The Last Movie, or How to bite the hand that feeds

The Last Movie‘, Dennis Hopper’s legendary 1971 debacle, made with the cash and kudos earned by the success of ‘Easy Rider‘, is not a movie at all: it’s a transgressive, politically-charged art film. I couldn’t say if it was any good or not, but take it in that spirit and I guarantee it will be a more rewarding experience.

On first viewing, I provided additional dialogue along the lines of ‘huh?’ and ‘What the f**k!’ I couldn’t help it. The editing is deranged, incoherent, random – as if the reels had cross-fertilized in the back of the delivery truck. Was it pieced together from the editor’s posthumous illegible notes? Later, the screen goes blank and ‘scene missing’ is scribbled across the frame and my wild guess seemed to be confirmed. I started to imagine the young Hopper bouncing off the walls of the editing room, high on creative possibilities, or cocaine, expatiating at 120bpm like that manic photojournalist of his in ‘Apocalypse Now‘. Losing his head.

In fact, I had to begun to draft an article pronouncing this another ‘missed opportunity’. There was – and is – a better film to be conjured from the same juicy scenario. (I say ‘better film’, but I mean ‘better story’. It’s not axiomatic that a story about the movie business belongs on the screen.) The scenario would run something like this:

After shooting a violent western in Peru, cowboy stuntman, ‘Kansas’, hooks up with a local beauty and plans to make his fortune renting out the sets to other Hollywood productions, but Hollywood doesn’t come back. ‘Kansas’ casts around for other money-making ventures – the hare-brained gold prospector pal who learned all he needs to know about the business from ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘. Meanwhile, the brutalized locals imitate Hollywood’s carnival of violence with a warped religious pageant of their own, the stuntman made the sacrificial victim, forced to re-enact the western’s death scene, literally.

The rich, dark flavours of this ironic climax appeal to me. I’d love to make something out of that.

Apparently, Hopper first had the idea while shooting the western ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ in Durango, Mexico. He saw the locals moving into the abandoned sets and wondered: what happens when the moviemakers go home? What’s left? His conclusion seems to have been: a legacy of violence. This is both colonial guilt, which compensates for its condescension with a merciless portrait of the arrogant ex-patriots, and ambivalence to the ‘movies’ – a sense of disgust which would be detectable throughout the remainder of Hopper’s long career. He must have delighted in taking the studios money and delivering a deconstruction of the exotic, violent western they thought they had ordered. Not so much biting the hand that feeds, as ripping it off and dropping bleeding at its master’s feet.

The wicker models of a camera (see below), microphone boom and other movie equipment are genius.

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