Acid Westerns: The Last Movie (1971)

Dennis Hopper always had an uneasy relationship with Westerns, but he had an uneasy relationship with almost everything. He was born in a famous Western town — Dodge City, Kansas — and never lost his slurred, drawling West Kansas accent, so he sounded right in cowboy films. He made a fair number of them early in his career, including "Giant" and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," and, later, when his career dried up (the result of him being difficult to work with and increasingly drug-dependent), he could still get roles in Westerns.

It sounds as though this was the result of two men who took pity on him, director Henry Hathaway, who knew Hopper had a small child, and John Wayne, who  knew Hopper through Hopper's friendship with his son. As a result, Hopper was in both "The Sons of Katie Elder" and "True Grit," both directed by Hathaway and starring Wayne.

It's no wonder that the first few films Hopper made had him playing a cowboy, of sorts. In "Easy Rider," he is one of two trick motorcycle riders with cowboy names (he is Billy, as in The Kid, and Peter Fonda is Wyatt, as in Earp.) The two buy some cocaine to sell down South and take a protracted and eventually tragic tour of countercultural America, Hopper dressed in fringed buckskin jacket, buckskin pants and a snap-side bushman hat.

"Easy Rider" was a runaway hit, made for just $360,000 and bringing in receipts of somewhere around $60 million. There's a convoluted story of studio panic here, with an older generation of studio heads deciding they no longer knew what they were doing and just throwing money and artistic independence at younger filmmakers, and, as a result, Hopper was given $1 million to go to Peru to shoot a movie that would sabotage his career for at least a decade.

"The Last Movie" is a legendary unseen film — it has been unavailable or barely available since it premiered. It was sort of a proto-"Heaven's Gate," in that it was the story of a celebrated but difficult filmmaker sinking a lot of studio money into a Western that would fail at the box office, but, honestly, even in 1971, when "The Last Movie" debuted, $1 million was a relatively small amount of money to risk on a film. "Fiddler on the Rood" was made for $8 million. "Diamonds Are Forever" was made for $7.5 million. Even the small-budgeted cop film "The French Connection" had almost twice the budget "The Last Movie" had.

And "Heaven's Gate," made just nine years later? "Heaven's Gate" cost $44 million.

So it's hard to say what it was about "The Last Movie" that so irritated people. It was, admittedly, a troubled production, not so much in the shooting of it, which was a bit of a cocaine and sex orgy bit mostly unsupervised by studios, but in the editing. Hopper took a year to edit the film, and it sounds like he lost his mind a little, refusing to change out of his clothes and binging on drugs.

He produced a relatively straightforward cut and then made the brilliant mistake of showing it to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who not only complained that the film was an artistic failure but also may have cut his own version. So Hopper burned the original cut and went back in the studios, and came out with something that seemingly everyone found incomprehensible. Roger Ebert, in a notably unsympathetic review, called it "a wasteland of cinematic wreckage." The film barely got a release and was shelved for most of Hopper's life, and remains officially inaccessible, although it is now relatively easy to find copies floating around online.

Watching it now, it's hard to see what the fuss was, or why the official position on Hopper turned from "troubled talent" to "druggy creator of garbage" so quickly. Whatever his person problems, Hopper was a genuine talent, both as a twitchy character actor and as a director — he would later go on to direct the critically acclaimed "Out of the Blue" and "Colors."

That being said, with "The Last Movie," I think we see an extremely interesting character actor and competent director attempting, and failing, to produce a visionary work, and people may have responded badly to a perceived artistic overreach. Because if you know anything about "The Last Movie," you know it is, in part, a deconstruction of film itself.

Summaries of the film usually go like this: Hopper plays Kansas, a horse wrangler in Peru for a Western film who witnesses the death of a stuntman. Disillusioned, he remains in Peru, where the locals create a sort of cargo cult around filmmaking, building stick cameras and reenacting the movie, but with real violence.

All this is true of the movie, but also misstates it badly, in part because it completely excises a majority of the storyline. The cargo cult is on the fringes of the movie, for the most part, and the death of the stuntman is hinted at, rather than discussed openly.

Instead, the film is largely about Hopper's experiences in Peru, and it's a withering look at an American expatriate community that sees their adopted country with disregard at best, as a place to plunder at worst. Hopper hooks up with a local girl, played by Stella Garcia, and abuses her badly; she seems to be in a relationship with him in hopes of improving her lot in life, but has miscalculated, as he in on a downward trajectory.

Hopper and a slightly cracked friend waste her money on a misconceived scheme to mine gold. They also buddy up with a local businessman and his bored wife, taking them on a tour of Peru's underworld and indulging in their tastes for mild perversion, all the while showing contempt for Garcia.

In the background, the villagers seem to be creating a syncretic religion coupling local festivals (sumptuously filmed) with the leftover Western set. They may or may not be murdering each other while acting out Western scenes, but Hopper gets shot trying to destroy one of these sets and becomes convinced the festival will end with his sacrifice.

It probably does. Hopper's re-edit was designed to make major plot points oblique, and, increasingly, to point out the artificiality of filmmaking, so by the film's climax, rather than seeing the climax itself, we see b-roll footage, outtakes, and repeated takes of the same seen of Hopper running and falling. The film also makes use of a technique used in "Easy Rider," which flash-forwarded to the film's eventually fiery ending, but in this case the flash forwards don't look forward to a scene that is actually shown. So we repeatedly see brief images of Hopper being dropped on a rope through a roof, the same stunt that killed the stunt man.

If you're not in the mood for this sort of thing, I can see how it would be irritating. It's Brecht's distancing effect, but it is genuinely intended to be alienating, as though Hopper wanted his audience be not only know they were watching a movie but be bothered by the fact. And the fact that Hopper literally ends his movie without showing the climax can, at best, be described as a bold artistic choice, but it wasn't likely to endear him to his audiences.

That being said, these stylistic devices are used sparingly in the film. Instead, Hopper puts a great deal of focus on performances, including his own troubled and troubling character, and on landscape. Hopper frames the film very carefully so that it is always clear we are in Peru, with great focus on the country's distinctive landscape, but also with the frame frequently filled with Peruvians. As a result, the movie-within-the-movie, a countercultral Billy the Kid story starring Peter Fonda, looks hideously out of place. It's a Western backdrop that looks completely displaced, as though Stonehenge had somehow landed in the Antarctic.

Hopper is fascinated by the native folk festivals, and spends a lot of time on them, which gives the film an unexpected folk horror quality: His story is, in part, of a rural community with a murderous, deformed folk religion, with is a classic folk horror theme.

The deformation is explicitly the product of the film community briefly setting up and then abandoning their set. I am sure Hopper was inspired by actual cargo cults from Melanesia, which built fake airport runaways and the like in the hopes of ritually influencing Westerners to come with their goods.

But those cults were usually the products of economic crisis and were looking to bring Westerners back. Hopper's cult seems somehow infected, as though having seen movies getting made has caused them to want to pretend to make movies forever, even if they are not playacting at the violence. They even describe their cult as a game, and have very little interest in American interference; they mostly treat Hopper contemptuously.

It's hard to figure out what's going on with this, but, early on in the movie, Hopper and a filmmaker are chatting with an older actor, and they confess to seeing his movies when they were children, and here they are, making movies. I don't think the scene, in which rural Americans have grown up to make movies, is a throwaway.

Instead, it's as though Hopper feels like you can take a Western backdrop anywhere in the world, set it down, and the people nearby will try to make Western movies on it, and will get hurt by it.

He's probably right. He's speaking from experience.


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