Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Last Movie (1971)

          One of the most notorious auteur misfires of the ’70s, this misbegotten mind-fuck was Dennis Hopper’s follow-up to Easy Rider (1969), the surprise blockbuster that not only transformed Hopper from a journeyman actor to an A-list director but also established him, for a brief time, as a leading voice of the counterculture. Alas, Hopper’s poor choices as an actor, co-writer, and director turned The Last Movie into a metaphor representing the way some people, Hopper included, fell victim to the excesses of the drug era. In trying to escape the constraints associated with conventional cinema, Hopper created a maddening hodgepodge of self-indulgent nonsense and uninteresting experimentation.
          Hopper stars as Kansas, the horse wrangler for a Hollywood film crew that’s shooting on location in Peru. After a fatal on-set accident, Kansas drops out of his Hollywood lifestyle to start over in South America, hooking up with a sexy local girl (Stella Garcia) and scheming with a fellow U.S. expat (Don Gordon) to get rich off a gold mine. Kansas also romances a beautiful upper-crust American (Julie Adams), with whom he engages in gentle sadomasochism, and he gets roped into a bizarre situation involving Peruvian villagers who are “shooting” their own movie using primitive mock-up cameras and microphones made from scrap metal and sticks. (One of The Last Movie’s myriad pretentious allusions is that the “fake” film crew is making more authentic art than the “real” film crew.)
          Simply listing the trippy flourishes in The Last Movie would take an entire website, so a few telling examples should suffice. Early in the picture, a Hollywood starlet (played by Hopper’s then-girlfriend, former Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips) conducts a ritual during which she pierces a Peruvian woman’s ear with a large pin while people stand around the scene wearing creepy masks and chanting. Later, Kansas leads a group of Americans to a whorehouse, where they watch a grimy girl-on-girl floor show; this inexplicably drives Kansas into such a rage that he ends up slapping around his long-suffering female companion. And we haven’t even gotten to the weird one-shot bits that are periodically inserted into the narrative. At one point, Kansas leans back while a woman shoots breast milk from her nipple to his face. Elsewhere, while getting his hair trimmed, Kansas shares the following random remark: “I never jerked off a horse before.” Good to know.
          The whole movie culminates with a befuddling barrage of images, including scenes of Kansas getting beaten by members of the “fake” film crew, as if the Hollywood runaway is some sort of martyr for art. It’s all very deliberately weird. During the final stretch, for instance, Hopper cuts to silly things like “scene missing” placeholders and outtakes of actors consulting their scripts. The idea, presumably, was to deconstruct Hollywood filmmaking so that a new art form could emerge from the ruins, but Hopper missed the mark in every way. That said, it’s worth noting that Hopper brought interesting friends along for the ride. Cinematographer László Kovács, who also shot Easy Rider, does what he can to infuse Hopper’s scattershot frames with artistry, and the cast includes ’70s cult-cinema stalwart Severn Darden (who does a musical number!) as well as maverick B-movie director Samuel Fuller, who plays a version of himself during the scenes depicting the making of the Hollywood movie.

The Last Movie: FREAKY


Peter L. Winkler said...

While I'm willing to give you a pass for some of your errors in the plot description, considering the confusing nature of The Last Movie, the character Hopper plays is named Kansas, after Hopper's birthplace, Dodge City, Kansas. "Kansas" is even painted on the red pickup truck he drives around in.

Perhaps, because I had the possibly dubious benefit of watching this film more than once before writing about it for my biography of Hopper, it is not incomprehensible, as many critics have said. At the end of the film, the villagers shanghai Kansas into their "movie" a combination of a passion play and imitation of the B-Western about Billy the Kid that the villagers witnessed being filmed in their village.

For those interested in a detailed examination of the making of The Last Movie, I recommend my book about Hopper. FWIW, I'm not a fan of the film, either.

By Peter Hanson said...

Agree that it's not incomprehensible, just undercooked, although certainly some of Hopper's directorial decisions are beyond normal understanding. Fixed the Dallas/Kansas thing. No idea how that error got through, thanks for catching. If anything else egregious remains (either here or in the follow-up post on American Dreamer), feel free to let me know....

D said...

This film played for two weeks at the Pi Alley Theatre in Boston where I was a ticket taker. It was one of the very rare times where we had to put up a sign in the window of the box office after the opening day saying "absolutely no refunds under any circumstances"