Three hung-over, disgruntled men walk out slowly into the bright sunlight from inside a grimy small-town police station. One dressed in leather pants and another in a fringed jacket with a crumpled blue necktie walk to their motorcycles. The other, a young lawyer dressed in a wrinkled, white summer suit, takes a swig from a bottle of Jim Beam and utters crudely, “Here’s the first of the day, ‘fellas! To old D. H. Lawrence.” It is this scene that demonstrates the counterculture ideological core of Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider”: questioning the nature of the free individual in American society with a self-conscious, anti-authority stance while bearing the burden of a momentous political and social past. Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) was a truly innovative filmmaker in that he actively combined the Los Angeles and New York art worlds with commercial American cinema. Beginning his career as an actor in Nicholas Ray’s ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ alongside James Dean, Hopper’s intense artistic appetite grew over his tumultuous career; from collecting and curating works of his contemporaries, to his own successful side-career in photography that continued until his death in 2010. His work has headlined major exhibitions in America and Internationally (from Germany to Australia) and he has cemented his artistic ventures in art history by publishing a great number of books of his photography and painting works. Despite his wild and much personalized personal life, Hopper was always an intensively productive artist; he has starred in 200 film credits (perhaps remembered most fondly as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s film “Blue Velvet”) and directed 9 films Most significantly he was a great supporter of the art in America and Europe, who speaks highly of his contemporaries and new and upcoming artists, always searching for art that is thought provoking and meaningful. A great socialite that counted Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jane Fonda as close friends, Dennis Hopper was the only filmmaker of his time to infuse two art worlds that stood in opposition. His films stand as personal, socio-political responses to American culture: both celebrations of cultural values while also a deconstruction of fantasies within cinema.
Breaking the Past: Context of New Hollywood
It is important to remember that despite America’s involvement in world politics during the New Hollywood period, the greatest battle fought was that of their own social politics and changing cultural values. Generally, as a movement the New Hollywood period is agreed to have come into cultural and economic focus between 1967 and 1982. Prior to 1967, Hollywood’s conservative politics drove the industry into severe economic decline due to the fact that films were made for a general audience rather than recognizing independent voices or niche markets (Belton 334). American cinema had only ever worked as a system for mass representation (Ray 284). Cinema had fallen behind in terms of social relevance, leaving television to fill the information void. By constantly supplying live video footage to the public, television demonstrated the repetitive brutal mayhem of America. From the unmerciful Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, student riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King, television replays of these events provided the shock and discussion value that was missing from cinema. The repetition of violence demystified the nature of the American hero and deconstructed American political and cultural values (Casper 8). As Thomas Elsaesser notes, involvement in the Vietnam War exposed the limits of American Power and the helplessness of political and national leadership (75).
The fact that traditional big-budget entertainment films were not bringing in profits made it apparent that a new kind of producer and audience was required, and it made sense to look at the successful economic/artistic ventures from European Art Cinema (Grimes 57). The French New Wave (1958 – 1967) in particular saw the rise of filmmakers who pushed cinema to be studied as a critical art form in its own right. Artists such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut departed from conventional Hollywood-based narrative storytelling by creating memorable, stylized mise-en-scenes with narratives based on improvised social, sexual and philosophical issues rather than established literary texts (James 281). Perhaps most importantly, European Cinema was youthful. Literally in terms of distributing work from young filmmakers but also the ideological desire to rediscover film techniques for the first time – to explore and expose visions previously unseen in cinema (Ray, 273). Adopting these characteristics contributed to the New Hollywood development of cinematic realism: to mirror life in cinema. Yet despite conflict with the old studios, young American filmmakers never abandoned the structure of such institutions, creating studios such as AIP Studios and BBS Productions (Casper 33). Realism was developed through the reinvention of narrative structure, to feature unmotivated and alienated anti-heroes placed in a multi-crossover of classical Hollywood genres (such as Western, noir and urban thriller) to reflect the politically skewed America (Horwath 91). Celebrating realistic portrayals of life on film symbolized that American cinema was no longer for the purpose of mass consumption but a vehicle of filmmakers’ self-expression, dreams, fears and secret desires (McDonagh 111).
All things Americana: “Easy Rider” and New Hollywood
“Easy Rider” (1969) is essentially a Pop Art work, as it celebrates, critiques and personifies classic American symbols. Pop Art is a fine art movement that originated in America between 1954-1970 (overlapping the New Hollywood film movement) which saw artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg using art to develop a Westernized response to capitalist mass media (Osterwold 6). Hopper himself relates strongly to the fine art movement in that at this time he was a key collector of works; most notably purchasing Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can painting for $75. Hopper was temporarily blacklisted from Hollywood at this time and relied on his passion for photography for frequent cheques and attended a great amount of exhibitions and parties in Los Angeles and New York purchasing and curating works. It is undeniable that he was influenced greatly by his contemporaries, particularly as Hopper’s prints of Lichtenstein and Warhol’s factory are now amongst his most celebrated and remembered photographs. Realism within Pop Art was achieved by blurring the lines between high and low culture, reducing images to simple representational forms, and the removal of artistic hierarchies to liberate the nature of art and the artist (Osterwold 143). “Easy Rider’’ stands as a counterculture celebration of all things Americana, a violent response to those who are the embodiment of freedom and individualism. Breaking past cinematic taboos, “Easy Rider’’ is most revolutionary in how the film addresses its audience. The film markets towards a youth audience because it is a film about them and the America known to them. The film treats the viewer as an individual and fellow artist by demanding an increased awareness of art intertextuality in order to fully comprehend the film’s intentions (Ray 263; Toeplitz 113).
”Easy Rider” borrows the repetitious visual style from television to exhibit its deep admiration for American values. The first repeated image the viewers see are Captain America and Billy the Kid’s motorbikes that used to travel cross-country; a reinvention of the Western genre with outlaws and bikes rather than cowboys and horses travelling across the new frontier (Osgerby 99). Second, the names of the protagonists ‘Captain America’ and ‘Billy the Kid’ are a two direct reference to well-known outlaw legends, suggesting an attempt by youthful filmmakers to revitalize old American tradition. Third is the American flag, sewn onto the back of Captain’s leather jacket and is the the feature graphic design on his helmet and petrol tank. Key pop artist Jasper Johns explains the use of the American flag in his work: “An opposition of my work is ‘He’s painted a flag so you don’t have to think of it as a flag but only as a painting’…but you are enabled by the way I have painted it to see it as a flag and not as a painting.” (Osterwold 165) ”Easy Rider” personifies symbols to rework icons and represent them to a contemporary disillusioned, disheartened America (Osgerby 107). Like John’s paintings, ”Easy Rider” is a paradox: there is the surface recognition that the work is just a film about symbols, but on a more complex level it is constructed so you do not see the film as a fantasy, but a documentary of American life.
Despite the film’s revolutionary approach to mise-en-scene, “Easy Rider” continues the traditional method of chronological storytelling in Hollywood cinema. Robert Rauschenberg stated that an artist is part of a destiny of uncensored continuum that doesn’t begin with nor ends with any decision or action of one’s own (Osterwold 145). Hopper takes this fine art approach from Rauschenberg and applies it to the film – within 90 minutes the story centres on two characters trying to travel across country, but the historical context of America provides the reason for their journey and continues on after the credits roll. In contrast to other New Hollywood films made during the period, Hopper’s protagonists do not align with the archetypes of the movement: they are not aimless, unmotivated drifters but reinvented Western outlaws. Captain America and Billy the Kid continue the violence of their legend; to retaliate brutally if any person attempts to stop them from being free. The film’s tagline represents this: ‘A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” Captain America and Billy’s goal is to search for the American Dream, albeit, the new American Dream to suit their transformed contemporary values (Costello 189). Hopper himself recognized the traditionalist narrative, seeing no difference between the ‘young guys’ smuggling tax-free cocaine and the fathers transferring frozen funds out of the country into Switzerland banks (“American Dreamer”). Both are criminal acts and the movies glorify such outlaw behavior. At the film’s end there is no difference between the two in the truck and the two on the bike (“American Dreamer”). What “Easy Rider” proposes then is that despite radical political turmoil and social change, violence is simply a tradition that will continue. The last line uttered by Captain before his death, “We blew it,” stands as his recognition that he himself is apart of a historical cycle of criminals, losing his freedom and not having a clue on how to preserve it (Cantz 35). He stands as the ultimate anti-hero as he only benefits himself, rather than help society avoid destroying itself through violence (Carson 17).
“Easy Rider” transfers the conceptual order and coherent composition of Pop Art to cinema through the film’s soundtrack which provides another layer of detecting and understanding the film’s plot. An important element of New Hollywood film was to fuse cinema with rock music, to merge the aggressiveness through the rhythm and beat of counterculture anthems (Herring 146). “Easy Rider” strongly ties to Hopper’s personal work in photography. Hopper’s photography was only ever shot in black and white, this was to capture abstractness focus on content and light rather than colour (Cantz 34). But “Easy Rider” is shot in colour – and Hopper has used the elements specific to cinema of colour montage and sound to work together to create a sense of physical movement of a cross-country journey. Hopper’s montage sequences are romantically beautiful and peaceful, capturing afternoon hazy sun disappearing and reappearing over the mountaintops, purple skies at dusk, and the midday sun peeking through the tops of trees, while a track from The Band or The Byrds is played over the top. All music featured is non-diegetic, which gives the audience the sense of accompanying the protagonists on their journey (Herring 146). “Easy Rider” is attributed as being the first commercially distributed film to feature a soundtrack of various artists rather than an organized score (Elaesser 39). While an entire standalone novel can be written about the significance of ”Easy Rider”’s soundtrack, it is important to note how the film’s opening sequence is effective at targeting the youth audience and representing New Hollywood counterculture.
Lyrically, the opening lines of Steppenwolfs ‘The Pusher’ works both to foreshadow “Easy Rider”’s plot and also entice audiences into the Hopper’s visual world. Hopper uses ‘The Pusher’ during the film’s first montage sequence, in which we see Captain America rolling cash into a clear plastic tube, that travels into his motorbike’s petrol tank. As the rhythm of the bass and drums of the track settle in, Hopper intercuts images of a different scene; a soft golden sunset setting over mountain hills as Captain America and Billy speed down the road in a truck. The montage itself is very romantic in presenting two men who are free: free from any obligation and with the time to travel away from the chaos of the city in search of new experiences.
Cutting back to Captain America rolling cash, Hopper’s camera moves in time with the music to zoom in and out on design of a burning American flag painted onto the petrol tank. The lyrics begin: “You know I’ve seen a lot of people walk around with tombstones in their eyes/but the pusher don’t care if you live or if you die.” Another quick cut to Captain and Billy on the highway; the camera rapidly zooms in and out as Captain throws his watch onto the gravel road. The revving of the motorcycles intensifies and the music cuts to the hard-hitting guitar hook of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild.’ Throwing away time (literally) is Hopper’s abandonment of the past, of classical heroes and traditional genres, presenting the new representatives of counterculture. The bass line and drums are like a fast beating pulse capturing the excitement of Captain and Billy in all their glory, the beautiful America. Yet the ‘tombstone’ mentioned in ‘The Pusher’ is the very motorbike that they ride. They may be bold enough to be wild and free, however the bike is their death wish. Captain’s control unit is so polished that it twinkles in the sunlight and reflects the picturesque endlessness of his surroundings – but his reflection is the traditional American values he is blindly following. At the film’s closure the soundtrack stops – all that can be heard is the low crackle of the orange fire burning through the petrol tank. While initially upbeat and celebratory, their continuation of the outlaw lifestyle is what kills them and what prevents them from experiencing true freedom. The film works as a cycle of death. The outlaw will always meet his demise if he chooses continuing societies violent tradition. This is a warning to the youths of contemporary America – do not blindly follow violence (Vietnam) as it does not end misery but intensifies it.
Deny Fantasy and Create Abstraction: “The Last Movie”
“The Last Movie” (1971) is Dennis Hopper’s second feature film, made with the profits of “Easy Rider”. Due to the great financial success of “Easy Rider”, Hopper was given full creative control over his next picture. Unfortunately, “The Last Movie” was considered a critical and financial catastrophe in America, and Hopper never recovered from the incredibly harsh criticism he received. “The Last Movie” was not a complete failure as it did win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1971. Hopper’s dream was to travel with “The Last Movie” around to American college audiences and explain the role of being a Hollywood filmmaker and what the industry was like, but sadly this dream was never achieved due to the film’s perceived failure. Critics were interested in a sequel to ‘“Easy Rider”’, not the challenging experience of “The Last Movie”. Even after Hopper’s death in 2010, the film has not been released on DVD and had an incredibly small VHS print run.
Hopper decided to set “The Last Movie” in Peru, where he felt that the rural landscape and Peruvian culture would be the great backbone to his next narrative venture. “The Last Movie” is indeed a continuation of “Easy Rider” in terms of the Western-based genre, but the narrative is not concerned with the reflection of reality, but the reality of that reflection (“Last Movie” 34). If “Easy Rider” is the deconstruction of life on film, “The Last Movie” is the death of life in film and of film itself (Winkler 140). It is clearly influenced by European avant-garde, but likens more towards the definition of Abstract Expressionist Art. Like Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism was a fine art movement that originated in America. The movement in modern society centres heavily around the work of Jackson Pollock, who revolutionized what painting could look like and how an artist can use psychology theory (Pollock was greatly interested in Carl Jung’s studies) to alter the way his work could be viewed critically. Abstract Expressionism sought through painting, to expose the personal, intuitive, romantic soul of the artist through the physical employment of ‘action painting’ (Walker 26). Pollock’s painting method of dripping, slashing, and splatting paint onto a canvas is used by Hopper in “The Last Movie” through film editing. “The Last Movie” depicts violent events but the belligerence derives from the nature of the film’s guerilla production and editing style, the choppy editing representing the violent brushstrokes of abstract painting, physically draining energy from the filmmaker’s imagination. But despite Hopper’s European influence, the film works as an incredible dismantling of the auteur theory. Similar to other New Hollywood filmmakers, Hopper sets his work apart from the Hollywood system as opposed to European auteurs that make their voice heard within the constraints of the system (Elsaesser 46). “The Last Movie” works as a deconstruction of film fantasy, showing no support for any cinematic institution (Linderman 63). The first image the viewer sees on the screen is numbers counting down from nine and immediately a self-reflexive sensibility is established. Illusion as already been erased, the viewer knows he/she is watching a film (Burke 35). “The Last Movie” incorporates multiple narratives both real and imagined: the real Hollywood set filming in Peru, the fake movie set made by the local villagers plus the actual film witnessing and documenting all by Hopper. The film has only one premise to examine: what is reality? (Linderman 63).
To analyse this premise it is beneficial to divide the film into three segments. The first half hour of the film depicts capitalist commercial Hollywood cinema in its prime: a successful commodity, exploitive of human labor and landscape resources (Scharres 28). As David E. James notes, Kansas is a modern day Billy the Kid and Peru is his old west (41). This first section is not abstract in its editing style but it is in terms of plot development. Hopper devotes the first half hour to documenting a day on a film set (similar to François Truffaut’s “Day for Night”). His camera mimics documentary-style filmmaking, remaining predominately stationary to let each take of the fictional film roll out. Hopper’s camera captures each detail gone wrong on set, such as the incorrect interpretations of character and when Kansas enters the scene at the wrong time and is severely scolded by the director. The film cuts back and forth between rehearsal takes and watching actors return to hair and make up for retouches. While deconstructing film fantasies, the contrasting scenes involving Kansas and his girlfriend Maria fill the romantic void. As they chase and skip after each other through endless fields of lush green grass, this embodies all the romanticism of film fantasy previously sold to American audiences. That film must obtain some fantastical desire in order to be well received (Scharres 28).
The second third of the film is concerned with the ‘fake film’ made by the local villagers. Editing between shots is rough and abrupt with very little attempt to create fluent continuity between scenes (“Last Movie” 37). What is being depicted is the misunderstanding of film production. By making a film with cameras made from straw sticks, the villagers expose their inability to believe that films are fake constructions. When the villagers begin actually killing their neighbours and cause riots, Kansas’ extreme discomfort represents the limitations of the film industry. It is not an education system, yet Hopper notes that the responsibility of filmmaking has considerable influence by promoting worlds in which moral standards disappear (Winkler 139). In terms of multi-representation, this section demonstrates how Kansas represents a different role to every character. For the Hollywood crew he is an essential extra, for Maria he is the producer of a fur shawl, for Neville he is the one responsible for securing gold and for Mrs. Anderson he is an adventurous cowboy lover. Lastly, he is the beacon of hope for the village priest to educate the villagers about filmmaking itself (“Last Movie” 37). While “Easy Rider” stands as a participatory film, “The Last Movie” is a completely voyeuristic experience to observe Hopper’s chaotic deconstruction of personal fantasies. Such voyeurism is recognized when Kansas and his friends visit the bordello. Each character is completely unaware of their spectators within the film. Money, violence and sex are all values that Hollywood cultivates and exploits, and here Kansas and his friends buy and sell their secret desires with no consequence. The cheap garish gold curtain inside the bordello is as indulging as it is sickly, blurring the lines between exploitation and respectability. The quick paced editing as the prostitute dances is as brutal as a paintbrush aggressively hitting canvas – a symbol of the inability of these characters to question their own morals.
The final third of the film is Hopper’s message to Hollywood, the very institution he participates in. As the director notes, “No one in America wants films like 8 ½, they want escapist films… but I am not going to contribute to your film fantasies.” (Linderman 67) The second last scene is an illustration of such denial. In slow motion, the locals watch Kansas hastily runs through the village. His arm bleeds, his clothes torn, his face covered with dirt. He falls into the clay ground and the viewer feels the thud as he crashes, his arms stretch out as if crucified. All sound effects are muted except for a Kris Kristofferson ballad that contrasts against the visual disarray. This feels like the film’s ending but Kansas gets up, dusts the clay off his hands and walks out of frame. The sequence is then replayed from a medium-close up. As Kansas again rises from his crucifix position he claps his hands angrily. This isn’t Kansas, but Hopper’s anger towards himself for not getting the scene right. The camera cuts back to a low angle close up of Hopper lying on the ground, he turns to the camera and makes a strange face. Breaking the ‘fourth wall’, as the director notes, is questioning how filmmakers control the audiences (Linderman 63). It is not Kansas that dies, but the film (Winkler 140). Hopper is pointing directly at the hopelessness of cinema and his role as an artist who had previously only ever captures the fantasies of an institution rather than his own psyche. This ending is “screwing the audience over” by denying them any fantastical cinematic illusion. It is like Hopper is slashing his own canvas in frustration over the inability of individuals to think independently, choosing to blindly accept fantasies provided to them. This perhaps is the major deciding factor as to why the film received an extremely limited release in America, but won top prize at the Venice Film Festival. An abstract expressionist film critiquing audience fantasies so directly was too bold for conventionalist American studios and audiences to completely appreciate despite New Hollywood cinema developments.
Dennis Hopper’s work during the New Hollywood period is paradoxical: both praising Hollywood history and America while also critiquing such history pessimistically. By studying Hopper’s films as works that align with American art movements, one gains a greater understanding of the meaning behind his deconstruction of American culture and film production.
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