January 2, 2015

The Last Movie

The Last Movie (108 minutes) 1971/Rated R – starring Dennis Hopper, Julie Adams, Stella Garcia, Tomas Milian, Samuel Fuller, Sylvia Miles, Don Gordon, Jim Mitchum, Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Phillips, John Phillip Law, Toni Basil, Severn Darden, Dean Stockwell. Directed by Dennis Hopper. Originally released through United American Video Corp.

Ever wonder how Dennis Hopper was able to convincingly portray the whacked-out, drug-fueled, mysticism-spouting character he played in “Apocalypse Now?” Just check out “The Last Movie.” He was that character.

In 1970, after the phenomenal box-office success of his debut directorial effort, “Easy Rider,” Universal Studios gave Hopper $850,000, 50% of the eventual gross, and total control of the next picture he chose to direct. His new venture planted a team of cameras, crew, and celebrity friends firmly in the center of the ancient Incan village of Cuzco, Peru for months on end, and the subsequent result of this endeavor was arguably one of the most self-indulgent Hollywood pictures of all time. The theme of “The Last Movie” is easy to expound upon. It’s a statement about the pernicious expansionism of American influences, the deconstruction of Western themes, the avaricious nature of consumerism snuffing out the delicate balances of tradition. As a story, however, the film’s narrative is so horribly disjointed and needlessly hollow that, even though it somehow snowed the Italians into awarding it a Critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival, the rest of the general public the world over stayed away from this stinker in droves.

Hopper plays a stunt man working for a Hollywood crew that is shooting a gunfight tale on Old West sets built in a Peruvian village. Once the film wraps, and an actor dies, the crew leaves town, but Hopper remains behind, with grand ideas of beckoning more filmmakers south to use the deserted sets. The natives of Cuzco begin “filming” a movie with “cameras” fashioned out of bare sticks, and the violent action they perform, imitating the Western they have just witnessed, turns out to be real. Pretty soon Hopper is caught up in their dangerous game and sums up the menace by mumbling, “They want me to die in the movie…you know, that’s what’s wrong, because we brought the movies, that was our mistake.” Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not by a long shot.

Influenced by ‘60s Euro-cinema auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, whose penchant for busting up linear storytelling left many a pompous college film student clucking to fellow weasels about the merits of time-space jump-cut techniques, Hopper chose to take garden shears to his miles of footage and jumble the trims into an incoherent mess. Endless shots of villagers going about their routines, long pans of pretty Andes sunsets (courtesy of ace cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs), and songs like “Me and Bobby McGee” shoveled out by Kris Kristofferson, who plays a mountainside minstrel, (I presume), just don’t add up to much. Oh yes, there’s also some nonsense about Hopper and his buddy trying to find a gold mine (with no payoff), a rich American couple who want to see two lesbians nuzzle each other’s bosoms (a titillating payoff), and assorted scenes of a very-dated ‘70s dance party. Hopper is the focal point in the majority of these moments, and his amateurish, improvised dialogue is numbingly painful to listen to. The viewer has absolutely no connection to Hopper’s character as he rambles about wanting to buy a mountaintop, smacks around his whore girlfriend, and is showered with milk from the breast of a peasant woman (another titillating payoff… sorry).

The reason this film is being reviewed for this column is that, for years now, I had heard about the name cast Hopper had managed to coax to this location and was curious about the musician members’ performances. Including Kristofferson, The Mamas and the Papas’ Michelle Phillips, and one-hit-wonder Toni Basil (“Mickey”) were in attendance in the town of Cuzco. However, together, the three of them probably manage to snag a total of 40 to 50 seconds of screen time combined. So don’t be fooled into thinking any of these people, for that matter even Peter Fonda, are worth renting this picture for. Incredibly, Michelle Phillips fell in love with Dennis while making this film, and when they got back to the States, they married on Halloween in 1970. The marriage lasted 8 days. Apparently, according to Ms. Phillips, she was not entirely smitten by newlywed Hopper’s proclivity to firing guns in their house and his habit of handcuffing her so she wouldn’t run away.

Needless to say, when the top brass at Universal saw the finished product, they were understandably horrified. Peter Biskind, in his book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” tells of the moment when Hopper screened his movie for the film executives. As the lights went up, the room was silent. Through the wall to the conference room they could hear the projectionist saying, clear as a bell, “They sure named this movie right, because this is gonna be the last movie this guy ever makes.” Yes sir, maybe for Universal Studios, but for the rest of Hollywood, history has proven the town has a short memory. Hopper was back behind the camera by the end of the decade. He gratefully has never achieved these heights of banality again.


© 2000 Ned Truslow

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