It’s hard to imagine a more candid, unbuttoned encounter with the late Dennis Hopper than the one captured in the 1971 documentary American Dreamer, shot in Taos, N.M. while he edited The Last Movie. It starts with the filmmakers surprising a dripping wet and bemused Hopper at home and following him, with their cameras, to the bathroom, where he climbs naked back into the tub and resumes washing his hair.
In his previous work David Holzman’s Diary, writer-director Carson showed a penchant for playfulness and pushing at the boundaries of documentary; here, the results are often funny. “I’m another chick; I’m a lesbian,” Hopper declares to a bevy of unclad women in an attempt to make them comfortable. In another scene, which Carson says he initiated on a bet, Hopper strips naked as he walks through an ultra-conservative suburb in nearby Los Alamos (home of the nuclear bomb), while declaring that he loves “the symbolism” of the act. In another scene, Hopper decides that he resents the intrusion of the camera and lights, and openly challenges the filmmakers about it.
The film came about, Carson said at the Q&A afterward, when he enlisted help from photojournalist and filmmaker Schiller after he dropped in on Hopper in the tumultuous period after Easy Rider and decided that what he saw going on in Taos had to be captured. For the audience at the sold-out Silent Movie screening, many of whom appeared to be in their 20s, the film seemed to enthrall as a no-bullshit glimpse at a vanished counterculture and one of its foremost rebel spokesmen. American Dreamer went on to play on the college circuit as part of an attempt by Hopper and Robert Redford, pre-Sundance, to reshape distribution patterns. As for The Last Movie, it won honors at Venice before premiering to commercial and critical disdain.
“All that matters is the work an artist leaves behind,” says Hopper in American Dreamer, and those who want to explore his legacy can do so via tributes throughout this summer. A retrospective of some 200 works of art by Hopper kicks off tonight and runs July 11 – Sept. 26 at the L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (one of the sculptural pieces, titled Bomb Drop, is prominent in several scenes of American Dreamer), curated by artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel.
The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater is presenting films directed by or starring Hopper throughout July, culminating with The Last Movie on July 31. Full schedule here. American Dreamer screens in New York Aug. 15 as part of the Lincoln Center Summer Series. Carson (Paris, Texas), who is close to finishing his docu series Africa Diary for The Sundance Channel, says a re-release of American Dreamer may be in the works.
[Photo by Billy Vasquez]