At the historical moment when this lyrical and revealing documentary was made, Dennis Hopper seemed poised for elevation to godlike status in popular culture. Still riding high on the success of his directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969), Hopper had just completed shooting a bold new feature, The Last Movie, which he not-so-humbly envisioned as a revolutionary step forward in world cinema. The American Dreamer captures Hopper during the protracted editing process of The Last Movie, although filmmakers L. M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller are only peripherally interested in the actual method by which Hopper and his cutters assemble footage. Instead, the filmmakers seek to capture the soul of an artist at his creative peak.
Therefore, much of the documentary comprises Hopper delivering improvised monologues about his aesthetic and spiritual philosophy. And while Hopper is insufferably contradictory and pretentious and self-aggrandizing, creating excuses for indulgent behavior by characterizing every action he takes as a manifestation of his rebellious creativity, the seemingly unrestricted access Carson and Schiller gained to Hopper’s life makes The American Dreamer important. The content of The American Dreamer’s best sequences is so interesting that the documentary’s excesses—not least of which is fawning hero worship—can’t diminish the project’s informational value.
Set mostly around a home in Taos, New Mexico, where a bearded Hopper supervises editing whenever he’s not indulging in sexcapades with the myriad willing ladies who drift in and out of the place, The American Dreamer is almost equally divided between narrative scenes capturing action as it unfolds, and poetic passages juxtaposing Hopper’s voiceover with shots of the actor/director driving, walking, or, in some cases, pulling performance-art stunts like stripping off his clothes while he strolls through a suburb. (In some of the most bracing scenes, Hopper has group sex with various nubile women, although the doc stops short of depicting anything X-rated.)
The through-line of The American Dreamer is Hopper’s stream-of-consciousness speechifying, and there’s no question he’s a compelling speaker even when his rhetoric gets ridiculous. In cogent moments, he invents hip slogans, e.g., “It’s very difficult at times if you believe in evolution not to believe in revolution.” Elsewhere, he spews drug-casualty non sequiturs, e.g., “Can you go in a corner and not think about a white bear for five minutes? Is that possible?” And this was before Hopper reached rock bottom. Much of Hopper’s extemporizing seems consciously designed to burnish the myth of Hopper as a soldier for social change (one of Hopper’s real howlers: “Society’s made me a criminal”). Meanwhile, some of the actor/director’s chitty-chat comprises glorified pick-up lines, as when he explains to a Playboy Bunny that he’s so concerned about female orgasms he thinks of himself as a lesbian.
At his worst, Hopper embarks on sky-high ego trips, referring to himself in the third person as “the artist” and equating his work to that of Orson Welles. (The filmmakers goose these delusions of grandeur by lacing the soundtrack with original folk songs about Hopper’s quest to reinvent cinema.) The deification gets a bit much, but nestled within The American Dreamer is a poignant portrait of a uniquely talented man testing the outer limits of his universe, thereby inadvertently arriving at the place where maverick artistry becomes megalomania.
The American Dreamer: GROOVY