After the success of Easy Rider, Hollywood could radically have changed, but didn’t. The American New Wave lasted shorter than it could have and, essentially, the studio system remained intact. Hopper, in particular was briefly placed in a most enviable position when Universal gave him a huge budget and carte blanche his next feature, The Last Movie. The project took two years to complete; half of that time, he spent editing the 40 hours of footage that had resulted from the shooting stage. The final work was almost immediately deemed unwatchable. Almost, because when it screened at the Venice Film Festivals, it was awarded the Critics’ Prize. Yet, it was a colossal box office failure in the States, and was quickly shelved.
Today, The Last Movie remains a well-known title among film connoisseurs, but most of them will not have seen it. Those who have written about it have mostly scorned it as a mess of a movie. At the time, critics who had opposed the New Wave, used The Last Movie‘s flop to shake their heads and say “I told you so,” claiming as Judith Crist of the New York Magazine did that it proved that the success of Easy Rider was nothing more than “a lucrative and remarkable example of coincidence with public mood and mode, underlined by the use of independently popular songs in the soundtrack,” and that New Hollywood was hardly worth anyone’s time. Roger Ebert, who hated the film, included it in his aptly titled book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.
Worse of all, when talked about, The Last Movie is treated as the prime example of a rebellious Hollywood renegade (Hopper) going out of control and snorting his way to the point of self-destruction. To be sure, the making of the film was wild and fascinating. And sure, Hopper and his friends really did do a lot of cocaine in Peru, where he flew many of his friends, such as Fonda, Dean Stockwell, and Russ Tamplyn, all of whom ended up only having bit roles in the final work. However, it’s strange that so many critics should take the side of the big studios, whose only interest rested on capitalizing on these trendy, young, and rebellious counter-cultural filmmakers.
In reality, The Last Movie is a radical, self-reflexive film; an exercise of film analysis, the likes of which have rarely attempted to sneak their way into mainstream cinema. Had it been filmed by Jean-Luc Godard, would it have been better received? One thing is for sure: The Last Movie is not a story-driven film. A film crew shoots a western in Peru. Production is scrapped after an accident takes the life of a stuntman. Stunt coordinator Kansas (Dennis Hopper), decides to stay in Peru on account of his love affair with a prostitute named Maria (Stella Garcia). But this is no set-up for an idyllic romantic tale, as their moral values will quickly be exposed as shaky. Moreover, natives of the Peruvian village decide to start shooting a film of their own. However, they are unable to understand how a film is made: their violence is real and their cameras are made of sticks. Later, Kansas becomes the sacrificial lamb of the movie, and his death will mark its conclusion.
Though this account of the synopsis is quite compact, the film is anything but. It is a rollercoaster ride, during which all cinematic clichés and conventions are trashed and derided. Significantly, Hopper uses the canvas of the western, cinema’s first genre (its origins are traced back to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, 1903). It also references the American capitalist and neo-colonialist ideology and its perpetration its divulgence in culture through the media.
Kansas looks, talks, and acts like a regular modern-day cowboy. However, the romanticism of this stereotype is soon overturned, as he is consistently revealed as narcissistic, decadent, and morally deranged. Like him, everyone else in the movie seems to have no redemption. For example, the priest, usually used as a symbol of justice, is initially shocked by the violence, but soon becomes a part of it. Likewise, The Last Movie appears to be skeptical of friendship and love affairs as much as the individuals. The friendship between Kansas and Neville (Don Gordon) seems to revolve around vices and a strange ambition of finding gold. A steamy sequence depicting Kansas and Maria making love by a waterfall is soon followed by the most fickle conversation in which they discuss dreams of building tourist resorts, becoming rich, and living in a house with a swimming pool as they gaze upon the beautiful Peruvian wilderness.
This satirical bashing extends to the conventions of cinema itself, almost pinpointed as a malevolent perpetrator of decadent capitalistic ideologies. The attack would have seemed hypocritical had the film been entertaining by conventional standards. Instead, it negates enjoyment through a disjointed plotline, by distancing the viewer from the characters, and by constantly exposing the medium. For instance, Godardian “missing scene” title cards appear on the screen at random moments, and Kansas’ death scene is repeated over and over, in a sequence similar to a montage of outtakes. In a more subtle way, even many of the rambling folk songs of the soundtrack were inspired by Hopper and his excursion to Peru to make the movie (these would be featured in Hopper’s documentary The American Dreamer, which he made at the same time).
Finally, what is the goal of all this? Although the film is an attack on the cinematic clichés, it is also a film full of love for the art form. Visually and textually, it references many other movies. The film’s final scene sees Kansas and Neville talking about their expedition to look for gold and it turns out that they only know what films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre taught them about it. Here, Kansas and Neville are almost charming; their enthusiasms and concerns make them seem childlike.
Hopper’s artistic manifesto is a Wellesian effort; a struggle for artistic freedom and independence. Yet, despite its provocation, all over the film we see that its director has a true love of cinema, which it constantly references visually and textually. It is the work of someone who loves and cares for the art, and perhaps sees its longevity as a matter of steering towards one direction instead of the other. His vision was unmarketable; The Last Movie is a utopia. Hopper, and other like him, had to be put down. The really terrible thing about The Last Movie, which seems to have been made to destroy the studio system and start cinema anew, is that it ultimately lost its battle. Finally, given the many attacks on the filmic form, one could see The Last Movie‘s flop as an extension of its impact as a work of art. Alternatively, one could see how the film could never have been popular with an indoctrinated audience. The feeling is that things have only gotten worse since 1971 and that this indoctrination and total reliance on cliché is what could lead to an irreversible decline. – ★★★★★
THE LAST MOVIE | 1971, USA | Drama | Directed by – Dennis Hopper / Produced by – Paul Lewis / Screenplay by – Stewart Stern, Dennis Hopper / Cinematography – László Kovács / Edited by – Dennis Hopper, David Berlatsky, Antranig Mahakian / Music by – Severn Darden, Chabuca Granda, Kris Kristofferson, John Buck Wilkin / Starring – Dennis Hopper, Stella Garcia, Don Gordon, Julie Adams, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, Henry Jaglom, Michelle Phillips, Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Tomas Milian / Running time: 108 mins.