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Dennis Hopper's Summer of Love: American Dreamer

by Amy Dawes
July 12, 2010 2:37 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

In a double-bill with Easy Rider, the rarely seen 16 mm doc American Dreamer kicked off a month-long Dennis Hopper tribute at L.A.’s Silent Movie Theater, which coincides with a major retrospective of Hopper’s art at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Amy Dawes covered the films and the Q & A with co-director L.M. “Kit” Carson.

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.
Thompson on Hollywood

It’s this unguarded, what-the-hell attitude from Hopper, and the amazing access granted to co-directors L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller, that makes this rarely-seen documentary so remarkable. Shot during a key moment in film history, when Hollywood had just granted entry to the counter-culture without really understanding what it had grabbed hold of, the 16mm feature  documents the rebel filmmaker, still reeling from his two-week marriage to singer Michelle Phillips, as he ruminates on his lonely, fish-out-of-water Kansas upbringing, and goes on to pontificate about girls, grass, art, society, and what drew him to photography. All the while he's entertaining ladies – sometimes in a carnal way -- shooting off guns, and rambling around the historic Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos where he and various others are editing The Last Movie.

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]

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