After the breakout success of his debut film Easy Rider, Hollywood had immense, naïve faith in Dennis Hopper. Along with other late-60s game changers like Bonnie and Clyde & The Graduate, Easy Rider was one of the foundational texts of the New Hollywood movement, convincing producers that Hopper had the formula for a new kind of cinematic alchemy that could turn bargain-budget countercultural angst into buffo box office. It was this blind faith in Hopper’s money-making instincts that convinced Universal Pictures to allow him a long creative leash & a $1 million budget to film whatever project he wanted in his chosen location of the Peruvian mountains. It took two years of drugged-out haze & frustrated artistic hubris for Hopper to scrape together a cohesive first-cut of his sophomore feature, which he then destroyed when friend/mentor Alejandro Jodorowsky teased him for being a convention-bound coward. With a newly-charged ambition to break new cinematic ground (and amuse his own tragically stoned mind) Hopper cobbled together a much less straight-forward edit, one with zero commercial appeal. The Last Movie was a notorious flop, a commercial misfire that derailed Dennis Hopper’s career for more than a decade and has since had a long, hard-fought road to minor cult status. A new 4k digital restoration of the orphaned, little loved vanity project is now making the theatrical rounds for a second go, testing whether it was a secretly misunderstood, ahead-of-its-time masterpiece or the drug-addled ramblings of a power-mad ego whose ambitions had outsized their means. The verdict, of course, is that it falls somewhere in-between.
I was outright shocked by how much I appreciated The Last Movie, if not only because I’m largely cold on the cinematic titans it’s most closely comparable to: Jodorowsky, Easy Rider, any Malickian storytelling-though-editing picture you can name. I’m unsure that it would have the same potency in a home viewing, where it’s much easier for the mind to wander, but confronted with it on the big screen I was mesmerized. Admittedly, its central narrative is an incomprehensible jumble that only becomes clear minutes before the end credits (and only with the help of a few sentences of plot synopsis to guide the mental configuration of its strewn-about jigsaw pieces). Still, every disconnected image & jarring edit feels purposeful to the themes & tone of what Hopper was trying to accomplish, where they could just as easily have been for-their-own-sake indulgences (which is the sense I get from typical works by Jodorowsky & Malick). Considering its premise and the amount of confidence & money behind Hopper at the time, I fully expected The Last Movie to be a macho, self-aggrandizing act of modern colonialism where a director pilfered & exploited “local color” in Peru under the guise of making Important Art. Instead, the film is a self-lacerating critique of that exact monstrous attitude. The Last Movie plays as if Hopper realized mid-production that the film he was making was actively, directly harming Peruvian people and the discovery broke his mind. Watching the film for the first time, I got the sense that it may not actually have been Jodorowsky that convinced Hopper to derail his own career with this incomprehensible, self-sabotaging mess; it plays as if Hopper was filming his own epiphany that the movies were an inherently evil, exploitative business that he desperately wanted to exit.
The events are cyclical & out of sync, so no synopsis could fully do the story justice, but The Last Movie is more or less about a disenchanted Hollywood stunt man (Hopper) who drops out of the film industry after seeing the damage it causes Peruvian locals, yet remains haunted by its consequences all the same. A fellow stunt man dies while shooting a scene for a movie biography of Billy the Kid (as directed by Sam Fuller, practically playing himself). The industry dries up in Peru after that accident, but Hopper & the locals who stay behind in its wake are driven mad by the memory of the death. Hopper continues his colonizer role in a toxic romance with a local sex worker, only to be later shown exactly what that feels like by a wealthy white woman who holds financial power over him. Locals who worked on the Billy the Kid set strive to stage their own rendition of the script left behind by Fuller’s crew; only the violence they perform isn’t at all faked and puts everyone nearby in danger, especially Hopper. Everyone drinks to the point of perpetual blackout, confusing what’s real & what’s movie-making artifice, often to the point of meta-textual self-damnation. The camera’s POV is confused with a prop camera the locals make out of bamboo & adopt as a religious symbol. The real local church is abandoned for the prop church constructed for the movie set. Mountainous landscapes are covered up by tapestries depicting mountainous landscapes. Movies have made everything in the village fake, hedonistic, and empty; the only thing left that’s real is the lethal consequences of the violence staged for the mock cinema. The guilt of that social breakdown weighs on Hopper’s mind like a war crime.
The Last Movie isn’t always a pleasant watch; Hopper often overwhelms the soundtrack with a collection of the most annoying sounds imaginable: bells, jackhammers, screaming babies, moans, off-rhythm violins. That aural chaos always feels purposeful, though, especially when it’s echoed in the chaos of wrangling hundreds of crewmembers on a film set or a drunken Hollywood party or a town left in shambles once that party leaves & the money dries up. Hopper also acknowledges the narrative chaos of his jumbled editing by prominently featuring the script supervisor’s continuity concerns on the set of Billy the Kid. As frustrating as the sequencing of sound & imagery (the building blocks of cinema) can be in the moment to moment rhythms, their cumulative effect is directly tied to the film’s overall central theme: Hopper’s growing disenchantment & outright hostility towards moviemaking as an industry. After Easy Rider, Hollywood gave him complete freedom to do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted, and he chose this self-flagellating, career-sabotaging vanity project in the mountains of Peru. The shot from The Last Movie that most haunts me is a documentarian stroll through a Peruvian open-air market, where local merchants shyly cover their faces as the camera films them without permission. I get the sense that the guilt of that act weighed heavily on Hopper as well, as the film overall appears like a desperate attempt to escape an industry that feels increasingly exploitative & destructive to the supposed radicals who were given newfound freedom to run it at the start of the New Hollywood movement. The Last Movie may be the failure that derailed Dennis Hopper’s career, but that’s exactly what makes it a success.