Apr 14, 2014

The Last Movie (1971)

As biographer Peter L. Winkler wrote in his book Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (2011): “Universal Studios gives Dennis Hopper creative control over his dream project, The Last Movie . High in the Peruvian Andes, Hopper shoots forty-eight hours of film, spends sixteen drug-fueled months editing it, and creates a career-ending bomb.” Indeed, Hopper’s second European-arthouse-inspired film following the success of his unpredictably successful directorial debut Easy Rider (1969), The Last Movie (1971), is probably the most fittingly, if not unfortunately, titled film of cinema history as a work that essentially caused him to be unofficially blacklisted from Hollywood, thus resulting in his coke-and-Cuba-libre-fueled exile that lasted for about a decade. Originally intended to be Hopper’s first feature as a sort of pet project he co-penned with screenwriter Stewart Stern (who also penned Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which Hopper had a small acting role in), The Last Movie is ultimately a singular case when an unhinged Hollywood actor had the opportunity to direct with total artistic freedom in a primitive foreign land without running water and ultimately become a sort of ‘Messianic auteur,’ with the actor-turned-director once stating regarding the importance of his cinematic crusade: “Man, the movies are coming out of a dark age. I mean, for forty years the uncreative people told the creative people what to do. But now we’re telling them, like forget those big budgets. The only thing you can make with a big budget is a big, impersonal, dishonest movie. The studio is a thing of the past, and they are very smart if they just concentrate on becoming distribution companies for independent producers. We want to make little, personal, honest movies. So we’re all taking small salaries and gambling on a cut of the gross. And we’re going to make groovy movies, man. We’re taking on more freedom and more risk. I think we’re heroes. I want to make movies about us.” And, indeed, Hopper made good on his cinematic mission because after shooting The Last Movie in a small village in Peru with $1 million dollars given to him in good faith from Universal Studios, he stole the master print of the film and headed to Taos, Texas where he worked tirelessly to edit the film while engaging in drug-addled orgies and dangerous behavior like drunken shotgun shooting, thus ultimately creating a celluloid work that was once lovingly described by effortlessly effete film critic Roger Ebert as a, “wasteland of cinematic wreckage.” Featuring disorientating Godardian jump-cuts, a deconstructed non-narrative structure, artsy close-up shots of bumblebees landing on flowers, an outstanding 25-minute wait before the title screen pops up, D. H. Lawrence-esque nods to pre-Christian American Indian paganism and creepy pagan animal masks that would anticipate The Wicker Man (1973), a less than flattering depiction of Peruvians as less-than-noble savages who haul around corpses on the back of their cars and cannot tell the difference between reality and filmic fakery and thus develop develop a murderous cinematic cult, pretentious ‘Missing Scene’ inter-titles spliced throughout the film, and an art-addled approach to the classic western genre, The Last Movie may be convoluted celluloid mess, but it is an interesting and provocative mess that demonstrates that Dennis Hopper probably could have been developed into one of the greatest American auteur filmmakers of his zeitgeist had he worked in Europe instead of Hollywood. 

Kansas (Dennis Hopper) is a Midwest-bred self-stylized ‘counter-culture cowboy’ who is in the Peruvian Andes working as a ‘hired hand’/stuntman on a western film on Billy the Kid that is being directed by none  other than Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor, White Dog). Brainwashed by both counter-culture bullshit and the American dream, Kansas begins to rather enjoy living outside of civilization and becomes obsessed with the native peoples’ primitive culture and customs, not to mention the fact that he is in a romantic relationship with an indigenous prostitute named Maria (Stella Garcia).  Of course, despite his superficial xenophilia, Kansas dreams of getting rich by building hotels around the Andes.  After hanging out at a Catholic church, Kansas befriends a Priest (Cuban-American Tomás Milián, who appeared in Visconti’s segment of Boccaccio '70 (1962) and played the lead in Giulio Questi’s Gothic spaghetti western Django Kill!... If You Live, Shoot! (1967)), who is rather concerned about the moral effect the movie set might have on the locals. When a dude named Dean (a possible tribute to Hopper’s friend Jimmy Dean?) accidentally dies while shooting the last scene of the Billy the Kid film after falling off from a building and smashing threw a roof, Kansas decides to quit the movie business and stays in Peru, as he has a superficial idealized view of the country and its ‘noble savage’ inhabitants. While driving around with Marie, Kansas spots some Peruvian Indians driving around with a bloody and beaten corpse tied to the back of their car and the American cowboy seems somewhat bothered by the fact that his girlfriend couldn't care less at the grizzly sight. One night while hanging with his girlfriend, Kansas is approached by the Priest, who seems rather worried about something. When Kansas asks him, “What the hell is going on down there?” in regard to a number of villagers dancing around flames, the Priest responds in broken English, “Hell…and that’s violence and people are killing themselves in the streets. And movies have brought violence here and I don’t like it.” When Kansas goes to investigate, he finds the natives mimicking the behavior of a film crew, albeit using real violence instead of movie magic, as well as fake bamboo cameras and lights. When Kansas attempts to explain to the ‘auteur’ (who the Priest calls, ‘The Evil One’) of the Peruvian pseudo-film that the violence and deaths featured in Hollywood films are fake and simulated, he complains, “but that’s not real” and demands states, “Gringo…go back to your horses.” Indeed, it seems the Peruvian peasants thought the Hollywood filmmakers were performing ‘miracles’ by shooting men who seemed totally uninjured by their wounds, thus they have created a sort of psychotic celluloid cult, with their bamboo cameras acting as religious icons and whatnot.

As The Last Movie progresses, Kansas temporarily ignores the violent native film crew and has fun doing stuff like having sex under a waterfall with his Mestizo girlfriend in plan view, which is seen by the Priest and his altar boys. Kansas also hooks up with his eccentric schemer friend Neville Robey (Don Gordon), who is looking to find $5,000 so he can fund a gold-mining operation. While hanging out a restaurant, Kansas and Neville hook up with two rich American chicks, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter Miss Anderson (Donna Baccala), who only looks a couple years younger than her high-class tramp mother. Immediately after, Kansas and Neville attend a party hosted by Mrs. Anderson’s hubby Harry Anderson (Roy Engel) with about a dozen other people. After Neville fails to scam $5000 out of no bullshit businessman Harry, the party host agrees to pay for an all-expenses paid trip to a whorehouse, but Kansas’ girlfriend Marie does not want to go there as she worked there and does not want all her new rich white friends to know she is a sub-proletarian pussy-peddler. Ultimately, Harry pays two Peruvian whores to get it on lesbo style, but the exotic primitive lily-licking fun is cut short when Kansas gets in a fight with Marie’s ex-pimp with a shotgun. Rather irked by the ordeal, Kansas beats up his beloved Peruvian Indian princess. The next day, Marie does not complain about the fact that she has a black eye as a result of her beau's brutality, but instead nags Kansas about her deep-seated desire to own Mrs. Anderson’s fancy fur-coat, because, as she tells her bohemian boy toy, “Just because we don’t have electricity and running water, it don’t mean we don’t like to have nice things, Gringo.” Ultimately, Kansas gets Marie the fur coat, but he is forced to become Mrs. Anderson’s whore as payment and performs cunnilingus on the old broad's lady-fur. Due to prostituting himself to Mrs. Anderson, Kansas also manages to get the $5000 to fund Neville’s treasure hunt, but the expedition, which is not actually depicted in The Last Movie, is totally unsuccessful because, although they find gold, it is not enough to make a mining operation profitable for prospective investors. Not long after, Kansas is attacked and captured by the Peruvian ‘filmmakers’, who imprison him in an old school western jail cell, which previously served as a set-piece for the Hollywood western that was shot there. As the ‘witch doctor/director’ of the non-film tells to his fellow Peruvians while parading the American cowboy around the village, Kansas is, “The best part of the last movie. The dead man!” Indeed, from there, the rest of The Last Movie largely comprises of Kansas attempting to dodge bullets and being brutalized from the crazed coca-chewers. Of course, Kansas’ girlfriend Marie also ditches him and joins the murderous festivities with her savage racial kinsmen. In a pothead flashback scene that recalls Easy Rider, Kansas and his pal Neville discuss the gold-mining operation by a bonfire and the latter mentions how he learned everything he needed to know about gold mining by watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Needless to say, in a film where a drugged-out counter-culture cowboy degenerate becomes the prime prey of hundreds of innately irrational brown men and women, The Last Movie does not conclude very happily, but as Hopper once stated in an interview, “it doesn’t matter if Kansas dies or not, it’s the film that dies.”

An aesthetically wayward and thematically nihilistic work that was produced and released by a clueless studio run by kosher capitalists who knew nothing about the art of cinema for an undeserving American audience, The Last Movie is a work that anticipates everything from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and totally obliterates the silly humanist myth of the ‘noble savage,’ thus making it mandatory viewing for any viewer who thought Dennis Hopper was in spiritual solidarity with the hippies when he made Easy Rider, even if he was a half-crazed counter-culture icon himself. Apparently, it was on the advice of Jewish-Chilean-French auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky that Hopper decided to scrap a more ‘conventional’ edit of The Last Movie than the one that exists today. In fact, as Jodorowsky revealed in a 2008 interview with Bright Lights Film Journal regarding his involvement with the film: “…Dennis Hopper was at one of these private shows, and he liked EL TOPO a lot. And so he invited me to come to Taos. And in Taos, he had four or six editing machines and twelve editors working. At that time, he didn't know what to with THE LAST MOVIE. And I saw the material, I thought it was a fantastic story. And I said, "I can help." I was there for two days, and in two days I edited the picture. I think I made it very good. I liked it. But when he went to show it to Hollywood, they didn't want it, because by then he was in conflict with them. Later, I think that Dennis Hopper decided that he couldn't use my edit, because he needed to do it himself. And so he destroyed what I did, and I don't know what he did with it later […] I took out everything that was too much like a love story or too much Marxist politics. For me it was one of the greatest pictures I have ever seen. It was so beautiful, so different.” Despite Hopper’s cut of the film scaring the hell out of Universal Pictures, especially president Lew Wasserman, The Last Movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it managed to win the grand prize for best film, but that is probably because Europeans are typically more cinema literate than Americans.

 A rare piece of experimental Hollywood meta-cinema where a western-within-an-arthouse-film that delightfully degenerates into a celluloid-ritual-within-a-film, The Last Movie simultaneously manages to demystify the western genre and American dream while also demonstrating the hopelessness of the peoples of the decadent and deracinated materialist west living peacefully with the innately spiritual and rooted global south (be it Peru or otherwise). Indeed, although a work that is a little bit rough around the edges and is far from immaculate, The Last Movie is something of a lost flawed masterpiece that has more aesthetic and thematic intricacy in its last 30 minutes or so than Easy Rider has in its entirety. Admittedly, I almost wanted to vomit while hearing Kris Kristofferson (in what was his debut film role) singing the lyrics, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” from his hit song ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and the inclusion of John Buck Wilkin’s song ‘Only When It Rains’ at the end of the film, which proved to be no less than an aesthetically repugnant experience, but that is the price one must pay for coked out Hopper celluloid majesty. Hopper would later play a similar, albeit more degenerate role in the Spanish quasi-giallo Bloodbath (1979) aka Las flores del vicio aka The Sky Is Falling directed by Italian-Canadian auteur Silvio Narizzano. Made at the height of the actor/auteur's cocaine-addled derangement while in exile, Bloodbath stars Hooper as a junky burnout hippie of the Burroughs-parroting over-the-hill sort named 'Gringo' (not coincidentally, the name that all the natives, including his girlfriend, in The Last Movie call him).  Indeed, both The Last Movie and Bloodbath act as sort of celluloid exorcisms of the counter-culture zeitgeist and that is certainly something I can appreciate.

-Ty E

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