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Dennis Hopper's Last Movie
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

The Santa Monica Film Festival (, held Feb. 13-16, 2003, came and went without creating much fuss on the radar in Hollywoodland, despite a Good Cause on board (proceeds went to breast cancer relief) and a slate of movies that included Palm Springs Audience Award winner OT: OUR TOWN. But there is time and room for growth, and in any event its organizers did manage to nab an elder statesman to endorse their indie-film agenda: Dennis Hopper, who arrived on February 15 to accept their first-ever “Persistence of Vision” award. Hopper brought along a print of his infamous 1971 experimental film THE LAST MOVIE for a rare public screening of this authentic piece of Hollywood arcana.

THE LAST MOVIE isn’t easy to describe, nor to watch. The film is best known, notoriously, for holding the record of longest pre-credit sequence in Hollywood history—the title appears a half-hour into the movie. As Hopper briefly addressed the three-quarters-full theatre before the screening, even he struggled to find the right introductory remarks; he finally advised the crowd, rather cryptically, to “think of it as the use of film as film, as an artist uses paint as paint.”

Lights dimmed, and for the next hour and fifty minutes the Santa Monica audience viewed one of the most uncompromising movies ever produced by a major studio (in this case, Universal). It is a bizarre melange of self-mocking Western-movie cliché and Pirandellian metaphysics. Somewhere in Peru, an American film crew is making a shoot-em-up action flick, but from the get-go, reality and fantasy blur indistinguishably. Random violence breaks out, seemingly without motivation. Hopper dallies with a local prostitute. Beautiful shots of the Peruvian countryside are regularly interjected (courtesy of cinematographer László Kovács). Occasionally, a “SCENE MISSING” title card flashes on the screen. What’s the plot, you ask? I’m not even sure.

It is a film for people who think Alejandro Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO isn’t sufficiently surreal. Indeed, the two films are much alike, both of them being cracked-up Westerns; but EL TOPO became a midnight-movie favorite, while THE LAST MOVIE barely got released.

I wasn’t surprised when Hopper, taking the microphone again after the film for a Q&A session, revealed that he knew Jodorowsky, who suggested moving the shoot from Mexico to Peru. Further influence on the film, though only in spirit, came from Godard, a favorite of Hopper's at the time. THE LAST MOVIE, Hopper further explained, was originally planned as his debut directorial effort, but EASY RIDER came first—fortunately for his career, I think, as it’s doubtful that an audience-unfriendly film like THE LAST MOVIE would have opened many doors for him; he might not have made EASY RIDER at all. But clearly, he’s proud of the movie—“This is the film I wanted to make,” he emphasized—and he mentioned some three or four times how it won top honors at the Venice Film Festival. I had the strong impression that the business of accepting prizes appeals to him immensely.

I’m not certain what to make of THE LAST MOVIE. It’s something less than a masterpiece, but you have to admire the reckless integrity that went into creating it. You also have to envy the relative freedom enjoyed by filmmakers in the early ‘70s—in some ways, THE LAST MOVIE may have lived up to its title after all.

Afterward, Hopper traveled one block away to Gotham Hall to accept the “Persistence of Vision” trophy. He spoke briefly about his hopes for the future of indie cinema, lurked around the crowded nightclub for a few minutes, then disappeared. Now in his sixties, Hopper wears his age well; he moves with the slow, steady, even regal gait of one comfortable with life in the public eye. After years as a near-causality of the Hollywood fast lane, he has metamorphosed into a respected artist—even, perhaps, an inspiration to those of us who like to believe that the outlaw Hollywood of a generation ago never really left.

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originally posted: 02/22/03 14:17:33
last updated: 12/31/03 08:03:33
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