The Last Movie (1971)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond