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Dennis Hopper: The American Dreamer

Dennis Hopper: The American Dreamer (photo)

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Update: Dennis Hopper passed away Saturday, May 29th at his home in California.

Dennis Hopper’s recent announcement of terminal cancer jump-started a long-overdue appreciation of his art and life. He got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame last month (finally), and newspaper and blog appreciations are starting to pop up, focusing mainly on Hopper the performer. That makes sense: Hopper’s career spanned a half-century’s worth of theater, cinema, TV and recorded music; his list of collaborators stretches from Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne through Kiefer Sutherland and Gorillaz.

Still, one hopes descriptions of Hopper’s directorial career don’t start and end with “Easy Rider.” Hopper’s 1969 debut is notable for its alternately ecstatic and lacerating portrait of the counterculture, the then-unusual use of pre-existing pop songs for its soundtrack, adventurous editing and its status as the first independently financed feature to become a mainstream smash. But there’s more to his directorial résumé than philosophical bikers.

04092010_DennisHopperEasyRider.jpgAlthough he directed just seven features (“Easy Rider,” “The Last Movie,” “Out of the Blue,” “Colors,” “Backtrack,” “The Hot Spot” and “Chasers”), his style is quite distinctive. It’s ragged and intuitive, more sensual than logical, intoxicated by drugs, sex and music. And to greater or lesser degrees, all of his films address the individual’s struggle to survive within a machine without becoming a cog — the central narrative of Hopper’s long and strange career, with its youthful promise, adult madness and autumnal wisdom.

Hopper loves long, unhurried scenes of people talking — or, as he might have said 40 years ago, relating. You can see it in the campfire scene in “Easy Rider” with Fonda’s improvised line “We blew it,” a depressed co-producer’s judgment on the film itself, transformed via editing magic into a three-word indictment of the counterculture’s squandered promise; in the alcohol-fueled beach party in “Out of the Blue” (1980); in the scenes of cops and drug dealers of “Colors” (1988) driving around L.A. and shooting the shit; and in the scenes from “The Hot Spot” that show Don Johnson’s ice-cool drifter ambling around a Texas town, studying the populace and architecture, cracking wise to everyone he meets.

The director’s commitment to in-the-moment feeling and sensation at the expense of plot is an outgrowth of his early schooling as an actor (with Lee Strasberg) and his fascination with still photography. But he wasn’t yet another actor/director recording performances while ignoring the fine points of picture and sound. Nor was he content to mine a faux-documentary vein. The more grubbily realistic sections of his movies are interspersed with lyrical images and sequences — subjectively rendered drug trips (“Easy Rider”‘s Mardi Gras section); protracted, elegant tracking shots (much of 1980’s “Out of the Blue”; the wandering-through-the-party sequence in “The Last Movie”); proto-music-video interludes (“Easy Rider”; “The Last Movie”; “Colors”; much of “The Hot Spot”). And Hopper often throws in flashy, disruptive cuts (the exploding gas tank at the end of “Easy Rider”) and expressionistic flourishes (helicopter spotlights washing over a nighttime murder scene in “Colors”) that should stop the show, yet somehow feel just right.

These touches and others have an experimental vibe reminiscent of cutting-edge 1950s and 1960s cinema: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and the rest of the French New Wave; Pier Paolo Pasolini (“The Gospel According to St. Matthew”); Kenneth Anger (“Fireworks,” “Scorpio Rising”); and, last but not least, Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”) and Andy Warhol (“Blow Job,” “The Chelsea Girls”), friends and gurus of Hopper.

04092010_DennisHopperTheHotSpot.jpgBut Hopper put everything together in a way that was distinctively his. There is no such thing as a perfect Hopper film, nor an uninteresting one. Even when he was working in a familiar (even stale) genre, the result, while nearly always choppy, indulgent and problematic, was never hackwork, and was often sublime.

Hopper’s 1990 thriller “The Hot Spot,” for instance, could have been just another cold exercise in style. Instead, Hopper turned it into a meandering Deep South ultra-noir, “Body Heat” by way of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with intricately staged and edited sequences that reference (hell, plunder) Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Loosely based on hard-boiled crime writer Charles Williams’ 1953 novel “Hell Hath No Fury,” it’s a dirty daydream unfolding somewhere between the Eisenhower era and the present, with Don Johnson’s used car salesman-turned-bank robber, Virginia Madsen’s married femme fatale, and Jennifer Connelly’s curvy ingénue plotting, posing, sweating and stripping. The film’s bump-and-grind, blues/jazz soundtrack — written by Jack Nitzsche and performed by John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Taj Mahal and Roy Rogers — is so randy that the record should have been packaged with prophylactics.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…