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The Last Movie

Dennis Hopper’s legendarily maligned, long-lost followup to EASY RIDER returns in a newly restored edition.

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As much as Dennis Hopper pushed against the constraints of the Hollywood system, these constraints could, in retrospect, be what made his directorial debut such a success. EASY RIDER may be an anti-establishment touchstone, but its structure is that of a straightforward road movie, and its budget – around $400,000, which was not excessive for the time – would have allowed for only so much coloring outside the lines. Hopper parlayed EASY RIDER’s success into a deal for a second film with Universal that gave him more money and full creative control, based on a script co-written with Stewart Stern (writer of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Hopper’s first film).

Set in Peru, the film’s meta-story follows a stuntman named Kansas who remains behind in a small Andean village after the film he’s been working on wraps up. The shoot in the village of Chinchero, supposedly hedonistic and drug-fueled, nonetheless wrapped on time and on budget – whereas the editing process has become the stuff of legend, even spawning a film of its own (the documentary AMERICAN DREAMER). Over the next year, Hopper cut and recut the hundreds of hours of footage innumerable times, and the film that finally debuted in 1971 was derided by critics as a difficult, aimless mess, and seen by hardly anyone before being summarily shelved by Universal.

Watching the newly restored version in 2018 is like opening a door into a stranger Hollywood that could have been. The directorial freedom bestowed on the production is immediately apparent, with a starkly symbolist, Jodorowsky-esque intro that eventually segues into the more straightforward (but still experimental) film-within-a-film metanarrative. (Jodorowsky apparently visited Hopper during the neverending editing process, though whether his presence helped or hindered it is still debated.)

Most of the dialogue is improvised, and cuts often jump forward and backward in time while shots repeat themselves. The film’s forays into outright experimentation (sound pastiche, “film not found” title cards) reach for the psychedelic heights of films like EL TOPO and ORG, and while the film’s first and third acts revel in this freedom, its central section, in which Kansas goes on a booze-fueled bender with a group of rich Americans, is more straightforward and less successful. Though it’s intended as a critique of America in general and Hollywood specifically, the characters’ selfishness and abrasiveness (particularly that of Art, played by James Mitchum) makes this stretch of the film a chore.

There are beautiful scenes throughout, particularly those that foreground the action in front of the stunning Andean landscape. The fantastic, patient camerawork of László Kovács (who worked with Hopper on EASY RIDER) gives the film a sense of yearning, with tracking shots that linger on flowered meadows and snow-covered peaks. The soundtrack is sparsely beautiful, combining traditional Peruvian music with tracks from American artists (including Kris Kristofferson, who, along with Peter Fonda, also plays a bit role in the film).

These wide-open shots convey an incredible sense of freedom, providing some breathing room between the film’s sometimes unfocused improvised sections. This freedom, which defined EASY RIDER and still keeps it appealing decades later, is at times harder to come by in THE LAST MOVIE. It’s an interesting companion piece to Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, another messy, fraught, and ultimately lost American film of the 1970s released this year. Both are sometimes exhilarating and often frustrating, and hint at what could have been a broader movement of American independent films with roots in psychedelic and New Wave cinema.

John Peck

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Screenings

Screenings

  • OV Original version
  • OmU Original with German subtitles
  • OmeU Original with English subtitles
English/with English subtitles
All languages

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