Why I Love… #108: The Last Movie

Year: 1971

Director: Dennis Hopper

Stars: Dennis Hopper, Stella Garcia, Samuel Fuller

The Last Movie is a hard movie to love, and maybe a harder one to make a case for. It’s a deeply broken film; as fragmented as its creator was at the time. The tales of its making are the stuff of cinematic legend. Its critical and commercial failure was significant. Hopper didn’t direct again for another nine years after. It is a film of folly and excesses, but also of ideas, of politics, and chaotic creativity.

Hopper’s previous, Easy Rider, had exploded, capturing the cultural zeitgeist. He was suddenly the Hollywood banner man for the hippie generation. Hopper’s history in the town had already been notorious (his bust-up with Henry Hathaway, for instance), now the rogue had beaten the system and created an independent blockbuster. Heads at the studios were turned by the cher-ching of big money rolling in, Hollywood’s eyes gleamed again… and they got fleeced by an alcoholic and drug-addict.

Hopper took Universal’s money and decamped to Peru on a plane cloudy with pot-smoke. So excessive was the ride out that the authorities were waiting for them on arrival. Fortunately, a hastily arranged layover meant Hopper and his cadre dodged immediate captivity. They then went on and made The Last Movie at a remote site high above sea level; the tale of a stuntman named Kansas (Hopper) who stays behind after shooting a western to witness the impact of the crew’s stay on the locals. Kansas falls in love with a prostitute named Maria (Stella Garcia), while narrative edits bounce us back and forth in the timeline. One minute Kansas and Maria might be embracing naked in a waterfall, the next we might be watching the film’s director, Samuel Fuller (himself), wrangling horses on location as he tries to get the shot, barking out orders among the ruins.

Hopper gathered up his footage and spent a long time in the edit, during which a number of influencers and friends attempted to steer him this way and that. Hopper, eager to please, made changes here and there, fracturing the narrative of the movie. The end result is a confused and sometimes maddening film, dismissed as a failure when he finally delivered it to Universal for release. It barely saw the light of day and became accepted as one of the great follies of film history.

Time to rewrite history… somewhat. The Last Movie is deeply chaotic. It often feels like someone fitfully switching channels; only the same movie is on every station, but each network is out of sync. Godard said films “should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and not necessarily in that order”. Hopper took this approach to heart. He wanted to mimic the deconstruction of the form he had seen coming out of Europe for the past decade. His drugged-out attempts to do so reflect their own time period, however. There’s a burned out feel to The Last Movie, as though the party’s been long over but the guests are too wasted to find their way home. It recalls Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel in that regard. No one, not characters nor actors, know how to get out.

Along the way, Hopper comments on the negative influence of Hollywood’s output, boldly suggesting that it corrupts whatever it touches. The Peruvian natives don’t understand the filmmaking process, and end up worshipping the crew and their cameras like false idols; a wider reflection of the thrall of cinema across the world; its innate and possibly dangerous power. The locals make wicker facsimiles of cameras and start re-enacting Kansas’ stunt scenes… except they don’t play pretend. Their violence is real.

Not only does it cast American filmmaking as a kind of disease, infecting unassuming communities, it also starts suggesting that Hollywood’s output is neutered. The Peruvians use the art form to spark genuine societal change. Cinema outside of the USA was being used as a political force, and had been for decades. In Europe. In Africa. The Last Movie may at first seem as though the Peruvians don’t understand the power of cinema, but maybe its the Americans that don’t really get it. Hopper and co play ‘lets pretend’ with real equipment recording their play time. The locals decimate their churches and light fires; they perform for real with their handmade idols. They’ve inverted Hollywood. They’re the real radicals.

The middle of the picture gets preoccupied with sexual dalliances, and the disparity of power between the genders. These sequences particularly meander, and seem representative of Hopper’s own troublesome relationships with women; something he would admit in later life once sober again and taking responsibility for his actions.

Throughout Hopper favours the rough, handheld aesthetic that worked so well for him before on Easy Rider, but then The Last Movie will up and confront you with a more conventionally beautiful set-up. Early shots of fields of yellow flowers stretching away to snow-topped mountains are marvellous, but utterly incongruous with the filth and the fury of the sequences that surround them. Hopper’s Kansas frequently looks pained. People around him shout and remonstrate while he nurses a hangover; the hangover of the swingin’ 60’s. The Last Movie is a requiem. Its title makes one wonder if Hopper himself didn’t think he’d live through it.

When I first saw The Last Movie it was an interesting if muddled experience. I didn’t dismiss it as many others have, but nor did I see the exceptional in it. Now, revisiting with great pleasure and anticipation, I recognise that this volatile energy is what makes it unique and beautiful. It has a carnival cacophony and baroque greatness akin to what Fellini was doing around this time, with the likes of Satyricon and Toby Dammit. It’s miles apart from those features in some respects, but closer in others. The innovative editing feels like its having a conversation with work by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammel, and it calls out into the ether in response to Tobe Hooper’s elliptical student film Eggshells.

In short The Last Movie is a piece of a puzzle; an itch that got into western filmmaking, inspired by Europe, Vietnam and so many political assassinations. Hopper’s Kansas is killed then comes back to life, the killed over and over, take after take. Hopper’s addled ego was primed to imagine himself recast as Christ-like in this way, or maybe its just a further attempt by this filmmaker to obliterate the rules. To make us ask, honestly, why are we watching? That ambition can be misguided, but it can also be brilliant. The Last Movie crackles and fizzes and then it sputters and dies and lives on, forever.

 

 

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