‘The Last Movie’: Dennis Hopper’s Misunderstood Masterpiece Deserves a Second Chance — And Now, It’s Getting One

After "Easy Rider," Hopper directed a movie that nearly destroyed his career. At long last, it's getting a second chance.
the last movie
"The Last Movie"

Before Frances Ford Coppola battled the elements for “Apocalypse Now” and Werner Herzog dragged a steamship up a hill in “Fitzcarraldo,” Dennis Hopper concocted a Hollywood project so bizarre and ambitious it nearly destroyed his career. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate topic to put it all on the line: “The Last Movie,” Hopper’s 1971 directorial follow-up to the success of “Easy Rider,” starred the actor as a disgruntled stunt coordinator on location in the Andes Mountains who grows disillusioned with filmmaking and attempts to abandon the industry.

But the ghosts of cinema continue to haunt him, once he’s drawn back to the Peruvian village where the movie was shot to find the natives attempting to make their own imaginary movie — except they’re using cameras and microphones made of sticks, and swapping simulated violence for the real deal. This absurd twist takes on a frantic, disorienting quality, and it’s increasingly unclear just how much “The Last Movie” rests within the disillusioned mind of its protagonist. Aided by a cast that includes Peter Fonda, filmmaker Samuel Fuller (who plays the director of the ill-fated production), and Kris Kristofferson, “The Last Movie” is one of the purest windows into the unhindered spate of creativity that studios allowed in the ‘70s as a fresh generation of talent stormed the gates.

Edited with a jarring, lyrical style, the movie has more in common with the psychedelic midnight movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, like Alejandro Jodoworsky’s “El Topo,” than anything produced by a major Hollywood studio. However, in the wake of “Easy Rider” hitting the cultural zeitgeist and raking in box office receipts at once, Universal was all too eager to pick up Hopper’s tab.

“The Last Movie”

As a result, the actor went over budget and schedule, holed himself up in a private editing suite in New Mexico, and tore apart a more conventional edit to arrive at the final version. The shoot itself was as chaotic as one might expect from viewing the final product, infused with ample cocaine provided by the locals and free love antics. Ultimately, it became a documentary about its own production, the most meta movie in American history. The result may have been seen as a cautionary tale at the time, when it was maligned by critics and considered a flop. In retrospect, it’s a small wonder Hopper got away with completing the movie at all — and, decades later, it deserves to be seen as a rebellious masterpiece from a visionary artist at odds with the system consuming his fame.

“The Last Movie” has been appreciated in fits and starts over the years, though Hopper’s attempts to restore it for a DVD release failed to materialize before his death in 2010. At long last, it’s getting a second shot, Opening at New York’s Metrograph in a new 4k restoration from the original 35mm print, which brings the movie back to the city where it last played for two weeks before dropping off the map. Screenings are also planned for the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and other cities nationwide. Watching “The Last Movie” with the context of its tortured history brings its chief strengths to light: Hopper illustrates the destructive potential of American movies, while meditating on colonialist desire, and by extension becoming a proto-treatise on white liberal guilt.

“The Last Movie” charts the gonzo descent of Hopper’s character, Kansas. After an actor dies on a violent Billy the Kid Western shoot, Kansas essentially rides into the sunset, shacking up with local prostitute Maria (Stella Garcia), who fetishizes the wealthy industry and life of leisure that Kansas’ culture suggests to her. Their romance is doomed, but not before they strip naked under a waterfall and make passionate love, while a priest for the village looks down with disapproval, attempting to shield the schoolchildren he’s leading down a path. It’s a striking illustration of the extent to which Kansas, who believes he’s escaped an industry that had been plundering and exploiting the rural community with its production, actually continues the invasion on his own.

Eventually, “The Last Movie” careens into a chaotic finale in which a baffled Kansas gets drawn into the natives’ fake production, his fate sealed in a dreamlike eruption of chaos and cultish fervor that portents the finale of “The Wicker Man” by three years. “The Last Movie” risks downgrading the Peruvian locals to anonymous stereotypes, but the subjective narrative leaves open the possibility that everything we see stems from the narrow confines a very confused man consumed by forces much larger than him. By the end of “The Last Movie,” Hopper could surely relate.

A 1970 promotional product reel (above) shows just how much the studio struggled to make the project seem like it had commercial potential almost exclusively based off the popularity of “Easy Rider.”

That’s not a terrible assessment:“Easy Rider” singled out a youth culture keen on escaping the boundaries of a risk-averse society, even as it faced obliteration at the hands of close-minded traditionalists. “The Last Movie” takes that assessment one step further. The very same powers that catapulted this unhinged production into existence doomed it to oblivion. It’s a riveting portrait of creative struggles within suffocating boundaries, and nearly 50 years later, that indictment resonates stronger than ever.

“The Last Movie” opens at New York City’s Metrograph on Friday, August 3.

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