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.
Although 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.
But 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.