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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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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…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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