Digital Channel > “The Punishment Remains The Same” – Reflecting on Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie

“The Punishment Remains The Same” – Reflecting on Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie

The Last Movie is something that I made in Peru. I won the Venice Film Festival with it, and Universal Pictures wouldn’t distribute it. You should think about Godard a little when you watch it. I made it because I’d read him say that movies should have a beginning,
 a middle and an end – but not necessarily in that order. I was trying to use film like an Abstract Expressionist would use paint as paint. I’m constantly reminding you that we’re making a movie – I’m constantly making references to the fact that maybe you’re just being silly sitting in an audience, being sucked into a movie and starting to believe it – and then I jar you out of it. It’s not a very pleasant experience for most audiences.”

– Dennis Hopper

I was first introduced to Dennis Hopper’s Cannes Prix de la première œuvre-winning directorial debut EASY RIDER (1969) at the tender age of eight-years-old, somewhat inappropriately, by my indefinitely-loveable but somewhat memory-impaired aging-hippie of a father – it being his favourite film [of course] – who was always keen to instil an anti-establishment streak in my philosophical outlook, but whom had forgotten some of the more disturbing elements of Mr. Hopper’s landmark work – often credited as jump-starting the “New Hollywood” era of American filmmaking that ran through the 1970s – that were rather less-than-appropriate for the impressionable infant mind. Let us just say that fast-forwarding through the extended LSD-Mardis-Gras-Graveyard-Orgy sequence on an old VHS tape recording – essentially doubling the speed and pitch of the a/v – did little to diminish the disturbing effects of the psychedelic imagery upon my pre-adolescent psyche. In retrospect, it may have actually made it even more traumatic. But this is all water under the bridge, and I think I’ve turned out just fine [sic].

If you’ve gone to the effort of reading this blog post then I’m going to assume a certain level of cinematic-literacy and I won’t bore you with any more contextual filler regarding Hopper’s debut feature – read Peter Biskind’s relatively comprehensive Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster, 1998) for more info if you must – and we can get straight to the meat-and-bones of his bête noire follow-up, the aptly-titled lost masterpiece: THE LAST MOVIE. Given the film has been essentially out of circulation since its abortive theatrical release in 1971, remaining utterly unavailable on home entertainment formats until Indicator’s blu-ray release next January, it has entered the chambers of Hollywood folklore – more is probably known about the making (or unmaking) of the film than the film itself.

In short: following the runaway critical and commercial success of EASY RIDER, which arguably resuscitated the American cinematic art form by connecting with the youthful counter-culture movement Hollywood had, up until then, been completely unable to engage with, Universal Pictures gave Hopper a $1m budget for his next project, and artistic carte-blanche. They didn’t understand what he had done with EASY RIDER, but it had worked, so they figured lightning would strike twice.

Armed with a script he had written with Stewart Stern (scribe of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), coincidentally one of Hopper’s first on-screen roles) several years prior to the production of EASY RIDER, Hopper assembled a band of his closest friends and cohorts – that included Peter Fonda, Michelle Phillips, Kris Kristofferson, Stella Garcia, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Julie Adams and Tomas Milian, as well as director Sam Fuller –  and headed south to the remote mountains of Peru, as far away from the watchful gaze of Hollywood studio executives as possible. I think it’s fair to say that a considerable percentage of the budget was blown on cocaine during the protracted and anarchic shoot, following which Hopper ran off with all the raw footage and absconded to an undisclosed location in Taos, New Mexico, where he held the film hostage an engaged in an epic editing process that lasted the better part of a year. It probably didn’t help that he enlisted the celluloid mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky to aid him in making the final cut “less conventional” than initially pitched. During this protracted post-production period he was briefly married to Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. They tied the knot on Halloween, 1970; Phillips filed for divorce eight days later later. Whilst Hopper has repeated the first seven days were actually pretty good, witnesses described the union as “the six day war”.

The main misconception about THE LAST MOVIE is that it was a self-indulgent disaster. In fact, the film was critically well-received, winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival upon its premiere in 1971. Universal were simply so chagrinned by Hopper’s outlandish behaviour that they decided to bury the film and, as a director at least, he was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood, spending – with the exception of a few notable roles in films such as The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) – the rest of the 1970s in the naughty chair, his drinking and substance abuse reaching grandiose proportions.

Hopper eventually sobered up, and in 1980 replaced Leonard Yakir as director on the critically-lauded Canadian production OUT OF THE BLUE. He would go on to rehabilitate his directing career with a series of well-regarded dramas such as COLORS (1988) and THE HOT SPOT (1990) whilst a string of iconic performances in BLUE VELVET (1986), TRUE ROMANCE (1993) and SPEED (1994) cemented his place in Hollywood history.

Sometime in early 2013, whilst I was rummaging around a damp cupboard in the back of the ICA Cinema, a hand-eye-coordination-mishap caused a minor avalanche of old film canisters, 16mm prints, and what I believe were a selection of pneumatic tapes of a pornographic nature. Suffering only minor concussion, I noticed two old 35mm prints that looked like they hadn’t been touch in at least 20 years. Upon closer inspection these were revealed to be two copies of Dennis Hopper’s lost film (which the ICA had briefly re-released in the early 1980s, when Hopper was able to reacquire the distribution rights from Universal Pictures). Myself and the projectionist couldn’t believe this discovery and spent a dark afternoon watching the reels of our buried treasure. Inexplicably one of the prints had Spanish subtitles throughout, but the other print had English subtitles in the appropriate sections and was in surprisingly good condition (i.e. it didn’t immediately burst into flames). Without providing any spoilers, all I can say is that we were blown away by what was a truly singular work, in many ways a more mature and complex film than its blockbusting predecessor, and one very much in need of critical reappraisal.

Well, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated, but now UK audiences have the chance to discover Hopper’s lost masterpiece in a stunning 4K digital restoration. It’s very rare that things come back from the dead, but the Lazarus act of THE LAST MOVIE is not one to be missed – it reveals itself to be a glittering cultural artefact of the early 1970s, a relic from that brief moment when Hollywood flirted with High Art aspirations. Abstract, indulgent, pretentious, delirious, decadent, disastrous, misogynist, genius – whatever one eventually makes of the film, at least now we are able to make an informed decision, and that is a very special thing, particularly for anyone with a predilection towards self-sabotage. Hopper remained fiercely protective of the film right up until his death in 2010 – one senses this was a deeply personal project for him, one he had nurtured before he found fame and fortune, utterly emblematic of his rogue, anti-authoritarian ethos, perhaps best summarised thusly:

“If you’re going to bite the hand that feeds you, you may as well chew off the whole thing. The punishment will remain the same.”

Words by James King.

The Last Movie screens from Fri 14 December. Find out more and book tickets here.