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The Lens: Dennis Hopper - A wild, uneasy ride

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2010 - Having recently found out about the death of Eric Rohmer, I was sorry to hear that Dennis Hopper is said to be losing his fight against prostate cancer. Hopper has survived so much in his life and career – substance abuse, blackballing, even the Russian Dynamite Death Chair - that it became easy to think of him as constantly evolving - maybe even immortal.

For more than 50 years as actor, director, photographer, art collector and public burn-out, Hopper hovered around the fringes of popular culture so persistently that he finally became iconic (and ironic), the hip representative of the Baby Boomers at sunset, retaining credibility even as he hawked expensive sneakers and retirement plans .

Hopper began his film career as an intense young actor palling around with the likes of Natalie Wood and James Dean (He's in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”), but he bristled at attempts to turn him into a star and soon found himself dropped by the major studios. He began taking photographs and collecting art (he was one of the earliest supporters of pop art), supporting himself with independent films like Curtis Harrington's avant-horror “Night Tide” augmented by small parts in Westerns, biker films and the odd TV series .

And then came “Easy Rider," the 1969 film that opened the doors for the “New Hollywood” and continues to resonate 40 years later. Try as one may to dismiss the fashionable nihilism, the wishy-washy idealism and the whacked-out, inarticulate characters (Hopper in particular), “Easy Rider” overcomes its outdated trappings primarily due to Hopper's direction, a Whitmanesque celebration of the American landscape (with lens flares) that triumphs over the film's frequently jumbled message.

For a follow-up, Hopper listened to the hyperbolic discussions about how “Easy Rider” had transformed movies and decided to make a film that would almost literally turn the conventions of film upside down. Barely released, dismissed by critics and still rarely seen, “The Last Movie” was a difficult, unfinished and almost incomprehensible experiment/critique of nearly every aspect of filmmaking, a crazy yet inspired mess/masterpiece. Its failure, combined with Hopper's growing reputation for erratic behavior (see the truly bizarre documentary “American Dreamer” for evidence) managed to burn up whatever credit “Easy Rider” had earned.

For the next 15 years, Hopper popped in and out of the public eye, getting praise for his performance in Wim Wenders' “The American Friend” (possibly his best work as an actor) but creating an even bigger stir as the spacey, speed-rapping photographer in “Apocalypse Now,” a role that many took to be a portrait of Hopper's real mental state. The '70s and 80s were largely lost in an orgy of drugs and alcohol, but miraculously Hopper survived, cleaned up and made a comeback in David Lynch's “Blue Velvet,” creating a portrait of high-strung evil that drew on his own dark history and transformed it into something original and scary.

And suddenly Dennis Hopper was a star, landing major roles (almost always as a villain) in high-profile Hollywood films like “Waterworld” and “Speed.” But for most of the past 20 years his best role has been Dennis Hopper, madman/survivor, the dapper, almost Mephistopelan voice of America's beat/hippie past, living proof that the excesses of the last half of the 20th century could be outlived. Sadly, that may be coming to an end soon.

Coincidentally, in the days when I taught a university course in film theory and criticism, I began every semester with twin excerpts from films by Rohmer and Hopper. First, I showed the opening segment of a minor Rohmer film “Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle,” a four-minute sequence in which two young women repair a punctured bicycle tire, an example of cinematic realism at its purest. Then I would play the opening sequence of “The Last Movie,” in which the conventions of narrative cinema – in this case, a low-budget Western – are stripped down and offered in excess, a montage of violent effects and action scenes pulled out of context - the spectacle of genre filmmaking blown out of proportion.

I loved the contrast between one filmmaker making no concession to illusion and the other exposing what happens if we get only the illusion. The richness of cinema, I would tell students, is that it's capable of both things, the real and the manipulated.

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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