dennis Hopper’s elusive, mostly un-distributed movie. The Peruvian landscape looks pretty wondrous in the 4K restoration, and the soundtrack is very clean for the repeated Kris Kristofferson songs.

The extras reflect the way The Last Movie was initially over-promoted. Two long-form documentaries are here, a new one by Alex Cox (50 minutes) and Paul Joyce’s half-hour piece on Hopper from 1987. I was impressed by a screenwriter who worked with Dennis Hopper, who divides her remarks between high praise and disgust at his treatment of women; and by Cuban actor Tomas Milian, who cries for minutes describing how he couldn’t make himself play the priest character as ‘evil.’

Postcard from Peru returns to the country to interview locals that worked on the movie. Dennis Hopper appears on The Dick Cavett Show (1971) dressed in his full hippie regalia, and gives a brief 2007 video introduction. Universal should have known what they were in for, for their product reel for The Last Movie sets up Hopper as a standard-issue cinema god. Two trailers and a comparison featurette about the Italian restoration finish off the video extras. A fat illustrated booklet contains a laudatory essay by Jessica Hundley, and a curt statement by Julie Adams that reads like an arrest confession. Very informative is a full magazine article written by L.M. Kit Carson, of Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. It’s true — Dennis Hopper must have invited every hipster notable on earth to the Peruvian set of The Last Movie.

I was in Perú last January, and while there it took me a few minutes to remember that the peaceful town of Chinchero was where The Last Movie was filmed. I believe the photo above of Stella García was taken at a fancy house overlooking the Cusco airport. After years of terrorism the country is now a tourism heaven, peaceful and secure and likely with the open signs of poverty kept away from tourist areas. But the new roads are far better tended than our own highways here. There’s a much greater awareness of potential troublemakers from up North — you can buy coca leaves on the street but run a big risk if you try to take a bundle through the airport. I doubt that a wild-eyed gringo movie director would be allowed in today’s Perú to invade a cathedral in mid-mass, or parade a dissolute priest character out in the open.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
with a major assist from correspondent ‘Bee.’


The Last Movie
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair — definitely interesting
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (from Arbelos): Scene Missing (2018), a sixty-minute documentary directed by Alex Cox; Some Kind of Genius (1987), a thirty-minute documentary portrait of Dennis Hopper directed by Paul Joyce: Postcard from Peru (2018), a new series of video interviews with members of the Peruvian crew filmed by Daniel García and Aurelio Medina; The Dick Cavett Show (1971) interview with Hopper; 2007 video introduction by Dennis Hopper, two trailers, 1971 Product Reel, restoration Demo. Illustrated color insert booklet with new essays by Julie Adams, Jessica Hundley and Mike Plante plus a 1971 Evergreen Review report from the set of the film by L.M. Kit Carson.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 8, 2018
(5857chin)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.